Title: Anthony, Book Five
Author: Clare Skinner

Summary: Walter Skinner knew he was in hell -- and as far as he was concerned, it was his own fault. His worst nightmare had come to pass ... and he had no more than two weeks to find the abducted, cherished members of his family before they would suffer certain, horrifying death.

Book Five contains the next three segments of my Anthony series. This is an alternate universe series about AD Skinner and his son. The stories are rated as follows:

  • Body, Mind and Soul - R
  • Body, Mind and Soul II - R
  • Body, Mind and Soul III - R

WARNING: These stories contain implied passages of violence and rape. No explicit description of these acts is portrayed, but if this content offends you, stop right now.

There are various scenes where attempts are made to explain the protagonist's behavior. The information is taken from a writer's reference book called 'Malicious Intent' by Sean Mactire. No copyright infringement is intended.

Special thanks to my FBI contact, who graciously answered over three dozen questions to make this story more accurate, to my 'medical' editor, Suzanne, my official beta reader, Elizabeth and finally to my unofficial editors and 'idea bouncers' Aurora, Jude and Mary.

Flashbacks, if any, are indicated by the following characters: + + + + + + at the beginning and end of the sequence.

If you would like to make comments about this series, please note that my e-mail address has changed. It is now CLARESKINNER@prodigy.net.

The X-Files and its characters are copyrighted by Chris Carter, Ten Thirteen Productions and 20th Century Fox Television; all other characters were created by me.


Anthony XV: Body, Mind and Soul
Author: Clare Skinner

Saturday, January 30, 1999, 12:34a.m.

Walt sat in the cherry rocker, completely enthralled as he held his daughter and watched her gobble up her bottle. Becky's eyes were still slate blue... and at the moment, they were wide open. She had Walt's dark brown hair -- which Allison had told him was indicative of nothing -- and it was rubbing off in patches. Actually, he recalled, Allison had said, 'Most likely, Walt, just the back fringe of original hair will stay, and then Becky will look *just* like you.'

The last month had been absolute bliss.

He held in his arms the most precious object he could ever imagine... and he swore she knew his voice, though the books said it was too soon for that. Charlee and Amelia were in full mother's- helper mode. Anthony and Trevor were excited about their sister, but more so about a tri-state science competition that they'd jointly entered. Ian wasn't making a fuss and seemed to want to hold his sister all the time, almost overnight seeming to develop more mature cognitive skills and making decisions like his older brothers. And Allison was... her usual, wonderful self, even if five minutes after Becky's birth, she'd reverted to stubborn mode.

Walt had been sure he was in Oz as he'd listened to her arguing with the paramedics about taking a shower before she'd leave... and she'd won, too. Teresa -- who'd been holding the baby as Walt had first tried to keep Allison on the floor, then helped her up -- had instructed him to get his tail in the bathroom and make sure his wife didn't fall over. And by the time they'd both emerged five minutes later, the bloody mess from the birthing itself was gone; Allison had had the foresight to lay a shower curtain on the floor along with some of the rattiest, but clean, towels they owned.

He'd been incredulous in the shower, seeing her so calm, steady and relaxed while he was jumpy, excited and wanting to get back to their daughter. She'd related how she'd gotten up to go the bathroom and her water had fortuitously broken while she was on the commode. Then she'd rationalized that regardless of being two weeks early, the delivery would go the way her others had and she'd be in hard labor within 15 minutes. Teresa and the paramedics had been called, she'd awakened Anthony and he'd helped her assemble everything. She'd even had clothes waiting in the bathroom.

The vacuous, sucking sound of an empty bottle -- similar to slurping the last bit of fluid through a straw -- brought him back to the present. He burped Becky and changed her, leaning against the crib afterward to watch her drift off to sleep, even as he was holding her tiny hand. If the pattern held, she'd be hungry again about 4a.m. -- his daughter was nothing if not a good eater. Becky had come into the world weighing eight pounds, 12 ounces, and had been 21 inches long. According to yesterday's one-month check up, she'd already topped 10 pounds and grown an inch.

Becky's luminous eyes shut and Walt noted her fingernails needed trimming again. He couldn't get over how fast they grew and was terrified of cutting them, sure he'd take off the tip of a finger instead. He bent over the crib and softly kissed his daughter goodnight, caressing her cheek before leaving.

After rinsing the bottle in the girls' bathroom, he returned to his own room. Allison was awake.

She'd gone from 193 to 175 pounds already, having lost 15 pounds with Becky's birth. She'd given breastfeeding a whirl just for the heck of it, even after the breast-reduction procedure she had undergone months before, and even though she *did* manage to produce milk, Becky had let her impatience with the minuscule amount be known loud and clear, so she'd given up. Allison's bosom was still larger, though, and currently peeking above her low-cut nightgown.

"Still can't get enough of her, can you, tesoro?" Allison teased as he settled in the bed.

"Nope." He had that sappy grin again -- it was turning into a permanent fixture.

"That'll change when she hits puberty," Allison informed him. His grin turned thoughtful as he laced his fingers behind his head and leaned against the headboard. She propped herself on an elbow and stroked his chest. "How tired are you? I was thinking of some ice cream."

Walt roused himself from thoughts of Becky and shook his head. "You and the kids. It's a wonder the six of you don't turn into..." Her hand reached his penis and he started. "Oh, *that* kind of ice cream... Um, is that a good idea this soon?"

"Four weeks has never been a problem before."

He wasn't convinced.

"If you're planning to wait till I lose the last 10 pounds, it'll be months--"

"That's hardly it, Allison."

"Then what?"

He squirmed and bit his lip. "Well, you haven't, uh, fully dried up yet and I, uh, don't want to get wet." That was lame, he told himself.

Her eyes twinkled. "You didn't seem to mind 'getting wet' before Becky was born... I think you took one too many psychology classes in college, tesoro."

He stared at the exercise bike in the corner, wondering how he was going to extricate himself from this one. "That wasn't quite the same... It's just that I don't think I want to know if I'd enjoy it, and I don't think I want to know if you'd enjoy it and knowing that you seem to be willing to let me do it is more than I want to know," he babbled.

"Well, you're in for a long dry spell, so to speak, 'cause I was still producing milk up to eight months after I weaned the kids."

He shifted his gaze to her face with surprise. "Eight months?"

"Granted, it wasn't a lot, but it was still there. Look, if going near my breasts when I'm drying out is going to bother you, just ignore them." She took his chin in her fingers. " *I'm* not willing to wait upward of a year before we make love, though."

Well, neither am I, he thought, and plastered his lips against hers to prove it.

They shortly were naked and Walt was concentrating his efforts everywhere but Allison's breasts... but they started leaking anyway. He expected it; they'd done that all through the third trimester.

He had an odd mental image of Clare and remembered fragments of a dream he'd had over two years ago -- of having the same argument and of acquiescing just to shut her up. And he recalled that he'd found the experience arousing, once he'd gotten over the embarrassment.

Walt meant to just kiss down Allison's breastbone, but his mouth strayed to a mound of flesh. Then his tongue automatically licked his own wet lips and before he knew what he was doing, he was laving her breast. He felt Allison's hands encircle his head and his inhibitions faded.

Allison arched sharply as he began suckling. His tongue alone had sent waves of pleasant sensations through her and she knew she couldn't keep quiet. She arched again as he suckled harder. "Walt, whether you want to know this or not, I'm enjoying this," she gasped. "And I don't believe I need Anthony's telepathy to know about you."

He bit lightly into her flesh in the way of a response and it was all over for her.

"You know," Allison began, "There was only one thing lacking in that performance."

Walt tucked her hair behind her ears and away from his face as she lay on top of him. "Well, I can't imagine what. You were satisfied twice and even if I wasn't patient enough for--"

"A condom, tesoro," she interrupted.

"A what? Oh, jeez, I totally forgot -- I've gotten used to not using one... Wait a minute, you couldn't possibly get pregnant again this soon. Right?" Walt had a charming expression of alarm on his face.

"Actually, I could. Nonlactating mothers resume their cycles on average one to two months after delivery."

"Why the hell didn't you say something?" He realized that sounded accusatory and tried to explain. "I mean..."

"I know what you mean. I got caught up, too. And the earliest I got my period after I stopped breastfeeding was three months... so we're probably safe. At any rate, it'd be a good idea to be more careful in the future... And to come up with a more permanent game plan than condoms -- unless you intend to go broke buying them," she finished with a gleam.

Thursday, March 11, 1999, 9:38p.m.

Walt felt a mix of emotions as he rinsed out Becky's bottle in the kitchen sink. He was swelling with pride over the boys. Anthony and Trevor had won the science competition for their grade category -- their project had involved the structure and function of proteins. They'd had their pictures in the Washington Post Monday and been honored -- with the other winners -- in a ceremony and dinner that night. Basil had flown in for the occasion and Trevor had been even happier.

But the negatives outweighed the pluses. Anthony had fallen victim to a bout of flu the next day and wasn't recovering very fast, due to his lack of a spleen. Becky had been diagnosed with an ear infection at her two-month check up. Charlee had fallen from a snow heap a few weeks previous and suffered a greenstick fracture to her left forearm. All three were scheduled to see Dr. Frank -- as they called him -- Saturday morning.

And there was also the boys' birthday party to be arranged... again -- could a year have gone by so fast? Walt knew Allison would take care of the party; he, however, wanted to plan something extra special for their first anniversary. He mentally thumbed through possibilities while he wandered to the family room.

"Come on, sweetie, roll over." Allison was laying on her stomach on the floor, Becky by her side, also on her stomach. Becky was raising her head with neck muscles still wobbly, leaning to one side. Walt watched as their daughter's face broke into a smile and he was sure it was in response to Allison smiling.

"Whoa!" Walt exclaimed as Becky tilted further and landed on her back with a 'what happened' expression. He plopped onto the floor with them and tickled Becky's feet, getting a jumble of cooing sounds for the effort. "Is my daughter advanced, or what?"

"Oy vey." Becky proceeded to belch and spit up no sooner than he'd picked her up, just missing the corner of the quilt. Allison laughed as she retrieved a burp rag. "Refined little lady, *your* daughter."


"Tesoro, please, I've been hanging on the brink so long I'm dizzy," Allison gasped.

"Just... a little longer," he replied, his own breath ragged.

Walt thrust faster and felt his climax first encircle then swallow him bit by bit. His satisfied groan lasted a short lifetime before he latched onto Allison's breast and sent her spiraling. He felt her body twitch for seconds, then snuggled his head into her shoulder, savoring the moment. After a while he sat up and pulled out. Allison switched on the light and rubbed her eyes.

"God, I'm getting spoiled," she murmured.

Walt gulped and pursed his lips. "Um, Allison... the condom broke."

"And you say *I've* got a warped sense of..." She sat up and gazed into his serious eyes. "Oh, you're not kidding."

They stared at the defective prophylactic and tried to organize their thoughts.

"Welllll," Allison ventured, "I'd better get an early start on potty-training Ian, 'cause the possibility of *three* children in diapers at the same time is daunting."

Walt relaxed and laid down next to her after depositing the condom in the trash. "You always look on the bright side, huh?"

"Tell you what, Walter Sergei Skinner, *if* I should be pregnant again, *you* are going to start giving your daughter baths and dressing her in her fuzzysuit."

So far, he'd avoided both, claiming that he was afraid he'd drop her slippery body or that he'd break her arm trying to maneuver it into the suit. He sighed. "Fair enough."

Saturday, March 13, 1999, 9:30a.m.

"I can't wait to get my cast off," Charlee admitted as she helped carry breakfast dishes to the sink.

"I haven't noticed it slowing you down much, young lady," her mother replied, hair pulled up for a change.

The Skinners weren't moving very fast this morning; the rainy day seemed to zap their usual energy. Amelia hung by the back door, shivering, as lightning and thunder staged a show. Trevor snuck up on his distracted sister and jiggled her, simultaneously shouting 'Boo!' She screeched and jumped... then chased him out of the kitchen.

They nearly bowled Walt over as he entered the room, carrying the baby. "No running in the house," he yelled after the kids. "Are you sure Frank needs to see Becky? I hate to take her out in this storm... especially when she seems perfectly fine to me."

Allison rolled her eyes, knowing her husband constantly thought of their daughter in 'perfect' terms no matter what the content of the conversation. "Yesss. If we couldn't tell she had the infection in the first place, what makes you think we'd know when it was gone?"

Walt smiled as Becky cooed at him. "Good point."

Anthony drooped into the kitchen, still in pajamas, Ian tugging on his sleeve. "Ant'ny, play wit me." Ian's speaking skills had skyrocketed in the last few months.

"Not now, sweetie," Allison intervened. "Your brother still doesn't feel well."

"I'll play with you for a while, Ian," Charlee offered and led her brother out.

Allison wrapped her arm around Anthony as he leaned his head against her ribs. "I still feel cruddy," he whined as a faint, muffled ringing was heard emanating from somewhere.

"I know, honey," Allison murmured as Walt rummaged through the pocket of his trenchcoat -- still hanging over a chair -- and dug out his cell phone.


Allison felt a chill go down her spine as she watched Walt's complexion turn pale while he walked over to the alarm and set it. He handed Becky to her without a word and left. She would have followed him, but Anthony suddenly hiccuped and started vomiting in the sink.

Allison came back down the stairs, having carried a limp Anthony up and helping him change clothes. She'd heard the doorbell ring twice, a few minutes apart, and now heard voices in the drawing room. Walt gravely motioned her to enter as she peeked in the door. His color had come back in spades -- now he was flushed -- and she recognized tempered anger threatening to boil over.

"Allison, these are Agents Moskal and Mead." Allison caught a glimpse of a scowl on Walt's face as he introduced the second man, her attention being on the men themselves.

Moskal was one or two inches taller than she was, with sandy hair and an overnight stubble. He was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt -- along with his service weapon -- and looked as though he'd driven to the house in a hurry. He apologized for his appearance with a pleasant smile as he shook her hand.

Mead, on the other hand, looked fresh as a daisy. He was only slightly shorter than Walt, had the same receding hairline, was clean- shaven and wore a suit. He shook Allison's hand perfunctorily and nodded to her curtly. And Allison took an instant dislike to him.

"Allison... a situation has arisen," Walt explained tersely. "Moskal and Mead are going to accompany you and the children to the airport."

She recognized that whatever had happened was serious, but she wasn't about to assume the role of shrinking violet. "What's happened?"

Walt swallowed heavily. "It's complicated... Someone I put away escaped... and he might come here."

Allison didn't even flinch. She straightened her spine and gazed at Walt with, of all things, annoyance. "I'd like to speak to you in the dining room, please."

She strode to the room, leaving Walt in her wake. He glanced at his agents and concealed his embarrassment. Moskal looked at his sneakers while Mead's lip threatened to curl. Walt immediately scowled at the latter agent. "Fill Mead in on the rest of it, Moskal." Walt then stalked after his wife and closed the pocket doors behind him.

"I don't appreciate being treated like a child, Walt. If you're going to send us away, you owe me a better explanation than 'it's complicated.'"

He took her hand and sat her on one of the dining chairs. "I'm sorry... I didn't mean to talk like that to you... That was the SAC from the San Diego field office on the phone earlier -- he called my office and it got routed to the cell phone. After I spoke to him, I called HQ and had the two closest agents dispatched -- Moskal and Mead." Walt said the latter's name with disfavor.

Cut to the chase, Allison silently instructed.

He took a deep breath. "I helped apprehend a serial killer named Bertram Stanislav almost 11 years ago -- I was on temporary assignment in San Diego. This... 'man' murdered eight women -- his lawyer got him off with an insanity plea. He was sentenced to a facility for the criminally insane and somehow," Walt shook his head, still incredulous at what he'd been told, "somehow his doctor got clearance for him to be released into her custody for 24 hours. They left the facility yesterday, shortly after 8a.m... she was found murdered in her house less than an hour ago."

Allison swallowed and looked at her lap for several moments. "When I caught him," Walt continued, "he threatened me... He said, '... Until I'm dead, no woman of yours will be safe.'"

Allison wet her lips and had to ask, knowing she was opening herself to Walt's nightmares. "How did he kill the women?"

Walt held his breath before giving her the briefest, least graphic account he could... and she still paled. He watched her dilated pupils slowly constrict as the silence between them lengthened.

"But wouldn't this... monster be suicidal to carry out his threat?" she uttered finally. "I mean, he'd have to expect you to be prepared for him."

"Carissima, you don't understand the mind of someone on a vendetta. They're irrational; that's a large part of what makes them so dangerous -- you can't predict what they'll do because they don't follow logic."

She shook her head, getting up from the chair. "You need to get moving if you're going to get the kids to the doctor's."

Walt gazed at her, lost. "What?... Didn't anything I just said sink in?"

"Of course it sunk in," she snapped. "But short of flying, how can that monster get from coast to coast so fast?"

"He's probably got cash..."

"But he'd need a driver's license, passport or military ID to fly. Where's he gonna get that? And how's he gonna find out where you live?"

Walt bit his lip and sucked his teeth. "He's highly intelligent, Allison. If he managed to con his doctor, he's capable of scoring a picture ID." Especially if he'd been planning his escape for a while, he mentally added.

Allison believed the danger was real, just not as immediate as Walt did. "Anthony's worse," she related. Walt winced, knowing how dicey Anthony's health could be. "His temp is up, he's vomiting again, he's got chills and a pain in his chest -- it's got to be a bacterial infection, maybe even pneumonia, but Frank needs to make that determination. If Frank gives the green-light, we'll fly anywhere you want... and if he doesn't, we'll hole up in a hotel."

Walt mulled options over, chewing his lip. At least at the doctor's, they'd be out of the house.

She took his continued silence as assent. "I'll go pack bags for everybody while you're gone."

"Wait a minute," he replied, taking her arm. "I didn't agree."

"Don't you trust your agents?"

He should have censored his answer, but he didn't. "You're safe with Moskal, but Mead's a prick. The ass was supposed to get over here ASAP and he took the time to put on a suit and shave," Walt fumed in a low voice.

"Maybe he was already dressed that way. The only thing that matters is whether he's a good agent."

Walt admitted that he was -- but he didn't trust him, nonetheless.

Allison took her husband's hand and stroked his palm. "We'll be outta here in 30 minutes, tesoro, I promise."

He pulled her into a tight clench and held on fiercely. "Make that *20* minutes, carissima; then go straight to the doctor's."

They went back to the drawing room and found Ian and Amelia playing ring-around-the-rosy around Moskal. The agent was good- naturedly putting up with it while Mead sneered. The latter hastily blanked his expression upon seeing Walt.

Allison shooed the kids out while Walt explained the new game plan. A bright flash of lightning was immediately followed by a boom of thunder; they could hear rain pelting the windows. Walt turned toward Mead. "Check the perimeter while I get the kids."

Moskal looked at the way he and Mead were dressed and started to object -- Walt cut him off. "My wife might need help with the children, Agent Moskal. And they seem to have taken to you... besides, Mead brought an umbrella."

Allison added her clothing to the bag she was sharing with Becky. She paused as yet another clap of thunder followed on the heels of lightning. The storm had to be centered right over us, she thought, releasing the drape she'd pulled aside and thinking it was so dark out, it might as well have been night. She zipped the bag shut and took it to the hall, yelling for Trevor and Amelia to get a move on. Moskal was helping Ian pack, since the child was only interested in taking stuffed animals. Mead was on the first floor.

"Thank you, Agent Moskal," Allison said as he came into the hall carrying Ian's Elmo bag.

"No problem, Mrs. Skinner. My three-year-old is the same way."

Trevor and Amelia struggled down the hall a few moments later, having overpacked for themselves, Anthony and Charlee.

Moskal relieved the children of their luggage as Allison picked up hers, taking Ian's hand as they all went down the stairs. Mead nodded impatiently and stalked to the kitchen, not bothering to offer to carry Allison's bag -- which drew a perturbed look from Moskal.

When they arrived in the kitchen, Mead was shrugging into his still-soaked trenchcoat, scowl in place as he shoved a pack of cigarettes into his pocket. "Stay put till I get back," he ordered. He barely lingered long enough for Moskal to move to the security panel before he was out the door. Moskal speedily reset the alarm and Allison noted a fleeting expression of disfavor.

"Me 'ave drinkbox?" Ian requested. Amelia immediately wanted one, too.

"Fine, they're right on the shelves, help yourselves." Allison quickly decided taking some snacks along -- wherever they ended up -- wasn't a bad idea and went into the hall to retrieve a bag from the closet. She came back as Amelia started screeching.

"Ian! Stop!"

Ian was squeezing his drinkbox and squirting the contents all over his sister -- on purpose.

"Ian Richard Wright! Put that box down this instant." He reluctantly complied while Amelia whined about her damp, sticky clothes. Allison attempted to remedy the situation with a wet paper towel.

"I need new clothes, Mommy."

"No, you don't -- you're not that wet, Amelia."

" *I need new clothes.* "

Allison looked exasperated as Moskal intervened. "Mead'll be a few minutes. You have time for a quick change."

Amelia looked triumphant and was on her way to the hall as Allison hastily followed.

"Agent Moskal? Do I have time to go to the bathroom?" Trevor asked.

Mead crushed his spent cigarette and left the protection of the garage overhang. "Waste of time," he muttered, "I was just out here." The wind picked up and his umbrella threatened to flip inside out. He fought with it as he flashed his light between the garage and the fence, muttering to himself all the while. He proceeded to the front of the house, then came back along the opposite side, scanning behind the fruit trees. He barely checked behind the garage -- in the vegetable garden area -- and swore as he misstepped off a paving stone, his dress shoe sinking into the mud. He attempted to shake off the goo as he proceeded to the play area.

Buster came bounding into the kitchen and pawed at the door. "Bus'ser need go out," Ian said.

"Stay away from the door, Ian," Moskal replied, moving toward the other end of the kitchen to move the cat carrier. Tabitha meowed pitifully as Trevor re-entered the kitchen.

Ian saw the towering -- to him -- figure on the porch, shaking out the torn umbrella. The action obscured his face from the porch lights. Ian instantly unlocked the door while both his brother and Moskal yelled for him to stop.

It wasn't Mead.

Stanislav burst through the door and grabbed Ian, placing the barrel of a gun -- from the looks of it, Mead's -- against his temple. Moskal had his service weapon drawn in one second flat.

"Send the gun over here, G-man. Or the kid gets a new hole in his head." Moskal gazed into the terrified eyes of first Ian then Trevor and lowered his gun, sliding it across the floor. "Good, now turn off the alarm."

Moskal grudgingly complied.

Stanislav watched Trevor from the corner of his eye. "Come over here, boy." Trevor shook his head and unconsciously tried to back up. "I said get over here!"

Buster sprang forth and bit Stanislav on the ankle. His grip on Ian loosened as he tried to shake the dog off. Stanislav aimed his gun toward the canine and fired, Ian whacking his arm at the same time -- Buster limped off yipping while Tabitha yowled at the top of her feline lungs. Moskal dropped to the ground in a heartbeat, shoving his jeans up to access his back-up weapon from an ankle holster.

Stanislav saw Moskal's movement and pointed the gun at him, shooting at his chest just before the agent had his arm locked in firing position. Moskal's unevenly distributed weight was exacerbated by the impact of the bullet, throwing off his aim as he reflexively squeezed the trigger.

Allison was coming down the second half of the stairs when she heard the shots.

She would have expected her reaction to be paralyzing fear, but instead, her senses sharpened as she assumed the worst. Allison looked to the security panel mounted on the wall opposite the base of the stairs and saw the system was inactive. She knew with crystal clarity that her only chance to escape Stanislav -- and save her children -- was to activate it. The thunder was clapping so loud and often that Allison knew she couldn't count on the neighbors hearing the gunshots -- but the shrillness of the alarm would be unmistakable ... plus it was wired directly into the police station.

Allison wasn't paralyzed... but Amelia was. The child clung helplessly to the banister and Allison lost precious seconds struggling to pry her fingers loose -- but she couldn't leave her daughter.

"Mrs. Skinner..."

Allison's blood froze at the eerie voice reverberating down the first-floor hall. Amelia dropped her hand away from the railing with wide eyes... and promptly turned into a ragdoll.

Allison's last chance to make it to the *second* floor security panel vanished as she caught her daughter and nearly tumbled down the stairs in the process.

"Come out, come out wherever you are."

Allison incongruously thought how vulgar that child-like phrase sounded coming from a madman.

Trevor came into view in front of Stanislav, who held a now- motionless Ian. Trevor's stunned eyes locked with his mother's as he babbled, "He shot Agent Moskal, Mom... he shot 'im... he shot Buster, too."

"Please, Mrs. Skinner," Stanislav requested politely, gun now trained on Trevor. "Do join us; the party won't be complete without you."

Allison did as bidden.

She slowly stumbled down the stairs, Amelia's dead weight making it difficult for her to catch her balance. She could hear Stanislav's cool voice instruct Trevor to come back toward him a few paces, then halt. He then pressed the barrel against Ian's temple again.

Allison stopped next to the vestibule's door frame and saw blood trickling down the arm of the trenchcoat. So poor Agent Moskal hit him, she thought, before...

It occurred to her that Stanislav was trying to use her children as shields, in case she somehow had a gun.

She held Amelia tight to her as the girl stirred, and felt unrealistically calmer with the child's heartbeat thumping against her. "What have you done with the other agent?" The unruffled tone she used was little more than a bluff.

Stanislav sneered. " *If* he wakes up, he'll have a helluva headache. Put the girl down and walk toward me... slowly."

Despite the pounding of the thunder, the atmosphere within the house was suddenly and ominously silent... for a few seconds. The lights flickered and then all hell broke loose.

The air was punctuated first by Allison's blood-curdling cry, then gunshots and screams... before silence prevailed once more.

12 Minutes Later

Walt squealed his tires to a sliding stop in the middle of the wet street, vaulting from the van and leaving the door gaping behind him. There were two ambulances and several police cars already lining the road, but he ignored all of that as he strode to the front door amid shouts from the officers. Walt vehemently shoved aside the one who tried to stop him.

Walt thought he'd lose it right there as he saw the sheet-draped figure sprawled in the hall. A second officer started toward him in response to Walt's hostile manner. Walt reflexively removed his identification and threw it at the officer, pushing past the man to squat next to the body. There was an obscene amount of blood soaking the sheet and radiating from under it -- Walt was careful not to step in it.

He paused, hands hanging between his knees, as he shut his eyes and took the deepest breath of his life.

He grabbed a corner of the sheet and pulled it back. His restrained breath burst forth and he lowered his head before replacing the sheet.

It was Mead -- not that much was left of his head.

Walt sat back on his heels, feeling briefly giddy with relief. He looked up and saw a small corner of the closet wall was blown off -- and embedded in the plaster were what looked like blond hairs... along with blood. Oh, God, he thought... Ian.

"Sir... I'm sorry, but you can't stay there." The officer handed back Walt his ID.

Walt gazed blankly at him before looking down the hall. He noted bloody partial handprints from both adult and child-sized hands on the floor and wall, bloody partial footprints plus streaks of blood. Walt glanced across the opposite side of the hall and saw two more streaks, then more bloody partials leading into the kitchen -- plus muddy footprints all around him. He choked as he stood up and chastised himself for compromising evidence.

"There was another agent..."

"In the kitchen, sir. The paramedics are preparing to move him."

Walt followed the officer into the kitchen and nearly stumbled into the cat carrier. Tabitha started up a plaintive series of mews. "Buster -- the dog?"

"We found him in the dining room, sir. He'd been shot in the leg. One of the paramedics bandaged him up. He's out in one of the patrol cars."

Walt absently nodded, understanding that Buster was being kept away from the crime scene so he couldn't disturb anything.

Oh, God. Harsh reality hit him freshly in the face. My house is a crime scene... my wife, my kids...

He looked up and saw another streak against the island. Walt gulped and stepped around it and the bloody/muddy footprints, moving toward the group huddled around Moskal. Walt fleetingly recognized that one of the paramedics had delivered Becky.

Agent Moskal had an oxygen mask obscuring his face, but Walt could see the man's pale and sweaty features. The clothing from Moskal's upper body had been stripped away and blood had soaked through the bandage on his chest. Walt glanced up at the alarm and saw red smears against the security panel... and down the wall -- and dimly assumed that Moskal had managed to activate it before losing consciousness.

He stood back as Moskal was carefully removed, his mind registering how quiet it was now that the thunder had stopped. The house seemed onerously empty, but in another few moments, he knew that the CSTs -- crime scene technicians -- would arrive and the whole house would be ablaze with activity. They'd probably be bumped out by the FBI's ERT -- Evidence Response Team -- he incongruously thought, since this was a kidnapping.

And all of this flitted through his mind. None of it seemed real.

Walt wandered onto the porch and stared at the garage. He grabbed the arm of another officer as he went by him. "My car... it was parked right there," he said.

"Yes, sir. We've already gotten a description of the vehicle."

Walt started to question the statement when the New Carrollton police captain approached, struggling to control his umbrella.

"Mr. Skinner, I'm very sorry." The man shrugged, acknowledging with actions that the words were inadequate.

"How did you get a description of my c--"

"Your baby-sitter. She ran here when she heard the alarm. She saw your vehicle pulling away."

"My wife... the children?"

"She saw your daughter, Amelia, but none of the others." The captain continued on while the lines of shock and strain on Walt's face deepened. "Mrs. Fanning then proceeded into the house and found your agent."

"She didn't see the one in the hall?" Walt queried with horror.

"No. She stayed with the first one and applied pressure to the wound... probably saved his life."

"Captain Thornton?"

Thornton excused himself and walked to the officer who'd called him. Walt stayed in the yard, staring up at the rain, as if he were just noticing it. The water couldn't begin to wash away the guilt and loss he was feeling... but it could -- and would -- wash away potentially vital pieces of evidence.

One Hour Later, Skinner's Office

"Sir, everyone's assembled," Scully quietly advised as she came through his doorway.

Walt stood staring at his wedding picture, absently jiggling Becky as she cried nonstop. McIntire, Roz and Mulder were with him. Teresa -- claiming she needed the normalcy of watching them - was in Roz's office with Anthony and Charlee.

"Walt." Roz laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. "It's time."

He turned to her with hunted eyes and handed Becky to McIntire. Now that he was retired, the man wasn't going to be present for the briefing -- not that he needed to, since Walt had already poured out the details. Plus, Stanislav's entire file had been transmitted via secured fax.

"She wants her mother... she wants Allison," Walt uttered helplessly while McIntire solemnly nodded.

Walt turned to face the others and briefly closed his eyes, fearful that he'd lose control in front of them. He took a deep breath. "Let's go."

A few moments later, they were convened in front of a tremendous number of law enforcement officers that crossed all jurisdictions. The FBI field offices had been alerted, though only the closest had sent agents for the briefing. Wordlessly, Scully and Mulder handed out a series of images and a synopsis of Stanislav's file while Roz addressed the group, introducing herself as the SAC for the case. Under normal circumstances, Walt would have led the briefing as he was the agent of record for the original case, but his personal involvement made that impossible.

"At approximately 10:10 this morning, Assistant Director Walter Skinner's wife Allison and three of his stepchildren were abducted from their home..."

Walt stood, back to the wall, and listened as Roz described the physical characteristics of each abducted family member. Even with his eyes open, he could see their faces float in front of him... and he could see them beseech him for help.

His car had been found abandoned, and it was theorized that Stanislav had had another vehicle waiting. But because of the storm, no one had seen the switch... and the pounding rain had removed all useful tire impressions. Walt turned away from the officers as he recalled the bloodstained interior of his car.

It wasn't just the stains that made Walt involuntarily shudder, however; it was the note that had been left with them.

Skinner- I now possess your love...
body, mind and soul.

Walt vaguely heard Roz's voice again and drifted in and out of the briefing.

"The suspect's name is Bertram Stanislav. He was committed to the Brannard Facility for the criminally insane in 1988. He has a high intelligence level..."

Walt could see that psychopath's face, too... his exceedingly average features. That had been part of the problem in finding him in the first place -- with no outstanding characteristics, he'd blended into the woodwork, instantly forgettable.

"He seriously wounded Special Agent Paul Moskal and murdered Special Agent Dwayne Mead. Three firearms are confirmed missing and we must assume Stanislav has them." She went on to describe the three weapons. "Agent Moskal's personal weapon was recovered at the scene with one round expended. A 9mm shell was removed from one of the kitchen walls. Based on that and preliminary findings on the driver's seat of Mr. Skinner's vehicle, we believe Stanislav suffered a wound to his right shoulder."

Suffered? Walt thought. That gunshot is nothing compared to how I'll make him suffer when I catch him.

"We also believe that Mrs. Skinner and possibly one or more of the children have been shot."

Roz paused.

"Has a ransom demand been received?" one of the officers questioned.

Walt closed his eyes and lowered his chin, unconsciously clenching his fists.

.".. No, and none is expected," Roz replied after several seconds.

She related information from the complete file in a clinical voice... a voice that Walt knew was masking her own concern.

"Stanislav was convicted of the rape, mutilation and murder of eight San Diego women. This is a very twisted and sick individual. He videotaped his, uh, 'sessions' with each victim..."

Oh, God, carissima, Walt silently moaned, it's all my fault. I never should have allowed you to stay, even briefly... never should have ignored protocol.

And then flashes of the videotapes flooded his memories as Roz described Stanislav's MO. Walt remembered, with almost painful clarity, that the frightened victims first believed Stanislav when he said if they cooperated he wouldn't hurt them, that he'd let them go. The two women who'd survived the least amount of time had acted responsive to the rape -- least Walt had assumed they were acting. That behavior was exactly the opposite of what a sadistic rapist wanted -- and that's what Stanislav was.

"His victims were kept alive for a period of seven to 14 days and all had a, uh, grace period, if you will, before the torture began ..."

Barely alive, Walt mentally corrected. The first portion of their captivity was spent psychologically torturing them while the viciousness of the rapes escalated... when Stanislav would begin using more than just his body. Walt felt nauseous when images of the beatings, burnings and forced feedings propelled their way back into his mind. They had been hard to tolerate when he had first been on the case, so many years ago; it was almost beyond what he could bear now.

"None of the victims' bodies were found... intact. The videotapes showed that they were alive and conscious when..."

The horrible screaming, Walt thought. How on God's earth could no one have heard it -- sound-proofed basement or not. Echoes of it had haunted his sleep for months after Stanislav had been captured. As had the strangled pleas for mercy as the victims had slowly died.

"The women were ultimately bled to death..."

And he wouldn't even give them peace in death, violating their bodies one last time, Walt finished.

"This is a critical situation. The utmost care must be exercised in following *all* leads. Children have never been involved before and we have no idea how they might factor into..."

Walt stopped his imagination from going there as Roz concluded.

"You have your assignments. Any questions?"

There were none.

She turned toward Walt. "Do you have anything to add, Assistant Director Skinner?"

Walt walked on leaden feet to her. He wanted to plead with them to put forth 150% effort, but knew he couldn't. "Daylight's burning."

Two Hours Later

Allison awoke to insistent tugging on her arm and the whimpers of her children. She shivered as she tried to sort her way through the throb in her head and why she felt cold... then she remembered.

Stanislav had hit her with the butt of a gun when the alarm had gone off. She'd seen the bloody panel as he'd dragged Trevor and Amelia through the kitchen, but he hadn't.

Before any more memory returned, she opened her heavy eyes and realized why she was cold -- she was stark naked. Amelia and Trevor - - similarly naked -- looked marginally reliieved as she regained consciousness, then both started bawling and practically tried to crawl into her skin.

Allison felt a sharp, stinging sensation as she struggled to sit up... then discovered something that made her heart stop.

Ian wasn't there.

Allison gazed around the room with mounting terror. "He took Ian, Mommy," Amelia wailed, echoing the same feelings of her mother.

The door to the room opened slowly and Allison instantly stood, not self-conscious as all her concern was for her child. She wavered, however, as her balance was skewed from the blow to her head. "Where is he? What have you done with my baby?" she demanded.

Stanislav smiled and looked her over from head to toe, slowly, leisurely. The action itself made her want to crawl in a hole.

"Consider him my insurance policy that you won't try to escape. If I'm not free to check on him, say... every three hours or so, he could quite possibly meet with a nasty end."

Allison wanted to launch herself at him, pounding and clawing till he was dead... but that wouldn't help Ian, Trevor, Amelia or herself. Her only chance now was to buy all the time she could.

He pulled a pair of handcuffs from a pocket. "Extra precaution. Come, Mrs. Skinner, it's time for a screen test."

She walked to him as though in a trance, mind trying to shut down as a protective measure. She had time for one last thought as the cold metal closed around her wrists -- tesoro, please, find us... before it's too late.


Walt closed the hotel bedroom door and began pacing again. Becky had cried herself to sleep, finally, and Charlee had been given a mild tranquilizer -- once the shock had worn off, she'd become hysterical, so Frank had prescribed it. Anthony's flu *had* intensified into pneumonia and he was so wiped out he'd gotten a couple of sobs out before succumbing to a drugged sleep.

Walt wished it would be that easy for him -- he felt like he'd been through a shredder. He glanced at his watch again and couldn't believe only seven and a half hours had gone by; it felt like an eternity.

Basil's flight had already landed... he'd be at the hotel -- with a federal escort -- any minute. What the hell am I going to tell him? Walt internally moaned. How can I even begin to --

A knock cut short his thoughts. He walked like a man on death row to answer the door.

After checking the peep hole, Walt admitted Scully and Mulder. Each tried to look supportive and reassuring -- and failed miserably at the latter.

"I have the autopsy report for Agent Mead, sir." Scully handed him the file.

Walt held it briefly then put it on a table. "Just give me a synopsis, Scully," he said tiredly.

"Yes, sir. The immediate cause of death was multiple gunshot wounds to the head. There was an additional, single contact wound to the abdominal region. I was also able to determine that Agent Mead suffered a hairline skull fracture, likely causing a cerebral hemorrhage and disorientation." She glanced at Mulder. "I can't confirm the hemorrhage due to trauma from the gunshots, however."

Walt simply stared past her, like a statue.

"Based on preliminary forensic results," Mulder interjected, "we believe Agent Mead was rendered unconscious outside..."

"How?" Walt interrupted, focussing on them.

Mulder swallowed quickly, knowing that his boss had built the playground and been the force behind the garden. "It looks like Stanislav dropped a paving stone on his head. One was found next to one of the treehouses and traces of Mead's blood were lifted from inside the umbrella."

Walt's expression was unreadable. "Go on."

"In his presumed disoriented state, we believe Agent Mead entered the house and attempted to subdue Stanislav. In the ensuing struggle, Mead was shot in the stomach... after he fell, Stanislav fired three rounds into his head," Scully concluded.

Walt didn't say anything for a minute. Then he sighed. "We went through the academy together," he related in a distant voice. "He had a couple of unfortunate conclusions to cases and kept getting turned down for promotion. I even recommended against one when I was a SAC. But he didn't deserve to..." He straightened and cleared his throat. "Has Moskal regained consciousness?"

Scully and Mulder exchanged a look before she spoke. "Briefly. Between what he was able to tell us and forensics, we've developed a theory for what happened in the hall."

Before she could go on, another knock came. Walt steeled his shoulders, knowing it had to be Basil this time.

Mulder had barely gotten the door open before Basil hurtled toward Walt, tackling him to the ground and proceeding to pummel him. Walt put up no fight whatsoever, figuring he deserved everything Basil could give him and more -- the other agents didn't see it that way. They pulled a thrashing Basil off their superior.

"You son of a bitch! You told me they were safe. You promised me! How could you let this happen? How?!"

Walt sat up and gingerly fingered his split lip, his breathing audible. "I'm sorry. I just... I'm so sorry."

"Where's Charlee? Where's my daughter?"

Walt nodded toward the bedroom door as the agents released Basil. He stalked into the room, only to return a few seconds later.

"I can't wake her -- what's wrong with her?"

"She's sedated." Scully took Walt's hand and held it to the towel-wrapped ice she'd placed against his lip, since he showed no signs of doing it himself.

Basil slumped into a chair and ran his hands nervously through his hair several times. "What the hell happened?"

The escort agent excused himself at that point and Walt painfully related what little they knew for certain. Basil looked insulted when it was suggested he leave while both Moskal's statement was disclosed and theories were stated; he stayed.

Walt winced upon hearing that it was Ian who'd let Stanislav in. He and Basil listened as Scully went through the rest of the kitchen events.

.".. Mead probably grabbed Stanislav from behind and during the struggle, the gun went off three times. One of the bullets shirred the corner of the closet and imbedded in the wall under the stairs. Stanislav must have thrown Ian toward the closet, where the child hit his head."

"How do you know that?" Basil questioned.

"Strands of blond hair along with traces of O negative blood were found in the damaged plaster," Mulder elucidated, "but none was found on the bullet."

Scully could have launched into a short discourse on PCR -- polymerase chain reaction -- and STR -- short tandem repeat loci -- markers in the blood, but it wasn't necessary; everybody presumed to have been in the hall had fortuitously had different blood types.

"Another bullet traveled down the length of the hall and lodged in that wall," Scully continued. "That bullet struck both Trevor and your, uh, Allison," she faltered, looking between Walt and Basil. "We've conjectured that both were wounded in the leg."

Basil wanted to know how again. This time Walt answered. "The height of the blood smears on the wall."

"Plus fibers found mixed in the smears were compatible with what, uh, AD Skinner said Trevor and Allison were wearing," Mulder added.

Basil nodded, then whispered, "What about Amelia?"

"Extremely good latents were found on the floor outside the drawing room, as were fibers caught on a protruding nail. The color was consistent with the sweater Mrs. Fanning described Amelia as wearing when the car pulled away," Mulder explained.

"Allison shoved her aside," Walt speculated, not realizing he'd spoken aloud.

Basil pulled at his hands. "How... how badly do you think they were injured?" he haltingly asked.

"Ian likely has a cut and probably a concussion. The gunshot wounds to Trevor and Allison don't appear to be life-threatening," Scully opined. "Forensics also found a small amount of blood mixed with a long strand of brunette hair on the back of the driver's seat, so Allison might also have a concussion."

"Who *is* this nut case?" Basil rasped suddenly. "Tell me he's not some lunatic, abused as a child, taking revenge on women who look like his mother or something."

Scully and Mulder looked toward their boss -- who wore a distant expression -- for him to decide what more to disclose.

Not far off -- supposedly, Walt thought, in reference to Basil's words.

Stanislav's life had been utterly normal, from all outward appearances. He'd been an advertising executive, owned a home, been referred to as polite and courteous by neighbors, friends, co-workers and family, graduated from a top school, had plenty of *willing* female companionship. And in the fall of 1987, had experimented with LSD and other hallucinogens.

After he'd been arrested, he'd disclosed during a routine psych evaluation that his 'domineering boss' -- female -- had raped him. She'd also supposedly videotaped the episode and beaten him. But of course he'd never filed charges and the convenient post allegations couldn't be substantiated in any manner.

All the victims *had* resembled her, though... well, up till now. Walt had theorized that look-alike victims had been a clever ploy on Stanislav's part to be used if he should be caught. The jury hadn't agreed. They'd been swayed by repeated testimony from former girlfriends who'd stated that he'd never been anything but gentle. The horrible contrast of people's perceptions of him and the despicable, videotaped crimes had only fueled the insanity plea -- as had Stanislav's well-timed catatonic state throughout the trial.

"No -- don't tell me about him," Basil contradicted, shaking. "I don't want to feel the least bit of pity for whatever made him the way he is." He ran his fingers through his hair a last time. "This is a nightmare."

Walt glanced at the distraught man and mentally corrected him ... the nightmare was just starting.

8:27p.m., Vicinity of the Harbor Tunnel, Baltimore

The district was quieter than usual, the intermittent rain and cool temperature combining to make business slow. One young prostitute had had enough of the location and announced her intention to try the action on a neighboring street.

A clap of thunder startled her as she hurried down an alley, causing her to misstep. She looked down at her shoe and swore -- the stiletto heel had snapped. She took the broken portion and tossed it angrily at a pile of boxes.

The boxes moved.

She was on the verge of hightailing it when she heard whimpering.

"Hey in there! I gotta weapon... come out real slow."

Not getting a response, she inched closer, holding her intact shoe up -- her weapon. She pushed the boxes aside and gasped. "Sweet Jesus!"

"Walt, you have to eat something... you have to rest." Roz held a sandwich out to him.

"I can't," he replied, squeezing Becky closer. "I can't keep anything down," he confided in a whisper.

The bedroom door opened and Anthony staggered out. He made it as far as the sofa before he fell over.

"Anthony, you shouldn't be out of bed," Walt scolded, handing Becky to Roz and picking up his son.

"I can't sleep any more," he whined as his father set him on the sofa and covered him with a blanket.

"How 'bout some soup, Anthony?" Teresa offered. "We just had it sent up."

The boy nodded, peering at Walt through confused and frightened eyes. So far, his illness seemed to be keeping his telepathic abilities at bay... least Walt wasn't being pelted with questions, mental or verbal.

Roz's cell phone rang... and since it had been doing that repeatedly since she'd arrived, Walt no longer jumped. Basil wandered to the bedroom doorway, holding Charlee, just in case. The child's eyes were still swollen from crying. The others listened to Roz's end of the conversation.

"Drayton... Where?... Condition?... Do a full sweep -- somebody had to have seen something." She disconnected with her first smile of the day. "It's Ian -- he's safe."

University of Maryland Hospital

The group hurried to Ian's room, IDs prominently displayed. A doctor backed away from the child as they entered. Ian was screaming incoherently at the top of his lungs and attempting to hide under the tray table.

The child looked toward the door with terrified eyes that barely changed as he recognized faces. He wailed one word and nobody was able to get anything more from him that night.


Charlee broke away from her father and ran to the table, scooping up Ian with tears streaming down both their faces.

Both Walt and Basil felt pangs of rejection... though Walt realized Basil would have been far more upset had his son called 'Daddy' and not meant him.

Ian looked innocent and fragile in the tiny hospital gown. A small bandage was on his head and the skin around his eyes and mouth was pink. There were also ligature marks around his wrists and ankles.

Basil rushed to the table and enveloped both children. The doctor motioned Roz and Walt outside. Walt dropped Ian's Elmo bag and trailed after the other two, wanting his own turn to hold Ian desperately.

"The child has a concussion, bruising and his temp was low when found. Other than the screaming, he appears to be fine," the doctor stated, not waiting for introductions. "We turned the strips of duct tape and rope over to agents from your Baltimore office."

"What about his clothes?" Roz asked.

"He wasn't wearing any."

Walt's stomach lurched... but he managed to keep his reaction internal. "The child is my stepson," he murmured.

The doctor instantly grimaced before stammering. "Oh, shit. I ... I didn't realize... I should, should have looked at your IDs closer." He took a deep breath, then went on. "He was thoroughly examined for evidence before we cleaned him up -- he'd soiled himself hours earlier. And that's a perfectly natural reaction."

"Was he assaulted in any way?" Walt queried, praying for a negative answer.

"No," the doctor replied, professional mode kicking back in. "The bruises are limited to the outer portion of his body."

Sunday, 7a.m.

Walt sat up on the sofa and held his head. The two scotches had helped him sleep -- finally -- but now he regretted drinking them. He glanced at the coffee table and saw a copy of the Sunday paper. "Great," he muttered aloud, thinking he hadn't even heard anyone moving in the suite. Without thinking, he unfolded the paper to look at the front page.

Walt choked as he found himself gazing at the smiling picture of his wife... at the similar images of the kids. And he bristled with impotent rage at the image of Stanislav. The paper had been printed before the news of Ian's recovery had been broadcast.

The new theory was that Ian had been dumped in Baltimore as Stanislav had gone north -- so the active investigation had been expanded to Pennsylvania. Walt had a gut feeling that was wrong, however.

Before they'd left Baltimore, he and Roz had visited the alley. It was cold, dark, damp and frightening -- and it would have been more so to Ian. With his heart on his sleeve, Walt had examined the ground Ian had sat on all those hours. The stench of urine had been overpowering.

Stanislav hadn't even been content with tying Ian 'normally.' The child's wrists had been bound to his ankles, making escape impossible for him. Not that he could have seen where he was going, with tape over his eyes.

Basil had hesitantly questioned why a murderous psychopath would leave Ian alive, in a place where he would be found. Walt and Roz had assumed that Basil was allowing himself to believe that Amelia and Trevor would likewise be released unharmed. And they'd hated to tell him what Stanislav's likely intent was... leaving a naked, bound child in that area. Actually, they hadn't told him; when they hadn't immediately answered, his imagination had engaged and Basil had bolted for the bathroom.

Ian had been released into Basil's care, but he'd clung to Walt the whole way back to DC -- and the elder Wright had shot proverbial daggers at Walt the entire trip. A child psychologist specializing in trauma was scheduled to meet with Ian later in the day, but Walt was having second thoughts. The poor child was so traumatized that seeing *any* strange person set him off.

Maybe Mulder could talk to him, Walt thought. Ian's met him a half dozen times. And after all, Mulder *was* an Oxford trained psychologist.

Becky awoke with a whimper and a howl and Walt belatedly started warming a bottle, realizing that Teresa must have made one when he found it in the fridge.

"There, there, Sweetpea," he soothed, picking up his daughter from the portable crib and laying her on a table to change her diaper. "It's okay; Daddy's here."

Walt's mind drifted as he unzipped her sleeper. He could hear Allison's voice directing him as he changed Becky the first time. 'Remember, girls are different. You have to wipe from the front to the back so you don't spread bacteria.'

The words were apropos now, as Becky had filled her diaper with stool. Walt was just starting to clean her up when it came to him -- Ian had soiled himself, yet there hadn't been evidence of him doing it in the alley... Which meant what? Walt challenged his sluggish brain.

Ian hadn't been there for hours.

McIntire house, Alexandria, VA

"But don't you see, Roz," Walt urged. "Nobody saw anything because Ian wasn't dumped in broad daylight."

She gazed at him with compassion. "Walt, just because we're looking north doesn't mean we're giving up searching down here--"

"But it's a red herring," he maintained.

"You're basing your entire supposition on the absence of poop -- "

"But I know Ian's schedule. He doesn't do that till late afternoon," Walt argued.

"Would you let me finish? Aside from the poop issue, how was Stanislav able to strip Ian and tie him without being seen? Would he risk doing that anywhere but a place he was sure he *wouldn't* be seen?"

Walt stared at her and for the first time realized how his closeness to the case was affecting his reasoning skills. "So you think..."

"I'm not making any suppositions until I get the report from Trace Evidence."


Mulder had been with Ian 30 minutes now. The child had tensed when the agent had entered the hotel suite, but not screamed. He'd greeted Walt coolly -- upset because 'Daddy' hadn't been there when he'd woken up -- but had sat on Walt's lap all through breakfast, picking at his food.

Ian had looked intensely solemn, clutching his favorite stuffed animal, when he'd entered the bedroom with Mulder... but no sounds of distress had so far been heard.

Mulder opened the door quietly, a finger to his lips. "He's asleep." Charlee went in anyway and snuggled next to her brother.

"Was he able to tell you anything?"

Mulder shook his head. "I'm not sure. He didn't say anything the first 10 minutes. I'll play the tape and maybe you can decipher what he said after that."

Walt, Basil and Teresa spent the next 20 minutes listening to Mulder's gentle, flat voice and Ian's monosyllabic responses. In the end, all they learned was that there had been a bad man, bangs, the dog had been hurt and that Ian had been scared -- in essence, nothing new.

Walt saw Mulder to the door.

"I'm sorry, sir. Maybe someone used to working with children could get more."

He thought a moment and hoped he was being objective now. "I doubt it -- it was a longshot at best. He was probably still unconscious when Stanislav covered his eyes." Walt opened the door, thanked Mulder and saw some of the last people he was prepared to deal with approaching -- Allison's family.

Jude Hogle ran to him, on the verge of exhaustion. "Has there been any more news?"

Walt bowed his head. "Not since I spoke to you last night. There's nothing you can do... you should have stayed home."

"You expect us to just sit on our hands after what you've done to our family, you arrogant son of a bitch?!" Avery shouted. He instantly followed his words with action. Walt found himself pinned against the wall, his brother-in-law's hands wrapped around his throat; Avery managed to apply a significant amount of pressure before Mulder pulled him off.

Walt bent forward, clutching his throat and trying to regain his breath as Avery spat at his feet before stalking into the hotel room. AJ Sr. leaned toward Walt and muttered in his ear, "If anything happens to my daughter or grandchildren, I'll finish what he started."

In-law problems, Walt thought distantly to himself.

30 Minutes Later

Roz steered Walt to a quiet corner of the hotel coffee shop. "We've gotten confirmation that Stanislav flew into Dulles Friday night. He turned up on a surveillance video. We've already determined which flight he had to have come in on and I've got two agents back checking the passenger lists."

"Has San Diego or LA figured out how he got the picture ID?"

Roz pursed her lips, already having had time to react. "Seems he briefly shared a cell with a known forger."

Walt shoved his coffee away in disgust. "And it took 'em *this* long to dig that up? Damn it! I never would have..." Don't blame somebody else for your own incompetence, he berated himself. You never should have let Allison stay.

"They're in the process of trying to locate Mr. Lopez... he's also been known to deal in stolen goods. Stanislav -- we assume it was him -- emptied the house of Dr. Steinmetz, the psychiatrist who had him released into her custody, and took her Mercedes."

Walt crumpled the muffin that Roz had insisted he buy -- in lieu of eating it. "What about her? How was she able to get clearance to take Stanislav out... especially for 24 hours?"

"He'd apparently made great strides toward 'recovering.' He'd sent seemingly genuine letters of apology and remorse to the families of all the victims -- and he even spoke of welcoming a new ruling on his case, *knowing* he'd be sent to the gas chamber if his insanity plea was reversed."

She stirred her coffee a few seconds. "Dr. Steinmetz had previously taken Stanislav out of the facility for short periods and obviously felt neither she nor society were in any danger."

"Where'd she get her psychology degree, mail order?" Walt growled.

Roz tactfully chose not to respond. "Do you want to know what Trace Evidence turned up?"

Walt hunched into the seat as though he'd been reprimanded anyway. "Of course I do."

"While the duct tape and rope are garden variety and can be purchased literally anywhere, there were fibers stuck to both. Silver nylon/velour ones on the outside of the tape, tan nylon/wool on the *inside* only. The silver was found on the rope and both are consistent with carpet fibers."

It was assumed that all had been transported in a trunk, after Walt's vehicle had been abandoned.

"So Stanislav changed vehicles. And he likely wouldn't do that en route a second time," Walt proposed.

"My sentiments exactly. That particular percentage of nylon to wool hasn't been used in over 25 years in automobiles. Plus, somehow an actual piece of the ply got stuck in Ian's hair. One end showed the original color, so with a little luck, we might be able to narrow a search to a manageable number of cars."

Walt popped an intact portion of the muffin into his mouth and mulled the information. If he's got a second vehicle, Walt mused, he's probably dumped the first one already... Still, it's a solid lead.

"Now, as far as what they found on Ian goes," she paused to sip her coffee. "White cotton and navy and red cotton/polyester fibers covering the majority of his body, likely from the clothes you said he was wearing. Black dyed cotton fibers on his left foot and hand, dark green dyed silk/cotton fibers all along his left side, some more tan ones on his face and a ton of the silver ones all along his right side. There were also rust fragments in his hair -- the lab is going to try to raise the color of the paint. Plus, there were grains of soil or fertilizer stuck to his right side -- we should know more about that tomorrow. And finally, smudges of dirt/grime that's consistent with where he was found."

I hope to God something of this pans out, Walt thought, since going through the 'vacuuming process' had scared Ian as much as the kidnapping.

Monday brought good news, bad news and a figurative dead end.

The silver fibers had been identified as a color called 'Icelandic Silver' and were exclusive to BMW vehicles, specifically to ones manufactured in the past five years. Except the interior color was paired with four exterior ones and tens of thousands of vehicles had been produced in the US and abroad. A tri-state check of reported stolen vehicles had so far yielded negative results.

The soil had turned out to be a uniquely mixed and expensive fertilizer for orchids, available at high-end nurseries.

The tan fibers were of a color called 'Desert Tan' and had been used in all GM products. It had gone with six exterior colors -- one of which had been 'Champagne Beige,' the color the lab had raised from the rust.

Based on that information, the preliminary DMV search had been further limited to vehicles manufactured between 1968 and 1974, ones with cavernous trunks and to those registered in DC, Maryland and Virginia. And it had been for naught when the former owner -- having seen Stanislav's picture in the paper -- stepped forward two hours into the search.

He lived within a mile of Dulles airport and had had a sale sign on his rusting 1970 champagne beige Cadillac. He'd sold it to Stanislav, plates and all. And he couldn't tell the authorities anything beyond that. At this time, no charges were pending.

Ramon Lopez had been located and had admitted to providing Stanislav with a fake ID, plus giving him money for the stolen goods. They'd accidentally met in a men's room during one of Stanislav's 'outings.' Numerous charges including aiding and abetting, receiving stolen property, forgery and accessory to murder -- which Lopez had vehemently objected to -- were filed.

Tuesday, the nightmare intensified.

Walt sat alone in the room, waiting for the tape to begin, questioning his insistence to see it.

All the mail from the house was being forwarded to FBI headquarters as a precautionary measure. That morning, an envelope containing an 8mm videotape had arrived. It had been postmarked in York, Pennsylvania, the cancellation date being PM Saturday.

The original tape was still being analyzed, as was the note... but Walt had seen it, and he replayed the words in his mind.

Skinner- Allison promises to be my best partner yet. Stanislav

The tape started and Walt's stomach wrenched.

Allison was naked and hog-tied.

He'd been warned, but still wasn't prepared. The other victims had been bound to a bed, and that had been bad enough... seeing his own wife this way was utterly horrible. It was worse than that, it was... it was so bad his mind couldn't come up with an adequate phrase.

Walt nearly got up and turned the tape off. Instead, he tried to concentrate on any aspect of the video but Allison... what she was being forced to do and how she was responding exactly the way she needed to to survive -- she was struggling as hard as her position allowed and being extremely vocal. But there wasn't anything to look at -- the camera was aimed directly at them.

He focussed on her left thigh, noting the bandage. Walt wondered why Stanislav had shown that tiny amount of mercy before realizing something that made his blood curdle.

This time, the sadistic bastard wasn't using a condom.

I'm so, so sorry, carissima, Walt silently moaned. Please forgive me. Please hang on, I *will* find you... you and the kids. Oh, God... why did I let you stay? Why didn't I protect you?

He wallowed in the repetitive thoughts a few seconds before he heard someone enter the room. Roz quietly stopped the tape and removed it. She carefully avoided looking into Walt's eyes. He got up and took the tape from her, dropped it to the floor and smashed it with the heel of his shoe, taking out his frustration and anger as though it were Stanislav himself.

He then hiccuped, clutched his stomach and deposited his breakfast into the wastebasket. Roz rubbed his back and handed him a tissue. At length, he turned and choked back a sob as tears trickled down his cheeks.

Friday, March 19

Walt was exhausted. He'd gotten maybe a day's worth of sleep in the last week. He looked like hell, eyes sunken and fixed in a dejected manner. His face was haggard and he'd lost weight, still having trouble keeping food down.

The investigation was slowly proceeding. The original search for the BMW had been widened to include Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and West Virginia. Nothing had turned up in regard to the fertilizer.

Tips and possible sightings were still coming a plenty and each -- no matter how ludicrous -- was being checked.

The press was being fed some bull about authorities leaning toward the north in the hopes that if Stanislav was keeping abreast of the news, he'd make another foray to keep the illusion going and get caught in the process.

Roz, Scully and Mulder believed the sending location of the tape was a ruse for the following reasons:

1. The earliest Stanislav could have gotten to York was approximately 2p.m. between driving, producing the hour long tape and changing vehicles a second time. 2. It took around an hour to get from the location Ian had been found to the outskirts of York -- except Ian's temperature hadn't been low enough for him to have been outside seven and a half hours. Given the exterior temperature, three hours at most. Which meant Ian couldn't have been left earlier than 5:30p.m. 3. Stanislav had to have changed cars after he reached his destination because no silver fibers had been found under the duct tape. 4. Due to a mail truck shortage, the pick-up schedules listed inside the York mailboxes had been modified Saturday. Final pickup had occurred one hour late, at 6p.m. Thus, if Stanislav had left Ian on the way up, he wouldn't have reached the box till 6:30 and the package wouldn't have been processed till Monday morning. Thus, Ian had to have been left *on the way back.*

And despite this theorizing -- which Walt agreed with -- Stanislav was still at large.

The seal on the house had been rescinded that morning. Walt had covered with a rug the spot where Mead had died. Even if the tape could be removed without scarring the finish of the laminate, the blood had already discolored it.

Walt wandered through the house feeling alone and lonely. Avery had gone back to Philly Monday, still bristling. Allison's parents had left yesterday, the strain of no positive news and trying to maintain some sort of peace between her husband and Walt nearly too much for Mrs. Hogle. Basil had left that morning... and he'd taken Charlee and Ian with him.

Ian's speaking skills had regressed to the stage where he'd point and whine to communicate. He'd clutched Walt's legs and hands fiercely, his tear-laden eyes saying everything. It had been clear that the child had had no understanding of why he was being taken away.

And Charlee... she'd grown up so much -- just like Anthony had when Clare had died. Her expression had been twisted in sorrow as Basil had led her to the car and she'd repeatedly asked Walt who would help him with Becky and Anthony while she was gone.

Walt's own biological children were currently at Teresa's house. Anthony had balked at moving back into their house, yet Walt knew they couldn't stay at the hotel indefinitely.

Feeling the need for something routine, Walt had started laundry. He heard the buzzer for the dryer and made his way into the basement. He groaned as he opened the dryer door -- all the clothes were streaked with red. Remnants of crayon wrapper clung to the lint trap.

Walt could hear Allison's voice instantly. 'If you do any laundry, always check pockets. The kids have been known to leave half-finished candy and crayons in them. And it's a pain in the neck to clean up.'

He began laughing, almost hysterically, as he pulled the garments out. And then his laughter turned to wracking sobs as he threw the items all over the room, seeking to release the last vestiges of his pain.

When there was no more laundry, he kicked the main bin savagely, sending it careening into the sorting island... and finally he tried to punch his fist into the concrete wall -- it was a futile attempt.

"Mon cher, it won't help."

Walt's eyes stared at the shadowy figure next to him. "Clare. ... Where is she? Tell me, please. You can find out. You have to save her and the kids." The words tumbled from his mouth with a barely tempered desperation.

"Oh, my love," she raised a ghostly hand to his cheek. "I can't help you."

"Please, I have to know. Is she all right?" He immediately realized it was a stupid question and tried again. "Is she alive? Are the kids alive?"

"What good would my answering be? If I tell you they're dead, you'll mourn and beat yourself over the head. If I tell you they're alive, you'll obsess over what you imagine is happening. I haven't come to you for just this reason, Walt... I can't give you the peace you want. I can't intervene, this has nothing to do with the Consortium."

"Please, Clare... are they alive? Will we find them in time?"

She sighed at his continued stubbornness. "Love the children, Walt... and remember how much you love Allison. Love will give you strength to face what's ahead."

"What's ahead? I don't understand... Oh, God, they're going to die."

Her form dissipated and Walt stood rooted to the spot, too shaken by what he thought she meant. After a few seconds, he felt Clare's warmth pervade his body... and he heard a whisper of words that gave him hope. "Remember Allison's circle, mon cher."

Sunday, March 21

Walt envied Teresa her faith as she left for church. Leads were slowing down and discouragement was soaring.

He carefully lifted Becky from the bath water and laid her on the towel, bundling her up and carrying her to the bedroom for a diaper and clothes. He gently patted her dry as she cooed, then fluffed the peachfuzz of blondish hair she was growing. Her fingernails grazed his hand as he slipped the sleeve up her arm. Better do that, too, he resignedly thought. Walt sat in the rocker, clippers in hand and painstakingly tried to snip each of the tiny nails, repeatedly telling her to be a good girl and hold still -- of course, she didn't.

"I know you want Mommy, sweetheart," he murmured as she squirmed and he was forced to use more pressure on her hand to hold it steady. He managed to get the last two nails trimmed and held her close, smoothing his hand over her head and kissing her. "I want Mommy, too."

"Dad?" Anthony wandered into the room, dressed in street clothes for the first time in a week. He glanced at the clippers on the rocker's arm and smiled tentatively. "I knew you could do it."

Walt felt a responding smile escape as Anthony reached him. "How ya feeling?"

"Better, but I still don't have much energy." Anthony grinned as Becky jerkily turned toward him and cooed. "She looks like Ian did when he was a baby," he opined, taking his sister's hand.

Walt saw his son hesitate, as though he was unsure of whether to say something. The elder Skinner worried that Anthony would question him again about why Clare couldn't help Allison. They'd had a lengthly discussion about it Friday night and Walt knew Anthony was confused.

"I had a dream last night."

At least he didn't say nightmare, Walt thought. "Go on."

"We were celebrating Becky's first birthday. Everybody was smiling and happy. Trev, Amelia, Charlee and Ian were there. And there was this lady... I didn't recognize her at first. She had her back to me, she was real skinny and she had straight hair... it was a lot shorter than Mom's. But she turned around and it *was* Mom. And she wrapped her arm around me, kissed my head and said she was home for good."

Walt lowered his face. "I wish I could tell you what it means, Anthony, but..."

"I know what it means. We're all going to be together. Mom, Trev and Amelia are going to come back and we'll be a family again."

Walt looked into his son's solemn eyes and didn't want to contradict him, however much reality might hurt him later. Besides, Walt wanted to believe in the dream, too -- wanted to believe in what Clare had intimated.

"I really hope so, Anthony." Walt wrapped his free arm around his son and squeezed him tight. "When you've got more energy, we'll go looking at aquariums, okay?" It was the birthday gift he and Allison had decided on.

Anthony nodded and wiped his tears away. "That'll be a cool surprise when they come back."

Walt waited anxiously at the park, wondering why he was there. A distinguished-looking man had handed Teresa a note requesting that Walt meet him. From the rest of her description, he had a good idea who it was... and he assumed that a shakedown was intended.

"Thank you for coming, Mr. Skinner."

"I'm not interested in your lies," Walt snapped. "You and your associates don't have anything to do with the kidnapping, so don't bother trying to extort me."

"Quite correct. I'm here to assure you of just that, Mr. Skinner... and to warn that you will shortly be approached by our smoking acquaintance who will tell you otherwise." The Well-Manicured Man paused to glance at his rich, leather gloves. "My other associates felt this was an opportune situation to exploit."

Walt narrowed his eyes, not believing any of it. "Then why wait so long?"

"To give you time to lose hope, of course, to consider grasping at straws." Walt turned away from the WMM. "He will tell you that your wife and stepchildren will be returned if you resign from the FBI. He will even hand you a prepared letter guaranteed to make reinstatement highly doubtful."

"And why are you telling me this? Why do you care?"

The WMM looked away for a few moments, his expression faintly reminiscent. "I once had an affair with a beautiful woman; but I was young and foolish and didn't realize I loved her until much later. By then it was too late -- she'd died a few months after giving birth to our child. Children are a great legacy, Mr. Skinner. I strongly regret that I didn't have the chance to raise my son. But I've been able to discreetly watch him and am quite proud of the man he has become... even though I know he would despise me if he knew I was his father."

"What are you talking about?"

The WMM went on as though he hadn't heard. "Love the children, Mr. Skinner." His words were chillingly like Clare's. "I wish I could offer definite confirmation that Allison and the children will be found alive. I can only repeat what someone told me, someone who has nothing to gain by lying -- she said, 'Allison's circle is quite large.'"

"What?" Impatience and confusion warred in Walt's tone.

But the WMM wasn't planning to say anything else, cryptic or otherwise, and walked away to a waiting car. Walt didn't bother memorizing the license.

He stood by the empty swing frame, shaking. He could believe that those people would attempt to take credit for the kidnapping, but what about the rest? Why did it seem as though Clare was communicating with him, too? And what was that sentimental garbage all about? Was it meant to make him feel sorry for the man? -- never, Walt thought.

Seven hours later, Walt took a bag of trash out the side door of Teresa's house. He glanced toward his own dwelling and saw light -- the high-mounted motion-sensing ones from the back porch. Walt mumbled something to Teresa as he came back into the kitchen, pausing only to get his gun.

He quickly approached his home, passing the one neighbor's house and grimacing -- they hadn't been home the day of the kidnapping and Stanislav had climbed over the fence from their property. Walt had since installed additional motion-sensing lights all over his lot, thinking if he'd done that before...

Walt climbed the porch steps, gun drawn and aimed at the figure leaning against the railing.

"Come now, Mr. Skinner... you won't shoot me -- just think how much a second death on the premises would lower your property value."

"I'll take my chances," Walt snarled, gun still trained.

Cancerman released another plume of smoke. "I understand you weren't able to watch the tape we instructed Stanislav to send. Should we instruct him to send another, I guarantee it will be less pleasant."

Walt lowered his weapon, at the same time wanting to bash it across Cancerman's skull. Even knowing he was bluffing couldn't stop the nausea swirling in his gut. "You're not controlling him, and you don't have any idea where he is," he grunted.

Cancerman brought the cigarette to his lips again. "Really? Are you prepared to risk the lives of your loved ones on that belief?" He removed an envelope from an inner pocket. "Sign this and your wife and stepchildren will be returned."

Walt noted Cancerman made no promise as to their condition as he took the envelope. His anger increased as he scanned the letter within. He crumpled and tossed it aside, raising the gun again. "I should just kill you on general principles... rid the world of a parasite."

Cancerman appeared unruffled. "And if you did, another would simply take my place. One who... might not share my compassion... If you fail to accept the terms of this deal, you're sealing the coffin--"

Walt cut him off. "Get out of here... before I do something I won't regret."

Monday, March 22

Walt was in his office -- with Scully and Mulder -- and he was pacing like a confined animal. Mulder finished explaining that the current DMV search had yielded no results.

"Damn it!" Walt exploded, instantly regretting it. He took his glasses off and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Sorry... Expand to New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina." Walt saw Scully and Mulder exchange a look and knew what it meant. They were now operating on the assumption that the stolen BMW had come from a tourist, but the further out they went, the less likely that seemed. And if Stanislav had used the vehicle only once, it was possible local owners hadn't known it was missing, thus making the entire exercise one of futility.

"Deputy AD Drayton already authorized the additional states, sir," Scully offered.

Walt's head drooped as it occurred to him that they were telling him the results as a courtesy, not asking him for instructions. Roz herself came through the door a few seconds later, a struggling to be professional expression on her face.

"What?" Walt faltered, unconsciously clutching the desk.

"He's sent another package, from Philadelphia." Roz didn't draw it out. "It's Allison's hair."

Walt couldn't help looking at Scully as she involuntarily gasped. Mulder laid a hand on her shoulder and spoke in his trademark monotone. "He's trying to taunt you, sir."

And he's doing a helluva job, Walt silently replied, feeling another wave of pain wash through him. "Was there a note?" Roz's struggle grew more intense. "Roz?"

She took a quick deep breath. " 'Next time my darling will lose something more personal.'"

Walt picked up one of the personalized pencils the kids had gotten him for his birthday and snapped it in half. He stared down at the broken halves a few seconds before bells started going off in his head. Personalized... customized. "My God we've been stupid," he uttered in dismay. "We never checked the custom-ordered BMWs. The exterior could be any color."

The four blinked at each other before Roz squared her shoulders, fully back in command. "Contact the US and overseas facilities... and don't take any excuses, I want those lists by the end of today."

Scully and Mulder hastily left. Walt slumped into his chair, fingertips rubbing his forehead, choking sounds spilling from his mouth as he closed his eyes.

"Roz," he whispered, "if we don't find them soon... I'll die inside. I won't even be a shell, I'll be... nothing."

Roz held his trembling hand to her as Director D'Hanis entered the office, closing the door behind him. Walt pulled back at the other man's cough, instantly reigning in his exposed emotions.

"Roz, Walt... I'm afraid we've got a serious problem. The director of Brannard has apparently hanged himself... and he left a suicide note explicitly stating that Walt was not only aware of Stanislav's release, but that he blackmailed him into authorizing them."

Walt's jaw dropped open and his eyes lost focus. Roz immediately started objecting.

"That's the most absurd thing I've--"

"I know, Roz. I personally don't believe a word of it. But the accusation has been leveled... and until we can prove it's prefabricated and/or that it wasn't a suicide, I have no choice but to put Walt on suspension."

"But, Bryan--"

"There's no other option, Roz."

Walt sat with his hands covering his face, temporarily unable to comprehend this turn of events. Then he crashed his fists onto the desk, stood quickly and kicked his chair. "That arrogant, smoking son of a bitch!"


Walt turned to Roz and haltingly informed both of his visit the day before. Roz's knowledge of the Consortium stemmed from her husband -- the former Director -- and D'Hanis had had personal run-ins over the years.

"How can you be so sure those people aren't involved?" D'Hanis asked.

Walt felt his anger ratchet back up. He was not about to mention that he'd been talking to the ghost of his first wife. "I just am," he snapped.

They stared at him and he clenched his jaw tighter, realizing both thought he'd gone off the deep end. "Damn it, you just have to take it on faith," Walt said. He struggled to release his holster and yanked his ID from his waistband. "Take 'em. But for God's sake, don't waste the personnel to check this asinine accusation till my wife and children have been found... *alive.* "

Walt hastily grabbed his suit and overcoat, stormed out of his office and spent the next several hours seething.

Mulder gazed at his filthy superior -- Walt was tilling the garden, still wearing his office attire. The air was thick with the aroma of fertilizer, and several empty bags drifted around the yard, the mild breeze propelling them. Mulder tentatively sat on the end of the corkscrew slide and waited for Walt to turn off the rototiller.

Walt wiped a grimy hand across his sweaty brow and kept going, not caring that Mulder was watching him. He knew from the younger man's countenance that no new information had surfaced -- and Walt seriously needed to burn off his anguish.

At length he stopped, only to stalk to the house, nodding at Mulder to follow him. Walt kicked off his ruined dress shoes and left them on the kitchen floor. "There's beer in the fridge, Mulder. I'll be back as soon as I shower."

Walt was back 10 minutes later, looking cleaner, but no calmer. He grabbed a bottle and took a long swallow before joining Mulder at the table.

"I don't think alcohol is going to help, sir."

"I don't need your advice, Mulder," Walt retorted. "And before you say it, I'm not in need of counseling either."

"Karen Kossoff is supposed to be very good, sir..."

"You know that from personal experience?" Walt cracked. It was common knowledge that Mulder avoided psychologists as much as possible.

"Uh, no. Scully admitted she talked to her... and she'd probably shoot me if she knew I told you."

Walt searched his memory for that case and suddenly understood why Scully had gasped. And it struck him that Scully would be a good person for Allison to talk to when she got back -- God knew she'd been kidnapped often enough, working with Mulder.

"Did Roz tell you why I'm suspended?" Walt quietly asked.

Mulder nodded while Walt tugged on the bottle's label. "You'll be cleared, sir."

Walt yanked on the corner. "I *know* that; that's not the point. It'll be a permanent part of my record that I... that I was suspected of having my wife kidnapped." Just saying the words nearly sent Walt into a tailspin.

Mulder swallowed slowly and tried to choose his words carefully. "Trace Evidence found more carpet fibers in Allison's, um, hair -- light purple orlon. They're working on coming up with the exact color and possibly manufacturer." He swallowed again. "Sir -- *Walt* -- I'm sorry but I have to ask..."

Walt took another swig and lowered his head. Mulder was really trying to reach out to him, as a friend, not co-worker. Maybe it would be better to tell someone, someone who would definitely understand and not think he'd lost his mind. "It goes no further than you, Mulder. I don't want Scully to know... least not yet." He stared at the shelving. "I was contacted by two people." He described the WMM and related his relevant words.

Mulder look contemplative. "Why did you trust him?"

"Why did you?" Walt rejoindered.

Mulder bit his lip. "Who was the second person?"

Walt took a deep breath. "I suppose she doesn't exactly count as a 'person' since she's... dead, but Clare." There I got it out, he thought, taking another mouthful of beer.

Mulder kept his initial response to raised eyebrows. "You saw a manifestation of your first wife? How long have you, uh, been in contact with her?"

"I wouldn't call it contact... I can't summon her, per se. She just... tends to appear at times of crisis. I've seen her, Anthony's seen her... she's even appeared to Allison." Walt decided to skip reciting each instance. "Clare assured me *and* Allison that the Consortium wouldn't be able to touch her or the kids. Clare said she'd protect them -- and I believe... her. Anthony and I have seen too many things that defy rational explanation."

Mulder took a sip of his beer. "I believe you... and I know how you feel. It's not easy holding beliefs that are ridiculed."

Walt glanced into Mulder's eyes and nodded. "I... I think Clare influenced one of Anthony's dreams. He couldn't understand why Clare wasn't helping us find Allison and the kids, but after the dream, he seems more at peace."

"Why do you think Clare influenced it?"

"Because Anthony mentioned how much shorter Allison's hair was and Stanislav never cut... his victim's hair... It's given both of us renewed hope."

"Sir, have you considered driving Anthony around, to see if he can pick up their thoughts?"

Walt noted that Mulder was no longer using his given name -- which was fine; it sounded peculiar coming from the younger man -- and that the question was spoken hesitantly. "Anthony suggested it himself, but I don't want to allow it. I don't want him to think he somehow failed if it didn't work... and I'm afraid of the psychological damage he might suffer if he were able to read their thoughts."

Tuesday, March 23, 11:23a.m., Outside the Penn State Forest, southern New Jersey

A couple was driving their pick-up truck along an unpaved road. The female half of the couple grunted as she was being jostled about. "Why did you take this stupid road?"

"Shortcut," her companion said with a grin.

"Some shortcut -- I'm gonna have permanent bruises." He hit an exceptionally good-sized pothole and both of them bounced up, nearly hitting their heads on the truck's roof. "For God's sake, Rick, slow down."

"Yeah," he admitted, "you're right. No sense damaging the truck."

She rolled her eyes heavenward before hearing a sharp, explosive noise. Rick immediately fought the wheel and they slid to a stop. She instantly started swearing at him as he opened his door.

"Give it a rest, Sherrie, I'll have the damn tire changed in a minute." He opened the tailgate, climbed up and retrieved the spare and jack. "Instead of bitching, you could always help."

When that statement failed to get a sarcastic response, he gazed over to her door as he knelt next to the blown tire. She was staring intently toward the fringe of trees some 150 feet from the road. "Hey, aren't you--"

"Shut up," she commanded. "I thought I heard something." She slowly exited the vehicle, scanning back and forth. He meandered over to her and looked where she looked. A faint sound reached them. "See?" she uttered, whacking his arm.

"It's probably just some animal," he muttered, turning back toward the tire. He got an evil grin on his face and tried to scare her. "Or maybe it's the Jersey Devil... you better stay close, Sherrie."

He turned back to her, but she was on her way through the brush. "Hey!" Then he heard the noise again and shuddered. It almost sounded like a plea for help.

Sherrie stumbled further as the plea seemed to be close. She reached a small ravine and covered her mouth. "Holy shit. Rick! Call the ranger station... now!"

FBI Headquarters, 40 Minutes Later

"Wispy Orchid?" Roz intoned.

"Yes, sir," Scully responded. "The color has been available two years and Trace Evidence was able to further refine their report to say this particular fiber is categorized by the company as 'ultra plush.' We're checking with the retailers now."

"No abandoned building is going to have ultra-plush, 'wispy orchid' carpeting. So if Stanislav is holed up someplace ritzy, why the hell hasn't he attracted attention?" Roz grumbled. She rubbed her fingertips across her eyebrows. "What's the word with the custom BMWs?"

"Still checking. But we got the rest of the names from Europe an hour ago."

"Damn fine time for their computer system to go down," Roz muttered as her intercom buzzed.

"What?" she barked.

"New Jersey State Police on line one, sir."

South Burlington County Hospital, one and a half Hours Later

Roz's legs could have been a foot longer and it wouldn't have mattered -- Walt was outstriding her three to one as he ran through the ER doors. He grabbed -- by the arm -- the first nurse he saw.

"Where are the Wright children?"

Walt's frantic expression and tensile-like grip disconcerted the woman. He released her arm and continued moving, stalking toward the central station and grabbing a frazzled-looking doctor. He was directed to a room with uniformed officers outside. They halted his progress in a flash, giving Roz time to catch up. She held up her ID and told them to move aside, knowing it was useless to try to stop Walt until he'd seen Amelia and Trevor.

They were in neighboring beds, asleep or unconscious -- Roz couldn't tell at a glance. Walt hurried to them, kneeling between the beds and stretching his arms wide to hold both their hands. His head dropped and Roz was sure he was crying. She gazed at the IVs attached to both of them, the cast on Trevor's arm, the oxygen mask over Amelia's face, the numerous bruises, scratches and cuts on both children. Both were pale and gaunt, but also clean, with wet hair.

Roz backed quietly out of the room, to allow Walt some privacy. He came out 10 minutes later, eyes red and puffy, still sniffling, but trying to control it.

He asked Roz his primary fear in a whisper, hands trembling. "Were they assaulted?"

She took his hands to calm them. "No."

He leaned against the wall, pulled his hands from hers and rubbed his face, pushing his glasses up in the process. At that moment, he looked every bit as frail as the kids. Roz told him their condition in compassionate tones.

"They're both suffering from hypothermia, shock, dehydration and malnutrition. They were also unconscious when the Philly office vacuumed them for evidence, so they didn't have to go through what Ian did." Walt's expression showed a trace amount of relief. She took his hands again and gently stroked the palms. "Amelia has double bronchial pneumonia... it's serious but treatable. Trevor's got a low-grade staph infection from the gunshot graze... They were nude, just like Ian."

"What about the people that found them? Did they see anyone?"

"No. There are rangers and a slew of volunteers searching a five-mile radius, just in case Allison is out there. The couple who found the kids said they heard noises, like calls for help. The woman came across Trevor -- he was barely conscious. All he kept saying was 'sister, woods.' He kept repeating it until the man found Amelia and moved her next to him. Then Trevor curled his body around her and lost consciousness."

Walt blinked at the moisture again pooling in his eyes. He'd hoped so fervently that the kids would be released unharmed -- just like Basil had hoped -- and he'd gotten his wish. But he knew so far it had been a matter of Stanislav dumping them at will, not investigative action leading to them. If the forensic evidence didn't lead somewhere now -- "We have to *find* Allison... Time's running out, Roz."


The search party hadn't located Allison, but had discovered sets of rope and used tape approximately a half mile apart and about one and a half miles from where the children had been located. No fraying had been found on the rope and nobody could come up with an explanation other than the kids must have somehow untied themselves.

Walt sat on a chair outside the children's room -- he was barred from seeing them until statements had been taken. The order had come from AD Bradley, Office of Professional Conduct, who'd claimed that if Walt were involved in the kidnapping, he could influence the children.

Roz had unsuccessfully argued the stupidity of that opinion, too, and Walt had nearly lost what little composure he had left. But Bradley wasn't fooling around and had instructed the agents guarding the kids' door to arrest Walt if he tried to get in.

Scully and Mulder had driven out with Anthony -- Walt and Roz had arrived via FBI helicopter -- and were with the kids now. Avery had also sped out, garnering two speeding citations on the way. Basil, Charlee and Ian, along with Allison's parents, were en route as well.

Roz finished giving orders to several law enforcement officers and walked back to Walt. He was sitting with his legs apart, leaning forward, elbows resting on his knees, wrenching and tugging on his hands relentlessly as his eyes were glazed and staring at the floor. His gurgling stomach was audible, but Roz didn't try to get him to eat anything.

At least before, Basil didn't keep me from Ian, Walt silently moaned. I could hold and try to comfort him. "This is agony," he lamented to Roz's feet. "To be so close to them and not..."

"I know, Wes, I know."

He raised his head and stared at her through stinging eyes, swallowing hard. She hadn't called him 'Wes' -- a slurring of his initials -- since they'd been intimate. Hearing the name now was a bizarre sort of comfort... and it conveyed how deeply she was wounded by the situation, too.

Anthony came bursting through the door, nearly knocking over the agents. "Trev's awake!"

Walt was standing in a split second. Both agents placed their hands on their weapons. "Sit down, Mr. Skinner," one of them ordered.

Scully appeared at the door and Trevor's muted wailing could be heard as he cried for Amelia, his mother, Ian, Anthony then Charlee. There was a pause before he added Walt's and Becky's names to the list. Scully slithered between the agents.

"Oh, for God's sake," Roz quarreled. "The poor child *wants* to see him."

"Orders, sir." Walt took a step closer to the door and both agents drew their guns. "No closer or we'll remove you."

Walt stepped back and Scully attempted to intervene, stating her medical credentials and explaining the psychological implications of keeping them apart.

The agents weren't swayed.

Avery came to the door and added his opinion that Walt be kept from his nephew, and a general cacophony erupted. In the midst of this, Anthony tugged on his father's pantleg, but unable to get his attention, began firing mental pleas at him. Walt stared at him finally and nodded, taking his hand and leading him away.

When they returned a few moments later -- with the children's doctor and a nurse in tow -- order had been grudgingly restored, though everyone looked uncomfortable. The medical personnel entered the room, the nurse pausing to lock the door in an open position. The doctor checked that the IV was secure and began pushing Trevor's bed out to the hall. Mulder immediately got the drift and assisted moving the bed, having to fight off Avery as soon as the younger man figured out what was going on.

"What are you doing?" one of Bradley's agents cried, trying to block the way.

"You don't have any authority to question my actions," the doctor informed him. "I'm moving this patient temporarily. Now get out of our way before I call security and have them remove *you.* "

The agents stood aside, even though Avery didn't give up till the doctor uttered his threat a second time.

Trevor was stopped right next to Walt. With energy born of lingering terror, the child pushed himself upright and clung to Walt, sobbing onto his chest. The doctor was instantly by his side, to protect the catheter.

"Trev, it's all right now... you and Amelia are safe," Walt soothed.

"He's hurting Mom," he keened.

Walt closed his eyes as tears escaped anyway. "I know, buddy." He set the child down after a few moments.

"Icky... he took Icky," the boy whined.

Walt's heart went out to the boy -- he hadn't referred to his brother as 'Icky' in over a year. "We found him, Trev. He's okay. He's with Charlee and your father... they're on the way."

He numbly nodded, before seeing Anthony again and reaching for his stepbrother. Walt picked his son up so the boys could embrace.

"Trevor," Roz began after Anthony had been placed on the ground again. "I know you're frightened and tired, honey, but is there anything you can tell us about where you've been?"

"Hey, you can't do that in front of Skinner," Bradley's agent claimed.

"Leave him alone... hasn't he been through enough already?" Avery argued.

" *I'm* asking the questions," Roz contended, sending a scathing look at Hogle and the agents. "Mr. Skinner is not influencing anything."

Trevor looked around with wide eyes, still sniffling, but answered with what he knew. "We were near water... I could smell it."

"That's great, Trevor. Do you remember anything about the car you were in?"

"Which one?"

Roz swallowed quickly. "The second one, honey."

"Well, it was smaller and it smelled... and it had light blue paint. The tape on my eyes got stuck on the carpet and sorta pulled off when the man took Amelia out. He got real mad when he saw it."

"Anything else, sweetie?"

.".. I heard people at toll booths three times. The last one said how much he needed." Trevor repeated the amount.

"You're doing fantastic, Trevor," Roz complimented. "Can you guess how long you were in the car?"

He frowned, trying to think. "Not really. It was a lot longer than the first time, in the other car." Trevor shivered in memory. "I started to feel sick a while after we paid the third toll and I was afraid I'd throw up, but then I felt kinda warm and it went away."

Avery looked thoughtful at hearing that while everyone else cringed, thinking of the consequences of vomiting with tape over your mouth. Walt wrapped his arm around Trevor and squeezed him protectively. "You helped us a lot, Trev."

"You'll find Mom? You'll make him stop hurting her?"

"I'll make sure he never hurts anyone again, Trev. I promise." Walt leaned down and kissed his forehead before he was taken back to the room.

"Stanislav drove more than 150 miles," Avery grudgingly related.

"How can you possibly know that?" Roz queried.

"Because Trev gets carsick every time he travels that far without a stop and a stretch. It's the weirdest thing -- doesn't matter how long he's in the car, just the mileage."

Roz contacted the authorities at the toll roads first and had the search narrowed to the New Jersey Turnpike within 10 minutes. Furthermore, only one segment of the road cost the amount Trevor had heard -- the stretch from exit 1 to 2... the stretch that connected Interstate 295 to US Highway 322. Which meant Stanislav had crossed the Delaware Memorial Bridge. Roz ordered the release of the previous afternoon and evening video from all the booths. She was having the tapes similarly reviewed for Delaware's section of Interstate 95 and for the five toll bridges/tunnels within Maryland. A full shift of hours on each tape times the number of booths times all seven locations -- it was going to be a daunting task.

Meanwhile, retailers in four relevant states had reported the sale of Wispy Orchid ultra plush carpeting. All but Maryland were eliminated, since they didn't fit the toll criteria. The BMW hunt was narrowed to only include 'Topaz Blue' cars and was ongoing in all of the 13 states previously mentioned, just in case.

Which meant they were back to waiting.


Because of Trevor's statement, Walt was no longer banned from the kids -- he'd spent the last three hours with them... along with the rest of the family. Amelia had regained consciousness and wailed for Allison until she was coughing so badly she could hardly breathe. Ian had spent several tear-filled minutes climbing back and forth between his siblings' beds while Charlee's tremulous smile of happiness had blinded everyone.

Anthony, Charlee and Ian had been removed when Trevor had tearfully started to talk about his mother. Within a few seconds, his voice had gone flat and he'd seemed almost to be in a trance-like state. Mrs. Hogle had been led out by Avery a few moments after the kids, and Basil hadn't lasted much longer. Only Mr. Hogle, Walt, Roz and the doctor had stuck it out, though Mr. Hogle had shot daggers with his eyes at Walt the whole time.

Trevor had seemed exhausted when he'd finished, then the horrible reality appeared to hit him fresh and he'd become hysterical -- so just like Charlee, he'd been sedated.

Walt sat now in the chapel -- for the solitude -- with a tasteless cup of lukewarm coffee. Trevor knew the names of the appropriate body parts, but he'd already regressed to the sort of terms a preschooler would use. Even if he hadn't witnessed the actual rapes -- least Walt hoped to God he hadn't -- hearing his mother scream and seeing the aftermath was every bit as traumatic. The poor kids were going to need extensive therapy if they were ever going to be able to put this behind them... lead normal lives, he thought.

Walt had wanted to ask how Trevor's arm had gotten broken -- he wanted to believe it had happened in the forest -- but couldn't do it, not yet. And as relieved as he was to have them back safe, he couldn't stop his mind from wondering how they had found each other and made their way to the road.

The search teams had found unwavering trails from the site of the ropes and tape to a small clearing. And then the trail had led directly to the edge of the forest, to the road.

Walt had an idea... but didn't know how much credence he could give it.

A susurrant voice spoke past him. "Believe in love, mon cher, the hard part is coming."

He turned to find empty space behind him, just before Mulder opened the door.

"Roz just got a call from the Cincinnati field office. They've found the owner of the car."

Well, not quite.

The registered owner, Allejandro Minez, wasn't in Ohio... and his new housekeeper couldn't say where he and Felicia -- Mrs. Minez -- were. They were apparently eccentric and would often take off for weeks without saying where they were going or contacting anyone. They'd been gone 14 days so far and taken the BMW, since Mr. Minez had a fear of flying. A search of their closets revealed clothes for all seasons missing. The housekeeper was aware that they'd recently purchased a beach house somewhere in the East, but couldn't pin down the state -- the Minezs tended to be secretive. Mrs. Minez was quite fond of orchids and maintained a greenhouse full of them. They'd even gotten a custom license plate for the car -- ORCHID.

Not 10 minutes later, agents scrutinizing the videotapes called in -- a BMW with Ohio tags reading 'ORCHID' had been seen on the Delaware Memorial Bridge and the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge tapes. The latter bridge joined the eastern and western shores of Maryland from Kent Island to Sandy Point.

Roz rousted the clerks in five counties to search through their records for the realty transfer -- and encountered nothing with the Minez name.

Walt groaned as Roz relayed the news from the last clerk.

"What about the counties on the eastern shore?" Scully speculated.

"No!" Walt sharply replied. "Stanislav wouldn't have crossed the bridge if he was hiding on the eastern side."

Scully looked chastised and Mulder tried to soothe the situation. "I believe Scully meant it might be another attempt at misdirection, sir."

"To what purpose?" Skinner demanded, nerves frayed to the point of cracking. "The press never got wind of the BMW. If he doesn't think we know what he's driving, he has no reason to try to throw us off."

"Unless he moved Allison, Walt," Roz painfully offered.

Trevor had stated that he hadn't seen his mother 'for a while' prior to Stanislav binding him and Amelia.

"I know you don't want to face it... but he could have..." She paused and lowered her head.

"God damn it, Roz! Just say it -- 'dismember.'"

Walt covered his face and despite efforts to stop, began choking, finally weeping silently. Roz motioned to Scully and Mulder to follow her... they left Walt his dignity.

"I... I feel so... so sorry for him," Scully stammered.

"We all do. And we have to face facts... however unpleasant. Walt's right, Stanislav has no reason to believe we know about the car. But he could have murdered Allison and left her body God knows where *before* he moved the kids. The time imprints on the videos suggest that Stanislav either drove slow, or had time to pick the kids up."

"But if he did that," Mulder objected, having studied maps for Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey, "Trevor couldn't be right about three tolls."

"I know. But you know as well as I do that eyewitness testimony is iffy at best. And as much as I want to believe Trevor, he was scared, bound and locked in a trunk -- he could have gotten disoriented." Mulder's expression clearly stated he didn't think so. "We can't afford to ignore the possibility, Mulder... Yank the clerks out of bed for the additional counties."

After scrutinizing the maps once more, it was determined that only half the counties needed to be checked, as the four southernmost ones would have taken too much time for Stanislav to have driven to.

And still the Minez name didn't appear.

A further review of the Preston Memorial Bridge tapes showed that the BMW hadn't crossed earlier that same day -- so Trevor's memory was deemed 100 percent accurate.

And the carpet angle wasn't leading anywhere, since the Minez name didn't appear on any bills of lading. A phone directory search was in progress to determine which names belonged to contractors.

Wednesday, March 24, 7a.m.

The night had passed miserably for everybody. Amelia and Trevor were now succumbing fully to post-traumatic shock and wailed constantly. Charlee's brave smile had vanished. Ian whined for his mother. Anthony was relapsing from the pneumonia. A check with Teresa had yielded the news that Becky had a cold and didn't like her nose being wiped. Mrs. Hogle had gone hoarse arguing with her husband and son about Walt's right to stay with the children. Basil had unexpectedly come down on Walt's side and threatened to ban the Hogles from the room if they didn't lay off.

And a dozen indignant contractors had stated they didn't have any clients named Minez -- they'd also offered varying obscene opinions about being tracked down in the middle of the night.

One contractor remained, but continued attempts to reach him had failed. Agents were camped on the man's doorstep.

Golden Beach, Maryland, 7:15a.m.

The agents exited their vehicle as a pick-up truck screeched into the drive. They stopped the man as he fumbled with numerous keys and explained who they were and what information they were seeking.

"Minez? Yeah, I worked for 'em. Nutty couple. They buy a beach house as a wedding present for their daughter, then want one of the bedrooms fixed up special for *them.* Got into a big fight with the daughter -- guess she hates everything purple -- and gave me the axe. I kinda doubt they found anyone else to work on it. Mrs. Sethares -- that's the daughter -- is every bit as screwy as her parents."

"Where's the house?"

"Off Highway 261, 'bout two miles south of Plum Point."

Five minutes after getting the update, Walt, Roz, Scully and Mulder were airborne.

45 Minutes Later

The chopper landed right on the beach -- surprise was no longer an issue.

Walt bolted from the machine and ran to the house. Roz's eyes blazed fire as the senior agent on site met her.

"What the hell happened?" she ranted. "You were supposed to wait till we arrived."

"I'm sorry, sir. We had all personnel deployed and standing by when, uh, the parabolic mike picked up the suspect threatening Mrs. Skinner with extreme bodily harm. Then we heard a series of gut- wrenching shrieks... We couldn't wait, sir."

Veteran agent or not, this one showed signs of losing it as Roz dismissed him with a grimace and followed Walt.

The first thing Roz noted was the smell -- raw sewage combined with fear and burned flesh. It bowled her over as she entered the house. And as soon as she recovered from that, the sight of old blood stains everywhere made her feel sicker.

"Sir," an agent called from the kitchen, "You'd better see this." The agent was grim and pale, but holding his cookies together -- unlike another one who was busy depositing his breakfast in the sink. Roz glanced into the open, upright freezer and had compassion for the second agent.

She closed her eyes and hoped that the Minezs -- she assumed that was who they were -- had been dead before they'd been 'made to fit.'

"What should we do with... them... sir?"

Roz leaned against the center island and took a deep breath. "Leave them for ERT and the coroner's office. They can deal with, um, getting the bodies apart... Where's Allison Skinner?"

The agent took out a handkerchief and covered his mouth as he closed the freezer door. "First room upstairs, on the left," he mumbled, turning green. "The paramedics are with her."

Roz left while the first agent joined the second one at the sink. She unsteadily made her way up the stairs and stopped at the indicated door with a gasp.

Blood literally covered the bed... and Allison. And though Roz had thought the smell was bad downstairs, it was nothing compared to being in the room.

Roz glanced at Walt as he stood pressed against a wall, acute shock reducing him to a trembling mass. She shifted her attention to the three camcorders mounted on tripods as Mulder -- handkerchief over his nose -- made sure they were off. She looked toward Allison as she was gingerly, but swiftly, hoisted onto the stretcher, Scully holding the IV. The bloodstained sheet came with her, seeming to Roz, to be stuck to her back. An enormous bandage was covering her left thigh and it was soaked through. Allison's left forearm was splinted, swollen and heavily bruised. Her skin was pale and bluish -- where it wasn't bruised -- and there were beads of sweat visible on her forehead. Roz's stomach twisted again as she saw Allison's swollen and lacerated feet.

Skinner caught sight of Stanislav -- who was restrained in the opposite room. Walt's expression cleared briefly before being overwrought with rage and he ran into the room. Roz and Mulder quickly followed as the paramedics covered Allison with a blanket, strapped it down and shouted for everyone to stay clear.

Stanislav had a pair of black jeans on, belt unfastened, and had blood splattered over his upper body, hands and face. He flashed a smile and said, "A little later and there would have been plenty of her to go around -- not that I would have considered sharing my darling with *you.* "

Walt finally lost it.

He lunged at Stanislav, knocking him and the agents holding him to the ground. Walt beat the cuffed man before Mulder and Roz unwillingly pulled him away.

Stanislav's eyes were wide as he stammered, "He... he tried to, to kill me. You, you all saw it."

The sadist reveled in causing pain, but clearly had no threshold for being on the receiving end -- he curled into a ball.

Walt kicked savagely at him and spat in the man's face. "If she dies," he snarled, "I'll rip you limb from limb and stuff 'em down your God-damned, fucking throat!"

"Walt!" Roz yelled. "Get on that helicopter."

His features instantly changed and he left the room.

Roz leaned out the door and shouted for a paramedic as Stanislav writhed -- for show or not -- on the floor. "Check this man over," she instructed the uniformed man, pointing at Stanislav. "He went berserk and had to be subdued." She stared into the eyes of Mulder, then the other two agents and challenged them to dispute her words.

Walt made the chopper and prayed to God that the seconds spent venting his anger wouldn't cost Allison her life.

The last two weeks had been wretched.

He held by the hand the most precious person in his life... and he knew with absolute certainty that the coming months would be hell - - one way or another.


Anthony XVI: Body, Mind And Soul II
Author: Clare Skinner

Wednesday, March 24, 1999,
Minez beach house

Roz heard the chopper take off and turned away from Stanislav and the medical attention he was receiving. Walt hadn't been on him long enough to do significant damage, but she wasn't about to haul Stanislav in bleeding his *own* blood all over the place. She glanced at the DC field office agents... they had expressions of pure disgust on their faces. They'd keep their mouths shut.

Roz wandered back to the other room as ERT began their arduous task. A pile of 8mm videotapes had been painstakingly arranged on the dresser next to her -- even taking into account the presence of three cameras, there was an obscene amount labeled for this day alone. She looked around the room a few moments and noted the clipped handcuffs attached to the headboard, the severed ropes at the footboard, the hopelessly stained bed, snuffed cigarettes, bloodied knife and two items that had no business in a bedroom -- a tea kettle and a faintly glowing frying pan.

The last object was enough to finally push her over the edge and she stumbled blindly for the stairs.

Northeast Georgetown Medical Center, 12:15p.m.

Walt completed yet another circuit of the surgical waiting room, on legs that had stopped feeling any sensation an hour ago. For that matter, his entire body was numb.

Allison had been in surgery for more than three hours now. The gaping incision in her thigh had dropped her blood volume by 30 percent and she'd gone into hypovolemic shock.

Walt knew he shared the same blood type with her -- A-positive - - and had rolled up his sleeve as soon as tthe ER trauma door had swung shut in his face. And as far as he was concerned, that was the last useful thing he'd done.

He felt claustrophobic -- even though the waiting area was plenty big -- and the air seemed stale. It seemed as if a tremendous weight were sitting on his chest and wouldn't budge. His mouth was so dry... he wanted another cup of coffee, but the last one was making him jumpy -- and it had been decaf.

He tried sitting, but that was worse. He got back up, wringing his hands and stumbling round some more, then looked anxiously down the long corridor to the operating theater a hundredth time. Images of Allison on that bed flooded his mind and his stomach lurched. He glanced at Scully and saw her sympathetic smile.

"I need to get some air," he blurted and hurried past her to the men's room.

The door closed behind him just as the elevator door opened and AJ Hogle, Sr., came striding out, his face drawn into a tight mask of stress. He went straight to Scully.

"Is she still in surgery?" She nodded while he looked around, scowling. "Where's that sanctimonious bastard?"

Considering how he'd been treating her boss throughout the ordeal, Scully wasn't sure who Hogle was referring to -- so she played it safe. "Stanislav has been taken to another hospital; AD Skinner went to, uh, check on some test results."

Hogle swallowed a lump and his voice trembled. "I got in AJ's car right after Walt called. I had to be here in case... Is she int--" His eyes pleaded with Scully to give him a favorable answer.

Any shielding of Stanislav's methods would have been useless, as the press -- sensing a headline they could milk for weeks -- had dug up the original coverage. And since Allison's brother and sister-in- law lived in California anyway, they personally remembered the whole sickening episode.

"We got there in time," Scully hedged.

"Thank God," he murmured, sitting down and briefly lowering his head between his knees. "H-h-how bad is she hurt? I was there when Trev... but... how much worse?" Scully turned away from him and bit her lip. "Please, Agent Scully," he implored, standing up and taking her hand. "I know you're a doctor. You can tell me in clinical terms. I can't bear to hear it from *his* lips."

"Sit down," Walt unexpectedly ordered from behind them. "You'll want... to be sitting down."

Walt's color was now mottled and his eyes showed the strain of keeping his composure. He didn't want to tell Hogle either, didn't want to hear or say the words, but he knew it was unfair to shift the burden onto Scully. He was about to sit next to his father-in-law when he saw a gowned individual come through the far doors.

"Stay put," Walt instructed as he strode to the woman, struggling to come up with her name -- Allison had a small army of doctors attending her, and Walt's usually good memory was failing him.

The surgeon removed her cap and smiled reassuringly. "We were able to save your wife's leg, Mr. Skinner. It's too soon to know if there'll be nerve or muscle damage, but we restored blood flow and it looks very promising."

Walt released a long breath. "Can I see her?"

"I'm afraid she'll be in surgery at least another four-five hours. Haggerty just got started setting her arm, Wingate's about a third of the way through repairing your wife's jaw, and Petras is standing by for the facial lacerations -- he'll scrub in as soon as radiology confirms the fracture alignments."

Petras is the same plastic surgeon who did Allison's breast reduction surgery, Walt thought incongruously -- Mifflin, that's this woman's name.

Hogle, having followed Walt, clutched the wall for support. "Dear Lord, what more did that maniac do to her?" he whispered.

Walt's eyes dilated as he turned and saw the older man's ashen expression. "Scully?" he called out. His tone conveyed his meaning, and she led Hogle back to the chairs. Walt turned his attention back to the surgeon. "I didn't have time to tell Mr. Hogle the extent of his daughter's injuries," he explained, slipping into assistant director mode without realizing it.

Mifflin nodded, a perplexed expression momentarily clouding her features. "Right... well, as I was saying, your, uh, Mrs. Skinner came through my portion of the surgery well. I debrided the lacerations to her feet -- there was some infection, but not too bad and that actually helped."

"I don't understand," Walt mumbled.

"The infection kept the tissue from starting the healing process, so I didn't have to revise or approximate the edges. I just removed the dead skin, cleaned out the wounds and sutured them."

"What about the tears to her, um..." Walt's eyes darted uncomfortably.

Mifflin understood and mercifully cut him off. "The wounds to her perineal area are serious enough that I requested an OBGYN -- though I was told it would be a couple of hours before one was freed up. There seem to be a lot of babies on the verge of being born at the moment."

"Allison's personal doctor -- Dr. Raimy -- has privileges here," Walt offered.

Mifflin nodded. "I'll have one of the nurses track him or her down... As soon as your, um, wife comes out of surgery, Dr. Everett wants her placed in reverse isolation in ICU."

Walt rubbed his forehead, trying to remember. "Which one's Everett? And what's reverse isolation?"

"Dr. Everett heads the burn unit; and reverse isolation means all medical staff and visitors will have to don sterile garb in an anteroom before entering your wife's private room, to prevent transmitting infection... to her... You'll probably be able to see her later this evening. Don't, however, expect her to be fully conscious before Friday. We'll have her on a heavy course of pain meds for several days."

She started to turn away but Walt laid a hand on her shoulder, lowering his voice. "How soon can a pregnancy test be done?"

It wasn't Mifflin's area, but she'd been called for consults on enough rape cases to know the answer. "Three days, but she can be given medication now that would abort a possible pregnancy."

Walt stared at the wall for several seconds. He returned his gaze to Mifflin and his voice cracked. "No -- I mean, that's a decision I have to let Allison make. There's an outside chance if she is pregnant, that it could be ours. In fact, I'd like to have the test run now, er, today."

Mifflin started to say something, then nodded with compassion at Walt's grieved expression and walked away. Walt stared at the floor, trying to put the rest of his thoughts in order before he spoke to his father-in-law.

Stanislav was impotent... to a degree. He wasn't capable of ejaculation till the most extreme forms of his torture were employed - - the kind that had obviously taken place aafter Amelia and Trevor had been removed. Which would mean if Allison *was* pregnant, the baby would likely be mine, Walt thought. But there was no guarantee that Stanislav hadn't overcome his 'affliction' earlier.

Why hadn't the bastard used a condom like he had with the other victims? Walt whined to himself, knowing the answer. Stanislav hadn't wanted the risk of catching an STD before. With Allison, he'd purposely made the contact more intimate to drive Walt crazy.

And it worked.

Which made Walt think about the *other* test being run. His tortured mind and soul wondered how he would deal with the news should Stanislav's HIV test come back positive.

He wandered back to the waiting area and instantly knew Scully had shouldered the burden after all. She was holding Hogle's hand and murmuring words of comfort as the older man gazed vacantly ahead, blinking repeatedly. Then Hogle coughed and asked, "You have the death penalty in Maryland, right?"

Scully looked distinctly uncomfortable while Walt was oddly calm, thinking there was no way Stanislav could avoid it this time. "Yes -- lethal injection."

Hogle stood suddenly, anger spewing from every pore. "That's too civilized. He deserves something truly agonizing like... like he ..." Hogle directed his anger at Walt, throwing himself at him, grabbing for his neck. "How could you let this happen?!" he screamed.

And just as suddenly, Hogle dropped his hands and stumbled away.

Scully gaped for a second, then recovered her professionalism. "Are you all right, sir?"

Walt tenderly felt his throat and nodded. He slumped into a chair and covered his face, on the precipice of losing control again. He took a deep breath, knowing Scully would understand but loath to expose this side of himself to her. "I don't know what to say to Allison," Walt uttered tonelessly. "How to ask for her forgiveness. ... How can she ever feel safe with me--"

"It wasn't your fault, sir." Walt tried to object, but she cut him off again. "I know you think it was, and Allison's family is reinforcing that belief, but it's not your fault. You sincerely thought she and the children were protected."

"But I went against protocol," Walt argued. "There's a reason the rules exist... to keep people from making judgment calls when their judgment is compromised. And I ignored it." He stared stubbornly ahead, jaw clenched.

Vaguely, he heard his agent sigh. .".. Would you like some coffee, sir?" He nodded absently in Scully's direction and she went on the errand -- Walt was astute enough to realize she felt awkward and needed some air herself.

Scully found Hogle by the vending machines, grimacing at his cup. "What makes a person do such despicable acts?" he queried out of the blue. "How can anyone enjoy sex like that? How--"

Once again Scully found herself cutting in. "It's not about sex, Mr. Hogle. It's about power and anger." She swallowed the bile in her throat. "And in Stanislav's case, it's about sadism. The only way he's sexually gratified is to inflict pain and control his victim. The intent is abuse and torture, the means is sex and the motive is to punish and destroy. That's the typical pattern found in sadistic rapists, even if no concrete reason for Stanislav's behavior was found."

Scully had had enough of the verbal and physical beatings her boss was taking... however, she hadn't meant to sound so clinical. The words *did* take the steam out of Hogle, though.

.".. My wife, son and Basil are expecting me to call with an update... what should I tell them?"


Walt was in that familiar and hated position again -- by Allison's hospital bedside, holding her hand. He'd been with her a few minutes, and while he was used to looking at her, he was having a gnawing bout of queasiness. The worst damage was covered with bandages/dressings, but because these had to be repeatedly checked, Allison was wearing nothing else under the gown, sheet and blanket.

When Hogle had entered the anteroom, he'd turned pale, then green. He'd backed out of the room and Walt had assumed he'd been ashamed at his own reaction.

Allison was currently on her stomach, laying with her bandaged cheek(s) facing the outside window -- as opposed to the observation one -- an NG tube inserted in her left nostril and tape across her broken nose. She also had a pillow under her shoulder.

Even if the second-degree scalds to her back and buttocks didn't cover the entire area, the bandage did. Everett had debrided the infected areas while Allison had been under anesthesia -- so she hadn't endured the additional pain of that procedure.

Her casted left arm lay parallel to her hip. Two inches higher and the fractures to her radius and ulna would have required a cast over her elbow -- and more difficulty supporting it.

Because of her numerous and severe injuries -- especially the burns -- a vascular surgeon had established a triple lumen line in Allison's subclavian vein. It had been the top priority when she'd reached surgery. Now, fluids flowed through one port -- with penicillin piggy-backing that line -- packed red blood cells/plasma came through the second and morphine through the third. Walt noted that the fluid 'bag' -- Plasmatein -- was nearly empty.

A nurse softly entered -- wearing sterile garb, as was Walt -- carrying a new bag. "Mr. Skinner, there's a patient outside who'd like to speak to you."

Walt looked toward the anteroom, but didn't see anyone. He bent to kiss Allison's fingertips and treaded heavily to the first door. He stripped off the gloves and mask before leaving the anteroom.

It was yet another of his agents; this one had had a real role in what had happened. "Agent Moskal, should you be out of bed?" Walt questioned, eyebrow askance under the surgical cap.

"I'm being released tomorrow, sir."

"Oh. Well, be sure to take enough time off to fully recover," Walt said distractedly. "Coming back to work too soon is a mistake." Walt thought of his own bullet wound -- from Cardinal -- and shifted his feet.

Moskal looked uncomfortable as well. "How is Mrs. Skinner?"

Walt swallowed abruptly. "She came through surgery well, but they don't expect her to regain consciousness till Friday."

The silence between the two lengthened awkwardly.

Moskal coughed and pursed his lips. "I'm very sorry for what happened to your family, sir. I--"

"Moskal... don't. You did everything by the book. Your actions haven't been called into question and there won't be a disciplinary hearing." Walt fell into professional mode again... and was irritated that Moskal would approach him now with these concerns.

"Hearing, sir? I don't understand." Moskal appeared genuinely puzzled. "I simply wanted to..." An expression of painful recognition crossed his face and he turned away. "Right, sir. Sorry I intruded."

Moskal began moving away as quickly as the cane he was leaning on allowed him. Walt stared after the agent numerous seconds before it hit him that the man had truly been concerned for Allison and the children, not the consequences to his career.

He was on the verge of going after Moskal when the nurse opened the outer door and motioned to him. "Your wife is semi-conscious."

Walt ran back in and hastily changed into fresh scrubs, absently thinking he'd be as good as Scully at snapping on the latex gloves before long. He'd been assisted the first time, and the nurse watched him now, making sure he maintained a sterile field. She left afterward and Walt entered the other room.

He felt his heart split as Allison whimpered and moaned continually in her semi-conscious state. Her head began faintly twitching as tears spilled from her bruised and swollen eyelids and her twice-split lips quivered with each grimace. He most wanted to envelop her and never let go, but obviously couldn't -- he settled for stroking her forehead as he tried to murmur comforting words.

"Carissima, I'm right here. It's over -- you're safe."

"Pleeeease... no!... no more, no... no!" she cried.

Walt choked on his own tears. "Honey, I'm here." He gently squeezed her right hand and brushed his mask-covered lips against her forehead. "It's over, carissima... Ian, Amelia and Trev are safe, too. It's all over."

Her eyes opened a slit... and the stark fear was overwhelming. Her fingers flailed under his hand and he gripped them tighter, wishing the latex didn't separate them. More tears dribbled toward the pillow as her lips trembled again.

Walt tenderly smoothed his fingertips against her sutured lips. "Hush, carissima... don't try to talk." She began whimpering again. Walt leaned even closer and ran his hand over her bristly shorn hair, softly kissing her forehead over and over while he whispered to her. "I'm so, so sorry, honey. It's all my fault and I'm so very, very sorry."

Allison's father stood silently in the anteroom, watching. He couldn't hear Walt's words, but he did notice how his daughter's twitching body calmed as Walt murmured to her and stroked her arm. He'd never believed Walt had been directly involved in her abduction - - Walt had been cleared when the autopsy reesults on Brannard's director had indicated murder, not suicide -- but had found it impossible to absolve him emotionally. Watching Walt now, though, he was hard to blame.

And as much as he wanted to comfort his daughter, Hogle retreated silently from the room as the nurse and one of the doctors entered.

Hogle returned 10 minutes later. It was difficult to tell, but he thought Allison was asleep. Walt was still at it... caressing and murmuring. Hogle gazed at Allison and tried to force himself to see *her,* not the battered and dehydrated body that was her shell. Tried to force himself to see the bright-eyed, effusive and smiling woman that was his daughter, his 'AJ.'

The nurse exited the main room -- the doctor had already gone -- and assisted him in donning the sterile garb.

Walt glanced up and made no effort to wipe the plethora of tears from his face. He reluctantly released Allison's hand and stood. "You just missed the doctor."

"I know. I talked to her outside." Hogle stared at the poles of IV solution, trying to find the words to apologize.

"Why don't I leave you alone with her," Walt mumbled.

"No... I, uh, I was going to bring you a cup of coffee, but I knew it couldn't be brought in and I couldn't, uh, remember how you took it anyway."

A sketchy smile swept across Walt's features -- it caused the skin around his eyes to crinkle. "Thanks for the thought."

Hogle tentatively touched his daughter's left upper arm, finding a spot that wasn't bruised. "Of my children, AJ's -- well, *Allison's* -- always been the strong one... strong-willed, strong- minded, but gentle, too. She never needed my protection, and that somehow made me want to protect her even more... still does. It's hard to let go of your children, Walt; hard to admit that they're grown up and don't need you anymore... that they need someone else." He trailed his fingers gently along her head. "After that beating incident with Basil, I thought Allison would turn to us -- her family -- but she turned to you... you seemed to be the only one who could comfort her. And you seemed to genuinely feel her pain."

The older man settled his gaze past Walt's shoulder. "When something like... *this* happens, I think it's only natural to need to blame somebody, whether the person deserves it or not. Now that I'm seeing more clearly, it's obvious how much you're suffering too."

Walt recognized the apology and felt grateful for it... how to acknowledge it was another story. And he realized he still needed to straighten out his conversation with Moskal.

Dr. Raimy knocked against the glass in the anteroom before Walt had the chance to say anything. Both men followed her out to the hall.

"We just got the HIV results back -- negative." Both immediately had expressions of relief, though it was short-lived. "However, the pregnancy test was positive."

Hogle's features twisted while Walt's began lightening. "Could it be wrong?" the older man asked.

"The test is highly accurate," Raimy stated, looking at him. "But lab errors can still happen. It's way too soon for me to be able to tell with a physical exam."

And with all the probable damage, how could you tell with that anyway, Walt thought.

"I'll prescribe a course of high-dose estrogen to terminate, in any case," Raimy continued.


Hogle was astounded. "Walt! Why on Earth not? You can't possibly want the child... or expect Allison to carry it."

"It isn't his, the baby's mine... ours." Raimy and Hogle fixed obvious looks of alarm on Walt; it was clear they assumed that he was deluding himself. "I know what you're thinking and you're wrong. We had, um, uh, relations the night before she was taken." Walt felt his face turn red, intensely embarrassed to be revealing such a personal episode.

"That hardly means--"

"Let me finish," Walt interrupted. "Stanislav has an odd impotence problem and wouldn't have been capable of--" Walt hated to say the word -- "ejaculation until last night at the earliest. That's why I requested the test be done now, instead of waiting three days."

Hogle relaxed, though Raimy didn't look convinced. "A paternity test will need to be done should you and Allison elect to continue the pregnancy."

"Is there any chance the baby could undermine her recovery?" Walt hesitantly asked.

Raimy pursed her lips. "Not that I can see at this point," she cautiously replied, "But the abdominal scarring might pose a problem later -- it depends how well it heals."

Walt shuddered and stared at the floor. "What about the morphine?" He recalled that Allison wouldn't take any kind of pain medicine when she'd been pregnant with Becky.

"Doubtful. She'll be on a monitored, therapeutic dosage for now and we can switch her to a non-narcotic analgesic as the pain eases."

"Can paternity be checked before the child is born?" Hogle interjected, to Walt's gasp. "I'm sorry, Walt. I want to believe you're right, but what if you're not?"

Raimy went back to looking uncomfortable. "A blood sample could be drawn in utero, but not for several months. The test -- fetoscopy -- carries a higher risk of miscarriage, plus you have to consider the physiological and psychological damage, should the child *not* turn out to be yours. Second-trimester abortions mimic labor and..." Walt's eyes started to glaze. "You'll need to carefully make your decision."

The two men shuffled their feet after Raimy left, avoiding each other's eyes.

"Walt, I know this makes me sound like a monster, but authorize the drug. It'll be... better, all around."

Walt's eyes lost focus and he swallowed heavily. "And what do I tell Allison? That I single-handedly made the decision to kill the child? Possibly *our* child?"

"I'm not saying it's an easy decision," Hogle argued. Walt turned away, searching his soul. "We can request that she not be informed of the pregnancy... then when she's had time to heal--"

"No. I can't do that. It'd be a breach of trust. I know you think it'd be kinder, but I... I... need to think."

Roz found Walt 15 minutes later, sitting alone and coatless on one of the outside benches, seemingly unaware of the temperature. "You're gonna catch your death of cold, Walt."

He gazed at her after several seconds and replied in a monotone. "Allison would say I'd catch 'P'neumonia... I suppose that's in poor humor since Amelia and Anthony have it," he finished in a whisper.

Roz smiled and squeezed his chilled hand. "I talked to your father-in-law; he told me Amelia's going to be transferred here tomorrow and Trev will be released."

Walt nodded unconsciously, staring at a tree in the distance. Half of it had sporadic buds and life, while the other half was gnarled and naked. He wondered -- if the dead section was removed, would it promote more vigorous growth on the other side? Or was the whole tree destined to slowly --


He shook his head to clear his metaphorical thoughts. "Yes, that's right. They're all coming back tomorrow." Walt forced himself to assume his work role -- though he'd gone on leave the day before -- and ask questions he didn't really want answers to. "The Minezes?"

He hadn't seen the bodies and, to Roz's knowledge, wasn't aware of their final resting place. "Blunt force trauma to the skull, died almost instantly. We'll probably never know how Stanislav charmed his way into the house... he's not volunteering anything."

He nodded absently and pulled on his fingers. "Tapes?" He winced as he'd been unable to stop his voice from cracking.

"I've, uh, got a three-person team reviewing them in shifts... I don't think it'll be necessary to go over all the angles."

Walt stopped tugging and realized Roz must have requested a minimum of agents for his own sake.

"The agents are through about a third from the central camcorder." She didn't bother to mention that seasoned or not, the agents were already rattled -- and they hadn't gotten to the extreme content. "Walt, Stanislav has Allison, um, saying things."

Roz kept her eyes averted as Walt swallowed slowly. "What things?"

"He, uh, has her requesting that he, um, do... certain things to her."

Walt covered his face and nearly stopped breathing. So is that going to be his game this time? Walt horribly thought, claim he was only doing what she wanted? What have I done to you, carissima? Walt mentally wailed. Your worst fears have been horribly realized and it's my fault.

"The DA can get a dozen expert witnesses to testify that Allison was under extreme duress when she made the statements and I've no doubt that Stanislav threatened to harm the kids if she didn't cooperate." The words spilled from Roz's mouth.

"But it puts Allison in a bad light," Walt whispered as Roz nodded. He fiddled with his wedding band, never taking his eyes from it as he mumbled, "She's pregnant."

Roz took a deep breath and saw that Walt tensed as she released it -- and the longer she took to reply, the more anxious he got. "I know. Mr. Hogle told me... he told me your, um, theory, too... Walt--"

He dropped his head and closed his eyes, removing his glasses with one hand and rubbing his eyelids with the other, rubbed at the tears forming. "Don't tell me, Roz -- please don't... shatter my illusion yet."

Silence hung over them like a death shroud.

"When?" Walt whispered finally.

Roz knew what he was asking. .".. The fifth day -- I'm, I'm sorry, Walt. I'm afraid it was unmistakable."

For the second time that day, Walt lost it.

He fell into Roz's arms and bawled like a baby... like the baby he could no longer cozen himself into believing was his.

Thursday, 3p.m.

Walt and Basil backed out of Allison's room as she chokingly sobbed 'Momma' again and Jude Hogle bravely stepped forward to soothe her daughter. They removed part of the sterile garments and exited the anteroom to walk down the hall, where Avery and AJ Hogle were waiting. Avery's face was greenish and he looked as if he were on the verge of bolting for the men's room. Even as Walt noticed, his brother-in-law covered his mouth and ran.

"Go back in, AJ," Walt requested. "They both need you." The older man assented and left, now being familiar enough with the technique for donning sterile garb to do so without nursing supervision.

Basil collapsed into a chair and ran his hands over his face. "Words -- any description -- well, it just doesn't prepare you... The kids shouldn't see her that way, Walt, they just shouldn't. Jeez, Avery couldn't even make it past that anteroom window."

"Well, the kids won't be allowed past it -- too much potential for germs... I'm afraid keeping them out will be worse, but... I just don't know," he admitted as he slumped in a neighboring chair.

Basil loudly released his breath and batted at the moisture in his eyes. .".. Maybe once some of the IVs are gone -- and especially that tube up her nose -- then the kids might be okay. I think Charlee will hold her own, Anthony, too... and since Trev and Amelia saw some of the damage fresh, it might not upset them too much. It's Ian I'm worried about, though. He's so young -- the only coherent thing he's said in the last week was 'Mommy home soon?' Over and over, like a mynah bird... poor Lois didn't know what to do to comfort him. He carried around Ally's picture for days -- we even let him sleep with it 'cause if he woke up without it, he'd throw a fit."

Basil ran his fingers through his hair till it stood straight up. "I don't know, either. I can't bear Ally suffering anymore -- but I've got an obligation to protect the kids, Walt."

Avery stumbled back, a wet paper towel adorning his forehead. "I'm going back in," Walt mumbled and left.

"I feel like such a candy ass," Avery disclosed after several moments, having taken the vacant seat and leaning his head against the wall. "I've seen construction accidents and held my cookies together ... but seeing Allison--"

"It's different, when it's someone you love," Basil opined.

"Yeah." Avery dropped his arm, crumpled the paper towel and threw it at the opposite wall. The two men spent numerous minutes airing their thoughts on Stanislav, juries and what constituted 'insane behavior.' By the time Allison's parents exited the anteroom, they were gloomily silent and standing.

"She's asleep again," Jude murmured, sliding into a chair. "It's amazing the effect Walt has on her. He whispers a few words, strokes her arm and she relaxes right away." She put one hand to her head and the other to her stomach. "I wish he could do the same for me."

"AJ, go down to the cafeteria and get your mother some hot tea and a biscuit or something." Jude tried to protest, but her husband continued. "You haven't eaten anything today, it's not helping your nerves."

Avery took off and Basil decided to go with him.

"We should have asked them to get something for Walt, AJ. The poor man's wasting..." She lowered her chin as tears began streaming down her cheeks. "AJ hasn't called me 'momma' since she was a little girl."

"I know, honey, I know," Hogle comforted, wrapping his arm around her.

She whipped out a tissue and dabbed at her eyes. "AJ looks thinner."

"She is -- they weighed her shortly after... well the doctors guess she lost about 15 pounds."

Jude sat up straight. "But she was only gone 12 days," she protested.

"The doctors think her metabolism kicked up, from fear."

She half-trembled, half-sighed and gazed at the paper towel on the floor, getting up to retrieve it. "I bet our son did that. The boy never did pick up after himself... how he runs his own business is beyond me." She glanced at the picture hanging opposite her -- a biplane hovering over a meadow. "Oh, what a wonderful idea for Trev's birthday. I'll have to start scouting the model stores."

"Jude," Hogle said. He placed his hand on her shoulder.

"I saw a darling stuffed beagle in the gift shop," she went on, unfettered. "It looked just like Buster. Amelia will be--"

"Enough, Jude." Hogle caught her active hands and tenderly kissed the tips of her fingers. "Enough, honey," he repeated softly.

"My poor little girl," she sobbed, collapsing against his chest. "My poor, sweet, beautiful little girl."

Friday, 5p.m.

Allison slowly opened her eyes and stared at the bare surroundings. It took her a few seconds to realize she was in a hospital... and a few more to remember why.

She felt tension invade her body in a flash as all the horrifying sensations and fears returned. She whimpered as she tilted her head, blinking, her eyelids still swollen. Her vision affixed on her mother's masked face and she just seemed to know it was her -- almost.

"Mom?" her voice was tentative and low. "Is it really you? Or am I... am I hallucinating again?" Allison's lower lip receded, exactly as it would if she were biting it.

With tears stinging her eyes, Jude grasped her daughter's right hand and drew it upright -- Allison was laying on her right side this time, left arm propped on a pillow. "It's really me, honey. You're at Northeast Georgetown. It's all over."

Allison nodded fractionally as she closed her eyes. Then she snapped them open again. "The kids, Mom, he took the kids!"

Jude leaned over to kiss Allison's forehead as she squeezed her hand. "They're all right, AJ."

Allison continued as though she hadn't heard. "Amelia's sick and he broke Trev's arm and... and Ian was unconscious--"

"Shhh, honey. We found all three of them. They're perfectly safe now... and so are you."

She calmed as the words sunk in and allowed herself to believe that this was truly real... except someone was missing. "Walt? Where's Walt?"

Jude gazed at the hurt in Allison's eyes and nearly cried. "He went to see Amelia, honey. She... she had to be hospitalized because of the pneumonia with her bronchiestatis... Walt's been here in the hospital almost continually since you were admitted. Every time you woke up, he'd soothe you back to sleep."

.".. I don't remember. I don't remember anything since..." Jude watched as Allison's expression contorted and she tried to peer down the bed. "My leg?" she choked.

"Oh, honey," and tears began dripping from Jude's eyes, "it's still there. The pillow is blocking your view." Allison attempted to lift her arm and grimaced. "Are you in pain now, AJ?" her mother queried with concern.

She considered for a moment, not at all sure of anything. "Some, it's not too bad... What am I on?"

"Morphine, honey."

Allison flickered her eyes and nodded. "My body feels kind of leaden and my head kinda woozy... why can't I open my mouth?"

Jude gawked at her, before swallowing reflexively. "Your jaw is broken, honey."

Allison stared past her mother a few seconds, shrinking in memory at the ghastly sound of her jaw fracturing, at the image of Stanislav's arm pulling back, at his face maniacally grinning, at his erection digging into her sternum. "Oh."

Allison's eyes darted around as she blinked against the flow of tears. She saw Walt's head and shoulders appear behind the anteroom window and was dazzled by his smile. Then she tensed in anticipation while he changed, having plenty of time to hideously recall all the torture she'd endured... and the exact moment she'd given up praying for rescue, praying for death instead. The phantom memory of pain made her whimper unconsciously, but the real pain of knowing she'd abandoned her faith in Walt was wrenching.

He came in a few seconds later.

He was by her bed in two strides, taking her hand from Jude and drawing it to his lips. Unlike before, there was a clearness to Allison's eyes that told him she was really coherent. And suddenly, he was tongue-tied.

Allison gazed at him through her steady stream of tears and felt her heart twist at what she could see of his haggard and pale complexion. The dull quality to his walnut eyes pierced her soul. And then he was murmuring words of apology, of everlasting love. How could I have given up on him? she thought with shame.

Saturday, 4:10p.m.

Walt was with her again, one hand gently holding hers, the other lightly resting on her left elbow. They hadn't spoken since the nurses had gingerly turned her from her stomach to her side, and conversation before that had been sporadic. Allison closed her eyes and willed sleep to overtake her again -- anything was better than the awkward silence.

It was so strained between them, like it had never been. Allison couldn't remember feeling so uncomfortable with a person before and hated it... hated herself for letting it be that way.

Most of the previous evening had passed in a blur. Her various adult family had paraded through in pairs for five-minute visits -- it took nearly that long for the uninitiated to don the apparel. The visits had been spaced 45 minutes apart, and even though she'd finally been 'with it,' Allison had still been exhausted. Sedatives had guaranteed sleep, since being manually turned every two hours would wake her up otherwise.

Allison felt much more coherent today, but discomfited. She'd asked about how and when the children had been found, crying as the information had been gently relayed. Walt had repeatedly called her 'carissima,' frowning as she appeared to shudder each time. Then he'd let her off the hook for talking, saying he understood that it was difficult with her jaw.

"Agent Moskal... is he all right?" She didn't bother to ask about Mead and tried to block out the vision of blood pouring from his head.

"Yes... he was released yesterday. In fact, he and his wife sent Amelia a stuffed animal."

"I'm not surprised," she absently replied. "She had him wrapped around her finger." God, this is excruciating, she thought, grasping at straws to keep conversation going. "You should congratulate him next time you see him -- he and his wife are expecting."

Walt abruptly stopped caressing her elbow, releasing her other hand at the same time. He looked at his lap, pursing his lips and dreading what he knew he had to tell her. He took her hand once more and cringed at its stiffness. "Honey, I have... I have to tell you something. And it's not..." Christ, this was hard, he thought, biting the bullet. "You're pregnant."

She tried to pull her hand away, but he wouldn't release it. "No," she objected.

"I'm sorry, I wish... I'm sorry, carissima."

"Don't call me that!"

The strength of the outburst alone stunned him. He let go of her hand now, sliding back in the chair, unable to hide his wounded feelings. She pressed her call button repeatedly until a voice responded.

"Yes, Mrs. Skinner?"

"I need to see one of my doctors, *now.* "

"Allison," Walt stood and tried to take her hand again, succeeding after several tries. "Honey, what's wrong?"

"Do you feel nauseated, Mrs. Skinner?" the disjointed voice asked.

Allison gazed at the wirecutters on the bedside table. "No. I ... I want estrogen."

"Allison, no."

She attempted to wrench her hand from Walt's, struggling far more than was advisable. "Allison, stop," he implored. "You'll rupture the blisters."

If she heard, she paid no mind.

Walt leaned closer to her face and hissed at her, deliberately trying to shock her into complying. "Allison! Do you want to be tied down?"

She stopped, tears streaming once more as she shook her head, already inundated with fresh pain.

Whatever the reason for her sudden vehemence against 'carissima' was put aside as Walt centered on her decision to terminate the pregnancy. "Allison, please, you have to calm down. You can't thrash about like that... you'll hurt yourself and I... I can't bear it." She lowered her lids, bottom lip receding again. "Please, honey, don't... don't make a rash decision... about the baby. You're in shock right now, you need time to think--"

"I don't want time to think. And I don't want anybody telling me what to do. You can't force me to have this... thing," she rasped, refusing to look at him as she pushed the button of her PCA -- patient-controlled analgesic -- for another dose. Marvelous invention, she distractedly thought, nearly instant pain relief at your fingertips... if only it came in a mental form.

"It's not a thing, Allison, it's... it could be *our* child, remember?" Walt felt like a hypocrite, saying words he didn't believe. But he couldn't allow her to take the drug and *then* regret it.

"Go home. I don't want company. Just leave me alone."

The nurse, having hastily donned sterile scrubs, entered to check for damage. She swore under her breath and pressed the call button, requesting that Dr. Everett be beeped. Walt barely heard her -- the only thing that registered were the stinging words of his wife ... and how she didn't want him near her.

Two Hours Later

"But, but, how could he know that?" Teresa asked.

Walt sat at the kitchen table of his house, the adults surrounding him, an untouched sandwich next to his arm. "I don't know. Roz... Roz said he incessantly called her 'carissima' the last four days of her imprisonment."

"Why didn't Roz warn you, Walt?" Jude questioned, dry-mouthed.

.".. She never heard me call Allison that -- I only said it in private." Walt continued to stare blankly, trying not to dwell on the psychological damage he'd unwittingly done. "Roz couldn't stop apologizing," he mumbled.

"I-I-I told him," Trevor whispered from the doorway, tears shining against his cheeks. Basil went to his son and picked him up; the boy buried his head against his father's shoulder. "He said if I ... if I didn't tell him what pet name you called Mom, he'd... he'd hurt Amelia."

Almost uniformly, the adults took deep breaths, all gazing at the child with sympathy.

"He grabbed her hair and I tried to tell him, but I couldn't get the word out and... and Amelia started screaming and I blurted it out. And then he said he'd teach me a, uh, lesson."

An arctic chill went down Walt's spine at the implications of Trevor's words. Physical exams had shown that Stanislav hadn't *directly* molested them, but... no, Walt thought, if he'd done anything sexual with the children, he would have recorded it. And Roz most certainly would have told me that.

"He... he raised his arm -- he had a pipe -- and he was... was going to hit Amelia... so I ran at him... and he hit my arm instead."

Trevor collapsed into a ball of tears and Walt struggled to quell the rising anger in his body, clenching and unclenching his fists, a dozen scenarios for Stanislav's death hovering in his mind. The rest of the adults were in varying degrees of shock as Walt rose to take Trevor from Basil. "I'm very proud of you, Trev; it took a lot of courage to protect Amelia."

The others hastily repeated the words, attempting to assuage the child's conscience and reverse the damage. Basil took Trevor back and left the room. All now acutely understood why Allison hadn't wanted to hear the name, but none made further comment about it.

Walt cleared his throat, fresh pain flogging him. "One of you should go to the hospital."

His father-in-law raised doubtful eyebrows. "AJ wants to be alone, Walt."

"She wanted *me* to leave," he retorted, not keeping the whine from his voice.

"No, Walt; you misunderstood," Jude informed. "AJ's said 'leave me alone' her entire life when she feels overwhelmed. She truly means she wants *everybody* to stay away. I'm surprised you haven't run into it before. She'll be better in the morning, just give her time."

Sunday, 8a.m.

Walt pulled his car into the underground lot of the hospital and sat. He'd lost Jude and Basil at the light -- they were there to take Amelia home.

Walt had wanted to bring Allison something special but past the idea hadn't gotten anywhere. Lingerie -- trashy or not -- wasn't appropriate. Flowers were out since they tended to harbor some bug that sounded like 'asparagus.' Food treats were a definite no-no and trying to read a book was too uncomfortable. Which had left him with a video or an audiotape -- but she wasn't the type who went for chamber or classical music and anything with lyrics in her fragile state could easily bring her to tears.

And the fact that he was in love with and been married to Allison for one day short of a year and still couldn't come up with a suitable gift depressed him even more. "You idiot," he uttered aloud. "You can't take anything into her room anyway."

He banged the steering wheel and let his mind drift to the topic of the baby. He'd been up most of the night debating the pros and cons of the pregnancy -- debating whether he could be supportive of continuing it, period. And ashamed of himself for knowing he could never love the child if it wasn't his.

He stared at the clock, rousing himself, and exited the vehicle.

Allison seemed calm as he approached, gingerly reaching her hand out to him. Walt sat and carefully brought her fingers to his lips, kissing each in turn before planting a larger kiss on her palm.

"The nose tube is gone," he observed, also noticing a different- sized bag where the plasma had been hung. "What are they giving you now?"

"It's called TPN -- total parenteral nutrition. It carries a higher caloric count than the clear liquids from the NG tube... and I need lots of calories with the, um, burns."

"Oh." I'll be just as happy to see you gain the weight, Walt thought, looking around the room in the ensuing silence.

"I'm sorry I yelled at you, Walt."

He snapped his attention back to her. "Shhh, honey. You don't need to apologize... Trev, Trev told us what happened. I understand."

Allison faded away, back to her imprisonment, shuddering in recall. "Stanislav broke my arm when he came back... I didn't know why -- he didn't say. But by then, I'd given up trying to understand ... I'd given up on a lot of things."

Before she could elaborate, she noticed Dr. Everett in the anteroom -- he entered shortly after.

"Mrs. Skinner, how are you feeling this morning?"

"The pain is diminishing... otherwise fine, I guess." She sounded wishy-washy, she mused.

"Good." Walt stepped aside so Everett could consult, thinking Allison was too calm -- no doubt still in shock.

"I want my antibiotic changed to one of the quinolones," Allison dictated, drawing Walt's attention again. She named one in particular.

Allison would have preferred not to do this in front of Walt, but had no choice. She'd spent hours weighing her options and had made a concrete decision.

Everett frowned, while Walt had time to think that pharmacists were every bit as bad as doctors when it came to being a patient.

"Are you having an allergic reaction? I don't recall there being a problem with penicillin."

"I'm not having a reaction," Allison informed, keeping her gaze from Walt's face.

"Well, then I don't understand. You're suffering from two bacterial infections -- Staphylococcus aureus and Escherichia coli (E coli) -- both are responding to the penicillin. I see no reason to switch to a second-line agent at this time, nor to change antibiotic families."

"The antibiotic I want is prescribed more for pregnancies."

Everett narrowed his eyes for a second as Walt's stomach twisted. "Then you've elected to continue the pregnancy after all." Allison nodded, knowing that her request from the previous evening had been annotated on her chart -- and she carefully avoided Walt's penetrating stare. "Very well, Mrs. Skinner," Everett agreed. "But should I see a flare-up, you're going back to penicillin."

Walt waited till the other man left before speaking, dry- mouthed. "Honey, um, are you sure... about the drugs?" He only added the last because Allison's expression had tightened.

"There's little to no risk of drugs harming the fetus in the first two weeks of development, but after that, the central nervous system starts forming... and a few days after that, the heart. The first trimester is the worst time to be taking any sort of medication. Allowing the infections to flourish would be detrimental to both of us; and I should be able to go off all pain meds in a week."

Walt had been informed that burn and bone pain were two of the worst types and knew her estimate for no medication was optimistic. He also knew from the time frame she was quoting that she was assuming the child was theirs... and he hated to argue the likelihood of that. "There's a way to test the baby's blood," he cautiously began. "It could be done in utero after 16 weeks." Even as he said it, Walt didn't know how he'd survive three months of uncertainty.

"Fetoscopy -- I know. I'm not going to have it done."

He swallowed the catch in his throat, fearful of where this discussion was going. "Why not?"

"Because the risk of miscarriage is too high -- the risk doesn't outweigh the... benefit," she finished in a whisper.

He rubbed his hands together and took a deep breath. "I don't ..." careful, Walt, he told himself, wording is critical. "I don't think... we should have this baby." He wasn't able to look into her eyes and knew his failure weakened the statement.


Walt gazed at her, dubious. "What?"

"You think *I* should terminate and I want to know why."

Rationality and calm started shifting to the back burner as he struggled to respond. "Because... because it'll be too close to Becky's birth," he vacillated. Shit! he thought, why is she doing this? Why is she making me say it? Making me the ogre. "Carissima - - oh, hell. *Allison,* please don't ask me to say it."

She cringed at his accidental use of the name and bristled at him. "Why not? You want me to kill my baby... kill a child that could be yours--"

"Last night *you* wanted to kill it!" He immediately regretted his words and tone, especially when tears started dripping from her closed eyes. "I'm sorry, honey. It's just that the odds are against it being... ours and I... I just don't think I can love the child if it's... his."

Walt felt no better having gotten that out and decided honesty wasn't necessarily a good idea here.

.".. Last night's reaction was shock, you said so yourself. That's why you instructed the staff not to give me the estrogen... And I... I'd forgotten about the condom breaking." She blinked numerous times before going on. "If I was 100 percent sure this child was... his, I'd... I'd probably abort now. And that's not fair -- it's not the child's fault... how it might have been conceived. It managed to survive all the..." She closed her eyes again and clutched at the sheet. "If I have the test done and the baby's not ours, I don't know that I'll be able to transmit anything but hostile feelings to it. This way, I can carry it and... hope. I'll give it up for adoption if it isn't ours, but I've decided it deserves the chance to grow and live... with or without your support."

Walt stood, unmoving for several seconds, unable to meet her gaze. He'd painfully aired his opinion and she'd done the same. Trying to argue that Stanislav's genes could make the child a predator later was useless at this point -- not that he had hard evidence to back up the supposition -- she'd only reiterate her hope. Walt's only chance to bring her to his way of thinking was to let her be for now and later inveigle her to have the test. And that sort of covert plan made him feel lower than a snake's belly.

He had to say something right now... and couldn't come up with anything appropriate. "I-I-I'm gonna see if your mom and Basil need help with Amelia."

Four weeks later

Allison flinched imperceptibly at Everett's touch to her abdomen as the nimble fingers traced the message Stanislav had burned into her -- B.S. + A.S. -- he'd even surrounded the letters with a heart.

"Sick bastard," Everett murmured, even though he'd seen the pink, puckered scars plenty. "Does your weight generally bounce back quickly after delivery?"

Allison forced a smile. "All but the last 10 pounds, but I'm, uh, starting this pregnancy almost that much lighter, so... Dr. Petras wants to see me roughly six months after the baby's born for evaluation."

He nodded. "I think he'll be able to significantly reduce these scars." He patted her hand.

Allison stood, dropping the edges of the gown while Everett untied the back. "I know his nickname is the 'Magician.' And I can hardly complain about his work on my face." She fought the urge to shudder as she slid her thumbs into the waistband of the loose, cotton briefs and carefully lowered them. She did, however, unconsciously cross her arms over her chest.

Everett gently probed the intermittent scars, frowning as he always did at the repetitive 'S' pattern. "I'll never understand why these burns weren't deeper or significantly more infected. They certainly appeared as though someone gave you proper first aid." He shook his head, turning his attention northward.

Allison remained silent and willed the memories to go away. After a few moments, Everett was finished. "You can pull your panties up. Do you want me to retie the gown?"

"No. Walt's due any minute -- he's bringing clothes."

"No brassieres yet, for at least several weeks," he cautioned.

"I know. Cool-temperature showers and no scrubbing of the skin." He smiled and signed off on her chart. "So you're not going to object to the cream?"

He glanced at the jar in question. "There's nothing in it that I disapprove of and I don't see that it can do any harm; so go ahead and use it. I want to see you in two weeks for the status check and I've asked your OBGYN to keep me informed as to your progress. I don't foresee a problem with the skin stretching, but if you see--"

"I know," Allison interrupted. "Dr. Raimy already told me."

Walt came in, carrying a satchel, before Everett could say anything else. He smiled at Allison and tenderly cupped her chin. "Hey, beautiful," he murmured, brushing his lips against hers and dropping the bag onto the bed.

Allison bent away from him and unzipped the bag. "Dr. Everett was just giving me final clearance to go," she blurted, pulling out a loose-fitting long dress, small cosmetic bag, socks and sneakers. She sat on the bed to don the latter items and Walt had a view of her scarred feet.

Allison glanced at him through her lashes and cringed. She was uncomfortable having Walt see her damaged body, not because it made her feel ugly and unwanted, but because of the intense shame and guilt she'd see in his eyes. It was there now, for a fleeting moment, before his mask of impassiveness swallowed it. The mask was a garment she'd seen increasingly -- and she'd designed one for herself. She also found she was wearing hers more and more... in his presence.

"I hope you were instructing her to stay in bed and let us wait on her," Walt attempted to tease.

The doctor allowed himself a brief smile. "Not exactly," Everett replied. "I'm in favor of average exercise, but she still needs plenty of rest." He turned to face her. "And keep eating. I know pureed food doesn't do much for the appetite, but you still need lots of calories -- especially with the baby," he hastily added.

"I just hope morning sickness stays away till the wires come off my jaw. Dr. Wingate is nice, but I'd just as soon not have him wire my jaw a third time." She tried to put a humorous spin on her words, but wasn't successful. Walt bowed his head.

"Right," Everett responded. "See you in two weeks." He shook their hands and departed.

Allison left Walt to change in the bathroom. She was walking with a slight limp, and on occasion, her leg would buckle unexpectedly.

He sighed and gazed around the room. Once her reverse isolation had ended, flowers, balloons, plants and cards had poured in -- not that they'd been lacking before; they'd simply been carried home. All the current haul had been redistributed throughout the hospital -- except for the cards, which were sitting in a pile by the window.

The last month had been rotten.

Allison wouldn't talk to him about her ordeal -- indeed, words of any kind were agonizingly strained between them. She spoke to a therapist every other day and had authorized the release of the session transcripts to him -- but he wouldn't read them... just like he wouldn't watch the tapes. He needed to hear the words from her lips; needed to kiss away the tears, hold her as she revealed the horrors, as she forgave him. He knew how painful it would be for her -- for *both* of them -- but he was sure it was the only way they could heal.

Walt had tried repeatedly to get her to talk to him; trying different methods to get her to open up, utilizing all his professional skills, his newly developed 'acute awareness;' but so far, nothing had worked. She wouldn't forgive him because she wouldn't admit that she blamed him. She blamed herself for being in the house -- for being stubborn and getting her way -- for letting the kids be traumatized. Allison had adamantly stuck to that belief every session, regardless of what the doctor said. She'd finally threatened to discontinue therapy if the doctor didn't stop harping on Walt's accountability. Allison had gotten so worked up that particular session that she'd vomited -- and had to cut the wires on her jaw so she didn't aspirate.

Walt saw the wire cutters on the bedside table and absently placed them in the satchel, also gathering the cards.

So far, the only seemingly useful thing that had come from the therapy sessions was Allison's revelation that she'd given up on Walt. She was intensely ashamed at when she'd felt that way -- before the mutilation had begun. Walt didn't care about the timing, had freely and genuinely absolved her for her loss of faith. The only part of the revelation that pained him was her inability to tell him directly -- that hurt down to his core.

Allison gazed at her reflection and detested what she saw. The bruising was gone, her nose was healed, and in another two weeks she'd be able to open her mouth again. But the woman who stared back at her had no life, no vitality. She looked old, apathetic and tired. Make- up could do nothing to remedy her sunken, dull eyes or the craters underneath them.

Allison tried to do something with her hair, but it had a mind of its own. At least it's still growing fast, she thought -- the sooner it grew out, the better.

She looked at the dress and was thankful for the higher-than- usual neckline. Allison couldn't recall when she'd last been able to go without a bra on a long-term basis -- brassieres were being avoided because of the friction they would cause on her back. Just as well, Allison thought, pulling the fabric away and peeking at her chest. I don't even know what size to wear now.

Allison had been going stir-crazy the entire week, but now that she was going home, she was frightened. Maybe after I'm out of this sterile environment, she thought, I'll start to feel normal again... start to feel, period. It wasn't just her physical appearance that was foreign to her, but also her behavior. It was like she was a child again, speaking without thinking, attention span miniscule, hyperactive, patience seemingly an unknown word. And the worst part was that realizing all of the above did nothing to stop it.

She'd heard of a condition whereby a person's ability to sense pain was nonexistent. For the past three weeks, it was as though she'd contracted the disorder. It was as if she'd gone into hysterical pain deprivation or something... as if her mind had short- circuited the pain receptors. The trouble was, the 'receptors' weren't reconnecting.

She forced herself to smile and exited the bathroom.

"All set?"

"As ready as I'll ever be."

Two Hours Later

Walt placed Allison gingerly on the bed, having carried her up the stairs. She'd protested the whole way and he'd insisted.

"What can I get you, honey? A magazine, the remote? I can whip up a strawberry shake -- you didn't eat much for lunch... or do you want to take a nap?"

Allison forced herself to stroke his cheek -- she knew he was bending over backward to be helpful, but it made her feel as though she were suffocating. "I'd like to take a shower, Walt... get rid of the hospital smell."

"Maybe a soak in the whirlpool would be better. You could sit down and prop your arm up."

"I'd rather take a shower."

The tub would have been safer, but Walt recognized the look that had gone with the words. It was the same sort of expression he donned at work, to keep his subordinates at bay and under his thumb... and it pained him to see her adopting it yet again.

"At least wait for me to get that plastic step-stool... in case you need to sit, uh, suddenly."

His belief that she wasn't capable of taking a shower without falling over irritated her. "Fine, do whatever the hell you want."

He pouted and wandered away, leaving her to chastise herself for her behavior toward him.

Being home was, so far, tiring.

The kids had swirled around her and hovered like hummingbirds, breaking away to unroll the 'Welcome home' sign they'd labored over before crowding right back. Her mother had placed bowl after pureed bowl of mush in front of her, admonishing her to eat. Everything she'd sampled tasted the same -- flavorless. This was the first time she'd been alone, the kids having jockeyed for position to hold her hands wherever she'd been. Allison knew they loved her and were ecstatic to have her home... and she loved them desperately back, but again, it made her feel suffocated.

She opened the stall door and walked in to turn the water on, automatically turning the lever, distractedly adjusting the temperature. Allison left the door open, unmindful of the steam that shortly billowed out. She carefully removed her clothing, thinking of the drive home. Every male she'd seen had reminded her of Stanislav in some way -- his build, his hair, a facial feature. She'd shivered into the seat and Walt had turned the heat up, thinking she was cold.

The therapist had warned her that she might experience periods of lucid hallucination -- where an object, sound or person might cause her to relive part of the nightmare -- especially if she kept her feelings bottled up. Allison hadn't wanted to believe it... but after the drive home...

She heard Walt returning and moved to enter the stall -- her cast was made from plastic and didn't need protecting. Allison left the shower door open -- as she'd done with the bathroom one -- to counteract her newfound fear of being confined in *any* manner. She was about to stand under the water when he came in.

Walt caught one swirl of steam and sprang into action. "Allison, no!" He shoved her out of the way, knocking her shoulder against the wall. Walt winced as the scorching water soaked through his shirt before he could turn the shower and water off. Her impact against the fiberglass had sent a bottle of shampoo crashing to the floor. Walt attempted to reach for her and inadvertently kicked it, sending it careening into her.

"No!" she shrieked, contracting her body and starting to slither down the wall. He grabbed her wrists -- knowing that the sliding motion could easily tear the fragile new skin of her back -- and lowered her gently to the floor. Then he stared at her, helpless to understand what was terrifying her, why she'd tried to burn herself. He grabbed the plastic bottle and tossed it behind him as her eyes dilated even more and she started to plead with him not to hurt her again... plead in a voice so hopeless it ripped his heart wide open - - and then he knew.

"Allison, it's Walt," he choked out as nausea flooded his senses. "You're home, honey, you're safe."

She blinked at him and went limp.

Walt caught her, carefully slung her across his unburned shoulder and transferred her to the bed. His eyebrows shot up in alarm as a flush spread over her and he feared she'd scalded the front of her body. Jude appeared at the doorway, eyes full of fear.

"What happened?"

"I don't know -- she tried to burn herself."

"What?!" she questioned, hurrying to his side.

"I don't know!" he shouted in exasperation. "We need cold, wet towels." She nodded numbly and ran to the bathroom as Teresa attempted to keep the kids at bay. Walt bent over Allison's body to block the kids' view and Trevor burst forth, rushing him.

"Don't touch my Mom!" he shouted, throwing his fists at an unbalanced Walt and knocking him to the floor. "Leave her alone! Stop hurting her!"

Walt grabbed the flailing hands and rolled Trevor off himself, pinning the boy to the floor. "Enough, Trev! Snap out of it!" The child continued to thrash and added kicking to his repertoire. Walt slapped Trevor across the face and immediately hated himself. The boy blinked in surprise, quieted, then started bawling.

Walt was vaguely aware of a door slamming and Teresa's presence. She gave Allison's unconscious body a cursory look and grabbed the towels from Jude, who was turning white. "I think just her hand and feet are burned," she opined, wrapping the cooling fabric around the areas.

Trevor was whimpering now, sitting in Walt's lap, head burrowed into Walt's burned shoulder. The child pulled back after several seconds, appearing disoriented and mumbling 'I'm sorry' over and over. Jude volunteered to take him out and both left.

"Get another towel, Walt," Teresa ordered.

He complied, tears stinging his eyes. "Where do you want it?"

"On yourself -- unless Trev cried a helluva lot more than I think he did." He stood transfixed, temporarily unable to function, so she started unbuttoning his shirt. "Stop proving that men are useless in a crisis, Walt," she barbed.

He shook his head and took her words as the shock value they were intended. He stopped her hands and removed his own shirt. Walt applied the towel to his shoulder and slumped onto the bed, inches from Allison. Teresa wandered to the bathroom and returned with Allison's terrycloth robe, draping it over her exposed body. She sat on the cedar chest and released a deep breath.

"What happened?" she asked.

"I don't know," Walt reiterated.

"Think, then. What do you *think* happened?" Teresa prodded. "Do you think she deliberately tried to burn herself?"

Walt turned and softly stroked Allison's cheek. "No," he finally admitted. "I honestly don't think she realized the water's temperature." He lowered his head. "But that's just as bad, Teresa. I know she hates my hovering over her, doesn't like it when *anyone* crowds her, but what am I supposed to do? Leave her alone and hope she doesn't lop off a finger cutting vegetables or something -- 'cause she can't feel the knife?"

Before Teresa could answer, Allison started coming around. She sat up and gazed at Teresa and Walt, the towel slipping from her hand. "What am I doing out here?" Then the image returned and she gasped, grabbed the wire cutters and bolted for the bathroom, the robe and other towel falling in her wake.

Walt rose instantly to follow, finding Allison sitting on the half wall, attempting to breath deeply. "Are you all right, honey?"

She wouldn't look at him and tried to cover her body with her arms. "I'm not gonna throw up," she murmured. Teresa wandered, carefully leisurely, into the room, casually hanging up the two towels and dropping Allison's robe at her feet. She also shot Walt a warning look as he tried to wrap his arm around Allison and jerked her head to indicate he should leave. He did, with a pout.

"Why is my hand red?" Allison choked after taking a cup of water from Teresa.

The older woman concentrated on drawing cold water into the whirlpool and turning on the jets. "Because you burned it in the shower... your feet, too. I'll leave so you can soak them in private."

Teresa hadn't made it to the doorway before Allison spoke. "No ... please, uh, stay... with me."

Walt plainly heard her through the open door and stumbled out to the hallway, feeling profoundly rejected.

Allison unsteadily rose, shaking enough that she lost the plastic cup -- it thunked to the floor. "Guess I'm still wobbly." Allison tentatively bent to retrieve her robe.

"Where did you say you got such a good deal on bath sheets?" Teresa queried.

It caught Allison off-guard and she stammered, "What? I, uh, I don't, don't remember." She glanced at her robe, then at the water while Teresa inspected the label on a sheet, ostensibly to gain a clue as to the store. "That would probably be a better idea, huh?"

Teresa raised her head with an arched eyebrow. "What?" Allison pointed to the sheet. "Oh, I suppose." The older woman handed it to Allison and meandered to the sink. Allison slowly wrapped herself in the fabric, then carefully entered the tub.

"I don't know how you put up with Walt," Teresa sighed, picking up a sponge and running it behind one faucet.

"What?" Allison asked, startled again.

"Beard stubble all over the bowl. My husband -- Paul -- was always meticulous about cleaning the sink after he shaved." Teresa made a 'tsk' noise as she noticed puddles of water on the vanity. "And he'd never leave splashes all over."

"Well, um, Walt's been distracted lately," Allison offered, lowering her hand into the water after she'd shut off the taps. "And when you're distracted, it's easy to overlook, um, obvious things." She gazed at the still-open shower door.

"If you say so." Teresa finished cleaning the sink area and proceeded to dry the floor from the shower to the door with a towel. She also made no effort to initiate more conversation.

Allison watched her movements, puzzled. Her tone held a whining quality. "Why haven't you asked me what happened?"

"I hardly need to... and besides, I'm fed up with the poor- little-me act. It's been a month, get over it." Teresa grimaced, but since her back was to Allison, the latter didn't see it.

Allison's anger flared. "How dare you talk to me like that. You don't know what I went through -- how long it'll take me to recover. You act as if I should just snap my fingers and be healed. ... And stop ragging on Walt... he's doing the best he can -- trying to be both parents to the kids, trying to keep everybody sane."

"I wasn't aware you'd noticed."

"Of course I noticed! He's... he's being... wonderful," she finally finished in a whisper, anger played out.

Teresa sat on the edge of the tub, voice gentle now that she'd goaded her. "Then tell him that, Allison... let him in, let him help you, *heal* you."

She hunched her shoulders. "I can't."

Teresa waited for her to go on, then said, "Everybody's been walking on eggshells around you, it's only adding to the tension level. If you can't let Walt in, for God's sake tell him what you want from him, from all of us. We can't help you if we're stumbling over our feet and tongues. You obviously don't want to be coddled, but neither are you ready for full independence, young lady. Whether you like it or not, you need assistance. So set some boundaries before we all go nuts trying to second-guess you."

Walt slid the weight bar back onto the uprights and stared at it. Terrific, he thought, I try to do anything for Allison and she pushes me away. Teresa barely acknowledges her and gets begged to stay -- where's the justice in that? He sat up and rubbed his eyes. You're smothering her, you idiot, he chided. The therapist warned you.

He jumped at the cough coming from the doorway -- he hadn't heard Anthony approach.

"You okay, Dad?"

Walt sidestepped a direct answer. "Who was at the door?" His shoulder brushed against the weights and he grimaced.

"Dr. Frank -- Gramma called him."

Christ, Walt, you were so absorbed in yourself you didn't even check on Trevor, he thought. "I didn't hurt Trev, did I?" Please say no, he silently admonished.

Anthony wandered in and sat on the weight-bench, next to his father. "I don't think so. His cheek is pink, but that's all. I think Gramma overreacted."

Walt pulled his son closer, worried about the child's impassivity. "Sometimes adults do that, Anthony, when we don't know how to handle a situation. Or we run away." Like I did, Walt thought -- twice, once with Clare and now with Allison. He kissed the child's head. "We'll get everything straightened out, Anthony. Let's go talk to Frank."

"So Trev was having a lucid hallucination, just like Allison?" Walt asked as he donned a fresh shirt.

"Well, mind you, I'm not particularly trained in child psychology," Frank allowed, "but I'd say Trev was reacting to something he really saw. Reacted either as he actually did, or wanted to. Hasn't this come up with the psychologist?"

Walt hung his head. The therapist who'd been slated to see Ian -- and then the other kids -- had borne a strong resemblance to Stanislav. Walt had understandably dismissed the man.

"Trev and Amelia aren't doing too well with Allison's therapist; and they're only seeing *her* because the previous one felt she wasn't getting anywhere. They've given factual accounts, but aren't opening up emotionally. I've been looking into finding someone else. Plus it's not helping that a few kids at school -- and their parents, for that matter -- treat all of them like they've got leprosy or something. Trev's at least got Anthony right there, but Amelia and Charlee..."

"I know -- Reed's a year ahead of the boys, and Mia's right between the girls... they've both told me stories." Frank stroked his chin thoughtfully. "I know somebody who's great with kids, but he doesn't take any form of insurance."

"I don't give a damn about cost, Frank, as long as this person can help."

Walt had seen Frank to the door, the latter not accepting payment, claiming he was there as a friend, not officially. Now Walt tremulously climbed the stairs, slowly rotating his shoulder. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had a sunburn -- well, the equivalent, anyway. He saw Allison softly close the door to the older boys' room. She turned at his presence and froze, like the proverbial deer in the headlights.

"T-t-trev's asleep... if you wanted to see him," she stammered. Where's the damned mask now, when I need it? she queried herself.

Walt nodded and glanced around the hall, not knowing what to say.

"I'm, uh, sorry you burned your shoulder... because of me."

Walt hated to hear her voice -- it was polite and insipid where there should have been warmth and sincerity. "It'll heal," he shrugged.

"You should try some of Teresa's herbal creams," she volunteered. "It'll soothe the irritation, lessen the pain."

What about mental pain? he asked himself. "Okay."

He followed her to their room, unbuttoning as he went. Allison retrieved the container and handed it to him, not meeting his eyes. She wandered past him to the closet; finding something loose to wear should be no problem. Walt watched her, thinking the old Allison would have eased his discomfort with kisses... a ton of wonderful kisses.

Shaking his head, he removed the shirt and began reading the container, sinking onto the cedar chest as he did. She wandered out a few moments later, fleecy garments in hand. "Oh, for crying out loud, Walt. It's got vitamin E and aloe in it -- it's perfectly safe; Dr. Everett gave it a thumbs-up."

He smiled at her tone this time -- it had a sarcastic, teasing quality, like the Allison he had married. "Old habits are hard to break, honey."

"Yeah, yeah." She grabbed the cream, slathered a goodly amount on the end of her fingers -- the cast covered her palm -- and began rubbing it into his flesh. Walt felt a shock from head to toe, not expecting her touch. He wasn't having a sexual reaction -- it was purely emotional as he felt the connection between them being restored. She rubbed more vigorously and he ignored the sensation of discomfort, concentrating on the intimacy of the action and how much he wanted to embrace her.

She accidentally scratched him and he did wince at that. "Oh, shit. I'm sorry, Walt -- I was rubbing too hard, wasn't I? I was ..." Allison wanted to shrink back him. She'd automatically applied the cream and now felt embarrassed... and fearful of stimulation she may have started. She purposely averted her eyes from his groin and muttered 'I'm sorry' again.

Walt stopped her as she tried to back away from him, twining his fingers around hers and drawing them to his lips, kissing each finger in turn. "Would you like me to return the favor?"

Every molecule in her body screamed 'no;' but the pleading look in Walt's eyes warmed her heart. Besides, it wasn't like he hadn't seen every part of her scarred body. "All right," she muttered, trying to smile.

He beamed, recognizing her reluctance and grateful that she was making this effort. He resolved to only moisturize what she offered - - which was her hand. Walt was more gentle with Allison's inflamed flesh than he was dabbing diaper rash medicine on Becky's bottom.

He hid his disappointment when Allison moved away from him, but smiled broadly again as she laid on the bed and wiggled her bare feet. Walt climbed onto the mattress, and ministered to her reddened soles. He felt the faint ridges left from the surgery and internally frowned -- her feet had been so sensitive before, and now were numb, like the rest of her unresponsive body.

"I think the real test of this cream is what it can do for my thigh."

Walt glanced up and saw that she'd parted her robe to reveal the onerous scar. And considering the depth of the original wound, he had to agree. He crawled further up the bed and sought something humorous to say before Allison's stalwartness disappeared. "I'd bet on results from this stuff more than that cellulite cream I've seen advertised." Weak, Walt, he told himself, but was pleased when he saw a shy smile cross his wife's lips, nonetheless.

He deliberately pulled the fabric back in place when he'd finished and waited as Allison's fingers hesitated on the tie. Walt placed his hand gingerly over hers and gazed into her eyes. "I love you, Allison. I always will... *nothing* will ever change that."

She knew what she *should* say, what was expected, what if nothing else was polite... and she still couldn't get it out. "I know." Oh, that's terrible, she chided herself. I can't leave it like that. "I--"

"Shhh." Walt caressed her cheek. "I know," he murmured. "Honey? Would it be all right if I held you? Just held you -- no strings?"

You screwed up before, Allison, she told herself. Here's your chance for atonement. "I'd like that, Walt."

She sat up and tried her damnedest not to tremble, tried to relax into his protection, into his love. It should have been easy, she attempted to convince herself, but it wasn't. Every lengthening second made her want to bolt more, made her want to be free from the constraint of his body. Tears started seeping from her eyes and she consciously pressed her tongue against her teeth to keep from telling him to let go.

Walt felt the surge of tension coursing through her body and barely stopped himself from holding her tighter. That may have been what *he* wanted, but he was sure it was wrong. He relaxed his grip till she was simply leaning against him, and after a few seconds, he felt her release the breath she'd been holding. Stanislav's legacy, Walt thought in disgust. My wife can't bear to be confined in any manner.

"I'm sorry about the shower, Walt."

He forced himself not to take her hands. "Honey, you already apologized... I told you I'll heal fine."

She sat up and turned to him. "No, not that. I mean I'm sorry about the burn, too... I'm sorry I misto--" God, Allison, you can't say 'mistook,' she admonished herself. "I'm sorry you were part of one of those damned hallucinations."

He knew he should accept the apology and not press the issue. But he'd wanted her to open up for weeks and this was his best opportunity. Be gentle, he told himself. "Did you actually see him when I was standing over you, honey?" Shit, Walt, that wasn't gentle, he mentally chided.

"Yes... no." Oh, I don't want to do this, she thought. Her body recoiled at the memory and began shuddering violently.

Walt stared at her glazed eyes and did what was instinctive -- he tried to take her in his arms.

"No!" she screamed. "Don't touch me." Allison rolled onto her side, curled in a ball and faced away from him, tears flowing.

Charlee and Amelia appeared at the door a few seconds later, eyes wide with concern, Jude right behind them. Walt tried to wave them away, but they wouldn't budge. He got up and went to the door.

"Why's Mom crying?" Charlee asked, tears forming in her own eyes as well as Amelia's.

Walt squatted and took their hands. "I stirred up a bad memory when I was trying to help her, sweetheart."

"Can we go see her?" Amelia asked.

He softly kissed both foreheads. "Sure."

He stood as they approached Allison and was envious as the girls were welcomed into their mother's arms -- envious and contented at the same time.

"Why don't you have a shirt on again?" Jude began, eyes incredulous. "You weren't actually trying to..." She lowered her head and Walt found himself shocked at the implication.

"Allison rubbed some cream on my shoulder," he replied, insulted that he was being asked to justify his state of undress.

He watched as his mother-in-law straightened, and gave her a minute measure of credit for not seeking confirmation of his words. "I'm sorry, Walt. Of course you wouldn't push her... I guess the tension is rubbing off on all of us... Do you think we were wrong to bring her here -- should we have taken her to a convalescent home?"

"No." Even if his voice was low, his tone was adamant. "Allison needs to be *here,* where she's loved, not someplace with an impersonal staff."

"Mommy? Will you read us a story?" Amelia pleaded, drawing everyone's attention.

Allison stroked her daughter's auburn hair, fatigue overwhelming, but not wanting to disappoint her.

"Amelia, honey," her grandmother called, "I know Mommy would love to read to you, but her doctor made us promise to see that she gets lots of rest."

The child contemplated the words, looking at each adult in turn. "Oh. After your nap, then?"

Allison kissed both girls' foreheads and managed a smile. "As long as it's not a tongue-twister, Sweetpea."

Both children beamed, kissed their mother's cheeks and left with their grandmother. Walt wandered back and sat uncertainly on the bed, reaching for his shirt and hoping in the time it took for him to put it back on, some inspirational words would come to mind.

They didn't.

"I'll go so you can rest," he mumbled to her back.

"You don't have to -- it's your room, too." Ugh, she thought, that was charming. "I'm going to change now. I had enough of living in a robe at the hospital."

Walt expected her to go into the bathroom and was bewildered when she stood and eased the sweat pants on in front of him. Not that he saw much with the bulky robe still shrouding her. She started to lower the robe then stopped, as if her courage had suddenly flagged.

"Promise you won't flinch or..." her voice trailed off. The robe slid down her back as she held her breath.

Walt crawled across the bed and gently stroked the scars, pausing to kiss her shoulder. "You're beautiful, Allison," he murmured. "Imperfections will never change that for me." Oh, Christ, Walt, he silently bemoaned. Could you make it sound more like all you see *are* the scars, you jerk?

The words battered her. She quickly pulled the robe up and faced him, lips quivering. "Is that how you see me now? Damaged goods?" Her voice trembled as much as her body and she didn't give him a chance to wedge his foot further. She started for the bathroom.

Unfortunately, Allison's dramatic exit was thwarted when her leg gave out. She stumbled, crying out in frustration as she broke her fall with her hands. Then she lay sprawled on the floor, right hand over her eyes.

Walt went to her and cautiously moved his body behind her -- on his knees -- relieved when she settled against his chest. Her right hand dropped to her lap from clutching the collar of her robe before she turned and clung to him, the unfastened robe sagging open. "Kiss me, Walt... like you used to... please."

He stared into her supplicating eyes as he caressed her cheek. "How can I?" he whispered.

She pulled away from him before he finished his sentence, clutched at her robe again and struggled to get up, hurt written all over her face.

He took her by the shoulders, carefully tilting her chin up and forcing her to gaze at him. "Honey... don't you think I want to? I desperately want to kiss you like that. But I can't as long as your jaw's wired."

She blinked a dozen times before the words hit home and then she collapsed against him, sobbing once more. How's he supposed to know what I mean when I don't? My God, I'm an idiot, she berated herself - - I'm not thinking rationally at all.

"Please, Walt... be patient with me. I know I'm not being consistent or reasonable and half the time I don't know what's going to come out of my mouth, what I feel or what I'm going to do--"

"Shhh, Allison," he said soothingly as he stroked her head. "It's okay... we'll work through it. Tell me what you want, what I can do... even if 30 seconds later, you change your mind."

She tilted her head back and shyly smiled. "How 'bout *two* seconds later?"

"Whatever," he assured, brushing his lips against hers. "Just don't shut me out, please?"

Her eyes lost confidence. "I'll... I'll try. But don't insulate me from... unpleasantness either, Walt."

He nodded, bitterness in his throat at what she meant.

Stanislav had pleaded not guilty to all crimes by reason of mental defect -- the same ploy he'd used before. Walt knew there was no way lightning could strike twice and contended that the plea was a way to further torment the family by dragging them through a trial. He'd also filed charges against Walt for assault, which no one corroborated.

Stanislav claimed that he'd inadvertently seen a copy of the Washington Post showing Skinner, Allison -- Basil -- and the children. That when he'd run into Ramon Lopez in the men's room the following day, his carefully regained sanity had cracked.

What sickened Walt was the fact that Stanislav seemed to have absorbed considerable psychological information during his time at Brannard. And instead of getting better, he was using it to expand his arsenal of tricks.

The media had somehow learned of Allison's pregnancy, and Stanislav had convinced his wet-behind-the-ears public defender to file a motion seeking custody of the child -- should it be his. Roz had scoffed and said it wasn't worth the paper it was written on -- a judge had wholeheartedly agreed and thrown the motion out, warning the PD against further nonsense.

Actually, Stanislav had named his parents as guardians -- a move that had infuriated them, as they'd disowned him as soon as evidence had borne out his crimes 11 years ago. But Stanislav's warped genius was earning him sympathy and the press lapped it up.

And those damned tapes -- not only did they show the brutal behavior that Allison 'begged for,' but also that Stanislav had been sporadically gentle and even kind. It had all been so carefully orchestrated, Walt thought, the progressive wording of affection on the notes, the intermittent profession of love for Allison in those last few days of her captivity.

And grotesquely, she'd repeated the verbiage on tape.

Walt had listened to audio only and even though he'd been prejudicial, it seemed plain to him that the words were uttered involuntarily.

Allison had blanched when questioned about it, and after a painful silence, had tearfully admitted to saying it -- adding that she'd hoped the whole episode had been a hallucination and that he'd threatened to molest both children in front of her if she didn't cooperate. Then she'd refused to discuss it with anyone but her therapist.

Walt cleared his throat and mind, seeking another topic. "Frank, um, gave me the name of another child psychologist -- he's supposed to be good."

"Oh." She got up, shed the robe and quickly donned the sweatshirt without glancing in his direction. "I think Dr. Jamsa will be, um, happy. She's been, uh, discouraged that the kids aren't making progress. She also said that Trev's and Amelia's nightmares might intensify once I'm home." Allison glanced at Walt and realized her news was superfluous. "Of course, you know that already."

He knew, and he wasn't sure how prepared he was to go through it again. Both children had woken up every night the first week they were home, crying and disoriented. That had tapered off to two to three times a week now, but Amelia had recently started wetting the bed. Neither child claimed to recall the specifics of the nightmares and that added to the difficulty of counteracting them. Walt could obviously guess the content, but most days he felt like he was putting together a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle with only 500 pieces and no idea what the image looked like.

"Frank told me his theory for Trev's, um, actions in here."

Allison's head jerked and then her eyes glazed. "Trev tried to tell me what happened before he fell asleep, but he seemed confused."

Walt stood up and shoved his hands in his pockets, staring at the floor. "Is it possible... I mean, do you think... could Trev have witnessed--"


His head came back up. "But if you were unconscious--"

"No!" Allison pulled on her short hair in exasperation.

Walt struggled to measure his next words, knowing he was dangerously close to quicksand. He pulled his hands to his mouth and took a deep breath.

"There would have been no point in raping me when I was unconscious," Allison coldly stated before Walt said anything more. "It would have taken away from his 'pleasure' if I wasn't able to feel pain. And as much as unconsciousness would have been a relief during," her eyes fiercely closed, "it never happened till he was done."

Walt took a few steps toward her and figuratively pushed again. "But that's just it, Allison. How can you know what happened when you were unconscious? How can you be sure Trev and Amelia didn't--"

"Because he would have recorded it!... And Roz would have told you."

Allison covered her face, slumped onto the bed and wished another batch of tears weren't threatening. "I'm tired, I want to sleep." In opposition to her words, she stood and began walking to the door.

He caught her hand and cringed as she withdrew it. "Where are you going?"

She folded her arms across her stomach and refused to meet his eyes. "I wanted to get Ian."

Walt knew -- one of the few things he knew with certainty -- that Allison felt especially protective of Ian now, having been in a perpetual state of anxiety over his whereabouts during the abduction. "I'll get him," he murmured and walked past her.

Walt purposely banged his head against the wall as soon as he was out of Allison's sight. I'm screwing everything up, he lamented to himself. Maybe I'd better see Kossoff after all.

Anthony shook the container of fish food over the aquarium and watched as the guppies hustled to get it. He lowered the screen top and secured it, hissing at Tabitha as she lurked nearby, licking her feline chops. Anthony peered into the tank and watched his pets a few moments, feeling himself calm down.

Trevor would stare at the aquarium for an hour at a time, seemingly trying to lose himself in the water's depth. Amelia could do the same thing with Buster, only she'd end up falling asleep with her arms draped around the beagle.

Anthony turned as his stepbrother began whimpering in his sleep and wished he was allowed to help him. Walt had expressly forbidden him from using his talent, even to help his siblings.

But his father didn't have to witness the way they were treated at school, didn't have to share a room with a near-zombie, didn't have trouble falling asleep because of Trevor's restless tossing and turning, only to be inevitably awakened by his crying.

Trevor whimpered again and Anthony made a decision, crossing the floor to sit on the edge of the bed.

Anthony had never tried this -- accessing thoughts in a dream -- and wasn't sure how to go about it. He concentrated his attention on Trevor and slowed his own breathing, closing his eyes after a few seconds, waiting. And then words began appearing in his mind.

Trevor woke with a start several minutes later and gaped at Anthony's stunned expression. He quickly grabbed for his glasses and hugged his pillow, not sure what had just happened.

"But... but that's... I mean I would have, um, thought it was, um, anatomically impossible," Anthony struggled. "Did he really, um, do, uh, that to Mom?"

Trevor's eyes constricted in confusion as he stammered a reply. "D-d-do w-w-what?"

Anthony swallowed slowly and finally understood why his father hadn't wanted him to do this. "What was in your dream."

Trevor's first impulse was to shrink away from the question, regardless of the fact that it didn't make sense. But he recognized the expression on Anthony's face -- it was the same one that had been on Amelia's when Stanislav had --

"I d-d-don't know. That man brought Mom into the room three times when she was unconscious and... and he had a sick smile on his face when he'd tell us what he'd done to her." Trevor's mind cleared and he stared at Anthony in belated fear. "How do you know what I dreamt?"

Anthony thought quickly as he struggled to block the echoing words of the dream from his mind. "You were talking in your sleep." Not actually a lie, as far as Anthony was concerned.

"Oh." Trevor glanced at the aquarium, then at a picture of Clare, Anthony and Walt next to it. He began to blush.

Anthony couldn't resist peeking into Trevor's mind another time and his eyes got large again. "Wow," he uttered in a whisper, swelling with pride. "Hey, Trev," he murmured. "Do you believe in ghosts?"

Trevor's eyes snapped back to him and the child absently wet his lips, hesitantly nodding.

"That's a relief," Anthony cautiously continued, not sure how to proceed again, but knowing he was going to draw out his stepbrother's apprehensiveness one way or another. "I, uh, never told you something... I've seen a ghost -- my mom, my *birth* mom."

Anthony instantly reached out and took Trevor's hand as the other boy began trembling. "R-r-really? W-w-when?"

"A couple of times. She helps me when I'm scared, makes me feel safe and protected, explains things to me." Anthony withdrew his hand and retrieved the picture -- it was the wrestling one where Clare was smiling down at Walt.

Trevor took the frame and touched the glass, trembling harder. "I saw her... s-s-she was in the forest." Once he started, the words kept rushing from Trevor's mouth, like water from a burst dam. "I-I-I thought I was hallucinating... like Mom had. Then my arm started hurting and she knelt beside me and touched it, and the pain stopped. She helped me up and told me not to be afraid anymore. And I saw the tape and ropes on the ground but I didn't remember how they'd come off. She smiled at me again and said not to worry about it. She took my hand and walked with me to a clearing and I saw," he swallowed quickly in astonished memory. "I saw another figure just like her leading Amelia."

Anthony batted at his tears as Trevor went on.

"I was so happy to see Amelia... I ran to her and picked her up and then we were both crying. She was bleeding from scratches and so was I, but I didn't remember any branches scraping me. And then the two figures of your, um, mum sorta merged into one and she wrapped her arms around us and told us to rest for a while, that she'd keep us safe and then guide us to the road." Trevor wiped tears from his eyes. "She smelled nice, like roses... like it'd smelled in the trunk of the second car after a while, when I started to feel sick."

"It was dark when I woke up, but I could see something bright, illuminating the woods. I remember thinking it was the wrong time for a full moon, then Amelia woke up. Your, uh, mum said it was time go. It was weird, walking... I knew the ground was hard and it was cold out, but I didn't feel any of it. It was like I was walking on air or something. Then we came to the edge of the forest and she pointed out the road and told us we should go back to sleep."

Trevor touched the image again. "When I woke up the second time, it was light. I tried to stand up but I felt faint and hungry and my arm hurt again. I couldn't get Amelia to wake up and I got scared." Tears started streaming down his face. "Then I smelled the roses again and I stumbled toward the road. I had a hard time concentrating 'cause I felt dizzy, but I heard a truck coming, then a sharp noise and I fell into a ravine... I tried to yell for help and after a while this strange lady was standing there and... and then I don't really remember."

Anthony wiped his own tears away and leaned forward to hug his stepbrother. Walt chose that moment to knock on the door. Anthony hollered 'Come in' and didn't care that he was going to be in big trouble.

Walt slumped onto the bed and tried to assimilate everything he'd just heard. Trevor had gone to get Amelia, to let her know it was all right to talk, so he said. Walt ran a hand across his mouth, his fingertips lingering on his chin. Anthony sat nervously further up the bed.

"You shouldn't have done that, Anthony. I expressly forbade you from--" Walt couldn't finish as he gazed into the solemn eyes of his son. "Promise me, *promise* me you won't go into Allison's mind."

"But Dad, it helped Trev -- maybe I could help Mom, too."

"No, Anthony," Walt firmly replied. "You're right, you helped Trev, and maybe now therapy can help him and Amelia. But it's not the same with Allison; she has to do it on her own."

Anthony's expression begged for explanation, but Trevor returned with a downcast Amelia and the topic was shelved.

In relatively short order, Walt learned about Bobby, who was a schoolmate of the boys. He'd been ridiculed and teased unceasingly because he claimed to have an imaginary friend. Bobby's parents had purportedly taken their child to a therapist -- a poor one, from what Walt gathered -- and the child had emerged from his sessions worse than when he'd started.

Trevor had feared the same would happen to them and had easily convinced Amelia -- who wasn't as sure of the events in the woods anyway -- to keep her mouth shut. And as far as Stanislav was concerned, each child reluctantly admitted -- with mental coaxing from Anthony -- they feared their nightmares would be more vivid if they discussed their emotions during the therapy sessions.

Walt shook his head sadly as he held both traumatized children. Trevor's intellect didn't insulate him from irrational reasoning, and Amelia trusted her big brother implicitly. But now that Walt knew the facts, he had higher hopes for their recovery.

Three weeks later, Monday, May 10, 1999

Walt held his pen poised over Scully and Mulder's latest report. It was concise, scientific and nearly free of paranormal supposition - - well, two outta three ain't bad, Walt connsidered.

Mulder had proven invaluable with the kids over the past weeks, providing them with a necessary outlet for their encounter with Clare. The new therapist -- suggested by Dr. Frank -- was helping them make tremendous progress in other areas, too. And Allison appeared to be slowly blooming herself.

She still refused to talk to him directly about the torture, but she was regaining her equilibrium and getting more comfortable with his affection each day. No longer did she shrink from his hugs, and just this past weekend, she'd voluntarily snuggled against his body and fallen asleep that way.

She also felt more at ease with her cast gone and was interested in food now that the wires had come off her jaw. Maybe she'll finally gain some weight, Walt thought -- the pregnancy was possibly at its ninth week.

Walt was giving her as much emotional room as he could, resolved to wait till *she* decided she was ready to open her soul. He'd had two sessions with Karen Kossoff so far and felt more balanced.

His door opened suddenly and he immediately frowned as Roz entered, sheaf of official-looking documents in her hands and a scowl all over her face.

"That son of a bitch is at it again," she spat.

Walt knew instantly who she meant and picked up the papers she'd thrown on his desk. He own face flushed with anger as he read the words.

"That's a fucking load of shit!" He tempered his emotions a notch. "No judge is going to grant that."

"No -- but it should get that adolescent PD sanctioned for having the nerve and/or stupidity to draft it."

Stanislav had managed to coerce his public defender into filing a motion seeking visitation rights with Allison during the pregnancy, so he could spend 'time' with the unborn child. He'd already gone on record as being against the fetoscopic test, having discovered through a prison library medical book that the procedure carried a 3 to 5 percent miscarriage risk -- and he supposedly hated to put Allison through that. His 'generosity' ended at having her give a judge's chamber deposition instead of being cross-examined in open court, however.

Stanislav already had a loyal legion of 'moronic and sick neophytes' -- as Walt called them -- who were sure he was misunderstood and could be saved in their tender, loving care. He was milking their sympathy and had marriage proposals stacking up. The manipulated women were even writing letters to Allison, pleading with her to continue the pregnancy.

So far, none had come to the house -- just a matter of time, Walt assumed -- but the Skinners had changed phone numbers to avoid the crank calls. All of Stanislav's mail was screened -- in and out - - and his phone calls monitored. And he wass obscenely careful not to encourage any of his minions to harass Allison.

He'd been through several psych evaluations and while the doctors agreed he was disturbed, none had opined clinically insane -- shake enough baskets, though, and a snake was likely to emerge, Walt uncharitably reasoned.

The press was hanging onto every nuance of the case and stopping barely short of harassment themselves. Walt had learned that more than one agent involved in the investigation had been surreptitiously approached to leak footage from the tapes -- and was relieved to know that not one had complied.

"God damn it!" Walt kicked his chair and removed his glasses. "How am I supposed to tell Allison about this? She's just starting to get on an even keel, this is going to set her back weeks." He rubbed his fingers across the bridge of his nose and then over his eyebrows. "What did the DA have to say about this?"

"That if the judge doesn't find the PD in contempt, he's an ass of questionable parentage -- that's off the record, of course. They're set to meet later this afternoon."

Walt replaced his glasses and braced his palms on the desk. "I have to tell Allison this in person." He crossed behind his desk to retrieve his trenchcoat. "And I have to do it now, before some informant leaks it to the press and they get to her first. Call me on my cell phone when the judge tosses that PD in jail."

45 Minutes Later

Walt meandered down the hall and stopped at the doorway to the family room, smiling. Allison, Ian and Becky were asleep. Ian's head was cocked at an angle that made Walt's own neck hurt. Becky was snuggled into the crook of her mother's left arm while Allison was on her side, right arm resting protectively across their daughter's hip.

They looked serene and Walt hated to disturb them -- then he saw Becky's head bob up, her luminous eyes crinkling at him as he walked to the sofa. He sat on the edge of the coffee table as she started to make wet, razzing noises at him.

"Shhh, Sweetpea... you'll wake up Mommy," he cooed.

"Too late," Allison murmured, rolling carefully onto her back. Walt reached over her and lifted Becky to him. "What are you doing home so early?" she yawned.

"Felt like it," he shrugged, hoping to seem nonchalant. "It's a beautiful day and I thought we could corral the kids and go for a drive or something... just get out of the house for a while."

Ian's eyelids fluttered, then opened a crack. He mumbled, 'Hi, Daddy,' rolled over and went back to sleep.

Allison grimaced as she sat up, hands on her stomach.

"More nausea, honey?"

She nodded, still frowning. "And Ian accidentally kicked my side earlier -- it feels a little tender, almost like a cramp."

Walt jiggled Becky on his knee, carefully keeping her away from his face. In the last two days, she'd begun trying to grab for his glasses. He watched as Allison gingerly rubbed her side some more and was loath to add to her discomfort.

"I don't think I feel up to a drive, Walt."

A small explosive sound came from Becky's general direction and Walt hastily stood, holding her at arm's length. An accompanying aroma soon followed and he wrinkled his nose.

"Green beans," Allison informed him.

"Oooh, pew," Ian contributed, waking up again.

"I'll go change Becky," Walt offered as Allison yawned again. "Why don't you try to go back to sleep, honey. I'll pick the kids up from school."

One hour, 20 Minutes Later

Walt scowled as he drove the van into the garage. First, Amelia's teacher had wanted to talk to him -- and talk and talk -- then some idiot had rear-ended the van at a stop sign and they'd been hung up waiting for the police.

Walt had told Allison to ignore the doorbell and phone while he was gone -- to just rest. She'd arched an eyebrow questioningly as he'd kissed her forehead, but not asked why. Plus, he'd wanted to get back before Becky's next feeding -- to give Allison a break -- and hoped he hadn't missed it.

Walt approached the steps, kids in tow, and could hear their daughter howling. Guess I didn't miss her feeding after all, he reasoned. They entered in time to see Allison grip the counter, then drop the plastic warming cup that held the baby bottle. She doubled over -- clearly in pain -- and Walt dashed to her side.

Oh, God, he thought in a split second, what now?

Her features were already pale and a glimmer of sweat began framing her face -- followed by tears. "Why is this happening to me?" she moaned in his arms while he yanked the cell phone from his coat pocket. "When is it going to end?"

The children fanned out around them, eyes huge. "Take the bottle and go feed your sister," Walt basically instructed all of them. "Move!"

Then the 911 operator came on the line.

Three Days Later

Allison stared out the passenger window as Walt drove them home. He tried to take her hand, but she pulled it away without looking at him. He supposed he couldn't really blame her for her present mood -- two of Stanislav's 'disciples' had accosted her as she'd waited for him to bring the car around.

Walt had arrived in time to see Allison's nurse trying to fend the women off. And he'd been in time to hear one of them condemn Allison for 'killing the child.' He'd bitten his tongue to keep from yelling at the woman as he'd sprung from the car. Allison had fixed him with a look that he'd painfully interpreted as 'Can't you protect me from *anything*?' Then she'd regained her composure and acidly told the woman that if she was so anxious to raise the child of a murderer, to get herself a conjugal visit with Stanislav and let him rape and mutilate *her.*

Now, Walt watched her from the corner of his eye and loured as she kept one hand protectively over her stomach -- not that it could do any good, since she'd miscarried.

She'd had what was referred to as an ectopic pregnancy. The sharp pain she'd felt had been one of her fallopian tubes rupturing -- the thin-walled passageway wasn't designed to accommodate a growing embryo. By the time the ambulance had reached the hospital, she'd lost a significant percentage of her blood volume again. Walt hadn't realized how serious the matter had been since she was hemorrhaging internally.

When she'd regained consciousness that night -- after surgery to remove the damaged tube -- Allison's only question had been: 'Whose child?' Walt had been uncomfortable telling her that the fetus' blood type had been B-negative -- Stanislav's. No further testing had been deemed necessary.

For her sake, Walt vehemently wished he could feel genuine pain for the death of the child, but couldn't. Pain for *Allison's* suffering absolutely, whole-heartedly, without a doubt -- but he couldn't mourn the loss of Stanislav's bastard.

Since losing the baby, Allison had taken numerous steps backward. She spoke to him in monosyllables and only when she had to. She was equally likely to yell, laugh or cry at whatever was said, regardless of content. The kids would try to cheer her up, only to be depressed themselves by the time they left. And she was back to showing no interest in food.

Everything about her behavior was more in keeping with how Walt had thought she'd respond immediately after being rescued. Jamsa -- Allison's therapist -- had warned him of a period of denial and stalwartness that would precede Allison's true long-term recovery. Kossoff had talked about what she coined 'the reverse artichoke syndrome' -- something she'd said was prevalent with the top FBI brass ... something that Walt was guilty of.

Instead of dealing with disturbing issues, 'RASers' simply buried them -- sort of like sweeping dirt under a rug. The more disturbing, the thicker or more numerous the layers. Over time, the strata fanned out and obscured the person's inner self. In Allison's case, Kossoff had reasoned -- she'd been given permission to review her file -- the new layers had instantly developed out of necessity to preserve herself. They could either be slowly removed with patience and tenderness, or be shirred off in one fell swoop. She'd highly advocated the former technique... and not just for Allison.

Unfortunately, miscarrying the child seemed to have had the equivalent effect of stripping all the new coatings and dissolving some old ones, too... leaving Allison like a raw nerve. Walt's job was to fastidiously sheath her in nearly transparent veneers, help her attain a new version of her former self. Neither Kossoff nor Jamsa said it would be easy or pleasant.

As he pulled into their driveway, Walt decided refinishing the family room's rolltop desk -- with its myriad of cubbyholes and accordion-style cover -- would be less taxing... but not nearly as rewarding.

Allison wished she felt beyond caring about anything, wished the numbness that had shrouded her before would return. But now she had the opposite problem -- distorted, heightened sensitivity. She hated to be touched -- no matter how gentle, it felt like thousands of needles were being callously injected. Voices -- even Walt's most soothing tone -- grated on her. Sounds in general were grotesquely amplified -- so much so that she had difficulty discerning questions directed at her from the general cacophony. The only way she could sleep was with sedatives, and then nightmares haunted her.

The final straw was that her lengthening hair had started falling out from the new level of stress. It was this last indignity that broke the camel's back and turned her thoughts toward suicide.

The idea had seemed attractive... before some vestiges of rationality had surfaced. What about all the efforts of the medical personnel who saved my life twice? she'd thought. The stigma the kids would face? The additional pain Walt would wallow in?

But what had finally swayed her against committing suicide was the belief that it would give Stanislav pleasure -- and she never wanted him to feel that again. She wanted him to be miserable all the hopefully few remaining days of his life. And the one thing that would do that was for her and Walt to appear truly united -- stronger than ever.

Allison shuddered as that way out returned to her mind, though, knowing that recanting before the jury and Walt what Stanislav had done to her would be excruciating.

Thursday, June 3, 1999

Walt stared at the report in his hands as Scully and Mulder left. Scully had done the difficult autopsy in record time, though he was sure she'd been her usual thorough self. It had to have been straightforward -- one look at the body had been enough for him to know the cause of death... even if it had seemed unreal.

He slumped in his chair and dropped the report on his desk. One nightmare over and another continuing -- maybe that one can finally go away, he thought. Walt glanced at his wedding picture and stroked the image of Allison's face. "I hope you can find peace now, honey," he murmured. "You won't have to testify... he can't hurt you anymore."

Walt turned back to the file and flipped the cover open, his eyes instantly seeking the box labeled 'Cause of Death.' It was such an ancient method -- it conjured up visions of days long gone. He read the words and pondered them in his mind, thought about the rate of death and the probable, excruciating pain that had gone with it. He allowed a single, grim smile to cross his lips before resolving to add another artichoke layer, despite what Kossoff said.

The pertinent facts from Scully's report were thus: Bertram Stanislav -- male, aged 41 -- had been crushed to death. She'd determined that a sheet of plywood had been laid over his restrained body and increasing amounts of weights piled on it until literally every bone from his neck down had fractured, not to mention the destruction of blood vessels and internal organs.

Giles Corey, Walt distractedly thought. Giles Corey had been the elderly man who'd been 'pressed' during the Salem witch trials. An innocent... suffering tragically because of the hysterical rantings of deluded teenagers. Walt tried to picture what Corey looked like before he'd been included in the madness and found his mind turning to another... a man who wasn't innocent, a man who'd given him horrifying news.

+ + + + + +

Two days earlier

Walt was jogging by the elementary school -- in the dark. The trial was due to start the next day and he couldn't bear the palpable tension in the house any longer. He'd finally read the transcripts from Allison's therapy sessions and been sleepless for several nights running because of it. And he didn't know how he'd be able to breathe once any portion of the tapes were made public.

The DA had unsuccessfully gotten a motion to air the footage of Allison professing her love for Stanislav suppressed. The new public defender had argued that his client's precarious state of mind had been fueled by her desire for the sadistic sex and that her admission of love proved that she was a willing partner.

Walt hadn't known how the PD had managed to argue this opinion without gagging.

Allison's mother and sister had wanted to fly in for support -- to help Allison maintain hold of her own legitimately precarious emotions -- but he'd assured them that it would only make matters worse.

Allison was more solitary and introverted than ever and Walt was leaving her be. His attempts at building her up had appeared to go well -- too well, Kossoff had informed him. It was her opinion -- and Jamsa concurred -- that Allison was simply going through another period of denial. One such cycle was a normal reaction, but a second implied stalled recovery.

Walt unconsciously slowed near a limousine, but was still so absorbed in his thoughts that he didn't see the man circle the vehicle till he was grabbed by the throat.

"What the hell?!" he muttered before getting a close look at his assailant -- Alex Krycek.

Walt prepared to fight as the darkened window was powered down. "Please enter the automobile, Mr. Skinner."

Walt knew that voice. Krycek released his hold and motioned to the door. Walt warily entered the vehicle while Alex joined them.

"You need to find a better class of friends," Walt said through gritted teeth.

Alex sneered. "You should know that politics and business make strange bed-fellows, Skinner."

The WMM tiredly raised his eyes. "Really, Mr. Krycek... I would expect something more poetic from you than a trite expression."

"What do you want?" Walt demanded.

The WMM ignored him. "Alex, leave us."

Walt expected the younger man to argue and was surprised when he meekly complied.

"Now then, Mr. Skinner... would you believe me if I said I was genuinely relieved and pleased that Allison was--"

"No," Walt interrupted, sitting on the edge of the expensive upholstery.

"Of course," the older man solemnly answered. "I am, but I'll dispense with the platitudes and come directly to the point. While I am confident that our oftentimes misguided judicial system will reach the correct ruling in Mr. Stanislav's case, it will take too much time. And because he is purportedly clever, he'll likely find a way to clog the system with appeals before his inevitable, humane execution. I cannot allow that to happen."

The WMM checked his Rolex as Walt continued to be suspicious. "What are you talking about?"

"Three minutes ago," he elucidated, "a fire broke out in the correctional facility confining Stanislav. Men -- under my orders -- have already removed him from the building."

Walt stared at him with incredulous eyes.

"He will be held at an isolated location and allowed to contemplate his mortality before the error of his ways is 'ground' into him. He will be released when the lesson is concluded."

Walt's eyes glazed for several seconds before he finally spoke, his voice choking. "That's cold-blooded murder... I won't be a party to it nor condone it."

"You misunderstand, Mr. Skinner. I'm neither seeking your approval nor asking your involvement -- and I never said anything about 'murder.' You are free to do whatever you wish with the information."

"Thanks," Walt sarcastically replied. "And dig my *own* grave by revealing knowledge I can't substantiate?... Why the hell alert me to this? Because you want something in return?"

"All I want, Mr. Skinner, is for you and your family to suffer no further from this maniac's behavior."

"And why should I believe that? Why believe you give a damn about my family?" Walt struggled to control his mounting anger, especially as the WMM managed to act as though they were mundanely discussing the weather.

"All you need to know is that I do," he evenly replied.

The WMM began moving his hand to the window controls and Walt quickly halted him.

"Stop. Not good enough," he hissed.

Walt continued to apply pressure to the older man's wrist and the latter acquiesced after long seconds. "You have a powerful grip, Mr. Skinner -- I once had the same... Now I must ask you to release me... I have enough difficulty producing healthy red bloods cells with spherocytosis. I don't need you destroying them."

Walt dropped his hand away in disgust. Now he was supposed to feel sorry for the man because he had -- he had what?

"Family is very important, *Walter.* You need to love and cherish your wife and children... the way I wasn't able to with Angelica. Instill in Anthony and Rebecca the values and morals that your own adopted parents gave you. The kind I would have imparted to y--... to my own son... had I chosen a different 'profession.'"

Walt's head and stomach were reeling. Oh, God, he thought, this sanctimonious bastard can't be implying that he's my biological father. It's... it's too cruel and sickening.

+ + + + + +

Walt was forced back to reality as the pencil in his hand snapped in half, a splinter of wood piercing his thumb. He automatically removed the piece and angrily grabbed a tissue to staunch the flow of blood, letting his mind drift again.

He'd stumbled from the limo seconds later and not looked back, willing himself not to throw up anywhere near it. He'd managed to get home and found Allison and children in a panic as Agent Moskal plus four members of the New Carrollton police arrived with news of Stanislav's disappearance from the prison. Moskal's wife had apparently begged him not to go and Allison had leaned on him reflexively. The act alone had shredded Walt's still-wounded heart more, and he realized in Allison's eyes, he'd failed her once again.

She'd willingly fled the house this time and Walt could swear that she hadn't stopped trembling until Stanislav's body had been recovered early this morning. Which hadn't helped her plummeting weight, either.

In addition, in the last day, two other criminals that Walt had apprehended had died -- one from a 'natural' heart attack and one during an escape attempt -- which looked mightily suspicious to the FBI's OPC.

Walt tended to the wound on his thumb and wondered how soon AD Bryant would be clamoring for an investigation into his possible involvement. Good, bad or indifferent, Walt had informed Director D'Hanis, Roz, Scully and Mulder of his conversation with the WMM regarding Stanislav.

And, as if they didn't have enough to worry about, Basil had been making admittedly apologetic requests to take his children for the summer -- Trevor, Amelia and Ian had not been scheduled to testify. Walt knew Basil feared for their continued safety and was concerned himself that Basil would try to wrest full custody from Allison. Walt knew it would kill her, but by the same token, how could he fault Basil for wanting to protect his children?

A further check to his thumb revealed that the blood flow had been staunched, so Walt entered his executive bath and rooted through the first-aid kit, applying some antiseptic, then a bandage. He glanced at himself and scowled -- Allison wasn't the only one who was still losing weight.

In his case, it wasn't so much weight as muscle tone. These days, Walt barely jogged more than twice a week -- instead of six times -- and his attempts at weight-lifting were getting fewer and farther between. Since Allison was loath to leave the yard, he was doing all the shopping and errands -- which left him little time for anything else besides work, the garden and sleep.

They were having another bumper year with the fruit and vegetables. Walt hadn't been sure the initial effort was worthwhile, but tending to the plants and trees seemed to give the whole household a sense of peace.

He checked his watch and decided it was close enough to quitting time and headed home.

Allison gazed at the laundry she'd just sorted and bit her lip - - somehow she'd managed to sort it by ownerr, instead of color. She pulled the items out of the smaller bins and shoved them onto the island, then knocked them onto the floor, covering her face as another stream of tears escaped.

The bastard was really dead... she wouldn't have to bare her soul to strangers or Walt about what he'd done to her... and the psychopath's legacy was gone, too. So now I can finally, truly heal, right? she asked herself.

If only it were that easy.

Dr. Jamsa had opined that Allison had begun 'superficial' healing for the sake of everyone but herself -- first for the baby, then to show solidarity for the trial. Allison had known she was right, but hated to admit it -- now she felt completely directionless and uncertain how to proceed.

She gazed around for several, long moments and made a decision to set some tiny goals for the short term just to get going -- as opposed to stagnating any further. And the first obvious goal was to gather up all the laundry again and sort it properly. "Second," she mumbled aloud, "is give up the spotless clean house compulsion, third, start making dinner again and fourth, try to balance out the day energy-wise."

Allison sighed. She was such a wuss for setting such trivial, everyday functions as goals. She leaned against the sorting island and tugged the scarf from her head. Once a substantial chunk of her hair had fallen out, she'd opted to get the rest shaved. And after nearly three weeks, the new growth was still itchy. She was glad no mirror was available, because she hated to see herself bald... though it was better than the mangy look.

Teresa had gotten her a wig -- for the trial -- but Allison preferred not to wear it at home.

"Now there's a goal," she uttered. "Put that wig on and go shopping for some clothes -- nothing even remotely fits anymore." 'Cept the few outfits Teresa bought, she mentally continued.

"Hey, Mom?" Trevor called down the stairs.

And figure out what to do with the kids all summer, she added. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad to let Basil take them for a few weeks, she pondered as footsteps approached. She quickly donned the scarf again.

"What, Trev?"

"Oh, I wasn't sure you'd heard me," he replied as he entered the room. "Can we have pizza tonight?"

The kids had gotten used to Walt's style of cooking -- burgers and hot dogs on the grill, salads, take-out and pizza -- plus they'd gotten spoiled by room service the last few days.

"I was thinking more along the line of stuffed shells... provided we have all the ingredients."

Trevor's eyes lit up as he reached her. "Really? Can we have sausage in 'em? I know Uncle Walt bought sausage."

Allison wrapped her arms around her son and kissed his head. "Sure, honey. Why don't you corral your brothers and sisters and scrounge in the garden. I'll steam up some broccoli, cauliflower and carrots." Trevor wriggled his nose while his mother smiled. "And see what berries are ripe -- we can have shortcake."

Walt eased into the garage, trying to force himself into a positive mood. Maybe he'd try something more complicated for dinner, since he was home a good half-hour early. He exited his vehicle and glanced out the building's back window, catching sight of movement. He tilted his head and sniffed at the warm, pleasing aroma. Teresa must have beaten me to dinner, he thought.

This isn't so bad, Allison pondered as she stirred the sausage, the pasta and then went back to mixing the shortcake batter. The microwave dinged to let her know the sauce had thawed and she paused to fork through the semi-frozen ricotta cheese on her way to retrieve the jar. Dovetailing, that's the word for doing several things at once, she mused. And multiple cooking tasks almost keeps my mind too busy to think of -- she frowned as she dumped the sauce into a large pot -- well, *almost* too busy to think of Stanislav, she finished.

Walt sauntered in a few seconds later, his mood noticeably brighter as what the kids had told him was true. He stopped to kiss Becky's head as she bounced in her Exersaucer and beamed at Allison. "Sure smells good in here, honey."

Allison gazed at him and was briefly taken aback at how transparently happy he seemed... just 'cause she was making dinner again, just 'cause she was acting more like her old self. He took his glasses off and the bandage on his thumb was visible. She wiped her hands on a dishcloth and rounded the island.

"What happened to your hand?"

He laid his glasses on the table and warmed to her concerned tone. "Carelessness."

Allison instantly pressed her lips to his thumb and he was unnerved by the resulting jolt through his body. The jolt intensified exponentially when she lifted her lips to his and kissed him, none too chaste.

Walt forced himself to hold back and his body sent up an immediate protest. She leaned away from him and he saw her need for approval and reassurance. He tenderly cupped her chin and kissed her back, afterward wrapping his arms around her and murmuring in her ear, "I'm gonna start leaving the office early every day if I can get welcome-homes like that."

She smiled shyly and pulled back, stirring the sausage. "It'll be a good 45 minutes before dinner's ready. Why don't you relax for once?"

He grinned and squeezed her hand. "I need to go a few rounds with the weights... especially since I know I'll have second helpings," he finished with a twinkle.

Walt was having the best night in recent memory. It was a quarter after 10 and Allison was still up. To be accurate, she was asleep, her head resting on his shoulder, but she'd routinely gone to bed by 9:30, too exhausted to last any longer than that. She'd start out the day seemingly fine, then go through an almost obsessive- compulsive cleaning routine -- not even the industrious spiders could keep up with her. By five o'clock, she'd be wiped out and mope around till she went to bed.

And glancing around the family room, Walt saw no reason to believe that she hadn't blitzkrieged the house after he'd dropped everybody off that morning. He laid his head against hers and unconsciously clinched her tighter, frowning as his hand -- resting along her abdomen -- too easily felt her ribs.

Stop being negative, he admonished silently. She's snuggling with you and she actually *ate* dinner, in addition to making it.

He wanted to bask in the shared closeness and griped to himself as pressure in his bladder indicated that movement would be necessary. Walt hurried to the bathroom; he had no sooner begun than the phone rang. This time, he swore out loud and stumbled from the bathroom, even as the ringing stopped and he heard Allison's sleepy voice mumble.

He advanced to the family room in time to hear her end of the conversation.

"It's fine, B, don't apologize," Allison responded between yawns.

Walt couldn't understand why Basil would be calling -- he'd already spoken to him earlier that day. Oh, shit, Walt grunted to himself, he'd better not be advocating taking the kids again.

"That's great, B... I'm happy for you." Her tone was lacking in enthusiasm, whatever the news, Walt noted. "I understand fully... maybe toward the end of the summer. Tell Lois I sympathize. 'Bye."

Allison didn't wait for Walt to ask. "Lois is pregnant. Seems rotten, all-day sickness runs in her family the first four months or so. And since Basil used the majority of his vacation time running out here..." she paused, turning her head away. "Lois won't be in any shape to watch the kids till August at any rate, so we'll just have to put up with 'em."

Walt nodded solemnly as he switched off the only lamp that was turned on in the room, then casually enveloped her. He felt a tiny shudder run through Allison's body and reminded himself not to hug tightly. They'd never discussed the difficulty of her conceiving another child -- their conversations still tended to have cumbersome pauses -- though he assumed she was thinking along those lines now.

"Let's go upstairs. It's past your bedtime," he quipped.

Walt watched Allison go through her nightly routine as he brushed his own teeth. The sight of her crew-cut hair didn't bother him, but he couldn't stop grinning at the memory of the kids volunteering to shave their heads to make her feel more comfortable. The offer hadn't been truly serious -- the older boys remembered an NFL quarterback had done it for his son who'd had a brain tumor -- but it had produced a rare, genuine smile from Allison. Walt had seriously told her he'd do it if she wanted, even though he knew it would unnerve his co-workers. How can one strip of hair make such a difference, he thought, gazing at himself.

"I didn't realize I wanted another child till Basil called," Allison said out of the blue. "Guess it's like Dana said, you don't know you want a baby till you know you can't have one."

Walt stared at her in wonder, toothbrush hanging from his mouth, contemplating the significance of the words. He knew Scully had followed through with his request that she talk to Allison about their abduction commonality -- talked to her several times in the last months -- but he had no idea they'd discussed having children.

"Shit, I shouldn't have said that -- s-s-she told me that in confidence." Allison leaned against the sink and started crying.

Walt got rid of the toothbrush, gently turned her and folded his arms around her. "I've been known to keep a secret or two, honey," he attempted to joke. She gazed at him through tear-rimmed eyes and he stopped himself from automatically brushing her nonexistent hair aside. "It's not impossible for us to have another child." Just potentially gut-wrenching, worrying about the repeat incidence of a tubal pregnancy, he thought -- then there's the matter of sex.

"Now, Walt. I wanna try *now.* "

She plastered her lips against his before he had a chance to respond, grabbing at his shirt frantically. Walt knew it was all wrong -- he could feel her urgency, but was positive it was mixed solely with fear, not passion. Please don't do this, Allison, he pleaded silently as he caught her hands and stilled them.

He leaned away from her and gazed at her confused eyes. "It's too soon, honey," he whispered, swallowing hard. "You're... you're not ready."

She pulled her hands up to bat at her tears. "But I'm healed from the surgery, it's all right."

"No, honey, it's... it's not that." And you know it, he added mentally.

Allison withdrew from him, anger overtaking her tears. "It's the scars, isn't it? You won't have sex with me because of how my body looks."

He winced at her accusation, but also at her choice of words -- 'have sex' clearly told him that psychologically she viewed the act as emotionless, a duty.

He took her first by the shoulders, then cupped her chin. "I love you, Allison... but I won't *make love* with you until you're emotionally ready."

She knocked his hand away. "How do you know I'm not ready? Because Jamsa or Kossoff say I'm not? You want me to let you in, let you heal me... then *do* this for me. *Show* me that you love me."

Walt could feel his own anger stoking and struggled to dampen it as he moved three paces away from her. "It doesn't work that way."

Allison stripped off her nightshirt and Walt looked away immediately. She stomped over to him. "Look at me. Look!" Walt steadfastly stared at his feet. Without further preamble, she struck him across the cheek. "You bastard. You're nothing but talk; when the time comes for action, you fold up like a... like a..." She didn't finish and began beating her fists against his chest and shoulders.

Walt grabbed her gently by the wrists. "I love you, Allison, and that will never change. And if the only way you'll believe it is to have me perform an act you're not ready for, I'm sorry... I can't do it." He released her and went to the door. "I'm genuinely sorry, Allison... for both of us."

He had a parting view of her sobbing as she sank onto the whirlpool's edge, before he faltered down the stairs. Walt didn't stop till he'd reached the back porch, Buster whipping past him.

As he distractedly waited for the dog to do his business, Walt gazed at the neighbor's yard, motion lights shedding light on it. It looked much emptier since they'd taken a large silver maple down. The neighbor had mentioned they'd originally planned to have it trimmed, but closer inspection had determined that the root system was damaged and the whole thing would die in a few years -- so they'd decided to remove it now.

Walt remembered his thoughts of the tree at the hospital and wondered yet again if Allison was too traumatized to make a full recovery, with or without him. If he let her go, could she put everything behind her and have a life? He banged his head against a post, knowing *he* had no chance at happiness without her.

"You really need to find a better way to channel your emotions, mon cher."

Walt's head snapped up. "Clare."

Buster came charging back to the porch, scratching at the door to go in. Walt stared at Clare's form as it transcended the wood and glass before he followed in a more conventional manner.

The dog noisily lapped up water before taking off for parts unknown while Walt set the security system again. This was his chance to ask a myriad of questions... but would he get any answers?

"I know you feel like you're getting nowhere, Walt, just as I know patience isn't your long suit. But everything *will* work out for the best."

"When?" he moaned. "I feel like I'm spinning my wheels all the time. Allison makes some definitive forward progress, I get to enjoy it, then she overreaches and we end up fighting." Clare's form gazed at him reproachfully. "What?"

"Think about what you just said... and how self-centered it makes you sound. Recovery is a long, painful process, Walt; you can't think of it as a quick fix -- either one of you. You're both so busy looking for shortcuts that you're undermining each other. You're both so used to knowing what the other is thinking that now you constantly misunderstand each other."

Walt turned his head away, a petulant expression on his face. Clare's form approached him and 'forced' his chin up. "You wouldn't look at her body because it hurts to see her so thin -- *I* know that, but she doesn't and she told you her fear."

"And I never contradicted her," he groaned, covering his face. His thoughts shifted to a subject he hated to discuss -- but she was the only one he could ask. "Is it true about that... man? Is he my father?"

"From a genetic standpoint only, mon cher -- from every other perspective, Niko Skinner was your father, and Oliver would be the first to admit that." Walt shuddered, not willing to humanize the man by knowing his first name. "I know you revile him, Walt -- he knows that, too -- but please believe that he genuinely cares about you and your family. And please remember that sometimes it's necessary to sleep with a pit of vipers to gather beneficial venom."

Walt shook his head, thinking she sounded just as obscure as 'Oliver.'

Her form started to dissipate. "One more thing, mon cher -- even artichokes reach a point when they can't expand anymore; then they rot from the inside out. You have people willing to help you, accept it."

Allison splashed cold water in her face, then sat on the edge of the whirlpool again. She'd redonned the nightshirt and absently tugged on the hem, berating herself still. What the hell was I thinking -- throwing myself at him? Why did I do that? Put Walt in a position to reject me.

She felt a warmth spread through her before she heard the voice. "Because it's easier to deal with someone else rejecting you than rejecting yourself."

Allison looked at Clare's apparition, then covered her face. Of course Clare would 'appear,' she thought -- what else could make this night surreal? I'm getting marital advice from my husband's wife's ghost. "Why did you save me, Clare? Why didn't you let me die?"

"You weren't going to die, Allison -- I stopped nothing. I simply tempered the physical damage."

Allison stared across the room. .".. I was sure I hallucinated your presence those last days. Then when Walt told me about how you helped Trev and Amelia, I... I didn't know what to think."

"They would have been found the following day by some hikers," Clare informed her. Allison nodded blindly, already beginning to retreat into herself again. "Allison, you need to talk about my being with you--"

"To Agent Mulder? I know he *did* help Trev and Amelia and he'd undoubtedly be sympathetic..."

Clare sighed. "Not Mulder, Allison; unless you want to hurt Walt. You don't have to tell Walt any of the circumstances, but the longer you keep it bottled up, the worse off you'll be."

"Can't you tell..." She gazed at Clare's arched eyebrow and didn't finish. "I guess that would defeat the purpose." Allison clutched the fiberglass. "At least you aren't pushing me to tell him everything or blame him."

Clare's form began disappearing as Allison heard Walt's heavy tread. "You know what to do in your heart, Allison."

Friday, July 30, 1999

Walt felt sweat trickling down his neck as he exited his vehicle, tossing his suit coat over his arm. He contemplated air conditioning for the garage but realized he'd have to construct a passageway to the house to make it worthwhile.

It was 6:18p.m. and the temp was still in the 90s... with the humidity not far behind. He mounted the backporch steps and doubted running shorts and a gallon of ice water would get him to jog before 10 or 11. Have to start using the indoor track at work, he thought with disfavor.

He entered the house and savored the rush from the cold air -- till he realized that he hadn't felt it that artificially cold since the night Clare faked her death.

Walt hurried over to the thermostat -- it read 60 degrees and was set at 58. "Why the hell did Allison do that?" he muttered. The children had been threatened from here till Sunday about messing with it, so Walt assumed Allison had adjusted it.

Charlee came shivering into the kitchen. "Would you fix the temperature, Uncle Walt; I'm fr-fr-freezing."

"I just did, Charlee. Where's Mom?" Before she could answer, he frowned as the unit was still running. Walt crossed back to the wall and tried to shut the system off entirely -- it didn't work. "What the --?" he muttered again.

"Mom's in the basement," Charlee offered through chattering teeth. "She went down about a half hour ago, started swearing and we all decided to stay clear."

Wise move, Walt thought to himself. Allison no longer cried, she fumed and sputtered. "I'll check it out. Meanwhile, put a sweater on." A sweater, in July, he thought, shaking his head.

Once downstairs, he approached the laundry room door cautiously, with a furtive step. "Whoever you are, go away," Allison snarled as she ripped into a roll of paper towel and stalked toward the freezer.

Walt drew a deep breath before following her and saw her pissed expression shift marginally. "Oh, it's you. Hello."

He gazed at the twin garbage bags by her feet, the empty freezer door and the frost-free nature of their freezer. "What happened -- did the freezer shut down?"

She sopped up a pool of water and sputtered. "The only fricking day I *don't* do laundry... as near as I can figure, Ian left the damned door open sometime last evening."

Walt groaned as he hefted a bag. "All that meat we just bought."

"Brown," she spat, vehemently tossing the spent towels into a garbage bag. "Plus all the ice cream, popsicles and a bunch of bread -- you can't refreeze it. Not to mention that a substantial amount of berries bled through their bags and the cheeses melted in a solid lump... You have no idea how close I came to throttling that kid."

Well, I can imagine, Walt thought as he bent to help, rolling his shirt cuffs up.

Ian was in the doghouse -- as far as Allison was concerned -- for several reasons. He insisted on wearing underpants, but continually pooped in them -- and two days previous, he'd dribbled all over the floor in time for Becky to roll over in it. A fact Allison hadn't discovered till she'd broken into Becky's room -- a circumstance created by Ian, who'd run there and locked himself in. He'd also developed an annoying tendency to help himself to juice from the refrigerator... leaving puddles in front of the fridge plus sticky trails to wherever he went.

"Not only that, today, Ian got into the film and pulled out three perfectly good, unused rolls; trashed two of his audio tapes and painted the walls of his room -- with a permanent marker he'd somehow procured." Walt noted that her hands were shaking and her voice got louder with her ranting. "Becky appears to be cutting *two* teeth and hasn't stopped screeching. And finally, the older kids bitched all day about how hot it was, spent their considerable energy provoking each other, couldn't agree on a videotape to watch and broke the VCR in the process."

"Which one of them screwed up the air?" Walt ill-advisedly asked.

"Oh, *shit!* That's why I came down here in the first place -- for the toolbox -- then I heard the freezer running and..." She pounded at the freezer door and sent it swinging. A litany of oaths spilled from her lips when the door swung back and hit her. "I can't take it anymore -- one stupid thing after another. I never get a break. I swear sometimes the kids are *trying* to drive me crazy and this fricking heat is making me loopy!"

Walt thought the goosebumps on her arms negated the last statement, but wasn't about to argue. "Tell you what, you go upstairs and relax in the whirlpool. I'll take care of everything else... and I'll keep the kids away."


Walt was concentrating on the AC unit and didn't hear Anthony approach. His fingers slipped to a live connection and he jumped, cursing profusely. "Don't sneak up on me like that!"

Anthony immediately pouted. "I'm sorry." The child projected the rest of his words: 'Next time I'll send a message first.'

Walt turned to his son, exasperated -- with himself. "No. I'm sorry, Anthony; I didn't mean to yell at you. What is it?"

"Charlee and I finished cleaning up the freezer and Trev and Amelia got the windows open. Well, all but the ones in Mom's room. And, uh," Anthony fidgeted and wrinkled his nose. "Ian pooped his pants again."

"Oh, for crying out loud!" Get a grip, Skinner, he told himself. "Why did Mom put him in more underpants?"

"She didn't. He pulled off the diaper and put 'em on himself." Walt rubbed the back of his neck, muttering under his breath. "I'd say Ian is more of an enterprising *big* stinker, Dad."

"What?" Walt questioned, putting the cover back on the unit.

Anthony feigned an innocent expression as the two walked back into the house. "Nothing. Um, I think Mom needs to get away for a while."

Walt stared into space several seconds. God, how much *more* tension would our going off for a long weekend create? he asked himself, closing the door.

"I didn't mean *both* of you... oops."

Walt gazed sternly into the shifting eyes of his son. "Anthony, *stop reading my mind.* " He took a deep breath and pursed his lips. "Did you read Mom's mind? Is that why you think she needs a vacation?"

"Well," Anthony hedged, "not exactly. I mean it's pretty obvious that we're getting on her nerves, but, uh..."

"Out with it," Walt intoned.

Anthony's words gushed. "We all love her, but it hurts when all she does is yell and I'm afraid she's gonna lose control and smack us if she doesn't get a break."

Walt bit his lip, closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. "Allison's not going to hit you, Anthony," he tiredly replied.

"But she's so keyed up all the time and she's repressing a lot of anger--"

"Against me?" Walt couldn't stop himself from querying.

Anthony's expression was pained. "No, Dad. But that's part of what makes her mad -- people thinking she should be. Mostly she's angry with that man... and she doesn't know how to let it out. Why isn't Dr. Jamsa helping her with that?"

"She is, Anthony. But it's taken Allison a long time to get to this stage and she's having trouble channeling it." Walt supposed he should feel awkward, having this conversation with Anthony, but... "How much have you been in Allison's mind?"

Anthony's eyes dilated while he contemplated how much to admit. "Um," he swallowed heavily, "I've, uh, peeked every now and again." Walt took that to mean Anthony had been routinely spying. "Mom's afraid if she tells you what that man did to her, *you'll* fall apart -- she thinks she's protecting you. And I don't understand that -- I mean, don't you already know?"

Walt's held breath seeped out. "I understand what she means, Anthony -- don't, uh, worry about it." And please, carissima, don't try to protect me... I don't deserve it, especially when it's hurting you, he added to himself. "Was there anything else, Anthony?"

If Anthony was apprehensive before, he was nearly paralytic now. "I, uh, I don't know if I should tell you this." His father's eyes beseeched him to continue. "A coupla months ago, Mom, uh, thought about killing herself."

"Oh, Christ," Walt moaned, equilibrium instantly distorted. He clutched his stomach and swallowed a lump the size of Texas. "Anthony," he croaked, "you should have told me the moment you found that out."

"I almost did," he whined, tears brimming. "But Mom had already decided against it and she felt real bad for thinking it in the first place. That's why I kinda kept tabs on her and she hasn't thought about it since. She wants everything back to normal, Dad, but she's scared it never will be... if the two of you stay together."

Anthony expected his father to react strongly to those words and was perplexed when he remained silent.

"Finally," Walt murmured. He turned to glance at Anthony's confusion. "I've been expecting this, Anthony -- I don't in any way, shape or form *want* it, but I knew it was coming."

"Maybe if Mom has some quiet time, she'll realize how much we all need to be together and she can release her anger."

Walt gazed into the child's serious and somber eyes and chose to tell him out loud what he didn't 100 percent believe. "Maybe you're right."

Four Days Later

Walt parked his vehicle at the airport, willing his churning stomach to ease -- he was picking up Allison as she returned from the cottage.

He hadn't been positive that confronting her about her suicidal thoughts was wise, but neither could he let her go to the cottage alone without discussing it. She'd predictably bristled over the topic and been instantly incensed that Anthony hadn't kept his word ... then she'd calmed down and allowed herself to be talked into a respite.

Walt hadn't been directly in contact with her since her flight had left DC -- but he'd spoken to Mrs. B. twice every day. The reports she'd given him were promising -- but he feared Allison may have been putting on a show for the older woman's behalf.

He scowled when he reached the monitors and discovered that her flight was already in. Damn, he thought, it would be early. Walt was about to wander in the direction of her gate when he saw her rise from a chair, two totes by her feet and apprehension all over her face. Shit, it *had* been an act, he silently bemoaned.

When he reached her, she offered him her cheek to kiss... and his spirits toppled further. "Guess you did some shopping," he lamely offered, in reference to her second bag.

"Uh, no. Mrs. B. sent a variety of baked goods. I think I gained two pounds with all the food she had at the cottage."

Good, you need the weight, he answered silently -- Allison was hovering in the low-mid 140s now. "I'm sorry you had to wait," he mumbled, picking up her totes.

"Unexpected tailwind," she awkwardly replied.

"Oh." A tantalizing aroma rose from the baked goods and Walt automatically joked, "Considering how tasty airline food is, it's a wonder you weren't mugged..." A flush instantly appeared at the apex of his cheeks and he resolved to remove foot and engage mind before he spoke again.

Allison forced a smile. "It *was* warm on the plane, but I stowed the bag in the overhead compartment and it wasn't until..." What's the use carrying on this banal conversation? she thought. "Well, you get the drift. Um, can we get outta here? I know this sounds paranoid, but I feel awfully exposed."

Considering half a dozen people were gawking in their direction, Walt didn't think she was paranoid at all. "Sure, honey."

Walt gazed at her while he drove -- she was running one hand absently through her hair. It was basically the same length now as when she'd been recovered -- about an inch and a half; however, the texture was wholly different. No longer was her hair coarse and curly, but fine and straight as a ruler... mousse had become Allison's best friend.

He fidgeted in his seat while her other hand plucked relentlessly at her pants. The action was diametrically opposed to her deep, even breathing, but not her preoccupied expression.

Walt felt his stomach drop to the approximate level of the car's undercarriage as her hand quieted and her expression focused. "Would you pull over, Walt? I, uh, need to talk."

His body tensed in a way he didn't think possible -- worse than when he'd seen the sheet-draped figure in his hallway, worse than when he'd realized his unit was being ambushed in Vietnam. He brought the vehicle to a stop and shut it off, resolving to say what he feared -- before she could. "I hate the thought of a divorce, honey, but if that's what you need to heal... I'll give it to you."

After delivery of his toneless words, Walt forced himself to look into her eyes -- Allison blinked repeatedly.

"Damn it, Walt! Don't be so acc--" She expelled the remaining air from her lungs in dejection. "Don't be so accommodating," she finished quietly. "I don't want a divorce. But neither can I definitively rule it out as where we're heading... I want a trial separation."

Not a whole helluva lot different, he snidely told himself. .".. I'll pack my things as soon as we get, uh, home. I can probably bunk with Roz and Ned for a few days."

"No, Walt. I mean," she frowned, lowering her head and heavily rubbing her forehead and eyebrow. "Let me try to explain why I wan--, why I feel I need this."

Walt bowed his own head, not wanting to hear justification, but knowing it was necessary.

"The whole trip to the airport, I felt as though you were sending me away." Walt started to object. "Let me finish. Then I realized it was tension, because I'd be confined in the plane. Once I got on board, I started taking deep breaths and I suppose I looked like I was having an anxiety attack, or at least hyperventilating. At any rate, this woman, Verna, sat next to me and kept a steady stream of chit-chat going -- got my mind refocused. She's a counselor for children diagnosed with cancer." Walt winced and Allison nodded. "I know, but she was so upbeat and positive. By the time we landed in New Haven, I was feeling more relaxed and less sorry for myself."

Allison thoughtfully stroked the blisters on her palms. "Once I got to the cottage and saw the trees felled by that storm, I thought I'd hit on a great way to vent my anger at Stanislav -- Mrs. B. said I chopped enough wood to last her half the winter."

Walt unconsciously smiled at Allison's tone, though when Mrs. B. had told him she was wielding an axe, he'd paled.

"I must have soaked in that enormous tub for nearly an hour afterward, and when I climbed out, I had an appetite that would have done a lumberjack proud." Allison paused to smooth the fabric of her pants. "And then I didn't know what to do with myself. So I wandered to Mrs. B's house and she put me to work making tarts for some church social -- which I suspect was a ruse. At any rate, by this morning, I felt like I was starting to come back to myself..."

Walt wet his painfully dry lips waiting for her to continue. "So what happened to, uh, change that?"

Allison refused to meet his eyes. "I'm not sure," she whispered.

Walt raised her chin and caught a glimpse of her inner turmoil. He realized one of two reasons had to apply -- either her apprehension was due to DC in general, or him in particular... and he couldn't bear to ask which.

"All I know is that my sense of peace evaporated the closer I got to DC. Then when you weren't there I... I don't know."

Great, Skinner, he mentally berated, you let her down once too often and now she's... she's what?

Allison took a deep breath and Walt felt as though all the air was vacuumed from the car. "Good, bad or indifferent, I made a decision. I not only believe I need a trial separation, but that I need to leave DC during it."

Walt consciously stopped doing everything for several seconds -- including breathe. "Wh-where will you go? And for how long?"

Allison shifted in her seat and stared out the windshield. "To my parents, I guess... at least initially. They've got the only place big enough for the kids--" Allison turned toward Walt, her eyes huge. "Oh, shit, the kids... how can I separate you from--"

"I have no legal claim to your and Basil's children," Walt reminded her with a rationality that stymied even him. "And I can't take care of Becky by myself--"

"But, Walt... you wouldn't be by yourself. I'm sure Teresa would help you and, and..." What the hell are we doing? she asked herself. We sound like neither one of us wants our own baby. Allison crossed her arms and loudly exhaled numerous times.

"Becky needs you, Allison. She needs you more than she needs ... me. And so does... Anthony." In one instant, Walt felt a part of him die and willed additional 'artichoke' layers to insulate him.

Allison gazed at him in shock. "No, Walt. I-I-I can't take Anthony from you," she gulped. "Even if it's only temporary. It's not fair."

Fair? Walt silently shouted. None of this is fair... none of this is right or sane or -- "He needs to be with the other children ... it'll be easier on... him."

"What about you?"

"It'll come close to killing me! Is that what you want to hear?" Walt immediately regretted his outburst as Allison bit her lip and blinked back tears. "I'm sorry, Allison. This isn't easy for either of us... You have as much legal right to Anthony as I do."

"But do either of us have the right to decide *for* him?"

"Do you honestly think making him choose would be better?" Walt snapped, banging the steering wheel, then rubbing the back of his neck. "I can't do that to him," he finished, rough edge absent.

Allison pulled her arms tighter to her body and started to rock. "This is going to be so hard on the kids... I shouldn't be so selfish -- maybe I-I can stick it out here." At that, her body began shuddering and fresh tears began to spill down her cheeks. If Walt begged her to stay, she didn't know how she'd summon the courage to leave.

Walt wanted to wrap his arms around her, but wasn't sure she'd let him. He hated all of this -- and if Stanislav was still alive, Walt would have throttled him. "You'll be miserable if you stay here right now... How soon will you g--" He couldn't get the word out.

Allison sniffled and wiped at her eyes. "I don't know exactly, probably a few days. I'll need to contact my parents, see if they can come out -- I don't want to travel with the kids by myself." She paused and understood completely when Walt didn't offer to fly with her. "I can work for Dad for a while, to pull my share, and then I can reciprocate my license."

"Allison, I'll support you financially -- you don't have to go back to work."

"Yes, I do. I think it'll help me return to norm."

"How's it going to do that? You can hardly stand to be in public here -- it'll be worse in your hometown." Oh, Christ, that was brilliant, Skinner, he silently moaned.

Allison curtly replied, "I won't have to be exposed to the public working for my father. And I can get a hospital job after that. Plus, I'll have an outpouring of sympathy in Michigan, as opposed to all the morbid gawkers here."

Walt glared at her superior tone, then forced himself to relax, rationalizing that arguing would only give her more reason to leave him for good.

Allison's expression also softened. "Remember what you said on the first night of our honeymoon? About wanting all of me -- body, mind and soul?" Walt dimly nodded. "I can't give you that now, Walt. You rightly wouldn't take just my body and whether or not I'm making sense, I feel like I'm finally getting a semblance of my mind back."

"Do you still love me, Allison?" It was a horrendously unfair question, yet Walt didn't apologize. And her continued reluctance to answer further squeezed his heart.

She was silent for a while. "I don't know," she eventually whispered. "And it pains me to say that as much as I know it pains you to hear it. I *care* about you, Walt, please believe that. But right now I can't even say I honestly love myself. I need more time; I can't give my soul or love to you until--"

"I understand, Allison," Walt interrupted. He didn't, truly, but he couldn't bear to listen any more. "We need to go home and break the news to the kids."

And Walt failed to see how it could possibly be done gently.

Three Days Later

Walt crammed the last suitcase into his in-laws' rental car and slammed the trunk. He turned and caught a glimpse of Anthony's heartbroken face at the kitchen door and lapsed further into himself.

The children had reacted as expected.

Anthony had stared at his parents in anguish. Then he'd yelled and carried on till Walt had deposited him in his room. At which point, Anthony had started to broadcast his thoughts, continued grousing about unfairness and Walt's promise never to leave him -- as he'd trashed his room. It wasn't unlike having him yell constantly in Walt's ear, and it most definitely left him with a headache.

Trevor had gone silent, stopped eating and developed a habit of slamming doors.

Charlee and Amelia had burst into tears initially, then whined and sniveled intermittently. In addition, Amelia was having constant potty accidents while Charlee's mouth was fixed in a seemingly permanent frown. Both girls eventually asked what would happen to their pets and became so despondent at leaving them behind that Walt and Allison had agreed to fly them out, too, making certain that the cargo bay would be pressurized.

Walt had purchased a special container for Anthony to transport his fish, which his son had promptly thrown back at him.

Ian didn't understand, knowing that everyone was unhappy, but thinking they were just going on a trip to Gramma and Granpa's. And, of course, Becky was too young to voice an opinion.

Walt had taken to one of the sofas every night since Allison's return and confided in no one from work about what was happening -- not that it wasn't obvious to Roz and Kimberly with his strung-up nerves. Teresa repeatedly urged him to talk about his feelings... and he repeatedly ignored her.

He drifted back toward the house, knowing there was no way to gear up for this moment. The kitchen was empty as he entered, though his father-in-law appeared after a few seconds.

"AJ went to change Becky one last time and Jude and Teresa are overseeing final pitstops."

Walt nodded numbly, gripping the island and staring at the sink. "You'll call as soon as you get home?" It was meant as a rhetorical question.

Allison's father gazed at the emotionless man in front of him, shaking his head. "Come to the airport, Walt," he implored, "Hell, fly out with us." Walt simply lowered his head and set his jaw. "Damn it, Walt! What happened to the guy who wouldn't leave this house until he'd apologized to AJ about a stupid fight in a lawyer's office? Or the guy who cried holding her hand in the hospital? Don't you even *care* that my daughter is leaving?"

Walt walloped the counter and growled at his father-in-law. The effect was more menacing than an actual raised voice. "Of course I fucking care. I'd get on one knee and beg her to stay... I'd leave the FBI... I'd move anywhere she wanted if I seriously thought it would keep us together. I would do *anything* for her -- including walk on fire or cut off an arm." His gaze wandered as he realized the trite phrases were unfortunate. "She knows I love her and only want what's best... for her."

"Are you sure? Have you told her that in so many words?" Walt lowered his head, exhaled loudly and pursed his lips. "Maybe she wouldn't be doing this if you told her how you feel."

Walt glanced at the seriousness in AJ's eyes and was saved from a response by the entrance of his family. Anthony glared at him, then refused to look at him again, running past Walt to take his seat in the van.

Walt's heart began pounding so hard, he could feel it in his ears.

Trevor solemnly nodded at him and slipped out. Charlee and Amelia wrapped their arms around his legs, tears brimming. Walt knelt to envelop both and closed his eyes to squelch his own tears.

"I can still talk to you, can't I, Uncle Walt?" Charlee faltered, pulling back.

Walt was momentarily perplexed, then softly kissed her forehead. "Of course you can, sweetheart. You can call me any time."

Allison studiously looked at her feet while Becky squiggled in her arms. Walt kissed Amelia and both older girls were led out by Teresa.

Ian hugged Walt with exuberance and confusion, especially when Jude took his hand and started for the door. "Daddy come too?" he asked. When that failed to get a response, his tone altered to a shrill, echoing cry. "Daddy come too... Daddy come too!" Jude had to pick the toddler up to get him to the van.

Allison closed her eyes while her lips trembled. She felt someone take Becky from her before hearing Walt's voice. "Take good care of Mommy, Sweetpea." Allison opened her eyes in time to see Walt hold their daughter tight, then kiss her tenderly. Mr. Hogle took the baby and left, giving Walt a last prompting look.

Allison wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and reached for Anthony's fish container. Walt reached at the same time and their hands made contact -- both shrank from the touch. Walt sought anything to ease the awkward moment. "Do you have enough cash?"

She nodded, eyes shifting. "There's chicken and biscuits in the fridge for dinner." Ugh, she thought. What a thing to say. Allison tipped his chin and stroked his cheek. "Take care of yourself, Walt," she whispered.

He wanted to sweep her into his arms, shower her with kisses and profess his undying love over and over. Instead, he simply kissed her palm. "I'll try."

The plane was circling Detroit City Airport prior to landing as Allison leaned her head against the window and absently traced patterns through the fog her breath created. The calm she'd hoped for hadn't been forthcoming, but how could it? The children were still mad, unhappy and/or confused, making the flight far from relaxing. She gazed out the window again and recalled the tone of Walt's voice as he'd last spoken -- flat, not mellifluous nor cracking, just flat. His eyes had been another story, beseeching her to stay in a split second before his damned mask had descended. "Don't give up on us yet, tesoro," she whispered.

Walt hung up the phone and leaned against the sofa cushions -- they'd arrived safely. Despite his resolution not to, he'd gone to the airport, hiding in the parking lot as the flight had left. He'd followed the progress of the plane a few seconds, watching his future disappear. And he'd hoped that he and Allison had made the right decision -- Jamsa and Kossoff had been divided in their opinions.

He touched his cheek and strived to remember Allison's warm touch a few hours earlier. She'd looked like she'd wanted to say volumes, but his wimpy words of 'I'll try' seemed to have erased her thoughts like chalk from a blackboard.

Walt sat up; now that the phone call had come, he was free to reacquaint himself with a former best friend. This friend never let him down in the short run, never asked soul-searching questions, just sat there offering comfort and numbness. Walt felt his emotions solidify as if they were being encased in plaster of Paris as he downed two fingers of Scotch in one swallow. He poured himself another and resolved to get royally plastered.


Anthony XVII: Body, Mind and Soul III
Author: Clare Skinner

Sunday, August 15, 1999
Hogle home, Mt. Clemens, MI

Allison put aside the Michigan pharmacy law text she wasn't really reading and gazed out at the backyard. The kids were playing - - if you could call it that. They'd stoppedd sulking a few days before, but still acted as though they were robots, mechanically digging in the sandbox or tossing a ball without the boundless energy that typified childhood.

Allison drew her legs onto the porch swing and wrapped her arms around them. She'd told her mother this was a good place to study for her reciprocation exam because it was serene, but in truth, it made her feel connected to Walt -- he'd made the swing.

She'd talked to him the previous night and been all too aware of the strain in his voice. Teresa had phoned earlier in the week and told Allison that she'd found an empty bottle of Scotch in the trash plus another half-empty one in a cabinet -- information that, unfortunately, hadn't surprised Allison. Neither had the news that Walt was leaving the house at 6a.m. and not returning till after 9p.m.

He's overworking and drinking, Allison thought. And I've taken up smoking again. In fact, I could go for one now, except the kids hate it when I do and after it took 15 minutes to get them out here, I'm not herding them in so I can.

The best thing that had happened so far was that Anthony had finally accepted -- in his words -- that Walt had sent him away out of love, not tossed him aside like an inconvenience. Allison knew he was still confused based solely on his terminology, but was thankful he wasn't angry at Walt anymore. She'd also expected Clare to intervene, but according to Anthony, he hadn't been visited by his mother's spirit lately. It made a certain degree of sense, Allison pondered, getting up to lean against the railing. We can hardly expect a ghost to... whatever, Allison finished, shaking her head and feeling ready for a nap.

Anthony and Trevor were bunking in her brothers' old room, Charlee and Amelia were sharing a queen-sized bed in her sister's and she was in her old room. Her mother had dug out a crib for Becky, and so far, Ian was cuddling up with Allison. They'd purchased a twin bed for him, but at the moment, he preferred sleeping with Mom over his brothers. And between his hogging the bed and Becky's new tendency to wake up several times a night, Allison wasn't getting much sleep.

Allison yawned now as Becky reached for a toy and fell over on her comforter. She cried for two seconds, then rolled her way to the rattle. Ian ran to his sister, kissed her cheek, put a floppy hat on her head and ran back to his firetruck -- one 'Daddy' had made him. Becky instantly removed her hat again and began chewing it. Allison had to smile... until she heard the doorbell echoing.

Please don't let it be for me, she silently intoned. The outpouring of support she'd anticipated had fallen short of the mark. Several of her high school friends had cautiously come by, but they'd all been uneasy and Allison doubted she'd see them again. Did I make a mistake? she asked herself as footsteps approached.

"AJ, there's someone here to see you," Jude Hogle told her in an abnormally quiet voice.

Allison turned to the doorway and felt the air explode from her lungs like she was a burst balloon -- he was the last person she expected to see. He didn't say a word; he just opened his arms and took a step forward, giving her the choice to step into his embrace. And she did, on feet that seemed disembodied.

"Oh, babe," he murmured, caressing her back.

Allison leaned against him before being suddenly aware of the stark absence of sound -- not that the kids had been overly noisy before. She pulled away and gazed at them, heart pounding.

They stood transfixed, staring with open mouths. Anthony didn't need to telegraph a message to her, his expression alone clearly mirrored his thoughts -- how can you replace Dad already?

The man gazed at the plentiful wedding pictures decorating the bookcases of the study. He recognized Allison's siblings, but looked most carefully at the ones of her -- first with Basil, then Walt. He grudgingly admitted to himself that she appeared radiantly happy with both men... like she'd been with him once.

Allison entered with two glasses of lemonade and kicked the door shut behind her, trying to avoid the prying eyes of her children. What to do about the prying potential of Anthony was another story. She handed the beverage to her guest, mentally assessing how the years had treated him -- pretty damned good, she decided, but he was, after all, a plastic surgeon.

"You look great, Ryan. I always knew you'd gray distinctively." Ryan Mitry, she sighed -- a blast from the past... dynamite blast. Jeez, counting that healthcare worker, that's three 'Ryans' I know... and four 'Pauls,' three 'Marks' -- and where the hell is this line of thought heading, Allison? she asked herself.

Ryan smiled easily, blue eyes twinkling. "My daughters think the gray makes me look old. They keep hinting I should get that hair color for men."

It was Allison's turn to smile as she sipped from her glass. Walt had once kidded that he could probably get three times the use from a single bottle of that stuff with his sparse amount of hair. The memory caused her to swallow more quickly than she'd meant to. "How old are your daughters?"

"Janine's 17 and Susannah's 13."

"Turbulent ages, from what I remem--" Ryan stared into his glass while Allison bit her lip. "I'm, uh, sorry things didn't work out between you and Faith," she improvised.

He deposited his glass onto an end table and rubbed his hands together. "I'm sorry, too, Ally. If I hadn't screwed things up 22 years ago none of--"

"Don't go there, Ryan," she cautioned. "We were both too young and driven by hormones to realistically stay pre-engaged." Allison turned her back to him, recalling a pain that had seemed staggering then and now seemed... freshly opened. Shit, she thought, I *definitely* don't need this now. She definitely needed a cigarette.

"I was a bastard for cheating on you, Ally. What's worse is, I'm pretty sure I knew it at the time, but was too damned arrogant to admit it. You put your trust in me and I let you down in the worst possible way. I'm mature enough -- now -- to know I can't make up for that, but I want you to know I truly am sorry, after all these years."

She turned to him, thinking she should respond, but unable to find appropriate words. Ryan softly stroked her cheek, his gaze warm, friendly and sincere, without a hint of professional scrutiny. "I just wish I'd gotten the nerve to talk to you before--" he grimaced. "Jeez, I was hoping to be more articulate than this."

"You're doing fine... better than the others from the old gang."

"Gramma? Who's that man with Mom?"

Jude ceased folding laundry to address her granddaughter's question. "She introduced him to you, Charlee. He's an old friend from high school."

"But she acted different with him -- she hugged him. She wasn't hugging Uncle Walt after she came back from the cottage."

Jude pursed her lips, not wanting to get in the middle and not knowing exactly what Ryan's intentions were. "Your mom and Dr. Mitry were very good friends once, but they had a big fight and stopped talking to each--"

"What kind of doctor is he, Gramma?" Charlee interrupted.

"What? Oh, he's a plastic surgeon."

"Then he can help get rid of Mom's scars?"

"Well," Jude vacillated, "I suppose -- he's very talented, but I think he came mostly to offer your mom his friendship." At least I hope so, she silently added.

Allison sat at her father's desk, staring at the door. I've got a bad pattern of choosing guys who're unfaithful, she mulled -- must be a flaw in me. She pushed back the chair and nearly laughed. "Wouldn't Dr. Jamsa have something to say about *that* self- deprecating thought," she said aloud.

Once, Ryan had been the most special guy in her life -- her first. They'd started dating halfway through her junior year in high school, when he'd been a senior. While various of her girlfriends had been happy with backseat interludes and vague words of devotion, Allison hadn't. Ryan Mitry had been a dream come true... and he probably would have been exactly like the majority of the other boys, except for the fact that he'd lost one older brother in Vietnam, while a second had come home mentally and physically scarred. It had matured him beyond his 17 years and crystallized his goal of becoming a doctor.

To Allison, it had meant that he was gentle, patient and giving ... in all respects. Her family had been split in their opinion of Ryan, the males being overprotective and cynical, the females cautiously optimistic. On her 17th birthday -- a week before he'd been due to leave for college -- Ryan had presented Allison with an antique cameo and a solemn promise of an engagement ring in exactly a year.

But things had started falling apart almost immediately. Ryan had been on the West Coast -- on a full scholarship from Stanford -- and hadn't made it home till Christmas break. He'd exhausted himself that first year, trying to be perfect, developing a short fuse that Allison tended to ignite. He'd lavished attention and gifts on her during the break, then lost it when she'd informed him of her college choice -- Philadelphia School of Pharmacy... on the East Coast. They'd parted on uneasy terms. And spring break had been no better -- Ryan had decided to take a summer class and she'd developed a frigid streak in consequence.

Allison dug through a photo album till she came to the last one of her and Ryan. God, she thought, how young, skinny and dorky we look... and since the 1970s clothing styles have come back, we look right in fashion. She closed the album with a heavy sigh. Initially learning of his betrayal via his *second* girlfriend had left her speechless... till he'd called back and she'd found her voice and then some. Ryan hadn't apologized for his behavior or even how she'd found out -- which had made the whole situation unbearable.

She'd spent her 18th birthday locked in her room, crying her eyes out and wondering what had happened to change him so completely. Then two weeks later she'd left for Philly and embarked on a debauchery of her own. Ancient, stupid history, she reminded herself; at the same time thinking some things didn't change -- she'd spent her 40th birthday moping, too.

Monday, August 23, 1999 Target Range, FBI Headquarters, Washington, DC

Walt waited for the signal before firing his Sig Sauer 226 at the distant target. He came as close to smiling as he ever did at the Bureau when the sheet glided back on the conveyor -- all were perfect shots. Walt prided himself on his marksmanship and never complained about the mandatory recertification every six weeks. Of course, being basically office-bound, he didn't have to fire the range of weapons that some agents did.

He removed the 'eyes and ears' and watched the instructor note his prowess, scrawling a barely readable signature on the document. "Good job, sir," the agent inanely complimented, getting a curt nod in return.

In the distance, Walt saw a flash of long, auburn hair and immediately recalled having been on the range with Clare once. She'd been every bit as exacting as he was and they'd tied shooting scores. Great, my current wife has left me and I'm thinking about the shooting capability of my deceased one, Walt chastised himself -- maybe I'd better go to Roz and Ned's for dinner after all... I need a life.

The only problem with working longer hours -- with his current pissed-off demeanor, Walt thought -- was that his subordinates walked straighter lines and tended to get their reports in timely and omission-free... which meant his workload lessened when he needed to be swamped.

Well, Scully and Mulder were up to their old tricks, at least. Walt reread their report, shaking his head -- Mulder could find conspiracy in a bowl of oatmeal. During his tenure as their boss, Walt could count on both hands the number of times he *hadn't* had to call them in to explain/justify their report.

Skinner jabbed his intercom button. "Kimberly -- get Agents Scully and Mulder in here ASAP."

"Yes, sir. Deputy AD Drayton to see you, sir," Kimberly's calm voice replied.

"Send her in," he barked.

Roz took her time sauntering in, closing the door behind her with a reprimanding expression. "Really, Walt, I don't know why your assistant hasn't requested a reassignment. She must have a rhino's hide." He began to protest. "Save it. I have to renege on the dinner invite. Renee's in labor and Ned's already on his way to the hospital. And knowing him," her eyes sparkled lovingly, "he won't leave till he's personally welcomed his grandson into the world."

Roz watched Walt's unconscious frown with her own grimace, too late recalling his jubilant state when Becky had been born and correctly assuming he was thinking of them now. Thankfully, Kim's disembodied voice broke up the ensuing awkwardness.

"Sir, Agents Scully and Mulder are in the field, pursuing a new case."

Walt's eyebrow cocked immediately -- the file on his desk couldn't be more than two hours old. "Tell them I expect them before end of business today." He could hear Kim's intake of breath. "They're already on a plane, aren't they?" As he got an affirmative answer, he added another item to his growing list of gripes with them -- no more charging transportation to personal credit cards and turning in reimbursement vouchers after the fact. Damn those two, he silently avowed, they find a way around every rule.

With a start, Walt realized Kim had asked him for further instructions and that Roz was staring at him. "All right, thank you, Kimberly. I'll deal with them later." And at this precise moment in time, I don't care what the case is, I'm denying all expenses, Walt thought. That should make Ed Balthazar, the AD of Finance, happy.

He switched mental gears and turned his attention back to Roz. "How's the prepwork for the symposium going?"

She blew air noisily out of her mouth. "Slow -- I haven't decided which is drier, the subject matter or the location. If the air-conditioning goes out, we're dead."

Walt ran his index finger thoughtfully along his ear lobe. "Why don't you turn it over to me... I'll smooth over any objections from D'Hanis."

It was Roz's turn to camber an eyebrow. "Your former second in command will *really* be paranoid if you turn up in Albuquerque. Not to mention the fact that you've never liked giving conference speeches, and more to the point, *this* one is the same weekend as Amelia's birthday--"

"Charlee's," Walt interrupted.

Roz's expression turned exasperated. "Whatever. Allison will be very unhappy and Charlee devastated if you don't show."

Walt hunched his shoulders and refused to admit the accuracy of the statement.

"Merde! You can be so aggravating. Sometimes I don't understand you at all -- this will only give them another reason to ..." Roz scowled. "I hope to God you know what you're doing, Walt."

So do I, he thought. So do I.


Walt stared at the symposium information, absently scratching his ear. Roz had brought everything just before she'd left for the day, throwing it on his desk and unleashing a torrent of French. The only word he'd caught for certain was 'batard' -- bastard. She'd also admitted to completing an outline for the speech, but refused to give it to such a -- the actual words hadn't mattered, whether spoken in English or French, the meaning had been clear. Michael McCamey, AD of Training, had popped in a few minutes later with amused eyes and offering support -- as many brochures as Walt wanted.

"Career Opportunities in the FBI," Walt muttered. "What a dipshit title."

Before McCamey had escaped, Walt had questioned why CI was doing this instead of Training, Personnel or EEOA (Equal Employment Office of Affairs). McCamey had informed Walt that the last time Headquarters had sent a speaker to Albuquerque, the person had been peppered with questions about Roswell. And several busloads of people had arrived from Nevada to bring up Area 51. This time, upper management had decided that the grief should be shared. Plus, since Legat offices came under CI's jurisdiction, the Division was the perfect one to discuss international opportunities.

Walt's stomach rumbled and he scowled, pushing away from the desk. He yanked open a drawer to retrieve a candybar and instead stared at his wedding picture, nestled on a dozen miscellaneous items. He stroked the image of Allison's cheek.

"Please understand, carissima. I-I... I don't trust myself. ... If I see you I'm afraid I'll pressure you into coming home. I'm afraid I won't be able to leave without you and the kids... And I'm afraid if I push, I'll lose you forever."

He leaned back in his chair, no longer hungry but feeling the urgent need for a drink. So far, he'd avoided the cliche of keeping a bottle in his desk, but it was getting more tempting each day. Walt tossed all the symposium material into a folder and stood, determined to head home 'early' and drink himself into a stupor. Clare had once made him a killer hangover remedy and Walt was sure he had all the ingredients for the morning.

His hand touched the desklamp and a warm feeling began swirling through him... as did an idea for better channeling his depression.

7:30p.m. Clancy's Gym, Washington, DC

Walt stepped across the threshold and took a deep lungful of the sweat and testosterone-thick air. It had been a long time since he'd frequented the place, and he doubted anybody would remember him.

"Well, I'll be damned," a booming voice proclaimed. Walt turned toward the voice as a huge hand was thrust in his direction. "If it isn't Mr. G-man, coming home to roost."

Tommy Clancy -- no relation -- pumped Walt's hand with all the might of a 60-year-old ex-Marine turned trainer. "Jesus, Skinner, you look like shit... all soft and flabby. Get changed ASAP and I'll put you through the *beginner's* paces." He patted Walt's shoulder and simultaneously shoved him in the direction of the locker room. "We'll whip that excuse of a body into shape in no time."

Walt felt a grin trying to escape as he shuffled down the corridor. One thing you never got from Clancy was coddling, just a straight-from-the-hip assessment and blunt advice -- with a strong underlying current of 'follow my advice if you know what's good for you.'

Clancy was waiting for Walt as he emerged and gave him the once over, noting the attire with disfavor -- running shorts and jogging shoes instead of trunks and boxing slippers. "Sorry," Walt found himself apologizing, "didn't expect to be here."

The older man rolled his eyes as if to say anybody serious about staying in shape should always carry boxing apparel. "At least you're not dressed like this namby-pamby joker that came through last week. The candy-ass looked more like he was prepping for a shampoo commercial." Clancy noted Walt's recent scars and came forth with more acerbic comments. "What'd you do? Go a coupla rounds with a truck?"

"And a car," Walt offered, grin unconsciously surfacing.

One Hour Later

Walt pulled the sticky tank away from his body with sore arms, but a sense of calm. Clancy had been relentless with everything -- punching bag, body bag, etc. -- barking commands, pushing Walt past his limits... just exactly what Walt had wanted. Now he pulled a towel from his duffel and ineffectually mopped up his sweat. Clancy didn't believe in showers -- for wimps, he said.

Walt was just wondering how long he'd have to soak in the whirlpool and how many pain relievers he'd need when Clancy stuck his head into the locker room. "When you feel dry enough to put your nice clothes back on, come along to the office for a drink," he barbed.

Five minutes later, Walt sank into a decrepit, velour chair, gazing around the dingy office and noting the framed photos of boxers who'd 'done good.' Clancy sloshed whiskey into a pair of plain drinking glasses and gestured to Walt to help himself.

"I thought you were against alcohol," Walt commented, swallowing a mouthful and feeling it slither and scorch its way to his empty stomach.

"For the boys, yeah, but I ain't training for nothing but an early grave... Besides, you looked like you needed it."

They spent a few minutes discussing Clancy's promising new talent, then let silence envelop them.

"I read about your wife," Clancy uttered, "Tough, gutsy lady." The words were delivered in his standard, gritty tone, but with a shadow of softness.

Walt realized the other man was paying Allison a left-handed compliment and knew there was no possible reply -- so he stared at the pictures some more, slowly craning his head till he'd scanned the whole room. He'd never been invited into the inner sanctum and so choked on his drink when he saw a picture of Clare. Walt was standing in a heartbeat, stalking over to the photo. "What are you doing with a picture of her?" he grunted.

The image itself showed Clare planting a kiss on the cheek of a bemused Clancy, tipping his chin with a gloved hand. Clancy immediately ground his teeth while narrowing his eyes. "Why? She a criminal or something?"

Walt opened his mouth and shut it just as fast, focusing his vision on the desk. .".. No. Just someone I, uh, knew."

"Oh, wait a minute, now I remember -- Clare was a G-woman. Guess you knew her from work." Clancy drained his drink. "Only woman who actually boxed in this joint. Came in half a dozen times or so -- wasn't bad either... for a powderpuff weight."

Walt gazed at the image again and noted Clare had inscribed it - - 'Tommy, Thanks for the advice, Clare, 4/889.' Walt reached out to touch the glass. I started coming here after I lost you, mon amour, he said to her. Talk about a weird coincidence. "What advice did you give her?" he asked.

"Oh, hell -- you expect me to remember that far back? Now ask me who I was training, who won the Golden Gloves... I probably just told her the standard stuff 'bout taking charge of your life." Clancy poured himself another. "What's she doing now, ya know?"

Walt cleared his throat and hurriedly put the half-empty glass down. "She, uh, died... three years ago."

Walt charged into his kitchen and grabbed the bottle of Scotch. He didn't bother retrieving a glass, instead unscrewing the top and tipping the bottle to his lips. The fluid tasted vile, and he spat it out just as fast.

Even though it was plenty warm, Walt felt a sudden chill. A chill that intensified as a whisper glided past him.

"It's a useless crutch, mon cher -- it'll only get you into trouble... get rid of it."

Walt stared all around, but never saw Clare's form. The bottle, however, felt like an icicle and Walt hurriedly dumped the contents in the sink, feeling his own body tingle in the process.

"Okay, Clare," he mumbled with trembling fingers. "I get the hint -- no more alcohol."

Monday, August 30, 1999

Ryan's fingers were firm, yet gentle against Allison's flesh... intimate but detached at the same time. God, this is surreal, she thought -- I never expected to be naked in Ryan's bed again... of course, it was my choice.

He moved his hand and she released a hiss. "Do you want me to stop, Ally?" he murmured.

"No," she stated, irritated at herself. "You're nearly done. Just get it over with... I hardly expected this to be pleasant."

Ryan nodded with a frown and went back to work, concentrating even harder and wishing he didn't have to exert any force. He finished with his own heavy sigh and pulled the sheet over her exposed body, standing to dim the bright lights. "I'll wait outside while you dress."

Allison sat up, unconsciously clutching the sheet. "Okay... I mean, no... oh, just give me your professional opinion."

Ryan pursed his lips. "I basically agree with Petras -- the cigarette burns on your abdomen are too deep for dermabrasion. Ditto for the burns to your back and buttocks. I can do--"

"Don't bother explaining the procedure, Ryan, I'm sure it's the same as what Petras outlined. How much do you think you can, uh, erase?"

He ran a finger along his ear in contemplation, a mannerism disconcertingly like Walt's. "At least 60% from your abdomen, more likely 80-85% -- I'll need to do a more thorough exam in my office, take a gander at the original hospital records. The success rate for your back might be higher, because the depth of those burns appears to vary less."

"Can you do it all at once? I mean my back side, I know you can't do all the burns at one time."

Ryan wet his lips and rubbed his hands together. "Optimally, I'd like to do your back and buttocks separately..." Ryan's expression reflected embarrassment over his inadvertent double entendre.

"But could both be done before I start work?" Allison persisted, ignoring his expression.

"You've got an October 4th starting date, Ally -- that's cutting it awfully close. Especially since surgery can't be scheduled instantly. Probably Friday at the absolute earliest."

She got up, dropping the sheet to redon her clothes. "Good, then it won't interfere with the reciprocation exam."

Ryan grinned. "I see your stubborn side is intact."

She smiled over her shoulder, dropping the hem of her pullover dress. "What about my thigh and the lacerations?"

"I wouldn't recommend surgery for the latter -- they've healed very nicely. I can probably lessen the scar on your thigh, but..."

"But it's more a vanity thing, right?" she baited after pulling her panties on.

"No, uh, comment. At the risk of sounding like a money hound, though, how are you planning to pay for this? The hospital's insurance is going to view your, uh, condition as pre-existing -- not that it would pick up before you start work anyway -- and I doubt your HMO extends this far. What am I saying? The federal government's got one of *the* best healthcare plans."

"Actually, Ryan, we do belong to an HMO -- Walt's planning to cover all of our medical expenses out of pocket."

He half-grimaced, half-blanched. "Ouch. I'll waive my fee, but the operating theater, anesthesiologist, hospital, and all are going to be one pretty penny."

Allison plunked on the bed, looking wistful, before covering her face with her hands, repeatedly taking deep breaths to stave off tears. "Did I tell you he's not coming for Charlee's birthday?" Ryan nodded and sat on the bed with her, taking her hand and squeezing. "Said he'd gotten hoodwinked into giving a speech in New Mexico the same weekend."

"And how do you feel about that?"

"Are you playing psychiatrist now?" Ryan stroked her hand without replying. "I'm pissed at him, okay? I hated it when Basil put work before the kids and I don't like it any better with Walt. ... Of course, the circumstances are different..." She ran her free hand through her lengthening hair. "At least B's going to be here -- Charlee perked up when I told her that." Allison laid her head on Ryan's shoulder. "Walt said he'd buy her an extra-special present, to make up for--"

"That doesn't work," Ryan said. "Though Faith still does it every birthday and Christmas." Ryan groaned and ran his fingers through his own hair. "I just hope the girls come back from Malibu without tattoos or extra holes in their bodies."

"I thought you said Jan and Susie were level-headed," Allison asked, happy to shift focus from herself.

"They are -- it's their mother who isn't. Sometimes I wonder what I ever saw in her." He wrapped an arm around Allison's shoulders. "I figured we'd be great together -- for lots of reasons - - not the least of which was our interest iin the medical field."

Allison straightened and snorted. "Basil and I were in more closely related fields and it didn't help us." Walt and I are a better match overall, she thought, but...

"Hey, I promised you dinner... and I try not to renege these days."

Allison smiled at his lopsided grin. "I'm not really hungry."

"Tough. As your soon-to-be physician, I advise you to eat -- you're too damned skinny, Ally. And as long as I'm on my high horse, *stop smoking.* It'll prolong your recovery."

"You got some statistics about nicotine interfering with the healing process, Dr. Mitry?" she teased.

Ryan pounced on her, tickling till she fell flat against the mattress. "I'm sure I can come up with a study or two." Allison giggled. "I missed that -- your laugh." He pressed his lips fleetingly to her forehead then saw what he interpreted as a beckoning in her eyes. Ryan tenderly stroked her throat, studying her, needing to be sure. She tilted her chin a second later and he lowered his mouth to hers.

It didn't feel wrong to Allison, but it didn't feel particularly right, either. Comfortable would describe it best, she thought. Her stomach grumbled on cue. "Guess I'm hungrier than I thought," she whispered, mentally groaning at her own double entendre.

One and a half Hours Later

"I'm sorry, sweetheart," Walt apologized for the third time. "I tried everything, but I can't get out of the conference." You lying son of a bitch, he chastised himself.

"Maybe you can stop on your way back, Uncle Walt?" Charlee tried.

Walt held the receiver away for a second, clearing his throat so she wouldn't hear him wince. "My flight's already booked, honey -- I'm sorry." God, can't you say anything else? he berated again.

"Here comes Mom!" Walt heard Anthony shout in the background.

Anthony stood on the sofa cushions and frowned as Ryan and Allison meandered up the walk. They were laughing and smiling, Ryan's arm wrapped around her shoulder, Allison's arm around his waist. As they reached the porch, Anthony saw them move closer and kiss. He instantly started breathing shallowly as his face collapsed into a pout -- he also projected his objection.

Ryan pulled back from their chaste kiss with a curious expression, looking toward movement at the window, but seeing nothing more than the curtains.

"What's wrong?" Allison murmured.

"Nothing. I thought I heard, uh, nothing," Ryan replied, shaking his head.

Anthony opened the front door, eyes narrowed. "Dad's on the phone."

"What?" Allison turned at his voice and frowned herself. "Don't make that face, Anthony. Tell Walt I'll be right there." She turned back to Ryan and clasped his hands. "What time tomorrow?"

"Bright and early. My first appointment is eight and I'm booked the rest of the day. You'd better be at my office at seven."

Allison nodded at him then waved as he backed down the steps. She closed the door with a sigh, dropped her purse on a chair and wandered into the kitchen where she could see Anthony and a dangling phone cord. "Here she is," Anthony muttered.

Allison arched an eyebrow at his tone and murmured 'hello' into the receiver. Because of Anthony's intelligence report, Walt's response was cooler than he'd meant it to be. "Did you have a good time with Ryan?" Oh, God, just accuse her of having an affair, Walt silently bemoaned.

Since Allison was distracted by Charlee's near tears, she didn't pick up on the insinuation. "Uh, yeah. The food was good... didn't make up for the lousy service, though." She tossed a doggie bag onto the counter and watched her eldest daughter bend to grab the cat. "I guess you weren't able to find a replacement, huh?" Allison whispered as she walked into the hall. Walt swallowed hurriedly and agreed.

"Um, Ryan's going to try to schedule surgery at the end of the week."

"Is it a good idea for him to be performing? I mean, isn't he too close..."

Allison's attention snapped to the phone and the jealousy she heard in his voice. "He's one of the best in Detroit and I'm confident of his ability."

Charlee emitted one loud sob, then bolted past her mother. Allison felt her heart rip and decided it was time to get off the phone.

"I can't talk anymore, Walt, Charlee's upset... I need to--"

"It's okay, I understand." And I hate myself.

"Good. Um, I'll call you Thursday after I take the Michigan law test -- I should have details by then. 'Bye."

Walt heard the connection break before he'd even gotten his 'goodbye' out... Ryan -- he was starting to detest the name. Allison had explained who he was, but that hardly helped... especially with what Anthony had seen. Don't be a jealous prick, he told himself. She's not going to jump into bed with him -- and at least he's getting her to eat.

Walt stared at the walls a few seconds longer, then grabbed his duffel and headed to Clancy's.

Allison stumbled back to the kitchen and found her mother feeding Becky. The child pounded her highchair between bites, as if to say 'Faster, Gramma, faster.'"She's going to weigh more than Ian at the nine-month checkup at the rate she's going."

Jude opened a jar of applesauce and started shoveling it into Becky's open mouth. "You could take a lesson from her -- unless McGill's has dramatically enlarged their portions, you barely touched your dinner."

"Bigger eyes than stomach," Allison informed her mother as she filled a glass with water.

"How's Charlee?"

"Crushed, miserable, heartbroken -- take your pick." Allison took a considerable swallow. "She cried herself to sleep in my arms. ... I know it's out of the way, but I don't understand why Walt can't stop. Even half an hour in the airport would mean a lot to Charlee."

"What about to you?"

Allison drained the glass and refilled it. "It would mean a lot to me that he's not letting her down."

"You're drinking an awful lot of fluids -- my grandmother died from diabetes, you know."

Allison groaned. "Mom... I do not have diabetes. My weight is down because I'm not eating and I'm drinking a lot of fluids because it's hot and sticky."

"It wouldn't hurt to have Ryan check--"

"Mom? Can I talk to you?" Anthony interrupted.

Allison agreed with resignation and steered him to the study -- she'd hardly gotten the door shut before he voiced his concern.

"Why did you take your clothes off for Ryan?"

"What?!" Allison was past disconcerted as she babbled a response. "Because, because he's a doctor, Anthony. He has to examine the scars before he can try to remove them." You're far too intelligent to be asking such a question, she thought, wondering if he was reading her mind right now.

"But you were naked in his *bedroom,* not his office."

"Anthony, for the last time, *do not read people's minds.* A person's thought processes are highly complex and easy to misunderstand when taken out of context -- you *know* that... Half the time I'm thinking of two things at once."

Anthony looked flustered, but he persisted. "But you didn't answer my question of *why.* "

"Yes, I did." It occurred to her that he meant why in the bedroom and she debated whether to point out to him that she'd just misunderstood *spoken* words herself. "I don't know, Anthony. Ryan forgot his wallet, we went back to his house and I, on spur of the moment, asked him to look. Maybe... maybe I couldn't hack the thought of going to yet another sterile office to be scrutinized. I don't know. I'm sorry if that doesn't make sense; however, it doesn't change the fact that you're *not allowed to spy.* "

"I know," he whined. "Sometimes it's hard not to." He took a deep breath. "If everyone's thoughts were rational, logical and orderly all the time, it'd be like living among robots. And if I was supposed to know what they were thinking, the words would be tattooed on people's foreheads."

Allison gazed at his reflective expression and doubted he'd obey. "Who said that?"

"Mom... Clare Mom. She told me that when I first experimented with my telepathy -- I kept getting confused. I guess I still do. So you and Ryan are just, uh, platonic friends?"

Allison stifled the urge to ask where he'd learned that word. "Yes, honey... and that's all we'll be, despite our previous connection. I still care way too much about your dad to consider a physical relationship with anyone else."

She hugged Anthony tight and he tried to take comfort in her words -- except he couldn't help remember that neither she nor his father had been consciously aware of their feelings for one another at first.

Sunday, October 3, 1999 Office of Dr. Ryan Mitry

After various scoldings, Allison had decided to limit Ryan's professional exams to his office -- safer and certainly more practical that way. She keep her weight -- what little of it there was -- on her elbows as she lay prone on the exam table. As his hands swept over her surprisingly sensitive flesh, Allison blew air soundlessly from her mouth. Ryan wasn't doing anything lecherous, but his warm hands were having an erotic effect, nonetheless. Allison allowed herself to be oddly relieved that she was reacting positively instead of shrinking before attempting to focus on something else entirely. In the end, she began tunelessly whistling. After nearly a minute of it, Ryan began chuckling, pulled her panties back into place and lowered the skirt of her dress.

"What were you doing -- composing a sonnet or something?"

Ryan grinned and barely stopped himself from paddling her behind. "I happen to be a great fan of my own work."

"Oy vey. So what's the verdict?"

"I wouldn't go so far as to compare your buttocks to a baby's bottom." Allison rolled her eyes. "But overall, I'm pleased. We're down to two obvious scars, and further surgery can probably eliminate those."

"Spoken like the stereotypical plastic surgeon -- always trying for repeat business," Allison teased as she wiggled off the table. "So you'll do my stomach when I've accumulated enough vacation time, right?"

He completed his chart notations and agreed. "And with the rate you seem to heal, we can probably get away with two weeks."

Allison frowned and rubbed her abdomen. "Even so, that's six more months."

"You could always delay your start date--"

"No. I've lived off Walt's money long enough." And I hardly want to speak to him after what he did, she thought. "I still can't believe he talked my father into keeping me home."

"Just as well; *I* would have ordered you off work the last month anyway... And another thing, will you *please* gain some weight. You hardly eat enough to keep two birds alive."

"That didn't stop you from performing the surgery," she argued.

He narrowed his eyes and consulted his records. "You were at 140 a month ago and you've lost four pounds. I don't care what the height-weight charts say, *your* body will look and *be* healthier 15 pounds heavier."

"I can't help it if I'm not hungry, Ryan," she whined, crossing her arms. "If I start cramming it in, I'll barf it back up."

Ryan loudly exhaled. "I'm not advocating that you turn bulimic on me, but neither do I want to see you succumb to anorexia."

"I'm not suffering from either, *Dr. Mitry.* And to prove it, I will eat a portion of every item at Mom's Sunday brunch." She smirked.

"And it'll probably take you all day," he retorted, wrapping his arms around her and kissing the tip of her nose. "Come on, we gotta pick up Susie first. At least I know she'll graze *her* way through all that food. Forget teenage boys, my daughters are gonna eat me outta house and home."

The three of them arrived in the Hogle kitchen as plates were being heaped. Amelia hung back as Ian ran to his mother with a big hug -- Allison had to grab a counter to keep from being bowled over. Charlee scowled as Ryan tousled her brother's hair and left the room ... Amelia shyly followed her sister, plate tipped at a precarious angle. Buster stayed on her heels, waiting for scraps.

"Mom, you got a letter from Lansing," Trevor informed, averting his eyes from Ryan.

"Mail on a Sunday?" she asked, taking the envelope.

"It got mixed up with one of the neighbors' mail," her father stated, adding another pancake to an already filled plate.

Allison ripped it open and scanned the contents. "I passed." She handed it to Ryan, who was trying to balance the twin plates Mrs. Hogle had just given him.

"So you get to be an honest-to-Pete pharmacist tomorrow instead of a glorified tech. Congratulations." Allison playfully sneered at Ryan as Susie took a plate off him.

"Where's the little princess?"

Right on cue, a squawk was heard from the dining room. "Sitting in her throne, demanding her eggs and pancake," Mrs. Hogle relayed. "Coming, Becky."

Mr. Hogle grabbed Ian's plate before it landed on the floor and followed his wife out while Trevor and Anthony added a few more sausage links to their breakfast. "Let's see more fruit on those plates," Allison suggested. They both started to reach in the bowl with their fingers when Allison coughed and raised her eyes. Each grinned and used the spoon before ducking out.

"Kids," Allison said ruefully, shaking her head.

Ryan tapped his fingers against the island. "Come on, start loading up... unless you'd rather I did it."

She pulled out a stool and perched on it. "Be my guest -- I love it when a man waits on me." He tossed toast and a hashbrown onto a waiting plate. .".. Sorry Charlee gave you the cold shoulder," Allison murmured. "Jeez, that sounded like a tunafish commercial."

Ryan added bacon and fruit before he dumped all the remaining scrambled eggs onto the plate. "Considering what you all went through, I'm impressed that any of them act friendly at all."

He set the plate in front of her and was relieved when she started nibbling. "Ian's the least affected right now, but I've been cautioned that problems might surface later. Amelia's doing pretty well, but she's a lot more introverted. Charlee's gotten more moody and I swear the way she internalizes, she's gonna give herself an ulcer." She paused to chew the bacon. "Trev still tends to stare off into space and Anthony... he tries so hard to understand it all... sometimes too hard. He wants Walt and me back together desperately and I..." Ryan perked up without trying to look it. "And I'm going to stop before I have to start paying you as my shrink, too."

Ryan reached across the island and brought Allison's hand to his lips. "I'm here for whatever you need, babe. And I'll definitely charge less," he added with a grin.

She whipped her hand back. "Yuck, yuck, yuck."

The phone began ringing just as Allison shoved a forkful of food into her mouth. Ryan answered it. "Hogle residence."

There was an awkward pause on the other end. "This is Walter Skinner, I'd like to speak to my wife... please."

Ryan raised his eyes and handed the phone to Allison. "For you, *Mrs.* Skinner."

She wrinkled her brow at his inflection and reasonably guessed who it was. "Hello, Walt." So much for having any sort of appetite, she thought. "What's up?"

"I wanted to let you know Teresa got mugged and broke her hip." At Allison's gasp, Walt gritted his teeth. He'd taken time to come up with a gentle way to break the news, but Ryan's presence had fouled that up.

"Is she all right?" Uh, duh, Allison, she thought. "I mean aside from the hip?"

Ryan knew the polite thing to do was leave, but he didn't as Allison turned her back to him.

"Bumps and bruises. The police already caught the guy." Like that probably means anything to you right now, he thought. "She's, uh, resting comfortably and her sister's going to fly out. It, uh, doesn't look like Teresa will be able to attend Amelia's party, though." Time to drop the boom. "Allison, I'm really sorry--"

"It's not your fault," she interrupted.

"No. I... I'm not going to make it, either." Walt exhaled and waited for her tantrum.

Allison's mood chilled. "Why not." Each word was spoken through clenched teeth as she turned back to Ryan.

"Mrs. Desmond can't get here before next Sunday afternoon, so I'm going to take care of Teresa." Like a dozen people from her church haven't already volunteered, he added to himself.

Allison took three deep breaths and tried to remain calm. "You could fly in that night or even come out and back Monday."

Ryan watched her bite her lip and color suffuse her face.

"That won't work. Uh, Roz is leaving for vacation Friday -- one of us has to be in DC."

Allison's eyes narrowed to slivers and her voice was gravelly low. "Did you order Roz to take vacation now?"

Walt felt his stomach lurch as he tried to play it cool. "What?"

"You know exactly what I mean, you son of a bitch," she contemptuously spouted.

Allison suddenly realized that all sound save breathing had ceased from the dining room. She more or less threw the phone at Ryan. "I'll pick it up in the study."

Then she stomped out. Ryan winced, remembering that stinging tone, and almost felt sorry for Walt... almost. He hung up a few seconds later, deciding not to eavesdrop any further.

"You purposely yanked that conference from Roz so you'd have an excuse not to come out," Allison growled.

Walt ran a hand over his face. "What makes you think that?" he said weakly.

"Don't give me that goddamned 'plausible denial' shit! How could you do that to Charlee?!"

"I sent her a--"

"You could have sent her a fucking pony and it wouldn't have mattered. The only thing she wanted from you *was* you," Allison screeched.

"I'll make it up to her, Allison, I promise," Walt said, trying not to rise to the bait.

"How? By treating Amelia the same way? Are you gonna bail on Christmas, too?" she spewed. "Don't you have any idea how this hurts them--"

"Of course I do!" he shouted. "It hurts them just as much as it hurts me, damn it."

"Yeah? Well, you've got a shitty way of showing it," she seethed. "God, I hate you for what you're doing to them."

"Me? What *I'm* doing to them? What about you and Ryan? Don't you think *that's* hurting them?" he countered.

Allison ceased pacing and almost breathing. "What the hell are you ranting about?"

"Everytime I call, he's either there or you're out with him -- what the hell am I supposed to think?"

Her eyes narrowed. "He's a friend and my doctor, you whining, jealous prick."

"And what is he when you're kissing him?"

"What?! You are insinuating something I highly advise you to leave alone, Walt." She sucked her teeth in disgust. "You sit out there in your precious, quiet little haven passing judgment on me when you're not doing a goddamned thing to save this marriage."

"That's not true," he snapped. "If you'd open your eyes, maybe you'd see I'm trying to give you as much room as I can tolerate... to *save* our marriage."

She vented a portion of her anger on a wastebasket. "If you can't haul your sorry ass to Amelia's birthday, don't expect to talk to me, period." And that will put us one step closer to a divorce, she thought.

"Allison... think about what you're saying--" he started to plead.

"No. *You* think. Think long and hard before you make a decision."


Walt stared at the receiver, then threw the cordless at a wall - - it shattered, landing on the floor in pieeces. His body was charged with pure adrenaline -- stomach churning, blood nearly boiling... and brain activity at a definite low. He clenched and unclenched his fists numerous times, digging his short nails into his palms before he drove his right fist through the wall. Only when the pain receptors began a numbing rhapsody did his action register.

Walt pulled his bleeding hand from the wall and gazed at it, blinking. What the hell have I done? he asked himself, stumbling to the bathroom and ruining a towel. I don't know what I'm doing -- *that* much is clear, he thought. "How could I have screwed things up so badly," he droned aloud. And as his hand continued to throb, he wondered how he was going to explain his injury to the ER personnel.

Tommy Clancy watched his latest 'boy' with undisguised pride. Not enough time to get him ready for Sydney, but maybe this kid can take the gold in Athens, he thought.

"Hey, boss, that G-man wants to see you in your office." Clancy waved at the messenger in the way of acknowledgment and gave his boy some additional instructions.

"What's..." Clancy took one look at Walt's swollen hand and yelled back out the door. "Hey, Jonesy. Bring me an ice pack." He addressed Walt. "Funny, you *look* intelligent enough to get to a hospital on your own."

"Maybe I didn't want to answer their questions," Walt deadpanned.

"Yeah? Well, you're gonna answer mine... Can you move the fingers?" Walt did, wincing. Jonesy came in with the ice, then departed again. Clancy unceremoniously dumped the bag on Walt's hand.

"Do you think it's broken?"

"How the hell should I know? What am I, a doctor?" Clancy got one of Walt's patented scowls for the effort. "You want my advice -- get it x-rayed, go home and sleep off whatever brought this on... You didn't hit your wife, did you?" Walt's scowl deepened. "Of course not," Clancy continued. "Pretty hard to hit someone who's not there."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Walt muttered.

"Bullshit, Skinner. Even a blind man could see you're baching it. Been in here most nights till closing -- no wife worth her salt's gonna put up with that... 'less she's already left ya."

Walt hung his head, closing his stinging eyes. .".. I had a fight with her -- on the phone. Then I punched a wall."

"Sounds like a brilliant series of events. What was it -- brick?"

"Plaster and wood framing over brick, yeah."

"So what was the fight about?" Walt looked away and set his jaw. "Don't give me that stoic shit -- you came to me."

Despite himself, Walt slowly related recent events.

"So ya just let her fly away with your kids?" Clancy cuffed Walt's ear as soon as he nodded. "Leave it to the FBI to suck dry the brains you developed in the Marines. You're pushing her right into what's-his-name's arms, can't you see that?" Walt lowered his chin and averted his eyes. Clancy cuffed him again, to Skinner's protest. "You really are a dumb shit. Maybe you'd believe my opinion if I had a bunch of fancy letters after my name. Well, let me tell you something, Mr. G-man, I make my living outta being able to read people's body language -- and yours says you're a miserable SOB. If you've got any sense in that thick skull of yours, you'll be on a plane to Detroit by the weekend, come hell or high water."

Walt pursed his lips. Clancy was right -- the man was hardly a Rhodes scholar, but he had a keen, practical mind. "Get your ass outta my chair and out the door. We need to get that hand looked at."

" *We?* " Walt repeated.

Clancy's features twisted into a lopsided grin. "Yeah. I figure you got overzealous in your workout and I'd be remiss in my responsibility as owner to let you go to the hospital alone. And before you get all sentimental on me, I'm doing this for your wife... and I expect to be properly introduced one of these days."

Allison clutched a pillow to her chest and wondered when she would stop crying. I know nobody said life was easy, she thought to herself, but why does it have to be so damned hard? What did I do to deserve all this misery?"Oh, knock it off," she told herself aloud. "There are plenty of people worse off than you -- stop feeling sorry for yourself."

"Pep talk do any good?" her father queried as he pushed the cracked door open.

Allison tossed the pillow aside and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "Do they ever?"

He set a cup of tea and a bagel on her nightstand. "Ryan just left. He wanted to hang around till you came down, but--"

"Kids giving him the evil eye?" she sniffled, reaching for a tissue.

"Actually, no. Susie wasn't feeling well, so he took her home. Said he'd call you later. And he also said he absolved you from finishing brunch." Allison rolled her eyes and plopped onto her bedpillows; her father sat on the edge of the bed. "So I gather Walt's not coming?"


"Why not?"

"Does it matter? It was an excuse, plain and simple. No, that's not right -- it was a conscious decision... just like with Charlee's birthday."

He tilted his head, but didn't pursue that comment. "Honey, he might have a legitimate reason for not coming."

She sat up with a near glare. "So you're taking *his* side?"

"If I'm taking anybody's side, it's the kids. I'm simply saying Walt might be afraid to come."

"Afraid of what? That I'll bite him?" she muttered.

He sighed heavily and stood. "Dealing with those damn crows ripping the garbage bags is easier than you two... You know what's sad about all this? The two of you were so in tune once it was scary. Now it seems like you both need everything explained to understand what the other means." AJ shook his head. "I hope neither of you said anything rash -- you can say you're sorry as many times as you want, but words spoken in anger tend to linger anyway."

He left again.

No, I didn't say anything rash, she thought, tears prickling. I just gave him an ultimatum.

Friday, October 8, 1999, 4:00p.m.

Allison vaulted up the back stairs and ran into the house, covering the distance to the living room in record time. Her mother was sitting on the sofa, Anthony huddled in her lap while the other kids were seated as close as they could get to her. Allison stared at the television with them, as she perched on the sofa's arm.

.".. Once more, tragedy in the nation's capital. Earlier today, a man now identified as Robert Breadman attempted to drive a vehicle full of explosives into the underground parking garage of the J. Edgar Hoover building. Failing to gain entrance, Breadman fled the scene then opened fire on pedestrians on Pennsylvania Avenue. More than a dozen people were wounded in the melee with three reported fatalities. FBI Director Bryan D'Hanis expressed outrage at the senseless attack and praised the action of Assistant Director Walter Skinner, who disarmed Breadman and averted a possible hostage situation. Agents from the FBI's Bomb Data Center disarmed the explosive device, which was reported to contain over 500 pounds--"

Allison had moved progressively closer to the television during the report and shut off the electronic before the reporter got further. The images of law enforcement officers, the injured and medical personnel hurrying about had nearly unnerved her. Especially since Walt hadn't been among them. He couldn't be hurt, she thought, not if he'd --

She held her arms out for Anthony, who'd slid from her mother's lap. The boy ran to her and buried his head in her body, tears of uncertainty streaming down his cheeks. "Dad's a hero," he mumbled.

Every child's belief, Allison thought, and it was true. "Yes, Sweetpea, Dad's a hero."

"Roz, it's been all over the news... is he all right? I keep getting a 'not in service' message on his cell number."

"He'll be fine, Allison," Roz replied with a soothing tone.

" *Where* is he?"

"Still kicking around here -- the big lummox won't go to the hospital."

Allison heard a commotion in the background as Roz asked her to hold on -- she thought she heard Walt's voice and it sent a chill through her body.

"Allison?" What do I say to her, Walt thought, thanks for checking on me, for caring? Uh, no, he decided.

"Anthony's very proud of you... we, uh, all are," she whispered.

Walt closed his eyes as the pain in his body began warring for attention. "I didn't do anything any other agent wouldn't have," he contended while Roz rolled her eyes at his machismo.

"Roz said you need to go to the hospital. I, uh, shouldn't keep you," Allison faltered.

"I'm fine -- Agent Scully patched me up... just a flesh wound." Roz snorted at that, as one bullet had ricocheted off Walt's phone and gone clean through his upper arm, while the second had grazed his head.

"You'd say it was a flesh wound even if you were bleeding to death," Allison gently teased -- which brought a genuine smile to Walt's face.

"Really, I'm fine... honey."

"Skinner! If I have to order you one more time, I'm gonna have security manhandle you. Get your ass in the car and let somebody drive you to Georgetown," D'Hanis bellowed, entering Roz's office.

Since Walt couldn't effectively cover the mouthpiece with his cast, he turned the phone over his shoulder.

"He's talking to Allison," Roz explained.

D'Hanis sheepishly blinked. "Oh. Well, hurry up -- you've got two minutes before I make good my threat."


"Everything's fine, Allison," he lied, feeling the mother of all headaches coming on. "I'm not going to make my flight, though. I'll try to catch a later one tonight, but I probably won't have time to replace Amelia's present. I got her a china doll and it broke in the--"

"Walt, it's okay... I understand. As long as you're," she felt tears prickling, "It's okay. Call me tonight."


Allison picked up the phone before the ring was finished. "Hello?"

"Allison, it's Roz. Now don't go reading anything disastrous into this, but Walt's been admitted -- as a precautionary measure only. He's sleeping right now, but provided he minds his Ps and Qs -- which is asking a lot from *him* -- he'll be released tomorrow, late morning."

.".. Just exactly *how* injured is he?" Allison asked with unnatural calmness.

Roz gently explained the bullet injuries. "They're mainly keeping him because he wrenched his bad knee tackling Breadman -- it swelled up like a beach ball and they don't trust him to stay off it on his own. How he thinks he can maneuver a cane with that cast I'll never know, but he's sure it won't be a problem."

Allison cambered an eyebrow at the last news. "What cast?"

Roz wriggled her nose. "Merde. Didn't he tell you? The imbecile broke his hand last Sunday at that boxing gym."

Allison muttered to herself, under her breath. "Is the Director going to order Walt to take sick leave?"

"D'Hanis tried. I believe Walt's response was something about a long walk off a short pier. If he keeps his arm in the sling through the weekend, I'll be amazed."

"How's he gonna drive?"

"With more balls than brains, no doubt... Maybe, if he had someone to nurse him, he'd stay home..."

Allison made a clicking sound with her tongue. "That wasn't very subtle, Roz. When we get back together, it has to be based on a well-thought-out, conscious decision, not an emotional..."

Roz broke into a grin as Allison's voice trailed off. "Walt would be tremendously encouraged just to know you said 'when,' not 'if.'" A nurse came in with a scowl. "Allison, I gotta go -- the nursing staff doesn't appreciate me breaking visitors' hours."

Friday, October 22, 1999, 6:08p.m.

Allison and Ryan stumbled their way up the porch steps, snow rising well over their inadequate foot protection. Ryan hurriedly dug out his keys, thankful he didn't have to expose his digits to choose the correct one. The wind picked up in another whiteout as the door opened and they lurched inside, a healthy dose of snow going with them.

Allison slid to the stairs, yanking off her earmuffs and shaking snow from her soon-to-be dripping hair, huffing all the while. Ryan threw his weight against the door to close it, panting himself.

"Pardon my French," Allison began, sinking to the steps as she peeled her soaked gloves. "But I fucking hate being wet, cold and otherwise chilled to the bone!"

Ryan uncoiled his own soaked scarf and forced a grin. "Feel better, now that you've gotten that off your chest?"

She threw her gloves at him and tried to unlace her casual boots. "No." She gave up after several attempts. "Jesus -- another foot must've come down while we were driving."

"At least," he commented before yelling, "Jan? Susie?"

The house remained quiet.

"Check your machine," Allison suggested, catching her zipper on the third try.

The machine yielded the information that the girls were being put up at one of Jan's friends. There was also a message from Jude Hogle, hoping Allison was there -- her mother had previously caught Allison at work to say that the kids had been sent home early.

Ryan called first, and Jan related that the school had inexplicably stayed open, that their bus had slid through an intersection, then gotten hung up in a ditch -- which brought a wry smile to Ryan's face. Nobody had been hurt, she'd continued, though Susie was complaining of being nauseated, just the same.

Since Allison's fingers were rapidly changing from frozen numbness to stinging heat, Ryan dialed her parents' number for her, then kicked off his boots, took off hers and trotted up the stairs. Jude Hogle stated that Trevor's bout of the flu was easing off and that Walt had already called twice to check up on everybody and was chomping at the bit as to her safety. Allison promised to ring him, already knowing his reaction to her spending the night with Ryan -- alone. She decided to postpone the insinuation till she'd adequately warmed up.

Ryan returned cozily dressed, bearing similar items for Allison -- fuzzy slippers, extra-thick socks, heavy-duty sweatpants, a towel for her hair and an afghan. "That oughta do it," Allison teased, delicately rubbing her hands together. "And as soon as my fingers feel normal, I'll peel out of these clothes."

"Remind me to buy you some decent gloves. Those things might be all right for DC, but you'll need good thermal ones up here." His expression implied that she should know that. "Now don't get the wrong idea, but hold still so I can take your clothes off."

"Planning to personally warm me up?" she jibed before feeling her cheeks flush.

He gave her a roguish grin. "I'm planning to get you changed, ensconced in front of a roaring fire with several blankets and plied with tea."

She felt her dress slacks slither from her thighs and wrinkled her nose. "I could go for a big snifter of brandy."

Ryan frowned as he pulled the slacks off and noted her solidly pink thighs. "Alcohol is every bit as detrimental to a frosty system as a hot-water bottle... Not to mention I don't have any."

Allison gasped as he softly rubbed her legs. "Not to mention I'm a recovering alcoholic," she whispered.

"That, too," he murmured, going to his knees to get her socks off. Allison closed her eyes and thought Walt would have a conniption if he saw them now. "Jesus, Ally! You're nearly flirting with frostbite."

"Give me a break," she muttered as he hastily wrapped the afghan around her feet. "We weren't outside long enough for that."

"I'm adding boots to the list." He stood up and gingerly got the sweatpants up her legs, then pushed her over the back of the sofa, pausing to grab another afghan and swathing her body in it before approaching the fireplace.

"I happen to own honest-to-God snow boots," she fumed after him, trying to straighten out. "Need I remind you the forecast said a few inches at most? Or that I could have been wearing knee boots and it still wouldn't have mattered?"

"Yeah, yeah. Your feet are gonna burn like hell pretty soon -- want some aspirin?"

How bad could it be? she thought. I've put up with far worse. "I think I can tough it out. What about those socks?"

He hesitated in building the fire. "The afghan will do just fine and now that I've seen 'em, I'd rather wait till normal circulation returns before binding your feet up."

She shivered and hunkered down into the cushions, thinking he was making a mountain out of the proverbial molehill.. .".. Turn the heat up, then."

Ryan lit a match and administered it to the kindling. "Shit." Allison raised an eyebrow. "I was going to see about replacing the furnace next week -- it's 20-some years old and the damned pilot light keeps going out. My father's the only one with the golden touch... which, since he's not here, isn't going to help right now." He stormed over to the thermostat and let loose a string of profanity. "It's only 58 in here," he finally sputtered.

Allison toyed with a rebuke, but he beat her to it. "Guess I shouldn't rag *you* about not being prepared for the weather, huh?" He picked up her protesting body, set her in front of the fire, turned on a radio and left.

When she heard pots slamming a few moments later, she assumed they were going to stay without heat. And then she stopped caring as feeling began creeping back to her feet. The pins and needles sensation began modestly, then progressed to a full-fledged throbbing, only to dissipate and be replaced by the burn he'd mentioned and more.

She let go of one afghan -- it pooled around her hips -- and simultaneously flipped the other one off, sure her feet must be on fire. Allison grimaced at their mottled appearance. Listening to the newscaster didn't do her spirits much good either. Ryan emerged a few moments later with hot tea, soup and toasted cheese sandwiches.

"Good," he asserted, doing a visual inspection. "How are the legs?"

She bit into her sandwich, wriggling her nose. Good, it was still there. "Sporadically warm, cold and itchy." Allison swallowed and studied him. "Is there a rational explanation for why you're blowing the state of my extremities out of proportion? I mean, we only walked one block -- it's not like we were sloughing across the Arctic for a week."

Ryan fondled her cheek for several seconds before looking away. "It was a little more than *just* a walk... And maybe I lose my objectivity when it comes to people I lo--"

Shit, Allison thought -- Walt's right, Ryan's too close. Why the hell didn't *I* see it? Because *you're* too close, idiot, she berated herself.

She reached for his hand as the phone rang. Ryan jumped before answering it. "Hello?"

"Ryan, it's Walter Skinner. I--"

Whatever he planned to say, Ryan cut him off. "Hang on, she's right here." Ryan carried the cordless to her and took his food items, heading for the kitchen, mumbling something about filling thermoses.

Allison spoke into the receiver with a distracted tone -- which was getting to be the norm when it came to Walt. "Did I interrupt something?" he asked. Christ, he silently added, talk about a loaded question.

"No, we were, uh, just eating. You know, trying to warm up the insides. Hey, how'd you get Ryan's number?" She-it! Allison thought -- sexual connotation *and* stupidity rolled into one. "Forget I asked," she mumbled. "I-I don't suppose any of this has made it your way?" she lamely offered.

Allison could almost hear him shrug. "Just rain. From what I heard, the storm is stalled right over you. At least Detroit knows what to do with heavy snow."

"Don't count on it -- this type of weather generally blows across the lake and tags Erie and Buffalo. Marquette and Sault Ste. Marie are the big snow towns in Michigan. The radio station's already likening this storm to the big blizzard of 1940--" Shut up, you're blathering, she chided herself. Are you and Walt so bad off that you're stuck talking about the weather? She groaned to herself and waited for him to take the lead.

"Oh," he mumbled after several seconds of silence, wanting to add, 'If this weather isn't typical, why did you try driving home? Why did you end up at Ryan's house? Why were you driving with Ryan in the first place?' And then he recalled his own perilous drive three years earlier and decided to leave well enough alone... maybe.

"Your, um, mom said Ryan's truck got hung up and you had to walk. Hope it wasn't far."

Allison swallowed heavily. This conversation was becoming like too many of their other ones -- labored. "Just a block."

Walt moistened his lips and fruitlessly tried to pick up a paperclip with his casted hand. "That's good. Bet Ryan wishes he had four-wheel drive."

"He does." Oops. "Uh, we had to swerve to avoid somebody who, uh, slid on some ice." Switch subjects before he thinks about it, Allison, she told herself. "How's your arm?"

"It's fine, a little sore," he murmured, puzzled as the clip fell to his lap. "Wait a minute. If you've got so much snow, how could anybody reach the ice?" He assumed that snowplows hadn't had time to penetrate the residential roads... and Allison failed to respond. "Allison -- you guys did get stuck, right?" Shit, why did I press this? All I'm doing is letting paranoia rule, he realized.

"Yeees. Okay, I didn't want my mom to know 'cause she'd worry, but we had an accident." Walt's breath exploded. "It was a tiny one, I swear. We *were* trying to avoid another car and we hit a tree. The engine stalled out. We weren't going fast enough to be hurt, though."

Walt's stomach began a nervous gurgle. 'Tiny' accident or not, adrenaline would have pumped; and given their isolated circumstances, that could lead to something else. "As long as you're all right," he stated as calmly as he could, her mother's words of 'Ryan's daughters got hung up' echoing through his head.

Allison watched the lights flicker and didn't immediately reply. "I'm sorry, Walt, we might be about to lose the electricity." Even as she spoke, the lights went out and stayed that way. "And we did," she continued.

Walt heard a pop and her startled cry. "What was that?"

"Shit, shit, shit. Oh, one of the logs snapped and I spilled my drink -- hang on." Allison put the phone down while she stripped off her sweater and the sweatpants, as both had absorbed the bulk of the tea. She pulled the thankfully dry afghan up around her shoulders.

Oh, shit, she's drinking? Walt's distress heightened as he envisioned the romantic nature of a fire and her known reaction to a drink.

"Walt, I think I'd better hang up now, Ryan's gonna need help with candles and stuff. I'll talk to you soon -- 'bye."

As she went to put the phone down, another log popped and she dropped the phone instead, thinking she'd disconnected... but the line was still live. She saw a glow approaching and called out to Ryan. "I was just coming to help you."

Walt heard her voice and didn't bother hanging up.

"Birthday candles?"

"It was all we had."

"I'm sorry Walt interrupted us. I know the mood's been broken, but I want to pick up--" She sneezed and the afghan slid off her shoulders.

"How am I supposed to be interested in talk when you're practically naked." Ryan's voice had a rough edge to it as he moved next to her and stepped on the phone, finally breaking the connection.

Walt pulled the phone from his ear, staring in horror while his stomach churned in a full-scale case of indigestion. He slammed the phone down a second later and came to the only conclusion he could -- Allison and Ryan had become lovers.

Ryan pulled the afghan back over Allison's body, keeping his head turned away. "Why are your clothes off?"

She took his chin and forced him to look at her. "It's not some cruel test, if that's what you're thinking. I spilled the tea and--"

"You didn't burn yourself?" His eyes were instantly wide with concern.

"No -- the clothes soaked it up." She lowered her hand and gnawed her lip. "Why didn't you say something earlier?"

Ryan plunked onto the floor and moved her soup and sandwich to the coffee table. "Like what? Gee, Ally, I'm falling in love with you -- just turn your back on your marriage and kids and we'll go off somewhere together?" He grimaced at his own remarks.

Allison forced herself to take a cleansing breath. "Are you really falling in love with me?" she whispered.

He reluctantly gazed in her dubious eyes. "I don't know," he eventually murmured. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Maybe I'm still feeling guilty over what I did to you. Maybe it's my ego trying to protect you now." He hesitantly stroked her knuckles as she clutched the afghan. "I care very deeply about you, Ally. And I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't like it to go further between us. I can't help remember how it was and I'd be a fool not to want another shot at it. But I can't and won't be the instigator -- that, that'd be taking advantage of you."

She looked away from him, thinking. I've got two men pining for me... two wonderful, compassionate men who deserve better than I'm capable of giving. And I still can't decipher what my head and heart are telling me. God, the thought of intimacy scares the hell out of me. The therapists said it would take a long time to feel comfortable about sex, but... what if it's a matter of *if,* not when? What if I'm doomed to relive the fear and pain any time I try to get intimate? ... What if I drive myself crazy with 'what ifs?' and never try? Where the hell is that going to get me?

Allison gazed back at Ryan and tentatively reached to stroke his cheek. Another log loudly crackled, a piece of wood shooting at the screen in the process. Allison jerked forward and fell into Ryan's arms, losing hold of the afghan at the same time. She listened to the pounding of his heart and reacted with spontaneous resolve, pressing her lips to his and pulling him backward.

Monday, November 22, 1999

Walt took his glasses off with a partial laugh and groan. He was attempting to read Scully and Mulder's latest case and couldn't believe Mulder was claiming that the culprit in a series of murders along the Georgia coast was a gigantic, psychotic jellyfishman.

He replaced his glasses and hoped that by some miracle, there would be an 'April fool' notation on the end of the report -- wrong month notwithstanding. Walt frowned at it in general and attempted to read it from the beginning again, knowing his attention span had been lacking in the last several weeks as his mind kept stagnating on visions of Allison with Ryan. Walt repeatedly grappled with directing Anthony to invade their privacy, but so far wasn't sinking that low. And if Anthony had ventured there on his own, he wasn't saying. The other kids had mentioned an intangible tension between the two, though ... which only fueled Walt's imagination more.

"Sir?" Kimberly's disjointed voice startled. "Charlee's on the line... and she, uh, sounds upset."

Walt hastily thanked his assistant and picked up the phone with dread. "Hi, sweetheart. How was school?" Shit, that sounded artificial, even to me, he chided himself.

"Uncle Walt?" she sniffled. "Can I come live with you?" Walt's heart barely had time to skip a beat before she went on. "I don't wanna stay here anymore. I don't want a new daddy."

Oooh, kidney punch, he thought, wincing. "Why do you think you're getting a new daddy, Charlee?"

He could hear her halting breath. "Because, be-because Mommy's gonna have another baby," she blurted.

Below the belt, Walt thought, dropping the phone. He quickly retrieved the receiver with numb fingers and told himself to calm down. It couldn't be true. Allison would hardly have told the children before him and Anthony would have discovered the 'news' before any of the others -- right?"I'm sure you misunderstood, sweetheart," he croaked.

"No," she contended. "I found one of those tests -- it was just like the one she used for Becky... and it was a plus sign."

Knockout -- repeated blows to the head and heart. I'm doomed, he thought... Try to think of something rational, Walt, she still could be wrong. Please, God, he mentally implored, let her be wrong. "Where did you find the, um, test, Charlee? In Mom's wastebasket?"

"No. I found it when I came home from school. It was on the grass and a note with a bunch of words I couldn't read was wrapped around it -- but it was Mommy's handwriting."

Walt started to breathe a sigh of relief, until he remembered the crow problem and how Allison's father had said that the pesky birds were constantly pecking through the garbage bags. Oh shit, shit, shit.

"Mommy and Ryan were arguing last week. I couldn't hear what they were saying," she continued between sobs. "But the next day they were apologizing and hugging and oh, I don't want a third daddy. I've got you and my real daddy."

Too many thoughts were chasing through Walt's mind, not the least of which was Basil would be crushed to know what his daughter had asked. Oh, Allison, how could you let this happen? A sword through my heart would hurt less.

"Uh-oh, Mommy's home. Uncle Walt, *pweease,* come get me."

Walt had spent the hour following Charlee's call in a fog, signing anything Kimberly brought in with no more than a cursory glance. And the five hours after that, he'd spent driving aimlessly, stopping here and there to drink from his handy bottle. At length, he ended up on a once-familiar doorstep, that of the gold-digging woman he'd dated after Clare's first death.

"Well, look what the cat dragged in."

Walt took a single pace to close the distance between them and plastered his lips against hers. She didn't make any pretense of being unwilling as she pulled him into her apartment. "I'd ask if you want a drink, but you seem plenty toasted already," she purred.

He roughly fingered her lace-edged robe before dragging it from her shoulders. "I'm here for one thing only, Heidi."

She grinned and drew her hand against his groin, eliciting a growl. "I see 'Old Faithful' is on the rise." Heidi yanked on his tie, harshly kissing him back, before leading him to damnation.


Walt stumbled through his doorway as a bagpipe competition was going on inside his head. He winced as he flicked on the lights, made his way to the alarm and then to the fridge to assemble the hangover remedy... and God, he needed it.

When a sleepy-looking Roz unexpectedly rounded the corner, he jumped and dropped a glass container, swearing then holding his head.

"Roz. What are you doing here?" he hissed.

She took in his disheveled appearance, shaking her own head. "I'm asking myself that same question." Roz leaned closer and sniffed with displeasure. "Whoever she was, she's got expensive tastes."

"Leave it alone, Roz, I had my reasons and that's all you need to know." He attempted to pick up the glass fragments, the hem of his trenchcoat dipping into the fluid.

She pursed her lips with mounting anger, especially when she saw what looked like scratches on his neck. "I know all about your reasons, you dumbass. I spent 20 minutes on the phone listening to Allison alternately cry, apologize and explain."

"She shouldn't have dragged you into this," he muttered, rising to dump the largest pieces.

"She was worried about you. Afraid you'd go off the deep end after what Charlee told you. And when I couldn't get hold of you all night, I was too."

"So you figured you'd just wait and what? Celebrate with me that my wife is voluntarily pregnant by another man?" Walt sneered.

Roz narrowed her eyes and slapped him. "Just because you choose to drown your sorrow with infidelity and alcohol doesn't mean she is." He blinked at her, rubbed his cheek then glared. "Screw it. You do whatever the hell you want, Mr. Self-Righteous." She started for the door, gathering her coat around her, then paused. "By the way, I saved your ass yesterday. You're lucky you're not in front of Bradley and a disciplinary panel right now."

"What are you talking about?" he grumbled, violently tearing at the papertowel.

Roz drew a deep breath and glowered at him. "One of the papers Kimberly had you sign was authorization for a stakeout."

"So?" he countered, stooping to clean.

"So the location in question has been under surveillance by the DEA for the last six months."

Walt looked past her and groaned. DEA had specifically notified him of the investigation so that nobody from his division would screw things up -- it'd happened before. "How'd you--"

"It doesn't matter how, I took care of it," she snapped.

Walt wiped at the floor and promptly cut himself. His senses were dulled enough not to notice... but Roz did.

"Merde -- you really don't know what you're doing." She grabbed another towel and wrapped it around his left hand, guiding it to the sink and running water over it. With wrinkled nose, Roz plucked the shard of glass from his hand and wrapped more towels around his finger. "Bandages and antiseptic?" She gave him numerous seconds to respond before turning his face roughly to hers and repeating the words.

"Uh, bathroom. Down here," he murmured, staring into space. By the time she returned -- gingerly stepping past the mess -- he'd regained some composure. "I didn't have sex with her."

Roz poured several times the necessary amount of rubbing alcohol over the cut while he cringed. "How you ruin *your* life is none of my concern, remember?" she barbed as she ripped open the Band-Aid envelope.

Walt waited till it was secured before trying again. "I fully intended to..." he swallowed and glanced away. "When I realized I couldn't, Heidi scratched me, screeching, and threw me out. I drank myself unconscious in her parking garage. And I've got a killer hangover now," he added superfluously, gingerly rubbing his skull.

"Sit down before you fall," she ordered, taking a seat herself. He complied, dropping his head to the table, thinking this misery *did not* want company.

.".. Allison's not pregnant," Roz said.

Walt's head whipped up so fast he became dizzy. "What? But-but Charlee--"

"Got it wrong. Ryan's 13-year-old daughter is pregnant." Walt's jaw sagged. "As far as they can determine, it happened while she was visiting her mother. Seems the former Mrs. Mitry encouraged her daughter to experiment with alcohol... and Susie did, till she passed out. At which point it seems likely the mother's unsavory boyfriend committed rape -- he's got a rap sheet full of sexual misdemeanors and felonies."

"Oh, Christ," Walt muttered.

"Exactly," Roz responded. "The poor girl was scared to death when she started displaying symptoms; she went to Allison for help and advice."

Walt leaned well back in the chair and pressed his palms to his eye sockets. "Ugh." He lowered his hands with concern. "Charlee -- she's got to feel terrible." Walt got up and reached for the phone, then realized the hour.

"She does. Apparently she locked herself in her room and it wasn't till Anthony came home from some practice that she confided in him."

I'm sure it didn't happen quite like that, Walt thought.

"Once Allison found out, she was frantic to call you and straighten everything out, but you'd already left and turned your cell phone off." Roz gazed down her nose with disapproval.

"I, uh, didn't want any interruptions while I was, uh, wallowing," he admitted, absently putting a hand to his stomach as he stood.

"Men -- I swear sometimes you're all a bunch of immature--" The ringing phone cut her off.

Walt hiccuped, backpedaled for the doorway and shook his head 'no' at the phone. Roz sighed and answered it, assuming who it would be at that hour.

Walt reluctantly returned after 10 minutes, hoping the coast was clear, but dreading whatever lecture Roz might have. He discovered she'd left, but not before cleaning the floor, starting a pot of coffee and writing him a note.

He learned that Allison was expecting him to call that evening and that Roz had told her nothing of his night other than the drinking. Roz also had indicated that his presence at the office for the rest of the week was unnecessary. The note finished with some personal advice. 'Pack a bag and head for Detroit, you lummox, before there's nothing left of your marriage to save.'

He stared at the note and thought a roadtrip was just want his mind needed to settle. His stomach, on the other hand...


Walt unlocked the door and dropped his duffel. In the waning light, the cottage looked solemn, especially with everything covered. Mrs. B. had already closed it for the season at his request and he'd neglected to inform her of this impromptu visit.

He methodically went to the pieces of furniture, stripping away the sheets, images of Allison assailing his senses all the while. Walt wandered back out to escape the painful but wanted visions, busying himself by chopping several armfuls of wood, then unloading his meager provisions and lighting the oil lamps.

He sat on his heels, watching the flames come to life, thinking yet again of the conversation he'd had with Anthony and Charlee that morning... and of the conversation he was ducking right now. Charlee had been full of apology and embarrassment and Walt had had a clear impression of her as the guilt-ridden little girl who'd shied away from him on a piano bench two years earlier. Anthony had simply beseeched Walt to 'come home,' then begun sniffling when his father had told him he couldn't till he'd thought some things out. Walt had promised to talk to Allison on Thanksgiving Day and hoped his mind would be clear by then.

Despite the beginning of holiday traffic, Walt had driven on 'autopilot' and mostly in silence. He hated talk radio because it only reminded him of how stupid his fellow man was. And after flipping between radio stations with annoyingly poignant songs, he'd rolled his window down for the breeze to keep him company and awake. Walt plopped onto the sofa now, exhausted from the drive, exertion, his lack of decent sleep and still nursing the remnants of a hangover.

He took their wedding photo from the table and ran his finger along the frame, glancing back to the bed with a sigh and pulling a quilt from the back of the sofa instead. Sleeping in the bed would entail making it first, and more to the point, only serve to remind him of how lonely he was, how desperately he missed and needed Allison and how empty everything seemed without her and the kids.

He settled against the pillow -- picture nestled against his chest -- while snatches of one of those damned songs drifted into his mind:

I can still remember How you first captured me Stars in my eyes Promising forever There would be no more tears And no more good-byes

Tell me we're still in love Am I the only one Still in love? Am I the one you've been dreaming of? 'cause I'm still in love with you...

Asinine songs on the radio. Walt clutched the frame tighter and wished he'd never heard of Go West and 'Still in Love.' Talk radio looked good at the moment.

Walt awoke several hours later and discovered Mrs. B knew he was there after all. She'd left a plate of still-warm food on the coffee table, restoked the fire, made up the bed and brought a kerosene space heater. And Walt wondered how he'd slept through it all.

He downed the food without tasting it, pausing to stare at the photo and wondering if Allison was sitting by the phone despite his message. He glanced toward his shut-off cell phone and tried to guess what she was doing. Speculated that she was bathing the kids, cradling Becky or brushing the girls' hair. All mundane, typical family activities... but activities he was realizing he'd come to cherish. Like Ian's squeaky voice yelling 'Me do it' every time the microwave was used or the way the child would proudly follow Walt around to gather trash.

He shoved the plate aside and held his head in his hands. All I'm doing is depressing myself, he silently muttered. But that's what I obviously want, he continued, or I wouldn't be here.

He stood up and went around to the front of the sofa table, staring at the frames he'd righted. It took him a few seconds to notice that one was missing -- not a wedding shot, but another of him and Allison. Walt haphazardly searched the drawers before it dawned on him -- Allison had taken it. But if she hadn't decided that they needed to separate till she was in the air, why take the photo?

Walt clenched his fist unconsciously, wanting to lash out at anything in reach instead of dealing with his new, tortuous thoughts. "Brilliant, you ignoramus," he said aloud. "You just got the damn cast off. What are you gonna do? Punch out something else?"

He rinsed off the plate, started the heater and went to crawl under the covers, pausing as he saw the sheets Mrs. B had placed on the bed. Despite requesting no wedding presents, they'd gotten a set of monogrammed sheets and had relegated them to the cottage. Walt shook his head. Mrs. B wasn't being very subtle with her opinion... and he wondered what choice words of advice she'd give him on the morrow.

Thanksgiving Day, 4:34p.m.

Jude Hogle checked the turkey, basting another time and wondering when that pesky stick would ever pop up. She heard her husband and grandchildren react to the television and smiled. The Lions had won and the day would be perfect -- as far as her husband was concerned -- if the Cowboys lost. Well, she vacillated, almost perfect. Allison had been home from work just over 30 minutes and Walt still hadn't called.

Mrs. Hogle wandered out to the living room and yelled over the groans that dinner would be ready hopefully by five and mounted the steps. She gazed at Allison and sighed, taking the afghan from the end of the bed and covering her sleeping form. Jude knew her daughter hadn't slept much the previous two nights and was more than likely doing it now from exhaustion. She checked on Becky and noted her granddaughter was in the early stages of waking up.

The muffled sound of a car door slamming caught her attention and Jude peered out the front window, a huge smile lighting up her face.

Walt stood facing the Hogle house, duffel gripped in one hand, courage waning. This had seemed like the right choice at 2a.m., but 700-plus miles later, he wasn't so sure. Come on, Skinner, he told himself, it's only your life.

He'd barely made it halfway to the house when the front door opened and Anthony hurtled out like a spear, bowling over Walt's hastily squatting figure. God, Walt thought, it's been almost four months.

"I knew you'd come, I *knew* you'd come," Anthony chanted, embrace near to suffocating. Before Walt could move or respond, the other kids were on him, all jumping and hugging. All, that is, but Charlee. She hung back, head bowed, lips trembling in a pout. Walt disengaged himself at length and squatted once more, holding his arms open for her. She flashed one of her dazzling smiles and sprinted to him, tears trickling.

Jude and AJ watched as Walt picked up Ian, too, while Anthony and Trevor grabbed the duffel bag and Amelia held on to Walt's pant leg.

"You kids are nuts," their grandfather informed. "It's 30 degrees out here and none of you have shoes on." They simply grinned at him, not caring.

"Are you sure?" Walt asked for the third time as he and Jude stood outside Allison's bedroom.

"Walt, pardon my language, but you look like hell." He hadn't shaved since Monday morning, his eyes were bloodshot from too much caffeine and he hadn't showered since Tuesday. "And you have to be worn out after that drive. Allison won't mind if you take a nap on the bed with her. The big question is whether I can keep the kids away from you long enough for you to *get* the sleep."

Walt smiled and followed her in, his eyes drawn first to Allison, then to the crib. Becky was sitting up and playing quietly with a set of nesting cups. Walt's breath was taken away at how much bigger she'd gotten... and how much more beautiful. She had short ringlets of golden brown hair, impossibly long lashes, steel-blue eyes and numerous teeth.

"Go on," Jude urged in hushed tones. "Pick her up."

Walt shook his lowered head. "No. It's been too long -- she won't remember me." And whose fault is that?

"Poppycock -- you're her father, she knows you."

She seemed to be right as Becky crawled a pace, pulled herself upright, beamed at him then batted her hands against his chest, leaning her weight against the railing. Walt's heart melted as he gingerly lifted her -- automatically adjusting for her weight -- and she nuzzled her head against his shoulder.

"Is it time for her to eat? Does she need to be changed?" He grimaced, knowing his questions sounded foolish.

Jude rubbed the baby's head. "The little princess will eat with us and Amelia helped me change her before her nap." Walt unsuccessfully stifled a yawn. "Really, Walt. Get some rest. We'll all be here when you wake up."

He let her take Becky from him and watched as they departed. His eyes immediately swiveled to Allison -- not that he hadn't been stealing glances all the while. Walt resisted the urge to kneel in front of her and study her, caress her face, press kiss after kiss to her forehead and lips.

Sleeping in the same bed was a bad idea, he realized. Then he caught sight of the missing picture -- on her nightstand -- at the same time hearing Allison sigh... all rational thought vacated his brain. Walt deposited his glasses next to the bed, sidled in behind her, spooning her and resting his right arm against her abdomen. Due to the relative bulk of the afghan and sweater she was wearing, Walt couldn't accurately assess how thin she was. And with her longer hair falling in her face, he couldn't tell that way either.

Stop being analytical, he told himself, yawning again and resting his head lightly on her shoulder. Just enjoy this stolen moment and hope Allison doesn't beat you senseless when she wakes up.

And 60 seconds later, he was sound asleep.

Allison tried to stretch and felt a weight pressed against her. One of the kids, she hazily thought, blinking her eyes open and peering at the clock -- 6:03p.m. She bit her lip, worrying that Walt wasn't going to call as she shoved her hair behind an ear. Then she gazed down her body and saw the decidedly adult, male hand.

And a split second later, she knew who the hand belonged to.

Allison carefully turned her head and slowly smiled, seeing Walt's bristly face behind her shoulder. She meticulously unearthed her arms from the afghan she didn't remember crawling under and reached back to stroke his cheek. She smiled even more broadly as he murmured in his sleep at her touch. She pulled her left hand away and gazed at the rings she still wore, rubbing her thumb against the bands. And finally, she wrapped her left arm over his, clasping his fingers in her right hand before falling back to sleep.

Walt rolled over and sluggishly squinted at the clock -- 6:23. He allowed a brief frown to cross his face, as he was alone. He reached for his glasses -- now mysteriously on the other nightstand -- and figured out why... it was morning. He threw the comforter aside and sat up.

Becky gurgled in her own slumber and Walt stumbled to the crib. She looks like an angel, he thought, laying on her side, one arm clutching a pink elephant -- one of the few stuffed animals Allison had let him purchase -- the other hand by her face as she reflexively sucked her thumb.

He was so enthralled with his daughter that he didn't hear Allison come into the room. "Oh, you're awake," she mumbled, smile spreading. "We were tempted to start a pool about when you'd wake up, Rip Van Winkle."

Walt allowed himself to grin as he thought how ridiculously good it felt to hear Allison banter. "I'm not surprised you didn't refer to me as 'Sleeping Beauty.'"

Allison reached his side, rolling her eyes. "Yes, well, this little beauty may be sleeping now, but look out when she's awake -- she's developed a temper like a banshee when she doesn't get her way ... *despite* her age."

Walt grasped Allison's hand and brought it to his lips, planting a single kiss on the back of her palm. Then he trailed his fingertips along her cheek, finally prepared to voice some of the volumes he'd ignored when she left -- she beat him to the punch. "I'm glad you came, Walt... I've missed you," she whispered.

His arms were embracing her before he could stop himself... and when she wrapped her arms around him, he felt higher than the Mir space station.

"Unfortunately, we can't stay like this." Walt leaned back, confused. "If I don't leave for work right now, I'll be late." He began to protest and she gently silenced him. "We'll have plenty of time during the rest of your visit... tesoro." She punctuated her words with a soft kiss on his lips before departing, leaving Walt nearly swooning in her wake.


"But why hasn't the medication done anything? And why did it take so long to diagnose?" Walt queried his mother-in-law.

She blew across her own mug of coffee and arched an eyebrow -- Walt saw once more where Allison got it from. "AJ underwent two thyroid scans and three blood tests to verify that the gland was working properly. It wasn't until the last test that anything showed up. And the drug *is* working -- she'd gotten down into the high 120s before hyperthyroidism was diagnosed. Now she at least weighs 130."

Walt unintentionally winced. He'd been so focused on her response to him, that he hadn't consciously noticed her appearance that morning. Now he played it back in his mind and shuddered -- she was little more than skin and bones.

The kids came bounding into the kitchen, ending Walt's thoughts.

"Come on, Dad," Anthony entreated. "You promised to play catch with Trev and me."

"No," Amelia contradicted. "Play hopscotch with me and Charlee."

"Jump-rope," Charlee corrected.

Ian tugged on Walt's pantleg and added his opinion. "Maybe take walk wit' me?"

Walt's eyes twinkled as the kids began arguing about who was going to get his attention first. Then he saw Allison drive past and tunneled everything else.

"No rest for the weary," Jude commented as the kids got louder. "Pipe down, Walt's spent most of the day with you all. He needs a break."

Gramma's words had the opposite effect as each child pleaded their case more vociferously.

Walt couldn't hear anything Allison was saying as she entered, but grinned broadly as she stuck two fingers in her mouth and let forth an earsplitting whistle. The kids quieted for a few seconds before running over to her and starting up again. Allison rolled her eyes and whistled another time.

"Nobody's going outside. It's in the 20s and it'll be dark soon."

"Oh, Mom," the children complained.

"Go set up a board game instead," she countered, shrugging out of her winter attire. They slowly complied, grumbling under their breath while Allison ambled to the fridge. Walt attempted to hug her, recalling her warm reception that morning, and was puzzled that she seemed more distant now.

"What are you doing?" Jude queried, observing the conglomeration Allison was removing.

"I'm starving and I can't wait for dinner." Her mother started to say one thing, got a contemplative expression on her face and remained silent.

"Gramma?! Where's Junior Monopoly?... Oh, never mind," Charlee shouted.

"That's for sissies," Trevor was overhead griping.

"I'd better go play referee," Jude sighed, leaving.

Walt watched Allison with misgivings as she assembled a sandwich. .".. Did I do something wrong?"

"What?" She slapped a slice of cheese on the sandwich and sucked her finger. "Oh, no." She crossed to him and softly kissed his lips, afterward wrapping her arms around his waist. "I'm sorry, Walt. This probably sounds stupid, but I'm leery of doing anything too affectionate in front of the kids right away."

He tilted her chin and tenderly repeated the kiss, wanting to do more, but tempering the feeling. "I understand. I've been fielding questions from them all day about when we're all going home. They seem to think since we slept in the same bed, we're back together." And I can't entirely blame them, he added to himself.

"Regardless of what happens this weekend, tesoro, the kids and I are staying put through the end of the semester." Allison immediately lowered her chin, not wanting to see pain in Walt's eyes.

He held her tighter and propped his chin on her head. "I'm not here to force a decision, honey." He pulled back and stared sincerely into her eyes. "But I do need to say this. I love you, Allison. And I'm prepared to do anything to prove it -- run naked through snow, quit the FBI, move around the world... let you go if I have to... anything."

He shut up, hoping he'd done the right thing. She smiled almost coquettishly. "Run naked through snow?"

Walt blushed and pursed his lips. "I, uh, wanted to include something, um--"

"Silly?" she offered, tickling his side while he squirmed. "I know all that, Walt," she added, becoming more serious. "But thank you for telling me." Her stomach growled. "Now if you'll excuse me," she chuckled, "my tummy is demanding food."


Walt watched Allison polish off her third piece of pie that evening with wry amusement. She set the plate down and smacked her lips. "I know, I'm acting like a pig. But in the last 24 hours, my interest in food has skyrocketed."

"I'm not saying a word," Walt remarked, before his thoughts drifted.

"Wise man. I will, however, allow you a single crass comment should I start belching." Allison frowned as he continued to stare at the pool table -- they were in the basement rec room -- she snapped her fingers to get his attention.

"Hmm? Oh, sorry. I was thinking of when Clare was pregnant. She barely ate the first several months and then the morning sickness went away and she gorged."

Allison assumed Walt's information stemmed from Clare's letters. "Sounds like what Lois and I went through."

"Yeah. I forgot to tell you, Kimberly's pregnant again... with twins. She's a good four months along and typically just told me. Don't know how she managed to keep it secret so long."

Allison cringed as his words were too close to home. Walt, on the other hand, found his mind illogically wandering to that daydream he'd had, so long ago, about Clare and 'their kids.' What were the names of those twins? he questioned himself -- oh, yeah, Natalie and Jeremy. Walt refocused his attention as Allison spoke Ryan's name.

.".. it's such a mess. Ryan's filed action against his ex to deny visitation, but he doesn't know what to do about the 'boyfriend.' "

"I don't understand."

"There's no way to prove out and out rape at this point, and getting him charged with *statutory* rape means Susie consented and she certainly didn't." Walt didn't bother to point out he was familiar with the terms. "If you could have seen her face when the test came out positive." Allison trembled in anger and compassion and leaned her head against Walt's shoulder. "Her entire childhood and innocence have been robbed."

Walt squeezed her hand and let her ramble, realizing Allison had a bizarre perspective on the whole thing. "God, Susie's so traumatized -- between finding out she can't trust her mother, thinking it's somehow her own fault and having to go through all those tests for STDs. And to add insult to injury, the poor thing keeps having nightmares about... him doing it to her, right under her mother's nose. Ryan's trying to remain objective, but he wants her to have a therapeutic abortion -- especially since Susie's clinging to one of her old baby dolls..."

Allison fell silent.

Walt held her tighter, massaging her arm. "It's a horrible thing to happen to *any* female, regardless of age, honey... And I'm sure it's been difficult for you to--"

Allison got up without warning, grabbed a pool cue and set up the balls. Walt correctly assumed she wouldn't talk. "Are you talking to anyone about Stanislav?"

She botched a shot and kept her gaze averted. "Of course -- I'm still in therapy."

Walt stood, wringing his hands. "What about Ryan? Have you talked to him?" She studied the shots and refused to answer, inadvertently increasing Walt's agitation. "Allison?"

"Yes," she mumbled, moving around the table.

"Because you're lovers?" Walt blurted.

Allison scratched again. "What?! Are you gonna start that jag again? We're *not* lovers, Walt."

Walt continued, unabated. "I heard you on the phone, Allison -- and I'm prepared to forgive you, but only if you admit it." He regretted the words instantly. What in the hell are you doing, Skinner, he queried himself. *This* is how you try to reconcile? Get a frickin' grip and start making sense.

Allison's eyes screwed up in irritation. "How very noble of you." She flung the cue angrily on the table. "This is why you came? To accuse me of being unfaithful? You sound like Basil, drunk. At least I don't have to wonder if you're trying to soothe a guilty conscience by accusing m--" Allison took a halting breath as Walt turned red. "You sanctimonious bastard." She stalked to him and slapped his face, bristling the whole time. "Men and their goddamned hormones." She picked up the chalk cube and flung it at the wall. "Well, now my bloody pattern is perfect," she huffed.

Walt gingerly rubbed his cheek. "What pattern is that?" he quietly asked.

"The one where I only fall in love with guys who cheat on me."

He reached above his glasses, pinched his nose and heavily sighed. "I didn't commit adultery... least not in the legal sense."

Walt painfully told Allison the events after Charlee's phone call.

"We got as far as removing clothes before I... then I couldn't get out of there fast enough." Walt hung his head and plopped onto the sofa again. "I'm sorry, Allison. I'm sorry I let you down, I'm sorry I accused you and I'm sorry I didn't trust you."

Allison leaned against the pool table and anxiously dragged her fingers through her hair. "I, uh, shouldn't claim the privilege of being so self-righteous... You were right about Ryan's feelings for me. And when he told me he wouldn't exploit our friendship to pursue them, I started this stupid 'what-if' spiral and... and I deliberately pushed the envelope."

Allison stared at her feet as she scuffed the shoes. "I'm hardly proud of it... It didn't go beyond some heavy-duty kissing. I opened my eyes and, and it wasn't Ryan's face I saw." Walt held back any comment, not willing to ask if she'd seen Stanislav. Allison shyly glanced at him. "I saw you -- it sort of freaked me out."

Walt had her in his arms in a heartbeat. "I think we're both gluttons for punishment," he opined.

"Why wouldn't you come out before, Walt?"

He sighed and led her back to the sofa, cuddling her close. "Fear. Fear of making an ass of myself -- which I've managed to do after all -- fear of not being able to leave without you, fear that you'd tell me we were over."

Allison stared vacantly in the ensuing silence before snorting - - which was hardly the response Walt expectted. "My father was right. ... It's galling to be 40 and *still* have your parents be right." She settled her head against Walt's chest, yawning. "Mm, I'm getting sleepy."

Walt removed his glasses and sighed, more in favor of contact than serious conversation. "And a few moments ago I thought you were going to crack that pool cue over my head."

"I was tempted... but my father never would have forgiven me."

"Special-ordered sticks, huh?" Walt replied, chuckling and holder her closer still. "Is this all right, honey -- am I holding you too tight?"

"Mm, it's fine, Walt -- warm, snuggly, comfortable... old shoeish... What were you and Anthony conspiring about earlier?"

"Hm? Oh, he wants me to take him to some store for Christmas shopping." Walt thought a moment and told Allison the name.

She raised her head in surprise. "Anthony's developing expensive tastes... try to steer him to--"

Walt silenced her with a quick kiss. "He really wants a certain sweater... for you." Allison was mystified and said as much. Walt sighed and explained Anthony's dream during her abduction, the one that had them all safely together for Becky's first birthday. "He seems to think it's some kind of Fate that his teacher was wearing the exact same sweater... And I'm going to buy it, regardless of price."

Allison indicated she wanted to be released so Walt did, misinterpreting. "I didn't, um, mean to imply, er uh, I mean sound like I was pushing you--"

"No, it's not that. With everything else going on, I haven't given a thought to her birthday."

"Oh... well, she won't remember her first." That was dumb, he mentally added.

"That's not the point. I don't want it to be like Ian's."

Walt trailed his fingers up and down her spine, then started on the knots in her shoulders. "It won't be," he whispered. "I'll come back." Will Charlee and Amelia think I'm showing favoritism? he wondered.

"The kids have a half-day on the 23rd and don't go back till the third," she murmured, turning around to stroke his cheek. "We'd all love for you to stay the whole time."

Walt's eyes crinkled warmly as he drew her palm to his lips. "Count on it." He pulled her to his body, pressing her back against his chest so her head was lolling against his shoulder.

I can't ask for better than this, Walt silently decided, even if I'm every bit as confused as the kids. If Allison's comfortable with my affection, why won't she come home? She can't honestly think I'd push her into making love... Maybe it *is* DC that's keeping us apart at this point, he continued. Just say the word, carissima, and I'll move here... but shit, she knows that and she hasn't asked so ...

"I didn't exactly volunteer information about Stanislav to Ryan, Walt," she disclosed unexpectedly. "I mean, I told him how each scar had been, um, 'achieved,' but I didn't tell him anything else surrounding the ordeal... But because of Susie, I--"

Walt took both her hands and squeezed. "You don't have to explain, honey."

She turned slightly and nuzzled her head against his neck. "I want to, Walt. I want you to understand... Ryan's been trained to handle a patient's psychological trauma, but he was blasted right out of the water with this. Especially since Susie had been afraid to approach him when she started suspecting the pregnancy. He feared he'd make the whole situation worse by saying or doing the wrong thing. They tried a rape counselor, but Susie wouldn't open her mouth -- she just curled up in the fetal position and began retreating into herself."

God, Walt thought, skin prickling at his own memory, that's a horrible thing to watch.

"So I sat down with both of them and related some of what I'd felt over being, um, attacked. Susie burst into tears and didn't stop for 15 minutes. Then she asked me why I hadn't aborted and I... and *I* lost it." Allison paused to swipe at her eyes. "I did my best to explain the differences in our 'situations,' but I don't think it truly sank in. And I know Ryan was hoping I'd be able to convince her that terminating was in her best interest."

"He shouldn't lay that on you," Walt sputtered as she sat up.

"I know that... and he knows that. He was clutching at straws. People aren't always rational you know."

I could write a book, he thought, sliding her to his side and standing up. "Considering how persistent I've been about getting you to talk, I know this is going to sound irrational, but why don't we postpone any more talk till tomorrow." He pulled her easily into his arms. "I'm more wiped out from playing with the kids than I care to admit." He pressed a gentle kiss to her forehead. "Point me in the direction of the spare linens, and I'll curl up on the sofa." Not that I want to in the slightest, he mentally added.

"We shared my bed quite nicely last night, tesoro. I'll be disappointed if we don't again." She picked up the pie plate and gazed into his uncertain eyes with a twinkle. "And I won't hold your rather prodigious morning erection against you, either."

Sunday Morning

Walt set his care package on the floor of the front seat and wedged the thermos of coffee between the seat and his duffel bag. The temperature was hovering in the teens and threatened to drop lower as scattered flurries began falling. The kids had all reluctantly said goodbye in the house, still perplexed at his leaving alone, but already excited about his promised Christmas visit.

Allison stomped her boot-clad feet, her breath freezing in the air as she exhaled, then reached around Walt's neck to better arrange the scarf her mother had lent him. She grinned at the brightly knit, pompom-topped hat adorning his head and knew he'd stuff it in the backseat as soon as he was out of sight so as not to hurt her mother's feelings.

"Call me when you get home -- so I can stop worrying," she instructed.

He yanked off a glove to caress her cheek. "I promise I'll pull over if it gets bad," he asserted.

She nodded stupidly, dispelling thoughts of begging him to stay. Crushed a fleeting desire to climb into the vehicle with him and wondered if telling him any of that would make him too giddy to drive.

Allison took his bare hand and kissed it, eyes glistening. "Just be careful. There's a house full of people who..." Don't say 'love,' that's too schmaltzy. "Who are expecting a car full of Christmas presents."

Walt smiled as much at the words as at what he saw in her eyes. "I'll try hard not to disappoint any of you." Just give me the chance, carissima, and I'll do my damnedest never to disappoint you again.

Allison came close to telling him she'd have an answer for him at Christmas, but realized the statement alone would put undo pressure on both of them. She clearly knew which way she was leaning, but the next weeks would clinch her feelings one way or the other.

Walt gazed at her a few seconds more, then wrapped her tightly in his arms -- well, as tight as their heavy coats allowed. He pulled back and prepared to kiss her forehead, not trusting himself with her mouth, but then decided 'nothing ventured, nothing gained' and went for it.

Walt felt his heart start pounding as Allison not only didn't flinch from the intensity, but matched it. They lost themselves in the sweetness of the kiss for a transcendent lifetime, separating with overwrought sighs and the grins of teenagers.

Allison watched him nearly skip to the driver's side and was oblivious to the freezing gust of wind that blew her bangs off her forehead.

Skinner dropped into the seat and started the car, absently fastening the belt and ducking his head for another look at Allison. We're going to come outta this okay, he told himself... and for the first time in months, he believed it.

Friday, December 17, 1999

Walt gazed around at the opulence of another grand FBI Christmas party and wondered how soon he could leave. He was there only because Roz had threatened to send goons to his house, have him stripped naked, painted purple and dropped into the center of the ballroom. He'd decided she'd seen too many M*A*S*H reruns, but opted not to test her.

So here he was, making idle chat with people he'd rather leave at the office and going over a mental list of toys he was still trying to procure. Allison was going quietly nuts trying to track down the latest 'must-have toy' that was the only thing Amelia wanted from Santa. Walt couldn't even remember the name of the thing -- he had had to write it down -- something idiotic like last year's Furbys. One more drink, he told himself, and I'm out of here so I can get to ToyWorks at 6a.m. with the other lunatics and stand in line.

Roz came sauntering over, a vision in a beaded ivory dress that accented all of her well-maintained curves. God, Walt thought, Ned's a lucky man.

"What are you drinking?"


"Ugh. How'd Ned talk you into that swill?"

"It's hardly swill, Roz. It happens to be a heavy malt whiskey from--"

"Islay, home of his Scottish ancestors. It has a smoky, peaty taste because it's aged in oak barrels. Yeah, yeah, I've heard the sales pitch and I won't go near the stuff. Gives me a three-day headache." She grimaced as a fashion disaster walked by. "Doesn't Grace Jarvey have *any* shame?"

Roz sipped her champagne and nodded to another agent. "When did you talk to Allison last?" Walt pursed his lips and glanced at the floor. "What's wrong? Did you two have a fight?"

"Nooo. It's just... it's just I can't seem to get an accurate read on her the last few days. She seems happy to talk to me, but at the same time, it's like she's hiding something." He shrugged and finished the drink. "Maybe it's all in my head. Maybe she's just keyed up over the holiday." Or maybe I allowed my hopes to get too high after Thanksgiving, he thought.

He expected Roz to deliver a pep talk -- at least say something -- but she simply smiled into her flute of champagne. Guess she was just being polite, he pouted to himself. Then he heard her whistle.

"Now *that's* a lady with style." Walt rolled his eyes. He was in no mood to be drawn into a discussion on fashion. "That dress is gorgeous -- gold faille, I think, clingy fabric, at any rate, V-necked with ties at the shoulders, A-line cut and a scarf at her throat."

"I'm thrilled that you approve, Roz. But I don't care," he muttered.

She purposely stepped on his foot. "You should, she's garnering everyone's attention and headed this way... on Ned's arm."

Whoopee, he thought, but decided to turn around as Roz stomped his foot again. Then he dropped his empty glass and felt his jaw go slack.


"I told her when the party was," Roz admitted. "And I've arranged for you to take the whole week off. So stop catching flies and greet your wife, idiot." Allison and McIntire reached Walt a few seconds later. And he reflexively did something very unSkinnerish.

Walt pulled Allison into the clinch of the century and kissed her with every ounce of his being. When wolf whistles began to be heard over the applause, Walt belatedly realized how acutely public his display was. Then he thought he'd die of embarrassment, blushing deeper than the red poinsettias.

"I'm never going to live this down," he groaned, whisking her to a wall.

Allison beamed. "It's not like anybody can blackmail you for kissing your wife in public, tesoro."

No, but I just provided enough fodder to keep the water-cooler gossip going for weeks, he rebuked himself. He wrapped his hand around hers. "Let's get out of here and go home."

"No way, Walt." He appeared confused, till she arched an eyebrow. "I spent way too much time getting ready to just put in a two-minute appearance." Her stomach growled. "Plus I'm ravenous and the buffet tables look fabulous." Then she leaned close to his ear and whispered words that reclaimed his soul.

"I love you, tesoro, and I'm back for good."

One and a half Hours Later

Walt swaggered back from the alarm panel and swept Allison into his arms, kissing her till he was sure they'd merge into one person. When he eventually leaned back, he couldn't decipher her expression ... and even though her earlier words had been clear, his raging doubts surfaced.

"I'm sorry, honey. That was too much. I-I'm pushing too fast."

She opted for the 'actions speak louder than words' explanation and kissed him back. "Shhh. It was perfect, tesoro," she murmured, stroking his face with both hands. Allison glanced around them and had difficulty putting her thoughts into coherent words. "It's just ... I doubt this makes sense, but all I had time to do was literally toss my suitcase in and mess with the alarm before. I'm not sure why, but I'd like to wander around the house for a bit... if that's all right?"

She feels like an intruder in her own home now, Walt thought. Maybe that's why she changed at Teresa's. But why now, versus when she first came back from the hospital, he mused. "Of course, car--" His face became crestfallen. "I'm sorry, honey, I didn't mean--"

"It's all right," she assured him. "The word doesn't bother me anymore -- you can call me that again." She smiled warm and sincere, punctuating her remarks.

Walt breathed a sigh of relief and held her close, nuzzling his chin to her forehead. "I'm gonna change outta this monkey suit, carissima. Then I'll do whatever you want." He softly pressed his lips to her forehead then broke their embrace.

"You can start by taking my suitcase up," she teased absently, tugging open her coat buttons while he flashed a smile.

Walt ambled down the stairs with a lightness of step he hadn't felt in almost a year. Then he turned the corner past the second support column and halted, dry-mouthed. Allison was sitting on her stocking-clad heels, next to that spot, staring, her fingertips grazing the surface of the new laminate.

Keeping the area where Agent Mead had died covered with a rug had proven impractical and the children had habitually circumvented the area, so Walt had replaced the flooring. But that had been done before Allison had left him.

"I can't believe how much it's faded," she mumbled as he slid onto his bottom, next to her.

"I helped it along with a conglomeration of bleaching products," he answered.

She nodded and stared up the hall, her voice losing tone, even as tears began forming. Walt instantly realized she was remembering that horrible morning.

"The lights came back on after the third shot. I looked around frantically for Ian and saw him under the stairs... I didn't actually see Stanislav execute Mead. I mean his body was blocking my view... blocking the kids' view. But I heard Mead try to plead for mercy, saw him raise his bloody hand to somehow ward off the shot." She sank onto her own bottom and leaned her head against the wall, blinking against the flow of moisture. "I'm sure he was dead with the first shot to his face, but his body convulsed with the impact of the following two anyway. Amelia and Trev had crawled to me and were sobbing in my arms, trembling so hard they were making me shake. I even remember thinking I should try to get them out the front door while Stanislav was... occupied, but Ian..."

Allison yanked the scarf from her throat and used it to dab at her eyes. "Then he was yelling at us to move down the hall. Trev helped Amelia up and fell against the wall, half holding his leg. I was vaguely aware of a burning sensation myself as I staggered up. I told the kids not to look at Mead, just to keep their eyes shut and feel their way down the hall... and Stanislav sneered. He grabbed my arm when I reached him and ordered me to pick up Ian. I prayed that he was just unconscious and came close to fainting with relief when I didn't see large quantities of blood pouring from him... not like Mead. My leg buckled as I went past him and I stumbled against the wall."

She stared at the dining room entrance. "Amelia and Trev had stopped, and I could see Buster whimpering inside the room. Trev tried to go to him but Stanislav wrenched him back and tossed him over his shoulder, yanking Amelia' s h air and shoving her into the kitchen at the same time." Allison gazed at Walt. "I guess the adrenaline was drowning out the pain of the wound in his shoulder, because he certainly whined about it enough... later." She shook her head and went back to that morning, averting her eyes from Walt's face.

"Trev kept thrashing, which was good, in a way. It kept Stanislav's attention from Agent Moskal. I saw that the system was active again and hoped the effort hadn't been Moskal's last act -- there was so much blood seeping through his sweatshirt... I'd just laid Ian on the seat when the alarm went off. Stanislav began swearing and I felt something hit my head. It was so strange -- in that millisecond before I lost consciousness, I thought how scared Amelia and Trev were going to be, since I wouldn't be able to hold them, whisper that it was going to be all right. And I had a clear image of your face -- it was contorted in so much grief and guilt. I felt so horrible for not listening to you and putting us all in that danger... Amazing that all that could go through my head, huh?"

Walt had been clutching her hand the whole time, letting her ramble, letting his own tears drip unchecked down his cheeks. He gathered her into his arms now and rocked her weeping body against him, ultimately cradling her to him as he awkwardly stood, then carrying her upstairs.

Walt laid her tenderly on the bed, incredulous that she had honestly believed she was to blame right from the start. He began to gather the comforter around her, since her skin was like ice, but she had other ideas.

"No, don't, tesoro. I'd rather change into some sweats."

He went to her suitcase and retrieved a pair, unsure whether to give her privacy. "I'll, uh, get your shoes." He figured they must be downstairs someplace, since she'd hadn't been wearing them in the hall.

"Tomorrow, Walt. Right now, I want you to stay while I change, to look. You have to be curious about Ryan's work... and I know if you show discomfort, it's because of my weight, not because you're repulsed."

He gave her a shy smile and gently cupped her cheek. "Have you gained *anything*?"

"I thought you said you'd noticed when Clare gained five pounds?"

Walt trailed his fingers down her throat and rested them on the shoulder ties of the dress. "You're still going to look too skinny after 15 *more* pounds, carissima."

She turned her back to him and mumbled 'zipper.' Walt lowered it painstakingly, barely noticing that Allison was unfastening the ties. He'd clearly seen that the scars from her upper back were virtually nonexistent, but the worst damage had been lower anyway. She wiggled till the dress was at her feet, then stepped out of it. Finally, she removed her pantyhose and waited.

Even though the light wasn't intense, Walt instantly saw the two scars. Of course he knew exactly where to look. He tentatively touched them and was unprepared when Allison giggled. "Sorry," she murmured, "that tickled."

He enfolded his arms around her and propped his chin on her shoulder. "You were right about Ryan. He did a fantastic job." Walt kept his hands below her breasts, but above the abdominal scarring.

"He thinks he can get those last two with more surgery, but I don't think it's worth it. I mean, I basically never have to see 'em and--"

Walt moved in front of her and silenced her with his lips. "I don't care about the scars, carissima, only that you're here with me now," he murmured.

She cocked an eyebrow at his expectant expression. "That sounds vaguely familiar."

"You said it to me once upon a time."

"Oh," she rubbed her abdomen. "I will need surgery for my stomach, though." Walt glanced down and frowned. Her weight loss had made the pink obscenities indiscriminate squiggles, but the message still burned fresh in his mind. "Maybe I can get a tummy tuck while I'm at it," Allison commented. "In fact, that would probably take care of the scars on its own."

Walt slowly stroked her stomach before clutching her. "I'm so sorry, carissima; so very, very sorry," he entreated.

Allison wordlessly soothed him for a moment, knowing the demons were still running rampant, but hoping to banish them for good. "If you don't stop saying that in the near future, I'm gonna beat on you."

He pulled back and noted the faint twinkle in her eyes, and then the pronounced shaking of her body, which didn't seem to fit the spirit of her words. "You're trembling."

She rolled her eyes. "No, I'm shivering. In case you missed the fact, I'm buck naked and it's cold in here." He grinned and tried to relax. "I could use some panties and socks to go with the sweats, Mr. Manservant," she teased.

One minute later, Walt stood waiting, not sure what to do while Allison glided the pants up. "Better?" he mumbled.

She wandered back to him and wrapped his arms around herself, kissing him softly. "Better... I'm ready to tell you now."

He stared into her momentarily dry eyes, knowing exactly what she meant, and abruptly feeling craven. "Let's not do it tonight, Allison."

"But I want to... I need to. We can put it behind us tonight and start truly fresh in the morning." Well, okay, I'm not naive enough to believe it'll be that simple, she told herself.

Walt plopped onto the bed, having released her, and covered his face with his hands, forcibly exhaling. "It's just... it's just now that the moment of truth is here, I don't know if I can handle it." He looked at her when she failed to answer. "Stupid, I know. I tried to push you numerous times and now *I'm* the one dragging my heels. Makes me a coward, huh?"

She sat next to him and took his hand. "Makes you human, tesoro... Stay right here, I want to gather a few things first."

Two hours, half a tissue box and approximately 32 ounces of water later, Allison lay ensconced in Walt's arms, both of them drained and nearly unable to think straight. They let the silence lengthen, attempting to draw strength from it. Ultimately, she sat up, wiped her nose one last time and tossed her tissue toward the other snow-like litter on the floor, somewhere near the overflowing wastebasket.

Walt stared straight ahead, numbly trying to process everything she'd said. He'd faced atrocious levels of pain, but only for trivial amounts of time... and outside of Vietnam, hadn't had abject fear mixed with it. Actually, when he really thought about it, he'd felt no pain in Vietnam till after he'd woken up in the hospital, and by then the fear had abated.

Allison sniffled and snuggled back into him. "Damn those therapists. I was really hoping I'd feel like a huge weight had been lifted once I finally bared my soul to you. They didn't have to be so right."

Walt worked some saliva back into his mouth and wished there was still some water at hand. "What did they say? What *do* you feel?"

She wriggled her nose, trying to decide. "Empty, I think. Barren in a weird way... Can't really describe it any better. How about you?" she whispered.

He massaged her arm tenderly, at opposition to his remarks. "Furious enough to kill that bastard with my bare hands if he were here." His voice changed to a monotone. "Shocked, nauseous... guilty." And knowing the better part -- that they were together again -- didn't help at all, he mentally added. "I have to bring this up, carissima, even though I know you hate it--"

Allison rotated in his arms and placed a finger to his lips. "Yes, Walt. I did blame you, at one point." She settled back against him and grasped his hand. "He fed that poison to Amelia and Trev right from the start, but I continually told them it was a lie -- that Stanislav was the only one to blame -- and they believed me. But he kept berating me with it before and after the tapings. I wondered at the time why he didn't continue while he was filming, but he was playing so many types of mind games I... I knew our best chance for rescue was in those first few days, and when it didn't happen, I began losing confidence. And he recorded news updates about us, from the TV, played them back to break my spirit."

"We purposely fed the press misinformation," Walt mumbled. "To give him a false sense of security, hoping he'd make more appearances in public. I-It never occurred to us he'd use it to further torment you."

"I was already in a panicky spiral of hopelessness at that point. Then I lost faith in just about everything -- myself, you. I started believing the worst about Ian and tried to convince myself that I should try to escape. But I was afraid if I was wrong, I'd be responsible for killing Ian; or if I didn't succeed, Stanislav would take Amelia and Trev away. And then anger replaced my missing faith and I blamed you."

Walt squeezed her tighter and closed his eyes.

"It was during the first... shower rape that my mind cleared, briefly. I realized it was wrong to blame you and went back to thinking I was most at fault. Then pain overwhelmed everything and rational thinking became a distant memory."

"God, honey," Walt groaned, jaw quivering. "I know you don't want me to apologize anymore but I'm so, so sorry for all the pain."

"Shhh," she soothed. "You went through your own version of hell. Anticipation and a rampant imagination can be far worse than action. That's probably why he sent you my hair... and why he lied to Amelia and Trev about what he did to me -- not that what actually happened was any less traumatic."

"Are you still having lucid hallucinations?"

"No, thank God." Allison cringed in recall -- associations stemming from the object rapes had been the worst hallucinations. She took a deep breath to rid herself of the memory. "I'd never considered pain a friend before Stanislav, but I know it's what kept me alive so long. But at the time, of course, I prayed I'd go numb to everything -- like I did in the hospital and here."

"Do you think, uh, that is, did you ever wonder if, if Clare influenced any of it?" Walt felt like an idiot for asking and hoped he wasn't distressing Allison now.

She looked philosophical. "When it was happening, no. But I was so whacked out after he took Amelia and Trev away, I was positive I was imagining her presence, period. Even when she appeared to me in the bathroom here, she didn't specifically say as much, but I'm sure she influenced it, yes."

The night Clare had appeared to both of them, Allison *had* admitted to Walt seeing her. And they'd both agreed that Clare's involvement was the only 'reasonable' explanation for the state of the wounds. But Allison hadn't elaborated further than that.

"Why?" Walt queried now.

"Because the sensation of pain was so opportunistic, I suppose. It would end as soon as he'd toss me back in the room and start again when he touched me in any way."

Walt realized the 'perfect' way to close the door on all this would be to make love to Allison in the gentlest possible manner... but even if he believed they were ready for that -- and he didn't -- he was feeling too much renewed agitation to follow through.

"You need to go into the basement and burn off some energy, don't you?"

He gazed at her serious expression with awe. "How did you --?"

"Because I know you, tesoro... And it proves we're back to thinking on the same wavelength."

Next Morning

Walt rose through the layers of sleep feeling as though he were being crushed. Not, however, a painful, bone-wrenching crush, but rather a pleasant, warm and softly breathing crush -- Allison. She was draped on top of him and doing something in her sleep he'd prefer she didn't. Walt wrapped his arms more tightly around her to halt her squiggling, and succeeded in waking her.

"Hey," she murmured coquettishly. "I know you're happy to see me and all, but would you mind jabbing that 'thing' somewhere else?"

Walt rolled his eyes. "That 'thing' would be minding its own business if you hadn't stimulated it with all that wiggling."

"Sorry," she answered insincerely. "Now let me go. I need to use the facilities, and my need is increasing exponentially by the second."

Walt grinned, complied and watched her hot-foot it to the bathroom. He turned on his side with a smug expression... which quickly changed to a frown as his senses registered the amount of sunlight streaming through the curtains. He glanced at the clock and muttered a string of profanities, flinging the covers aside and madly grabbing for clothes. By the time he rushed the bathroom, Allison was at the sink.

"What put a bug up your butt all of a sudden?" she inquired, toothpaste foaming from her mouth.

"I was supposed to be at that toy store four hours ago for Amelia's thingamajig," he ranted, reaching past her for his own toothbrush.

"Relax, it's too late now. Besides, we don't need it anymore -- Ryan tracked one down." Walt took the news reflectively, not sure he liked the idea of 'Ryan' coming to the rescue. "And don't get all jealous on me either," Allison teased. "This way, we can spend time standing in a slew of other lines *together.* "

He pulled her into yet another clinch before brushing her bangs aside. "Personally, I vote for more time snuggled up in bed."

Allison leaned closer and gave Walt a warm, lingering kiss. "Too much to do, I'm afraid, if we're going to get the place ready for Christmas before we fly to Detroit tomorrow." Walt had been amazed and ecstatic when she'd informed him that she'd given immediate notice at the hospital and that she'd already made arrangements for everybody -- even the pets -- to fly home to DC on the 23rd. "How would you feel about a bubble bath instead?"

"Sounds great to me, but wouldn't a shower be quicker?"

She gazed that way and pursed her lips, a faint shudder passing through her unconsciously. "I, uh, was, uh, hoping we could, um, try it together and--"

"It's okay, carissima. I fully understand... really, I do." He kissed the top of her head and massaged her back. "We've got all the time in the world, Allison. And we'll take the physical side slow, one step at a time."

She laid her cheek against his shoulder. "I know that, tesoro. It's the inevitable step backward with the steps forward that bothers me."

He closed his eyes and rocked them gently. "As long as we love each other, there are *no* steps backward."

"And what if I ultimately can't take that last step, tesoro?" Allison gazed at him with cautious, tear-rimmed eyes.

Walt stared at her, knowing the 'proper' thing to say to ease her surface concerns, and knowing he meant every word of it. "We'll stay together, Allison -- sex isn't *that* important. There are eons of ways to express love -- we'll adopt other ones." And then Walt took a stab at what he thought was her true fear. "I'll never be unfaithful to you, carissima, never."

She reached up to stroke his cheek, nagging tears sliding along her own face as she whispered, "I love you completely, tesoro -- body, mind and soul."

He drew her chin up and kissed her with an intense gentleness. "You just gave me the gift of a lifetime."

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