A Winter's Tale

by Josan

Title: A Winter's Tale
Author: Josan
Feedback to: jmann@pobox.mondenet.com
Author's Website:
Status: Complete
Category: Unclassified
Pairing (Primary): Krycek/Other
Pairing(s) (Secondary):
Crossover Fandom (if any):
Crossover Info (if any):
Other Pairing Info:
Rating: PG
Spoilers:
Permission to Archive: You all know who you are. Others without permission, just ask. I like to know where these end up.
Series or Sequel/Prequel:
Notes: BTW: I still can't transmit accents, so Noel is to be read a la francaise, as Noh-ell.
Warnings:
Disclaimer: Well, if CC, 1013, and Fox don't want him any more, they can't complain that we do.

Summary: A storm, an accident and what follows


"FUCKING SHIT!"

Alex Krycek slammed his only hand on the steering wheel and closed his eyes. After repeating a similar curse in French, Russian, topping all three with a particularly offensive regionality of a Siberian dialect, he lowered his forehead to the steering wheel and forced himself to calm down.

Well, there was nothing for it, he thought after several minutes. He had to go out and check the damage.

He unbuckled his seat belt, pulled up the zipper on his leather jacket, opened the door of the pick-up truck and jumped out into the blowing snow to see if the sound he had heard as the truck had slid off the snow-covered road into the ditch was indeed the rear axel breaking.

Yep. It was.

Well, that was pretty much in keeping with his life these days.

He rested his hands on the side of the truck and forced himself to focus.

Here he was, in the middle of bloody nowhere, in the dark, off the main roads with a truck that was going nowhere fast.

DAMN!

Shit! He shouldn't have kicked the angled tire so hard. Now his foot hurt.

That would be the icing, he muttered to himself. Broken axel, broken foot. Hell, why not? Went with the broken life.

He carefully placed his weight on the foot that ached. Other than the throb that reminded him he'd done something stupid, it didn't feel as though he had actually broken anything.

As he got to the door, the wind changed direction for a moment and air which had been too thick with snow to see ahead more than a couple of feet suddenly cleared. Something in the distance caught his eye. He squinted, not certain he was really seeing a splotch of light against the blackness of the night or just hoping he was.

But the light remained steady long enough for him to estimate that it was only a few hundred feet ahead and to the left of his position. He slid back into his seat, turned off the engine. By the greenish light of the dashboard, he pulled a glove on his remaining hand, brushed the snow off his head, yanked on his battered baseball cap. After taking a last look around the cab, he took the keys out of the ignition, slid out of the truck and locked the door behind him.

His sense of direction was normally excellent but in this blizzard, which according to the radio had come out of nowhere, he hoped that it too hadn't become broken.

It wasn't easy making his way in the wind and snow. There were drifts that appeared only when he staggered into them. He fell a couple of times, found himself thinking that maybe getting up was a waste of effort. Maybe all he should do was lie there, let the snow cover him. He was tired these days, bone-tired. It wouldn't take him long to fall asleep. His bed might be cold but it would be more comfortable than many others he'd been using lately to grab a rare hour of sleep.

Still, he hadn't survived up until now with that attitude. He forced himself to put one foot in front of the other and continued on his way.

He almost missed the side-posts that indicated a driveway. If the snow hadn't cleared just then, he probably would have kept on going and ended up in that cold bed which seemed to be calling to him. He leaned on one of the posts and tried to catch his breath. It was hard breathing into the wind. The air was cold and he wondered if his lungs weren't filling with snow. He might have just remained there if he hadn't heard the sound of a dog barking. It roused him enough for him to remember that with a light and an animal, there had to be shelter of some kind. Gathering the last of his energy, he made for the sound.

"Good doggie," he muttered. "Keep on barking. I'll find you."

Head down against the wind, he didn't see the porch until he tripped and fell flat on his face.

He didn't even have the breath left to curse. He just lay there, barely aware of the frenzied barking.


He woke, dazed. But not so dazed that he forgot to pretend otherwise.

With a ritual so ingrained in him that he was no longer aware of doing it, he checked out the space around him. He was lying on something softer than a floor, but not a bed. There was warmth, and direct heat which, from the scent, probably meant a fireplace. He wasn't alone. He could hear someone else breathing.

There was something wrong with that breathing. Breathing? No, more like panting.

Then the panting grew louder, a heavy weight landed on his chest and his eyes flew open.

Now he barely dared breathe. The weight on his chest belonged to a bear-like creature. Which was staring at him, mouth slightly open as it panted. It raised its head and gave a soft "Woof!"

Jesus! thought Krycek.

"Ah, I see you're awake. Down, Noel. I need to check up on our guest and you're in the way."

Krycek pushed himself up so that now his head rested against the arm of the couch on which he was lying. Which was when he realised that he was covered with a blanket and that, apart from his t-shirt and underwear, he had been stripped.

"You'll have to excuse her," said the voice, "Noel feels that, since she found you, you belong to her. She has a strong maternal instinct."

Krycek tore his eyes away from the animal who had moved, but barely, allowing a man to come stand by the side of the couch.

The man was tall, a good six feet three, maybe four inches, and barrel-chested big. He was wearing khakis, a navy blue what had to be flannel shirt, and red suspenders. He wore a full beard and his hair long. Both white. The eyes which were watching his reaction were the kind of grey-blue that could be either warm or cold, depending on the occasion.

"Woof!"

Krycek's eyes went back to the animal. The dog. A large black animal with a bear-like face.

"Don't let her size fool you," said the man. "She's a Newfoundland. As gentle an animal as they come. Right now, she's a little worried about you. How are you feeling?"

"Where am I?" croaked Krycek.

"In my house. Out of the storm. Noel here found you on my porch about an hour ago. Mind my asking where you came from?"

"From the road. My truck slid off the road in a curve and the rear axel broke."

"Well," said the man, "I'm afraid that's where it's going to stay until this storm is over. I have a tractor but it's not a time to be going out. By the way, my name is Nick Nicholas. And no, I am not Saint Nick, just the product of parents with a weird sense of naming."

The man was waiting for something, thought Krycek. Oh, yeah, his name. What was he using these days? "Krylov. Alex Krylov."

Nicholas smiled. "Well, Mr. Krylov, I hope you're not offended but once Noel and I got you inside, I thought it was best to get those wet clothes off you. Wouldn't do for you to find your way here and then come down with pneumonia, now would it?"

Krycek slowly propped himself up on his elbows -- his prosthesis hadn't been removed -- and looked around the room.

"Your weapons are in the drawer of the armoire by the front door. I don't think you'll find you have a reason to carry them on you until you're ready to leave."

The man's words hadn't been threatening, but Krycek had caught the change of tone. He was being told that he couldn't carry in this man's house. Then, with a smile, the tone was friendly again. "How about some food and then a hot shower and a warm bed? The curve isn't that far away in good weather, but you must be feeling pretty tired after your evening stroll."

Krycek watched the man walk out to what seemed to be a hallway. The dog stayed where she was. He wondered what she would do if he decided to get off the couch and try for the armoire and his weapons. He sat up, swung his legs off the couch, pushed away the blanket and got to his feet.

The dog growled, low and tight in her throat.

Krycek took a good look at her in the subdue lighting of the room. At least 120 pounds. Not something that he could take on and win in his present condition. He slowly sat down and watched the dog's reaction.

The growling stopped and a long bushy tail thumped the floor in approval.

Dog one, he thought, Krycek zero.

Lights were switched on and the area brightened. Krycek took his eyes from the dog and quickly cased out the room. The walls were golden pine as was the floor which was scattered with rugs. On either side of the fireplace were shelves densely packed with books, as was another of the walls. The far wall had two large framed windows which showed him that the storm had not abated in the least.

"Hope you like stew."

The aroma of food hit Krycek like a slap. He tried to remember the last time he had eaten something other than sandwiches bought at some gas stop. Nicholas placed a tray with a bowl and a glass of what appeared to be milk on the table that stood by the side of the couch. "I wouldn't leave my feet on the floor. The room may be warm but, in this kind of weather, the floors are always slightly chilly."

Krycek pulled his legs up under him and then dragged the blanket over them. His 'host' dropped a linen napkin onto his lap and then handed him a bowl that was filled with the almost erotic scent of spiced meat and vegetables. It wasn't only the fact that he hadn't eaten in some time that made Krycek empty the bowl quickly.

"That was good, thank you." Krycek cleaned the bowl with the last of the small roll that had accompanied the stew.

"You're welcome. Wasn't anything special, but a cook likes to get some feedback now and then."

Krycek finished the milk and sat back. As he'd eaten, Nicholas had watched him from the deep leather armchair that took up a corner of the room. It must be the man's regular spot, thought Krycek, noting the large overstuffed footstool that was positioned in front of the armchair, the lamp that shone over the man's left shoulder and the tables to either side that were stacked with reading material.

Noel had lain down on the rug in front of the couch as he'd eaten, dropping her head on a pair of overlarge paws. Now, as Nicholas rose, so did she. "I'll show you the shower and then your bedroom. Make sure you get good and warm." He looked over his shoulder as he led the way out. Krycek was certain that the man was fully aware of his unease with the dog but he did nothing to stop the animal from following them.

Like a small parade, they made their way up the cool stairs to the upper level and the surprisingly large and warm room that served as bathroom. Nicholas opened a narrow door just inside and took out a thick white towel, a wash cloth and a new toothbrush. "Sorry I can't offer you a razor, but there's not much need for one around here. Your room is to the right. I'll leave you some sweats and a pair of thick socks. The house gets a little cool at night but between those and the duvet, you should be warm enough. Just call out if you need anything."

Krycek nodded his thanks and gave a sigh of relief when he could shut the door on the dog. Here, like the rest of what he'd seen of the house, the walls and the chilly floor were a golden pine. There was a small heater humming away in the corner. Still Krycek made sure he was standing on the rug to remove his prosthesis. He placed it on the top of the hamper and then turned on the water in the shower that stood by itself in the far corner. It was large, big enough for two, maybe even three. As was the claw-footed tub that filled up one side of the room. Even here there was a bookcase, a short one. The toilet was an old-fashion model, with the tank high overhead. The long chain from the top of the tank ended with a short wooden spindle hanging just over the bookcase.

Krycek quickly soaped himself down and then rested his hand against the glass door of the shower and let the multiple heads rain hot water on his tired aching body. He forced himself to turn off the water and to step out when he found himself nodding off. He dried himself thoroughly, carefully dabbing the tender end of his stump. He'd been wearing the prosthesis pretty much constantly now for almost a week, since the night he had been 'killed' in the parking garage of FBI Headquarters.

His payment for handing over the palm pilot and all pertinent information to Assistant Director Walter S. Skinner.

That dummy blood bullet to the forehead had given him the 'mother of all headaches', but it had been worth it. Skinner had all the info he needed to disengage the nanos and, in return, Alex Krycek was now officially dead.

He wiped the steam from the mirror over the sink and its counter. Shit, he looked like a corpse. There was a yellow-hued bruise that filled almost his entire forehead, dark circles around his eyes. His appearance wasn't helped by the growth of beard he carried. He'd been more interested in putting as much distance between D.C. and himself than in his appearance. Right now he looked like a refugee from some battle site.

Shit, what was what he'd left behind if not some battle site? A battle that he was out of, as of the night of his 'death'. He'd done his bit. The Consortium was no more, mainly because of him and his allies. The hangar at the El Rico Airforce Base had taken care of a fair amount of them. It had been his bad luck that Spender and Fowley hadn't been among those incinerated that night. But now these too were no longer and the Rebels and their allies would have to continue the fight against the Oilians without him.

In the moisture-streaked reflection he could see that he still hadn't really recovered from Tunisia. He didn't seem to be able to put on any weight. Mind you, he reminded himself, you have to eat regularly, Alex, if you want to put on weight.

He shrugged. Well, he'd take care of that when he got to where he was going. Wherever that was.

He tucked the toothpaste tube under his stump, removed the cap, took it back into his hand, expertly squeezed an inch onto the toothbrush and then recapped the tube.

Over the years since Tunguska, he had retrained himself to do a lot of what he had once easily been able to do with two hands. It was why he was still alive while others weren't.

"No," he spoke to his reflection around the brush in his mouth, "don't go there."

He concentrated on brushing his teeth, rinsing, then putting the room to rights. He ignored the coolness on his warmed up feet on his way to the bedroom and happily exchanged the now damp towel for the over-large sweats that Nicholas had laid out on the bed for him. The thick wool socks were fleece-lined and quickly warmed up his feet. He stashed his arm on the top of the dresser, slid between the flannel sheets, dragged the blanket and then the duvet over himself. His arm reached out of the cocoon he had made for himself and switched off the table lamp by the bed.

He was asleep before he realized that he was without weapons of any kind for the first time in years.


FUCK!

He looked around and found that he was in one of the corridors that mazed the silo complex. The overhead lighting was dim but provided enough for him to make out that Spender in his wheelchair was approaching him. It was when he realized that Spender's eyes were black with oil that he began running. In the opposite direction.

But Spender's wheelchair suddenly sped up, making a roaring sound as though it had sprouted rockets.

He managed to turn a corner into another corridor only to find Skinner was waiting for him. The AD raised his gun and pointed it at Krycek. He fired. The bullet ejected in slow motion, slow enough to give Skinner time to laugh. "Surprise, Krycek. This one is no dummy. It's the real thing. Did you think I was going to keep my end of the deal when I had the chance to rid the world of you?"

As the bullet spun closer and closer, Krycek saw an opening in the wall and took it. Except this one contained Special Agents Scully and Mulder.

Scully had a plam in her hand, extended and ready for action. She was even holding it the right way. "You killed my sister!" she screamed, eyes flashing hatred as flame came out of her mouth.

Mulder had a Glock in his hand, holding it by the barrel. Krycek recognized the grip. Mulder was in the mood for a pistol-whipping. "You killed my fathers!"

Then the four of them were chasing him down the corridors of the silo complex when the door marked 1013 opened and he had to choose between the blackness beyond it or death at the hands of those pursuing him.

He sat up, blind, gasping for breath.

"No, you're safe. It's all right, Alex. You're safe here. No one's after you. Not here."

Shivering from more than the chilly air in the room, it finally penetrated the blackness surrounding him that he was not alone.

"I find that light helps, don't you?"

The remnants of the dream were proving hard to shake off. Krycek looked around the room, barely able to see what it was in spite of the soft light. In his mind, he was heading into the blackness of the cement silo that would serve as his tomb.

"Alex. Look at me."

Something in the calmness of the voice made its way through his fear.

Krycek turned to the voice.

"I'm going to touch you, Alex. You're shivering and I'm going to put my arms around you. Nothing to worry about. Just to warm you up. Until the shivering stops. There, like that. Nothing here to worry you. It's just me and Noel."

To the sound of a dog's worried whine, the light in the room slowly won the battle against the blackness. He felt a large hand slowly stroking his back before he became aware that he was resting against someone's chest, a massive bulk that rose and fell in rhythm with the soft crooning words that he still couldn't make out.

He knew that he should pull back, that the hand and chest probably belonged to some enemy, someone he should be running from, not leaning into.

Only moving seemed so demanding an effort and he was so tired. It was so much easier just to rest here, against this solid warmth, and let the soft sounds soothe him back to sleep.


The room was bathed in a whitish grey. He lay nestled in the warmth of the bedding, wondering if he could just stay where he was and pretend he was still sleeping.

The mere fact that the thought had occurred to him startled him fully awake. Alex Krycek -- or Krylov or whatever it was he was calling himself these days -- was not the sort of guy who spent mornings tucked into bed. Who lazed the time away in a bed. He doubted that he had ever done either in his life.

He sat up. Looking around, he realized that there was no clock in the room and that the door was open. Probably to let in the heat, he thought. With a soft moan, he pushed back the bedding and swung his feet onto the floor. Except what his feet landed on was not hard, cold floor but soft and warm. He looked down and saw his feet on a rug of black pelt. Noel raised her head and gave him a doggie grin. He pulled his feet back as she sat up. "Woof!"

Krycek reached for his absent gun and cursed when he remembered that it had been taken off him last night. The dog stood up, went to the door and looked back as though encouraging him to follow her. With caution, Krycek followed her out and took a quick detour into the bathroom.

She was patiently waiting for him in the hallway when he opened the door. Resigned to his escort, Krycek made his way downstairs.

"I thought I heard some noise." Nicholas patted Noel's head and smiled at his wary guest. "Coffee or tea?"

"Coffee sounds good. Black, please."

Nicholas poured a mug from the thermal carafe on the counter. The kitchen was more of the pine. Krycek sat at the quaker-style table and sipped on some of the best tasting coffee he'd encountered since leaving D.C. Even though the room was heated by a large wood stove, Krycek found that his feet could avoid the chilly floor by hooking them on the bottom rung of the chair. Nicholas opened the oven door and the room was filled with the perfume of freshly baked bread.

"There. Just in time for lunch."

Krycek paused, mug half-way to his mouth. "Lunch?"

"Yes, it's a little after twelve now." Nicholas set the loaves to cool. He turned to offer his guest more coffee when he saw that Krycek was just sitting there, looking stunned. "Did you think it was later?"

Krycek finally moved. Shit! He rarely slept longer than four hours. How many hours had he slept? He shook his head slightly. "No. No, I thought it was much earlier. It's so grey."

Nicholas nodded. "The storm hasn't really let up much. That accounts for the light. I didn't bother waking you up because, quite frankly, there's no way you can get out even if you have to. We're snowed in."

"Snowed in?" Krycek set the mug back onto the table. Nicholas refilled it.

"Yes. One of those unexpected blessings from the North."

"Blessings?" Krycek sounded incredulous.

Nicholas smiled again. "Well, I'm certain that not everyone thinks so, but Noel and I are quite pleased to see this much snow right now. For a while there, it looked as though we were heading for a green Christmas. This is more like it."

Krycek shook his head and picked up the thread that interested him. "Why are we snowed in? Don't they clear the roads around here?"

Nicholas joined Krycek at the table with his own mug. "Yes, they do. But the priority right now is the main roads. There are only a couple of families out this way and they get to us when they can. Now then, not to worry about your truck. I called the County and spoke to Dylan Thomas. He's the one responsible for this road. I told him about your truck going off the road and he's promised to be careful going around that curve. And if he can, he'll clear around it so that after we can get the tractor in as close as possible to pull it out."

The big man shrugged elegantly. "Sorry if you're on a schedule, but that's the way things are around here."

Krycek took another mouthful of coffee. "No, no schedule. I just don't want to impose on you."

Nicholas laughed. Krycek was caught by the deep chuckles. The sound of a man who laughed often and who enjoyed laughing.

"You're not imposing in the least. Visitors are always welcome out here. Besides, I hope you don't mind my saying this, but you look as though you can use the time to catch up on some sleep. And there's nothing I like better than to cook for more than one. Besides, it probably won't last more than another day or so. Right now, the stuff is coming down faster than they can clear it up. They're barely keeping on top of the situation. Once it stops snowing, they'll get here and we can go rescue that truck of yours."

Nicholas pushed away from the table. "Now then, are you interested in breakfast or in lunch?"


Nick Nicholas looked up from the book he was reading and smiled. His visitor was stretched out on the couch, book resting on his chest, sleeping yet again.

Noel had abandoned her usual place in the cooler corner of the room by the windows for the rug in front of the couch. Now and then, she raised her head as though to make sure that the man who called himself Alex Krylov was all right.

Nick didn't know how he knew the name he had been given had probably not been the one the man had been born with, but he did. Possibly the weapons the man had been carrying on him had helped him come to that conclusion. One in a shoulder holster. Another holstered in the small of his back. A third in one of his boots. The knife he had found in the other boot was a marvel of construction. He doubted that the man used it for cutting his food.

Then there was the aura of danger the man carried about him. In spite of his exhaustion. And the man was exhausted. Tired enough to wake screaming and never realize that he had wakened. It had taken Nick a good hour to calm Krylov enough so that the shivering stopped and he could go back to his own bed. Krylov had eventually slipped back into sleep, never really aware of his presence.

He certainly never acted as though he remembered it happening when he finally got up. Or if he did, he was an excellent enough actor to pretend it had never happened.

Krylov was wearing his own clothes. Nick had sent them through a wash cycle after stripping them off the man. Not only had they been soaked, but they bore the odour of clothing that had not been removed in some time. He'd done the same to the t-shirt and shorts he had found tossed onto the foot of the bed when he'd come in response to the screaming.

Krylov had politely thanked him for the clean clothes as he had for the meal. That was something else he seemed to be in need of. While holding him, Nick had spent time counting his ribs, his vertebrae. From the way he attacked his meals, Krylov had a healthy appetite so Nick could only assume that lack of time or some other factor was responsible for the man's thinness.

Whatever he was, his guest was no sponger. When the meal was over, he had helped with the clean-up, unasked. Nick's mother would have approved of that courtesy. Then, noticing that the wind had dropped, Nick had donned his outside clothes, to go check up on his animals in the barn. Krylov had offered to come help. Nick had refused, indicating that Krylov really wasn't dressed for the weather. Actually that was an excuse. He thought the man still hadn't quite recovered from his experience of the previous day's trek.

He'd taken Noel with him, who adored snow. Except this time she'd whined a little when she'd realized that her new friend wasn't coming with them.

Nick found it funny that the dog was so taken with this man who looked as though he didn't quite know what to do with her. Mind you, once or twice, while he had been reading, Krylov's right hand had slipped down to scratch the dog between the ears.

Right now, the hand was resting on Noel's haunch, palm up.

There were strange calluses on that hand. He'd noticed them as he had stripped the cold wet clothes off him. On his feet as well. The man was a fighter of some kind. Again something told Nick that however they had gotten on him, they weren't the result of some sport.

Nick smiled ruefully to himself.

Nothing he liked better than looking at a beautiful man. And in spite of the fact the man was probably more than a little dangerous, he was beautiful. With a hint of the exotic. The cheekbones went with the name he was using. Along with the shape of the eyes. And the eyes themselves...well, the eyes were the rare sort of green that had no yellow in them. Moss green. And if one went with the theory that eyes were the windows to the soul, this soul was weary and spiritless.

He looked at Noel who made a soft snoring noise. Well, they would both enjoy their visitor while he stayed. His presence and nothing more, Nick, he told himself sternly.

Krylov woke suddenly and, without moving, quickly checked out the room. He pulled up his hand and picked up his book again, going back to reading the copy of some Grisham he had found on the shelves.

Nick wondered how many pages Krylov would actually read before he once more fell asleep.


Krycek insisted on accompanying his host to the barn that evening. The snow and wind had finally stopped which made the trek much easier, especially since they made it on snowshoes. Nicholas's gait was much smoother than his own and Krycek was content to follow the man's trail. Besides the snow shoes, he had borrowed a parka that was a hell of a lot warmer than his leather jacket.

"Clynesdales," explained Nicholas on their way. Noel bounded back and forth between the men, barking happily at having Krycek accompany them.

"My retirement project. Sort of. I started off showing them for a friend about five years ago. Then I got a couple of my own. But now I'm trying my hand at a little breeding."

Krycek was surprised by the warm fugue of the barn after the crisp cold of the outdoors. There were five of the big equines. A stallion, a gelding and three mares. One of which was pregnant. Krycek was taken aback by the size of the heads. He'd seen this breed in television commercials but up close, he couldn't believe how big they really were.

"Like Noel, their characters belie their size. Pussycats, all of them. Aren't you, my love?" Nicholas stroked the long nose of the pregnant mare. "Clarissa," he said, introducing her to Krycek. "Then, next to her, we have Daisy. Mabel."

To Krycek's amazement, each of the large heads nodded at hearing its name. As though they were acknowledging their introduction.

"On this side, we have Bruno who is about to become the proud papa. And his friend, Gustav."

Bruno ignored Krycek for the scratch Nicholas was offering. Gustav stuck his head and neck over the half door and sniffed at Krycek.

"Don't worry. That one doesn't bite."

Krycek took a cautious step away from the large teeth that grinned at him. "That one?"

Nicholas smiled in his beard at Krylov's reaction. "Pregnant ladies of any specie tend to be a little bit irritable towards the end of their time. Clarissa has been known to indicate she is at the end of her forbearance with me with a gentle nip. My suggestion is that you avoid her completely until she delivers."

Krycek nodded, easily certain he would be long gone before that happened.

Together the two men cleaned out the soiled straw that was scattered over the cement floor of each stall. Nicholas discussed the proportions of feed as he prepared each animal's portion, neither of them indicating that this was probably a waste of breath as Krycek would not be hanging around long after the road was cleared.

Of all the horses, Gustav seemed to have immediately taken to Krycek. Nicholas removed each animal from its stall while it was being cleaned and led the animal to an empty one. Gustav hung his head over the partition and watched Krycek as he raked out the old straw, scattered fresh on the floor, opened a new bale of hay and poured a bucket of feed into its bin.

"Would you like to take him back in?" Nicholas found Gustav's fascination with Krylov amusing. The gelding was usually only interested in his food.

Krycek sensed a challenge in the offer. He looked the big horse over and decided to take it up. Gustav followed in his usual plodding way, rubbing the side of his great head against Krycek's shoulder as if in thanks for the work he'd done. He checked out the bins and nodded his approval. When they left, Gustav was the only one with his head over the door, watching them leave.

"You're a hit not only Noel," teased Nicholas, " but with Gustav as well. You have a good hand with animals."

Krycek shrugged. He had little experience with animals. He had to admit, if only to himself, that these made him just a bit uncomfortable. He thought animals were supposed to sense this kind of thing and avoid -- or threaten -- those who were. Instead, here there was one who dogged his every step and another who could have taken his head off with just one bite and hadn't.

Made for a change from his real life.


The screaming woke Nick from a light sleep. He had been expecting this. He pushed his feet into his slippers and made off for Krylov's room. Noel was waiting for him at the door, whimpering anxiously.

This time, Krylov wasn't in bed. When Nick switched on the light, he saw the man trying to dig his way out of the room through the wall with his bare hands.

"Alex. Alex!" Nick approached the panicky man carefully. He was big and could take care of himself, but this man bore too many scars on his body to be easily subdued. Last night must have been a fluke.

"Alex. Come on, Alex. Wake up. It's a dream. Not a nice one, I warrant, but a dream nevertheless. Open your eyes, Alex. See Noel? You're scaring her. And you really don't want to do that. She's worried about you, Alex."

When he was within arm's reach, Nick crouched so that he was at eye level with the whimpering man who was now staring blankly into some world that only he could see.

"Alex? It's all right. You're safe here. Promise. Open your eyes, Alex. Look at me!"

Slowly the eyes tracked to him. The pupils had chased all the colour out of them. Wherever Alex went in these dreams of him, Nick wondered if he left some of his sanity there as well.

"Alex. I'm going to hold you. Remember, I held you last night? You liked that, remember? It's going to be okay. I've got you. I'll keep you safe. That's it. Come to me, baby. You're going to be just fine."

The floor was no warmer than usual but Nick was afraid to try and move them. Alex seemed to be hanging onto sanity in these dreams of his. He was suddenly very afraid that something he might do would push the man over the edge.

So he stayed where he was, sitting back on legs which were quickly losing all sensation but that of cold, holding tightly onto a shivering man who was fighting off whatever chains were keeping him in that other world of his.

"Nick?"

"Yes, Alex. It's Nick." He pulled back enough to see the confusion in black/green eyes. "Do you think you can stand up, Alex? It's cold on the floor and the bed would be so much warmer."

"Floor?"

"Yes." Nick kept his voice gentle, as he did when speaking to a cantankerous Clarissa. "Can you stand up, Alex?" and wondered if he himself would be able to.

Alex gradually grew aware that he was not in bed. Stupid from the nightmare, he looked around as though trying to figure out where he was.

Nick took advantage of that to move them both upright and then, hoping his feet were where they were supposed to be -- he couldn't feel them any more -- he steered them both back to the bed. Keeping one arm around Krylov, he eased the two of them under the blankets. They were both shivering and needed whatever body heat the other could provide. Nick pulled Krylov into his arms once more and took up the nonsensical croon that seemed to have worked the previous night.

Their shivers had eased when Krylov croaked, "This isn't the first time you've done this."

"Done what, Alex? Hold a man in my arms? No, it's not. I held one in my arms for some 28 years."

Krylov nestled a little more deeply into his heat. "No, I don't mean that. I mean me. Holding me this way."

"No. No, this too is not a first. I held you last night. I'm surprised that you remember."

"I thought it was part of the...dream."

Nick chuckled. "Thank you for not making me part of your nightmare."

"You didn't say anything about my waking you up. I'm sorry."

Nick tucked Krylov's head under his chin. "Nothing to mention. We all have bad dreams now and then. Nothing to fuss about." He kept his hand stroking a soothing pattern over Krylov's back. He noticed that the man hadn't tried to pull out of his embrace, hadn't ordered him out of the bed. He wondered if Krylov thought he was dreaming again.

He felt the sigh rather than heard it. Then he knew that Krylov was awake when his hand slipped down from his waist and began exploring. "Alex? Stop that."

Krylov raised his head. In the light, his eyes were green again. "Why? It would warm you up. And I owe you that at least."

Nick frowned. "You don't owe me anything, Alex. Most especially not that."

"You have a lover?"

"Had." Nick pressed Alex's head back onto his shoulder. "Mish and I met when we were 20 years old. We had 28 years together before he died."

"Aids?"

"No. Cancer. And not an Aids-related cancer. Genetically pre-disposed stomach cancer. No, we didn't worry about Aids. We both came from traditions where a spouse was both monogamous and faithful. Our parents weren't too happy about our pairing off, but the same rules were supposed to apply."

"Then he died some time ago. Have you been faithful all this time since as well?"

Nick stroked the face peering up at him. It was a beautiful face, in spite of the drawn remains of the nightmare that Alex couldn't hide. "Almost six years. That surprises you?"

"Long time to be faithful to an ideal."

Nick grinned again. "You say that as though it's a concept you've never heard of."

"In my world," said Alex, almost too soft for Nick to pick up, "it doesn't exist."

"And in your world, Alex, do you offer your body to pay what you see as your debts?"

Alex's smile was cold. "Usually the debt isn't mine. But this time it is. And it still is a good way of warming up." He raised himself up enough to access Nick's mouth.

The kiss, thought Nick, was expert though sadly it left him unmoved. Technical but not heartfelt. He broke it off.

"Not interested?" challenged Alex. "I am good."

In answer, Nick took Alex's mouth and showed him the difference between technical expertise and warmth. This time when he broke off the kiss, Alex's eyes were closed.

Neither man said anything. Nick pulled Alex closer to him and Alex, even though no longer under the influence of some dream, allowed it.

Curled up into each other's warmth, they shared the bed until morning.

Noel slept on the rug by the bed.


Nick was alone in the bed when he woke. Not even Noel by his side.

Abandoned for a ship passing in the night, thought Nick as he went through his morning rituals. He wondered if the ship had left port.

But once he got downstairs, he could feel the heat coming from the kitchen, could smell fresh coffee. Looking at the clock, he realized that this morning he had been the one to sleep in. A quick look around told him that Noel was outside somewhere, probably with the new love of her life. And it wouldn't surprise him if the object of her attention proved to be in the barn.

And he was. Nick smiled to see Gustav, body in the aisle -- Alex probably hadn't latched the stall door properly -- head over the closed door of his stall, butting Alex as he tried to work.

"Knock it off, Gustav. You're pushing your luck."

Gustav's response was to push a little harder. "Knock it off! You get the apple once the place is clean, not before. I saw how Nick did this yesterday. Don't try to tell me different."

"Well done!" Nick laughed.

Gustav pulled his head back and grinned. Alex stuck his head out and took advantage of Gustav's switch in attention to open the door and push out the wheelbarrow filled with soiled straw.

Nick was happily pleased when Alex met his eyes. This one doesn't back down, he thought.

"I left Clarissa and Bruno for you."

"Thank you for looking after the others," said Nick, picking up a rake. "I don't usually sleep late."

Alex ignored the lead in and led Gustav back into his stall, using the apple as bait.

They were making their way back to the house when Alex asked, "Clarissa, when is she due?"

"In a week or so. Not an ideal time of year to deliver, but then she and Bruno didn't ask for my opinion when they snuck out together one night."

Alex waited a beat. "You make them sound like a couple of teenagers."

Nick laughed. "Well, it almost happened that way. I had just taken delivery of Bruno. Seems the locks I had on the stall doors at that time were not much of a challenge to him. It was unfortunate that Clarissa happened to be receptive just then. I had originally thought of breeding Mabel, but that'll be for next time. I want a little experience with this birthing thing before I breed the other mares."

Nick marvelled how, over breakfast, not a look, not a tone, not a word indicated that he had spent the night in Alex's bed nor the reason for that happening. He suddenly knew that unless he said something, nothing would be said. This was a man used to living behind a mask, he thought. He wondered what Alex's face looked like without the mask, without the terror of a nightmare.

After eating, with Alex clearing the snow off the veranda, Noel by his side, Nick pushed open the double doors of large garage-like shed and drove out a couple of minutes later on a tractor that had a snow-blower attachment on its front.

While Alex kept Noel from going out to chase the blowing chute of snow, Nick tracked back and forth until the yard was cleared. With a wave as he drove past, Nick went around to the front of the house and cleared the lane down to the road. When he was done, he parked the tractor back in the garage. "With a little luck, they'll get to us by afternoon," he said, patting Noel on the head. "We'll get your truck then."

"Wouldn't it be easier just to call the garage to come get it?"

"Might. Depends on how much of a backlog Robinson has. He's not the only mechanic in town, but he is the best in the county. We'll call him when we get the truck in here."

Nick decided to make soup for supper and tossed the ingredients together after lunch. He set the pot to simmer gently at the back of the wood stove.

In the living room, Nick noticed that Alex spent some time going through the shelves, looking at this book and that before settling on the couch with his selection. With a smile, he gathered some of the books and journals from the tables by his chair. "I'll be in my office if you need me."

Alex looked up from his book and nodded. He'd seen the computer set up in the small alcove off the kitchen.

He was helping himself to more coffee, appreciating the aroma coming from the stove when he heard a frustrated, "Oh! Damn! Darn it all to hell!"

Mug in hand, Alex went around to the alcove. "Something wrong?"

Nick rolled his chair back, passed his hands through his hair. "I know these confounded things are supposed to be miracles of technological help but, frankly, this one hates me. It keeps telling me that I've made some error and then it shuts me down."

Alex grinned. Placing his mug on the window sill, he gestured for Nick to relinquish his chair. Standing behind him, hands fisted on hips, Nick watched as Alex played around with his system, shut off the machine and rebooted it.

"There, that should take care of the problem. When was the last time you defragged?"

"Defragged?" Nick's eyebrows rose high.

This time Nick noticed what Alex's smile did to his eyes. It caught him in the back of his throat and he had to cough to breathe again.

"When you're done," Alex offered as he stood up and reached for his mug, "I'll run maintenance on your...'confounded thing'. If you want?"

"If I want? At the same time, can you tell it to behave?"

They were interrupted by a growling engine sound which broke the stillness of the afternoon.

Nick looked out the window to see a snowmobile making its way down his lane. With a smile, he went for his coat. Alex had a different reaction. He went for his weapons in the armoire.

The fact that there was no hesitation in his finding them told Nick that sometime, when he hadn't been looking, Alex had checked that out. "It's friend, not foe," he said, making his way to the front door.

Alex ignored him, efficiently checking his Sig for ammunition.

"Alex. Please."

Alex looked up. He said nothing but slipped the weapon under his jeans waistband at his back.

That, realized Nick, was going to be his only concession. He sighed, opened the door and stepped out.

"Tommy! Nice to see you. What's up?"

"Nick. Just checking up on people. See if anyone needs anything. Tell folks that it's going to be a day or two before the plows get out here."

"What happened?" Nick casually stepped forward so that he was between Alex and his visitor.

"A couple of the plows broke down. Couldn't keep up with the snow. So the County's shorthanded. And they can't borrow because everyone's in the same hole. That the man with the broken-down truck?"

Nick glanced over his shoulder at Alex who was standing there, parka loose over his shoulders. "Yes. Alex Krylov meet Tommy Douglas. He's the president of the local snowmobile association."

Alex nodded politely at the introduction. Tommy grinned his hello.

"By the way, Dylan says you're not to worry. He won't forget your truck is in the curve. Broken axel, he says."

Nick smiled. "Well, we haven't been able to confirm that yet."

Tommy revved up his engine. "You call the Club if you need anything. Emergency or otherwise. We've got someone on call twenty-fours a day until the roads are all cleared. And Sally says that she hopes you'll be able to get in for the party."

"Tell Sally if I still can't get out by then, I'll call one of you to come get us."

Nick watched from the porch until Tommy had driven back onto the road. He turned to face Alex who was no longer there. Inside, the parka was hanging on its hook and a furtive check in the drawer showed him the large handgun was back in its holster. Alex was on the couch, reading, scratching his on-coming beard with his hand. With a sigh of...he wasn't sure what he felt...frustration? relief?...Nick went back to his computer.


Alex was getting ready for bed when there was a soft knock on the bedroom door. He knew who was on the other side and, for a moment, debated opening it. If he waited, he knew Nick would not impose. Well, not until he screamed down the roof again and had to be rescued.

With a sigh, he went to open the door.

Nick had already returned to his room. The door was shutting behind Noel.

Alex thought a bit then, with a determined nod of his head, turned back, pulled the duvet off the bed and quietly headed downstairs.

Noel's persistent scratching at the door woke Nick. With a sigh, he pushed his feet into his slippers. "If it's not one of you, it's the other," he grumbled. "I thought you had a long enough run outside before we came up to take care of that." Except once on the stairs, he noticed the light in the living room. Which was where Noel was headed.

Nick noted that the fire which he had banked before going up was once more cheerfully burning. Alex looked up from the book he was reading. He was on the couch, bundled up in the duvet, glaring a little irritatedly at Noel who was happily wagging her tail and butting his arm with her head for a scratch.

"Alex," Nick sighed.

"I know what I'm doing,' said Alex, ignoring Noel. "This is how I've handled the nightmares for years. And this way you also get some sleep."

"If this is your fail-proof method, Alex, let me tell you that it doesn't impress me. No wonder you're exhausted. There is an alternative, you know." And Nick stretched out his hand.

Waited.

Shadows played across Alex's face, too quickly for Nick to decipher. Then, with a small cold smile, Alex closed the book, placed it on the table by the couch, and went to stand in front of Nick. He looked at the hand waiting for his and, with an expressionless face, placed his in it. Nick visually checked the fire as they were going up the stairs. It wasn't particularly large and the safety screen was in its proper place.

In Nick's room, Alex paused in the doorway, obviously taken aback by the bed. Nick grinned. It was a huge four-poster with a canopy that could have been a prop in some Victorian melodrama.

Nick waited until they were both under the covers to explain. "Mish had a weird sense of humour. He had this built for our twenty-fifth anniversary. Said we finally had a bed big enough for both of us. And it appealed to his sense of literature. The figures carved on the bedposts are from Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol', which happens to be my favourite book."

Alex gave a low whistle. The bed was easily king-sized, with a heavy maroon velvet canopy and bedcurtains that were gathered at the head. The wood itself was plain apart from the four posts which were indeed intricately carved.

"Christmas Past," said Nick, pointing to the left of his head. "Present," to the right. "Scrooge," pointing to the foot of the bed, "and Tiny Tim."

"No Christmas Yet to Come?" Alex allowed Nick to pull him closer to him after Nick turned off the table lamp.

"No. By then we already knew that Mish had cancer. We knew what the future was going to bring."

Alex said nothing for a few minutes. He lay so still that Nick thought he had fallen asleep.

"So what do you prefer?"

Nick stirred enough to look at the head resting on his shoulder. "Prefer? Oh...I see. No, sorry, Alex. All I prefer is a good night's sleep."

"You would have had that if you'd left me downstairs."

"No, I wouldn't. You didn't wake me up, Noel did. She was worried about you."

Alex made a grunting sound. Nick noticed that Alex hadn't moved his face so that he could see it. It also crossed his mind that Alex might be a bit wary of falling asleep for fear of the nightmares. He wriggled his shoulders against the pillows and made himself more comfortable.

"Krylov?"

Alex finally looked up.

"Krylov. Ivan Andreyevich Krylov. Any relation?"

Alex's face was carefully neutral. "I don't know. Does he live around here?"

Nick grinned. "Krylov was an early nineteenth century Russian fabulist. His fables are considered to be classics of Russian literature." Nick waited, but there was no response from Alex. He had to give the man credit. Apart from the nightmares, nothing seemed to phase him much. "Out of curiosity, which you don't have to satisfy by the way, is Alex your real name?"

Alex rolled back slightly but remained within the arch of Nick's arm.

"As I said," Nick spoke quietly, "you don't have to answer."

"As much as anything of me is real, that is."

Nick nodded. "As for the rest of it, the ink is dry so it should pass scrutiny."

"Nick. I don't ask any questions so I don't have to answer any."

Nick nodded again. "I noticed that. You've been here two whole days and you hadn't asked me one question about myself. A couple about Noel. A few more about the horses. Even one about Mish. But you seem to have no curiosity about me. Which makes it very hard for me to ask you questions about you."

"That might be a good thing."

Nick grinned at the subtly threatening tone. "Really? Well, unfortunately, I love asking and answering questions. So why don't you pretend you really are a Krylov and fable me a life so that I can tell you about mine."

Alex pulled out of Nick's touch, raised his right arm onto the pillow, and rested his head against the biceps. By the light coming through the uncurtained window, Nick could make out the raised eyebrow. "What makes you think I need to ask questions?"

"Ah, like Sherlock Holmes, you have deduced, have you? Tell me, Alex Krylov, what do you know about me?"

For a breath Nick wondered if Alex was going to take on his challenge.

"You taught. History. Under and post graduate. Your area of expertise is industrial delopment from the Industrial Revolution on. Your lover's name was Michael Gregory Butler, though he was not pure anglo-saxon. He too taught. English Literature. Probably Early to Middle Ages. Not here. Back in New York. Your lover didn't live here long, if at all. You have money. A fair amount of it. You're researching post Versailles industrial development, probably for an article for a fairly prestigious journal but you're doing it for the fun of it and to keep your finger in the pot rather than for the repute it will bring you.

"You're a big man but you're not overweight. You work as hard physically as you do intellectually. You are a coffee addict. You learnt to cook well because you like to eat well. You are meticulous, but not to the point of obsession.

"You're uncomfortable with guns but you know how to use them.

"You're 54 years old. You have a certain vanity. You grew the hair and beard to go with the name. I'm guessing, but you probably have played Santa a few times in your life."

"Dear me," Nick was truly stunned. "Obviously you don't need to ask any questions. Is there anything else you care to tell me about me?"

Alex smiled, the new beard giving him a rakish look. Nick noticed that this smile was almost teasing. "You use your right hand for many things but you're really ambidextrous." At Nick's raised eyebrows, Alex added, "You dry dishes with your left hand and you dress to the left."

Nick couldn't keep back the laughter. "It took Mish a year to realize that I used both hands equally well. Okay, Sherlock, now that you've dazzled me with your abilities, explain."

Alex shrugged. "It wasn't hard. Many of the books on your shelves are either early classical English Lit or post seventeenth century industrial history. Butler's name is in a couple of the Lit ones, yours in the history. There was a card in the Chaucer addressed to Professors Butler and Nicholas, in New York City.

"The books stacked by your chair have the common theme of being about industrial development in post World War One Europe. The journals look like the kind that are read only by the in-crowd. They all have those yellow notes sticking out of them.

"You have money because breeding Clynesdales isn't cheap. The property is well maintained. The tractor is top of the line. And fairly new, which tells me that you haven't needed one very long.

"The house is filled with the sense of you, not another man. So either he died before you moved here, or he didn't live long after you did. And if so, then you cleared out all but some very special mementos."

Nick nodded. "I moved out here a year after Mish died. What made you say that he wasn't pure anglo-saxon?"

Alex shrugged as best he could. "You call him Mish. The anglo-saxon nickname for Michael is Mike or Mick. Mish is central European."

Nick nodded again, impressed and showing it. "His mother's people were Polish immigrants from the turn of the century. The twentieth, that is. And the guns?"

"You stored mine properly. The harnesses are wrapped loosely around the holsters leaving the guns accessible. You have a rifle that's in parts in the locked drawer under the one my weapons are in. I used my knife to jimmy the lock. Again, the components are properly maintained."

"And the meticulousness?"

"Things are in order, but not fanatically so. Your books are grouped by time period, but not alphabetically within."

Nick roared with laughter. "Well," he shook his head, "that puts me in my place. Now I have no excuse to ask you any question and expect to have it answered."

"Better that way."

"Well, there are a few things I have concluded about you on my own. You're not the only Sherlock here."

Alex's expression grew cold once more. Nick ignored it. "You've got a good hand with animals though you're not use to them. You were brought up in a polite household. You say please and thank you, you help without being asked. You even make your bed in the morning before coming down."

Alex had relaxed slightly, Nick knew that wouldn't last. "You're not on the run but you are running away. I know that because when Tommy arrived, you showed yourself. So no one per se is after you. But you are running from something. It explains the state you're in. I doubt that you suffer continually from nightmares. You couldn't handle life if you were. What you are is exhausted and that's why they're bothering you."

Alex said nothing, just raised one eyebrow slightly in acknowledgement.

"You can defend yourself. I assume from the way you handle your guns, the condition that they're in, that you are expert with them. The knife that you carry was probably custom made. It has an incredible balance. Mish had a knife like that. His great-grandfather had been a smith in the old country. The knife was made by him. Remind me to show it to you.

"You probably wouldn't need them if you were attacked unarmed. Your hand and your feet carry very specialized calluses. You move silently. There are a couple of steps that creak loudly when someone steps on them. I'm sure that you noted them that first night. I never heard them at all when you went down tonight. Even with my door was closed, the house is so quiet at night that I would have heard them creak. I don't normally keep my bedroom door closed. Noel does like to inspect the house a couple of times a night and I often hear her moving around.

"The nightmares you have. They're about being chased. A normal enough nightmare." There was something in Alex's reaction that warned Nick to tread carefully. "About being killed. Also somewhat normal. But you also dream about aliens. About being possessed by them. That's less normal." Before Alex could say anything, Nick added, "You speak Russian fluently in your dreams, Alex. It's your misfortune that you happen to have landed yourself in a house where Russian was studied. The part of Poland Mish's people are from now belongs to Russia. We always included a visit to those family members still there whenever I attended a conference in Moscow."

He looked down at the man noncommittedly staring at him. "Alex, I don't care what the nightmares are about. Only that you shouldn't have them. If you decide you want to talk, then I'm here. I'll listen. All you need to remember is that I am fully aware that..." He smiled. "That 'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.' Go to sleep, Alex."

He reached out and pulled Alex into his arms, bent his head and placed a kiss on the top of Alex's head. "I'll wake you if the nightmare comes."

Alex lay stiffly against Nick, not certain that he liked having his 'deducing' turned on him. Gradually the heat off the big body, the low, almost rumbling snore allowed him to relax. In spite of all that he had picked up about his host, the man's insight had managed to surprise him.

He fell asleep, still pondering whether that was a good thing.


"You snore."

Nick stretched under the bedclothes and grunted happily. That had sounded more like a comment than a complaint. "Is that a bad thing?"

Alex watched him get out of bed. "You wear the strangest things to bed. A night..."

Hand raised, Nick interrupted him. "It is not a nightgown. When men wear this, it's called a nightshirt." He slipped his feet into his slippers and headed for the bathroom. "Very convenient," he explained over his shoulder. "Keeps you warm and accessible at the same time."

Nick paused, hand on the bathroom doorknob. Had that been a chuckle he'd heard? From Alex?

Alex was more relaxed this morning. Nick watched him while eating breakfast and finally concluded that there was less stress in Alex's face. No great surprise when he thought about it. Alex hadn't had one of those nightmares.

The phone rang as they were cleaning up. Alex tensed but only slightly. It was the County, checking up on him, just to make certain all was well.

"They think Dylan should make it out here some time after lunch. If so, we should be able to get your truck into the yard before sunset."

Nick spent the morning at his computer, putting the finishing touches on the article that he'd begun the previous day. Alex rummaged in the bookshelves again. When Nick looked in, Alex was lying on the floor in front of the fire, head pillowed on Noel's haunch. The dog was softly snoring. Alex was reading one of the books Nick had written.

He leaned against the doorjamb and waited until Alex looked up. "Are you a critic as well?"

Alex looked back at the book. "It reads easily," was all he said.

Nick grinned. "Succinct and to the point. Far better than the New York Times review."

The plow did come by just after lunch. Nick went out to confer with Dylan who was waiting at the head of the lane. Alex followed slowly with Noel.

"Well, you shouldn't have too much trouble getting it out," Dylan was saying as he nodded to Alex. "You'll need to dig it out a bit on the ditch side, but I got pretty close to the side and back end. Even managed to clear most of the front. You're just going to have to remember that you're in a curve when you pull it out, Nick.

"Mr. Krylov, I checked with Robinson this morning before setting out and he wants me to tell you that because of the trouble with the plows, he's a bit behind on his schedule. Might be a few days before he can get to you. Of course, you can always have your truck towed to Carter's place, but..." It was obvious from Dylan's tone that he didn't think that was particularly a good idea... "frankly his mechanic is just as backlogged as Robinson is. Besides, he'll charge you an arm and a leg just for the towing and he just hired that mechanic. We still don't know if he's any good."

Alex nodded his understanding. "I've imposed on Mr. Nicholas..."

"Don't be silly," said Nick. "Not an imposition in the least." He turned to speak directly to Alex. "We'll go haul out your truck and evaluate the problem then. Dylan, when you see Robinson, tell him we'll drop in to discuss the situation with him tomorrow."

Dylan tipped his cap, climbed up into the County truck and took off at a cautious rate, clearing the road in front of him.

Alex watched Nick stroll down the lane heading for the garage and the tractor. With a sigh, he followed, Noel bounding happily between the two men. Looked like he would be spending more time here. Once more, he wasn't certain if that was a good thing.

It was dark by the time they pulled into the yard, the truck balanced on its front wheels riding behind the tractor. Dylan had been right. The fact that the truck had been ditched in the curve had made it more difficult to extract from the packed snow mound. It had taken far more shovel work than either of the men had been expecting before the truck finally co-operated and allowed itself to be freed.

They parked the tractor and its load in the garage, both safely out of any snow that might suddenly decide to appear.

>From behind the truck's bench, Alex pulled out his knapsack and carried his few things inside.

The men were cold, wet, sticky with sweat.

"Grab the first shower," Nick offered. "I'll make a pot of coffee." As Alex picked up his knapsack, Nick said, "Might I ask a favour?"

Alex slouched tiredly against the doorway. "Who do you want killed?"

Nick paused, looked over his shoulder, eyebrow raised. "I'm going to take that as an example of Krylov humour."

Alex grunted.

"No. I'd just like you to leave the beard on. Think about it. It looks good on you. And if you need another reason, just tell yourself it makes a good disguise."

There was a long silence then Alex asked, "Did Mish wear a beard, too?"

Nick placed the canister of coffee beans onto the counter, turned and went to the large armoire that filled one corner of the kitchen. From one of the drawers he pulled out an album, opened it and, smiling warmly at some memory, he handed the open book to Alex.

It was a posed picture. Nick in a business suit, hair and beard light brown, both obviously professionally trimmed, standing like a behemoth behind a short thin man who...

Alex looked up to see Nick watching him.

The expression 'bright-eyed and bushy-tailed' might have been coined for Michael Gregory Butler. He resembled nothing more than an eager squirrel. He was sharp faced with a long nose that Alex somehow knew wriggled when he talked. The intelligent eyes were a brilliant black that looked ready and willing to try anything that just might prove interesting. The grin that drew the wide mouth up was very pleased with itself.

"He must have been hard to keep up with," Alex offered, closing the album.

"Wore the hell out of me." Nick's voice was suddenly husky, the smile on his face as bright as the sheen in his eyes.

Alex left the beard on.

They went to bed early, in Nick's bed. Both were aching from the unusual exercise.

"Damn but I hate feeling my age," muttered Nick, rotating the arm that had cramped up on him.

Alex disappeared into the bathroom and came back with a tube of liniment. Nick unbuttoned his nightshirt, lowered the top and grunted happily when Alex began massaging the ointment into his shoulder. "You have a good touch. Strong but not painful."

"Then why won't you let me touch you."

Nick looked over his shoulder at Alex who was focused on his hand, working the knots out of Nick's muscles. "Because you're not ready to let me touch you. Not the way I want to. Not the way someone should have touched you a long time ago."

Alex hesitated then continued with the massage.

They were under the covers, Alex at Nick's less sore side, when Nick continued.

"Have you ever made love, Alex? Have you ever had someone make love back to you?"

He waited. Alex said nothing, just looked at him.

"I have. To a man I loved and was loved by. Alex, what you're offering is a quick roll in the hay. A delightful activity when it is between two people who care for each other. But for you it would be nothing but a mechanical activity. Something I suspect that you do by rote. And frankly, I have been spoiled. I want more than that."

"Sorry to have offended you." Alex tossed back the covers and made to get out of bed.

Nick moved quickly, grabbing him. For a moment, he had the feeling that he was holding coiled energy in his arms, energy that was barely leashed. "Alex. No. Listen to me, please."

Alex stayed where he was, not moving, energy still coiled, ready to lash out, ready to escape.

"Alex. You're worth more than a quick grope. And I'm willing to wait until it becomes more than that for you."

Alex tilted his head back so that he could see Nick's face. "I don't understand."

Nick sighed. "Yes, I know. Alex, I'm quite ready to fall in love with you, you know. Ah, that surprises you. Why?"

Alex tugged and this time Nick let him go. Surrounded by bedclothes, Alex sat cross-legged and stared at Nick. "You don't know me or you wouldn't say something like that."

Nick scooted back in the bed, piled a couple of pillows behind his head. When he spoke, there wasn't much of the amiable man who had given him comfort in the night. Alex suddenly realized that this man had a temper. "Alex. What the hell do you think I am, an idiot? We've already played the Sherlock game. Did you think that I'm so ignorant of computers that I don't know how to search data banks?

"I hate the damn machines. I admit that I'm not quite certain how to take care of them, but I do know how to log into a data bank which, as part of my research, I regularly access. The National Centre for Health Statistics. And how hard do you think it was to play around with your name before I came up with a file for one Alex Krycek.

"By the way, that's a good trick. Picking a name so close to your own. Less of a chance of not recognizing yourself when someone addresses you.

"Don't bother glaring at me like that. Yes, I know that you're dangerous. Yes, I figured out that you don't carry that many weapons on your person because you're paranoid. Frankly, I don't think, not for one breath, that you wouldn't be able to kill me if you thought your life was at risk. But you also know that it isn't. Not from me. So knock it off, Alex."

Nick met Alex's tight glare straight on. Then he sighed, let go of his anger.

"I figure whatever it is you've done, you have to have done enough good as well for them to provide you so very quickly with a death date and a new identity."

"The new identity is mine, not theirs."

Nick nodded. "Good move. Never trust the bastards on anything."

Alex's reaction to that was a raised eyebrow.

"Why so surprised? If history teaches you anything, it's that authority figures are never to be trusted. Too many self-righteous idiots with far too much power. And now that's enough about that. Alex Krycek is dead and buried. You are Alex Krylov.

"What we are going to discuss is this habit of yours of offering the casual use of your body." Nick dropped the persona he had assumed and went back to being the retired professor who raised horses. He sighed, shook his head. "You are a beautiful man, Alex Krylov. A walking temptation. Frankly, if it weren't for the fact that I've had a lot of practice keeping my libido under control, I would have had you on your back the first night you got here."

Alex recoiled slightly.

"Ah, you don't like that."

"Nick..."

"No talking, just listen. Alex, at my age, I am not led by my dick. Doesn't mean there wasn't a time... But age does slow things down. When Mish and I first got together, there wasn't a place, a time, an occasion that we didn't bonk away like bunnies."

Nick smiled as Alex relaxed slightly at the picture Nick had drawn.

"We were young, healthy and in love. Any excuse and we were at it. Mind you, as time passed, like any other married couple, things did slow down. And once Mish got really ill, we spent a lot of time just holding each other."

Nick shook his head. "I'm not denying, Alex, that there is a great deal of pleasure and enjoyment to be had in sex. But there can be just as much pleasure and enjoyment in the act of holding, of providing comfort. Of simply loving the person who is in your arms.

"As I have found with you."

Alex looked incredulous. "Nick. I've been here three days..."

"And nights. Don't forget the nights, Alex. They're important."

"I screamed the roof down two of those. You got out of bed because of me last night. I don't see how they can be important other than the fact that you haven't gotten much sleep."

Nick smiled. "Ah, but I got to hold you. And to know that you feel good in my arms. And to want more."

Alex dropped his head back, made an exasperated sound. "After three days, you think you're in..."

"In love with you? Yes. Why not, Alex? Are you so undeserving of love that no one should love you?" Nick reached for the man shaking his head in disbelief.

Alex pulled back just enough to indicate that he didn't want to be touched. "Nick. Be sensible. Three days."

"Well, so it's one longer than it took for Mish to convince me we belonged together. I told you, age makes you go more slowly. And makes you feel the cold more. Come here and bring the covers with you."

Alex bit his lower lip. Nick smiled. If the man knew how young that gesture made him look, he'd probably never do it again. Alex sighed, did as Nick asked.

"Thank you." Nick tucked Alex against him.

"Did you really move in with your...with Mish two days after you met him?"

"Well, no. That's how long it took Mish to persuade me it was a good idea. We were at University. In residence, each with other roommates. It took us almost a month to convince them both they would prefer to share a room with the other rather than with either of us."

"Almost a month?"

"Well, it turned out that they knew and hated each other from high school. Mish and I had to work really hard at convincing them."

Nick was delighted to see the sparkle in Alex's eyes. "I won't ask," Alex said.

Nick roared. He was still chuckling as he reached for the light and turned it off. "Sleep, Alex. We'll talk about this another day. If you want." And he tilted up Alex's face, placed a kiss on his forehead. And stopped there.

"You can go on," said Alex.

"Yes, I know," said Nick. "But I prefer this way. An additional inch a night."

"Huh?" Alex raised himself up onto his elbow to look into Nick's face.

"I started with the top of your head last night. Dropped down an inch tonight to your forehead. Eyebrows tomorrow night."

"What makes you think I'll still be here tomorrow night?"

"Ah," Nick allowed a little sadness to colour his voice. "Well then, I will have the memory of these nights. You on the other hand will wonder about what might have been." He tugged Alex back down. "Sleep." And he placed another kiss on the top of Alex's head.

Alex made a faint mewling sound sometime in the middle of the night. Nick shook him slightly and took him back into his arms. "Hush. It's all right. I've got you and you're safe. I won't let them catch you."

"Nick?"

"Yes. Go back to sleep."

Alex nestled sleepily. "Thanks."

"My pleasure."


After seeing to the horses and having breakfast -- Alex thought he'd probably eaten more in the past days than he had in weeks --Nick drove a powerful pick-up truck out of the same garage as now housed Alex's.

Nick had watched as Alex had armed himself from the armoire drawer. They were going out into the world and Nick accepted, reluctantly and a little unhappily, that Alex would always do so.

"What if that thing goes off accidentally?" he'd asked when Alex had slipped the small gun into his boot.

Alex had looked up. "My guns don't go off by accident."

Nick had nodded his understanding.

What bothered him more was the shell that now gradually separated him from his passenger. The Alex who sat next to him was remote, observant, a stranger.

Town, such as it was, was a half hour drive away. "It's a small community," explained Nick. "Only about a thousand population in the village itself, another couple of hundred with the surrounding farms."

The main street was only a couple of city blocks long. There was a hardware/lumber store, a video store, two restaurants, one offering Chinese food, the other pizza. The signpost pointed to the arena and fair grounds in one direction, the school and church in another. Alex counted one bank, one service station, two grocery stores -- one of the butcher shop variety. At that corner there was a general store with a faded 'Woolsworth' sign, next to a more up-scale clothing shop that catered to men and women. Across the street, the small magazine-bookstore/bus depot was separated from the funeral parlour by a parking lot. On the opposite corners were two older solidly-constructed buildings, one the post office, the other the library.

And that was about it.

Nick turned down that side street and parked in front of what looked to be a dilapidated barn that listed slightly to the left. A sign that was barely legible hung over the old-fashion accordion wooden doors indicating 'Robinson and Sons'.

Alex slowly got out, looked around as though checking out the lay of the land and then offered Nick a raised eyebrow in question. Nick grinned and pushed open a door that squealed in protest.

"Jackie? You around?"

The sound of a muttered answer indicated that Jackie was. Nick led the way out of the small cluttered office into the work area and stood watching Alex as he looked around, his jaw almost falling open.

"The place dates back to the thirties. Jackie's grandfather built it."

Alex believed that it dated back that long. He was certain some of the tools he saw hanging on the peg-board that covered the walls had to be originals. There was a partial floor that rose over the left side of the open space. On it were piled tires, mufflers of varying vintages.

The voice which called out "Who's there?" came from under a vehicle. The place had no hoist. The large truck, obviously a County one, had been driven over an opening in the floor which was deep enough to allow someone standing to work in it.

The whole space offered an aura of browns of all hues -- rust being the dominant one, aged grease and oil, and countless cups of cold coffee. The walls themselves were permeated with the smell of gas and exhaust.

"It's Nick. Nick Nicholas. I've come to see how backed-up you are."

"Hey, Santa. Nice to see you again."

The man who came out of the small cement valley perfectly fit his environment. He was short, stocky, walked with a bit of a limp and was a brown the colour of milk chocolate. Even his coveralls were brown. He grinned at both of them as he wiped his hands on a rag that might once have been white.

"You must be the broken axel," he said, nodding to Alex while offering Nick his cleaned hand.

Alex nodded. It was a good thing he hadn't been on the run. At this rate he wouldn't be surprised to discover the whole county knew about him.

"I hate to ask this, 'cause I don't like to send business away, but how much in a hurry are you? I mean, this being Friday and all, I did promise the wife I'd take her into Bowmanville for her Christmas shopping tomorrow. I've had to cancel twice already and she's a mite displeased with me right now."

He grinned at Nick. "Pity you're not the real Santa, Nick. All I'd have to do is put in my order with you and let you deliver."

Nick laughed appreciatively though Alex was certain it wasn't the first -- nor probably the last -- time he'd been told that.

"Actually, Jackie, Alex here is on a bit of a holiday, so he's got no real time constraint, but do you have an idea of when you'll be able to get to it?"

Jackie squinted, looked at a schedule only he could see in his head. "Well, first of all, what kind of Chevy is it, Mr. Krylov?"

Yep, thought Alex, I bet they even know what colour it is. "An S-10. 1990. V-6."

"And you're sure it's the rear axel?"

"Snapped off near the left wheel base."

"Hmmmmm. Well, let's go see what the kids have in the back."

In the back, thought Alex. There's a back to this place?

But he silently followed Nick and the mechanic back into the small office and from there, out a back door that creaked as loudly as the front one had. Yes, there was a back room. A large, open space that was semi-circular in shape. One of those corrugated sheds that, in Alex's opinion, was what probably kept the front part from collapsing.

Inside there were parts of all kinds, carefully sorted, of varying ages, though much more recent than those in the front.

Two goggled males dressed in the same brown coveralls as Robinson wore were busy dismantling an SUV that had its front bashed in. One was working away with a power drill while the other was holding up whatever it was that was being unscrewed.

>From behind a pile of stacked rims another coveralled worker came out.

"Susie, do we happen to have any S-10 V-6 around? Man here needs a rear axel."

The girl who couldn't have been more than sixteen looked pensive for a moment then nodded. The two others lowered the gas tank to the floor. At a sign from Susie, one of them went to join her.

"How are they doing?" asked Nick.

Jackie grinned. "Nothing like taking things apart to settle some kinds. Susie's decided to go back to school and finish. She'll be working here after classes to continue entering all this stuff into the computer. David wants to stay, learn to put things back together again. He's a good kid. Quick learner. Good with his hands. Good with his brain too when he remembers to put it into gear. I'm not getting any younger so I think I'll let him stay. Jamie is still too angry at life. Mind you, he hasn't gotten into any more trouble since the Judge assigned him here, but a lot is going to depend on that father of his. As long as he stays away..."

Nick nodded. "Another one who needs to put his brain into gear before he acts."

Jackie shrugged. "As long as he keeps his distance from the boy. He comes near him again and I may just find myself up on charges."

Nick looked over to Alex who seemed to have grasped that Robinson was the local last chance of troubled kids. "His father likes to be obeyed immediately. When you're not fast enough to suit him, he uses a baseball bat to get that message across."

Alex looked over to the kid who was glaring angrily at them. Jamie was barely old enough to shave.

"Yep, Mr. Robinson. We've got one."

Robinson's two assistants were returning carrying a shaft between them.

"Well," Robinson turned to Alex, "I'll be honest with you, Mr. Krylov. I really can't get to you much before Thursday, this being the holidays and all. If you prefer, I'll sell you the axel and you can take your business to someone else."

Before Alex could answer, Nick did. "What else would we need besides the axel, Jackie?"

The mechanic grinned. "Going to do the work yourself? Isn't this your busy time?"

The two kids snickered and Nick grinned good-naturedly. "Well, the elves are pretty much doing all the work this year. And Rudolph is using a GPS to program our route."

The kids carried the axel to Nick's truck. David rushed back to discuss with the two men what else might be needed. Robinson reminded Nick that he'd only charge him for what he used. Alex stood outside by the truck and found himself questioning just why he had been content to let Nick take matters out of his hands.

The next stop was the larger of the two grocery stores where Nick replenished his cupboards. As they went up and down the aisles, between Nick's exchanging seasonal greetings with people who smiled or nodded interestedly at Alex, Nick asked Alex what he preferred and got a silent shrug in response. Until they hit the frozen food section where, with a rueful grin, Alex tossed in a couple of containers of Hagen Daz chocolate on chocolate in chocolate ice cream. There was a short but silent skirmish at the cash when Alex paid. Nick allowed it only when Alex pulled out a glare that would have taught Jamie a few things.

They were coming out of the butcher shop with Nick's order when someone hailed them. Nick knew immediately something was wrong when he felt the rigid coldness radiating from the man at his side.

Damn it, what a time for Lyndon to show up!

"Patrolman Johnson, I'd like you to meet Alex Krylov."

The State Trooper smiled, "The broken axel." Then he shifted his attention to Nick. "Sally was wondering if we'd have to go rescue you."

"Well, as you see, we made it in. Is the program still on for one o'clock?"

Johnson nodded. "You'd think they were all kids again, the way they're looking forward to this. Mom specifically told me that I was to behave myself this year and not threaten to arrest your reindeer for trespassing." He sighed. "She still hasn't forgiven me for last year." He looked at Alex, inviting him to join the laughter. Alex smiled. "I thought it was funny. Everyone else thought it was funny. She says I embarrassed her."

Nick commiserated. "You're always a boy to your mother."

"Tell me about it! So, Mr. Krylov, apart from your axel, are you enjoying your visit to our County?"

Alex's smile was a little colder this time. Nick found himself stepping in. It did cross his mind to wonder why Alex was allowing him to do so. "Actually, Alex was on his way to visit me when the accident happened."

Well, he'd gotten Lyndon's attention back on him, away from the slightly surprised expression on Alex's face.

"Yes. Alex was a student of mine at one time. He's writing a book and needed some information. I told him that he was quite welcome to come use my library for his research."

The Trooper looked from Nick to Alex. He shook his head. "Darn but you were lucky you were that close to Nick's when the axel went."

"Yes, wasn't I?"

Nick hoped he was the only one to pick up the sarcasm in Alex's tone.

"So what are you researching, Mr. Krylov?"

"Industrial development in early twentieth century Russia."

"Ah!" Johnson nodded.

Nick smiled like a proud parent at Alex's quick response. My, but he did love a man who was quick on his feet.

"Well, I expect I'll see you at the Centre this afternoon." Johnson tipped his hat. "Nick."

Alex watched the man get into his car and, with a friendly wave, drive away.

"Centre?"

Nick nodded. "I'm playing Santa Claus at the Seniors' Christmas luncheon. His wife, Sally, runs the Community Centre." As he entered the truck, he grinned over at Alex. "Early twentieth century Russia, eh? Very good."

"So," Alex sat back as Nick drove on to the next destination, "what kind of a student was I?"

"Irritating. You questioned constantly. Challenged any supposition. Wrote controversial essays and forced me to rethink my conclusions. You were a major pain in the ass and I loved having you in my class."

"What if he checks up on that?"

"Ah," Nick parked in front of what seemed to be a refurbished one-room schoolhouse, "sadly, you left before the year was up. Family problems. You are now using your mother's maiden name."

As they got out of the truck, Nick explained. "We get fed. You are expected to do justice to everything they put on your plate. Thirds are encouraged. I highly recommend the oyster stuffing. And Mrs. Taylor's pumpkin pie. She makes it with a strudel topping to die for." He caught the grin on Alex's face. "What?"

"You won't need any stuffing for the Santa suit, will you?"

Delighted at the teasing tone, Nick raised a haughty eyebrow, giving Alex a glimpse of the professor. "My dear boy, man does not live on bread alone. Some of us prefer a little meat on our bones." He patted Alex's ass. "You could stand to add a little stuffing on yours."

It was an unusual experience for Alex to be the centre of so much attention. Nick chuckled as he watched Alex uncertainly deal with some very determined blue-rinsed women who also found him too thin. And who insisted that he join them in singing carols while Nick slipped out to get into costume.

As he drove home, Nick was still chuckling about the look on Johnson's face when his mother had patted Alex on the knee and loudly invited him to come eat crackers in her bed, anytime.

Alex was quieter than usual on the way home. He sat, staring out of the side window.

Nick left him alone while they unloaded the groceries from the truck, then pulled into the garage where they unloaded the axel and the couple of boxes of items Robinson had provided for them.

"Do you know how to change an axel, Nick?" Alex was standing by his truck, staring at it.

"No idea, Alex. I've never done anything like that."

Alex turned to look at him.

"But it can't be that hard. And Jackie loaned us a book. All we have to do is follow instructions." Nick pulled a Chilton out of one of the boxes. "Besides, if it's not done by then, Jackie said he'd come out Thursday morning to rescue us."

"Why did you tell Robinson we would do it?"

Nick put the book back into the box. "Maybe as a way of keeping you here for a few more days. So you can have time to get use to the idea."

Alex stared at the ground before taking a determined breath. "Look, Nick, fairy tales are great things but they don't happen in real life. It's obvious that you easily fit into this community." He looked up at Nick. "I don't. And my staying would make it hard for you."

Nick leaned back against the side of his truck. "Alex, I don't doubt that you're many things but I'm surprised to find that you're a bit of a coward."

Alex's head snapped up, nostrils flaring slightly at the accusation.

Nick's temper was back. "Respect us both enough not to use my so-called position in this community as your excuse for not having the courage to try. Alex, I lived 28 years with a man in the days when doing so was not easily accepted. Not even in a New York City university environment. And we're not talking 'Don't ask, don't tell' here. So don't come and tell me that your staying would make my life hard."

He softened his tone. "What it would do would be to fill my life. And maybe fill yours as well. Would that be so horrible a fate that you have to run from it?"

Alex closed his eyes and grimaced, trying to find the words that would explain his feelings on this. Not something he had much experience with, this explanation of feelings.

"Alex?" Nick stepped closer but not close enough to touch. "Maybe it won't work out. Maybe... Maybe one day you'll wake up and decide that I'm far too old for you. That you don't like the way I make love to you. That my touch leaves you cold. That what you feel for me is mere friendship. That you want to leave. That's all right. It happens. I won't hold you back if that's the way it turns out."

Alex shook his head, finally turning to face the man asking him to stay. "And what if it's the other way around? How much notice will you give me to pack my things and get out?"

Ah, thought Nick, the crux of the matter. "Well, Alex, that's a chance we both take. But I will tell you that the last time I felt this way about a man, I held him in my arms until he died in them."

Alex wrapped his arm around himself. To have someone want him that way...

"Alex, if you're wondering, I'm quite willing to wait to make love until you're ready. I'm quite content with just holding you."

Alex looked up. Voice tight: "An inch a night, eh?"

Nick smiled. "An inch a night, Alex." He reached out his hand to this man who had so suddenly appeared in his life.

"Take a chance, Alex."


Mulder smiled at his son who was coming back from sitting on Santa's lap.

He and Will had been spending some male bonding time together. Well, that's what Scully called it when she sent them off on their own a couple of times a year.

This time, Will had wanted to go skiing and Mulder had pulled him out of school a week early so that his son could come with him when he went to research a supposed landing site in an area that boasted a couple of good ski hills. They had rented an SUV and were exploring the surrounding area when they were caught in a traffic tie-up in a small community. Seems they were having their Christmas Parade.

Will had acted blase about the whole thing as only a seven year old could when confronted with what he saw as 'baby stuff'. He had, however, lost his disdain the moment he'd seen Santa's sleigh. Pulled not by reindeer, or a tractor, but by two gorgeous Clynesdales, each the size of a small house.

They followed the end of the parade to the fair grounds where Santa's throne was set up to hear the Christmas wishes of any who cared to come sit on his lap. Will, after some thought, wondered aloud if the beard and hair were real.

"You'd have to be up close to check it out," Mulder answered, giving his son the excuse he needed to go tell Santa what he wanted this Christmas.

As he waited, Mulder watched the man who had driven the sleigh expertly handle the horses all the while controlling the kids who wanted to touch or offer the horses a treat. He was dressed in a green top with an elf-like tuque on his head. Like so many, he was wearing sunglasses against the glare of sun on snow. Mulder decided the beautifully tailored beard, dark with streaks of grey and white, was real.

The man had obviously prepared for the kids by filling his jeans pockets with pieces of carrot.

Mulder shook his head. You couldn't pay him enough to offer his hand up to those teeth. Will seemed to feel the same as he stood by his father and watched a boy about his age offer a carrot to the horse that stood next to the man.

When the carrot was gone, the horse wanted more. It swung its large head sideways, jostling the man. "Knock it off, Gustav. You're getting your share."

Mulder turned at the voice. There was something...

"Oh! EEEEEUUUUUUU!"

Mulder forgot about the man as he focused his attention back on Will.

"That horse is...pooping."

Mulder looked and, sure enough, the nearer horse was definitely...pooping.

Will had covered his mouth with both hands, holding back his delighted scandalized giggles. Mulder grinned.

"Looks like your mother's oatmeal," he said, nudging his son with his hip.

Will's eyes, eyes that he'd inherited from his father -- Thank god he'd gotten the Scully nose, thought Mulder -- brimmed with horrified pleasure.

"Of course," said Mulder, offering Will his hand, "we won't mention this to your mother when we tell her about today, now will we?"

Will's pleasure only increased.

"You know what we need to make this day perfect? Ice cream. Whaddaya say we head back and find ourselves a Baskin-Robbins?"

"Will they have poop flavoured ice cream?"

Mulder laughed. "No, but we could suggest it."

Alex watched from behind his sunglasses as Mulder walked away with his son. He wondered what he would have said to him if Mulder had recognized him.

Gustav butted him again. There was a little girl who was standing in front of them, waiting for a carrot. As Alex handed her a piece, she cocked her head and looked him over.

"Are you really Santa's helper?"

Alex looked over to where the man in red was holding court. Nick must have sensed him watching because he looked over and raised his hand in greeting.

Alex smiled back.

"Yeah," he said to the child still waiting for his answer, "I'm Santa's."

Archived: January 13, 2002

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