Spencer Reid Gets…


Fandom: Criminal Minds

Pairing: Reid/OFC

Rating: R/NC-17

Warnings: references to past violence including child abuse, mention of drugs, angst, sex

Archive: Ask

Author: Lily Zen

Notes: Finally, the next story in the series! Sorry it took me so long. Hey, just a note. This story has some heavy content. It deals with Alix's recovery after being kidnapped and tortured. It also deals with some of her past. Also, as a final note, you should never use sex to solve your problems. It doesn't work. The problems are still there when you're done having sex. This is a highly dramatized story featuring fictional characters; we can bend the rules of reality a little here. But if you're having problems, the best way to solve them is to talk about them.

Disclaimer: Not mine, though Alix kind of is my own invention.

She was having nightmares again. They woke her up breathing heavily and shaking, and often the fear of them kept her from returning to bed. She spent a lot of time working on art projects and reading books, and a lot of money on coffee. Alix wasn't doing well, but she was fighting against admitting to it. The Bureau had her seeing a shrink—Spencer could only imagine just how lively (or rather not) those sessions were-and on a temporary leave of absence while her ribs healed.

He'd taken a couple of days off work when Alix first came home, and spent the time fetching and carrying. Only two before Alix glared at him—the pain meds made her grumpy—and said, "Your hovering is annoying me. Go to work." He didn't take it personally, but knew better than to fight her on it. Staying would only serve to focus her wrath on him more.

The next day, after making sure that Alix had everything she might need within easy reach. He pulled the violet curtains back, angling the TV so that she could see it from her 'room,' and he left.

She didn't call, so he returned to his apartment to do some work there. Spencer figured maybe it was best if they spent a little time apart before he went back to hovering needlessly. His cell phone rang at quarter after midnight, and Alix mewed pathetically, "I can't sleep. Come over? Please?"

The weeks of Alix's recovery were tumultuous and hard on them both. Spencer, already a light sleeper, woke every time Alix started twitching and making fear noises in her sleep. They were both tetchy and mainlining caffeine like nobody's business. Not exactly the romantic honeymoon phase Spencer had pictured after they declared their love for each other.

When she felt well enough to start driving again, doing her own shopping, going to her appointments… When she was less dependent on the meds to get through the day, then things started to improve bit by bit. Her mood started lifting, the frequency of the nightmares lessened, and both of them started getting more sleep. Things seemed to be getting back to normal between them at least as long as Spencer overlooked the occasional nightmare.

It was cold. Her limbs were covered with gooseflesh, though she was far too tired to engage in anything so pedestrian as shivering. She had no energy left. She slept when she could, when she thought the eyes in the stadium were closed, arms locked around her knees in the fetal position, careful not to brush the wire mesh that was now her womb.

The high-pitched screech of metal against metal made her eyes pop wide open, and suddenly there were cattle prods poking her in her back and thighs, forcing her closer toward the little opening.

A snarl reached her ears, and though she wanted to stop, she knew she could not stay. Already the voltage was increasing, the pain scraping down her nerve endings and back up to her brain where it resonated. Haltingly, the bitch crept out of her cage.

The ring was thronged with watchers, their eyes—blank, unblinking, brown irises—hovering in empty seats. They were hungry. They wanted blood.

She wanted to give it to them, the killer pacing the other side of the ring, her leather-and-metal chain gripped in the hands of a faceless trainer. Literally, faceless, an empty oval of blank skin where there should have been eyes, nose, mouth. The only one whose appearance was in vivid Technicolor was that of the Rottweiler on the chain, her brown hair yanked back in a severe ponytail, saliva dripping over her pink, lipstick coated pout as she bared her teeth in a rictus grin.

Fear zinged up her spine, and she quailed against the wire mesh where there used to be a tiny door to a semi-safe space.

The leash was slipped off, and the woman charged, her forward crawl unnaturally graceful and quick.

Hands on her chest crushing the life out of her—can't breathe, can't breathe—and teeth snapping at her throat. She began to bleed, and went for the soft underbelly lying exposed over her, clawing in desperation. Her nails became talons, little shovels, digging through skin, sliding through the sweet, wet insides. Still can't breathe, but the other bitch's strength was beginning to wane; ignoring the urge to gasp, holding in that last stale snatch of oxygen.

The monster collapsed, and she rolled them, yanking her claws out, red to the elbows.

She looked down, and began to howl, seeing not the rabid dog but her own countenance.

"Ah!" she yelped, flinging herself out of sleep and onto her elbows—they weren't red. Her ribs protested and the dark line of stitches on her chest pulled a little, but Alix paid them no heed, taking deep breaths to get her heart rate back under control.

Spencer's eyes had flown open the instant he'd heard her breathing begin to grown frantic, a small whimper piercing the still night air. He hadn't woken her up though, because a lot of the literature he'd read on nightmares and night terrors—and he'd been reading a lot lately—said that touching them could make it worse. He'd decided they were correct when one night he'd cupped Alix's shoulder in his hand, given her a little shake, and she had woken in a panic and slugged him in the stomach so hard that he was sore the next day. So he watched and waited for her to come to on her own, and gave her the courtesy of letting her find her composure in silence.

They both knew he was awake though. Alix was aware of just how light a sleeper Spencer could be, particularly without the exhaustion of an out of town case. She felt guilty because she knew her little episodes were disrupting his rest as much as hers. If she were a little less selfish she'd send him home to sleep, but his presence was soothing to her. She, as much as it pained her to admit it, had come to rely on him somewhere along the way. Not to chase the monsters away, because that was ridiculous. The monsters were in her head, and would fade only when they were good and ready, as she knew from prior experience. Alix relied on him to ease her back into slumber when the only thing else that would work as well were prescription drugs or a bottle of booze.

His voice was quiet, but non-intrusive when he asked, "Are you okay?"

Lowering herself back down, Alix sighed and answered the way she had always answered when he asked her that same question what seemed to be a million times already. "I'm fine."

Spencer said nothing, knowing that she needed the illusion, but also realizing that she was not fine.

Alix was one of those people whose motto in life was 'fake it 'til you make it,' and for the most part it worked very well for her.

He was beginning to think that maybe this time it might not be enough.

She reached over, feeling in the dark for his hands.

He accommodated her wish, sliding his palm along the sheet until his fingers connected with hers and tangled together. With a soft sigh, Alix tugged his arm along with hers until it slid over the ribbed cotton of the wife-beater she'd worn to bed, and he felt the familiar plane of her abdomen underneath his forearm. She shifted, raising the fabric of her tank top up a little, and tucked his hand underneath. She didn't want sex, somehow he instinctively knew that, and yet when he disentangled his hand and flattened his palm on her stomach, he heard the smile in the pleased little sound she let out. Her skin felt warm and sensual, her abdomen rising and falling lightly as she breathed. He traced a rough circle around her bellybutton with his pinky.

Alix smiled at the intimate touch, pushing away the dregs of her fear with his hands. She just wanted his hands on her; she wanted to be wrapped up in him. Normally when Spencer slept over she'd sleep on her side curled up against him, legs and arms sliding over him like a snake. It was her favorite way to fall asleep—sated and suctioned onto him like a barnacle on a boat. Unfortunately, her healing ribs kept her from sleeping comfortably on her side. She was forced to stay on her back as straight as a board; therefore she'd been silently giving Spencer instructions on how to cuddle properly ever since.

He scooted closer, sliding his head onto her pillow, and then down onto her shoulder when that wasn't quite comfortable enough. His breath fanned out over her collarbone, surprisingly warm. "I love you," he whispered as his eyes fell closed again.

Alix didn't say a word—the sound of her voice would wake him-but she grinned and thought them very hard, and took them with her back to the realm where Morpheus ruled, and made herself think of sweet, sugary things as she determinedly returned to sleep.

The leaves outside were turning colors. From the bird's eye view they appeared like great orbs balancing on the end of dark scepters, their gemstones mottled orange, red, and violets. The leaves that remained stubbornly green ruined the effect somewhat. They would be the last to fall, to pile on the ground only to be swept away like so much trash. Didn't leaves decay? And wasn't that good for the earth? Or did she have that wrong? Alix made a note to ask Spencer. He would know.

"Agent Blackwood?" The voice intruded on her quiet contemplation of the Virginian autumn.

She glanced up, and automatically raised her paper coffee cup to her lips, sipping the bitter brew through the opening in the plastic cap. It gave her time to re-focus, and she searched her mind for whatever the shrink had asked her last. Finally, she smiled politely, inwardly giving up. "Yes?"

The department shrink gave her a look that almost but not quite bordered on irritated. Alix was trying the woman's patience, which was unfortunate because she really wasn't trying to. She wanted to get approval and go back to work, to put her experience with kidnapping far, far behind her. The psychologist's brow smoothed with effort, and she schooled her features back to polite, friendly, interested neutrality, if such a thing was possible.

Debra Wilshire was an older woman in her fifties who had worked her way through school, her past jobs concentrating mostly around law enforcement. The daughter of an officer, she had known her entire life what she wanted to do, to help those people brave enough to defend them from themselves deal with the horrors and atrocities they witnessed people commit, and she had pursued it with single-minded drive and ambition until finally she had realized that goal. Wilshire was in her tenth year of service with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The commemorative clock she'd received for her time was hanging on the wall of her office, the pendulum swinging hypnotically over her right shoulder.

Alix glanced at the clock, and then back at the woman seated behind the desk. At first Debra had tried to hold their sessions in the more comfortable sitting area behind them, the chairs fluffy and cream colored with a simple blue stripe, offered tea and coffee and snacks, anything she could think to lull the recalcitrant agent into speaking freely with her. It was Alix who looked at her and said, "We're not friends, and acting like we are isn't going to make me spill all my secrets to you. Please, let's conduct ourselves professionally and do this at the desk." Strangely, the strict definition of the desk separating her from the therapist did relax her a little. They were on opposing sides, the field agent and the bureaucrat.

She was a frustrating patient, like most agents tended to be.

"I was wondering how your week has been," Debra finally stated.

Shrugging, Alix said. "Fine. Since I last saw you I've only had one nightmare." That was a lie, but she told it without telltale signs, pulling on skills that kept her cover in the field.

The shrink's lips moved in a small approximation of a smile. Her mauve lipstick looked too thick and dark for that early in the day. Alix didn't think she'd appreciate the fashion advice.

"Good," the psychologist said, definitely seeming pleased, "That's good. The mind is a wonderful thing, isn't it? So resilient."

"Nothing keeps me down for long," Alix agreed flippantly.

"Nothing?" the shrink wondered, glancing down at her file, "What about when your mother left?"

Alix rolled her eyes. "That was a long time ago. I dealt with it and moved on."

"Do you…speak to her?" Debra asked.

"Not really," Alix admitted breezily. She took another sip from her coffee cup and turned slightly, using the other vacant chair on her side of the desk to prop her feet up.

The shrink's eyes followed her movement, narrowing in displeasure. However, the woman said nothing, still of the opinion that if she could just get Agent Blackwood comfortable that she would begin to open up.

"I think my mom is pretty pathetic," Blackwood told her, "We see each other every other Christmas, and that's enough."

"And your father?"

"Deceased, as I'm sure you can see in my handy-dandy folder," Alix shot back with equal casualness.

"Your father was a hard man to live with, wasn't he? Drank a lot?"

"I suppose," Alix hesitantly agreed. Her eyes narrowed as she wondered where the doc was going with this line of questions.

"Was he abusive?" Debra asked coolly.

With a little smile, the agent replied, "To me? No. Not any more than parents were back then. It wasn't considered abuse to spank your kids in those days. To my mother? Yes. He beat the crap out of her, would say the meanest things—he was a mean drunk. He destroyed her. Even after she left us, she never really recovered. You know what I mean? You must know what I mean. You're a shrink."

"I do," Debra agreed, "And did you ever witness this abuse?"

Shooting her a withering look, Alix stated, "Duh. We all lived in the same house, didn't we?"

"My point is this, Agent Blackwood," the psychologist began carefully. "Do you think that maybe witnessing these things at such an early age has something to do with your reaction to your recent ordeal?"

Alix said nothing, and merely looked at the shrink. The pendulum swung back and forth, and she followed its leftward curve to the window where the treetops looked happy and inviting. Time fell away.

Debra Wilshire sighed as the timer on her desk let out a discreet beep. "We're out of time this week, Agent Blackwood."

Standing up with care and precision, the woman with the short, dark hair smiled politely at her. "Same time next week then?"

Doctor Wilshire nodded and plugged her patient's name into next week's calendar. "I'll see you then, Agent Blackwood. Have a good day."

"You too," Alix waggled her fingertips flippantly over her shoulder as she strode out the door.

Her floor wasn't exactly empty, but it was definitely absent of anyone she would have wanted to speak to. Alix felt a surge of some complicated ball of emotion, but didn't bother to take it apart and examine its individual threads. One of the agents on the team they shared their bullpen with told her that her people were out in the field with a loaner. She suppressed a rude remark, thanked the man, and turned on her heel.

She caught the elevator just as the doors were sliding closed, slapping an arm in place to send the door springing back open. Alix offered the elevator's occupants a wan smile, and hit the button she wanted. As long as she was in the building, she figured she'd stop by the BAU and harass her boyfriend (which was still an incredibly weird thing to say even in her head—prior to Spencer she hadn't had a steady relationship in a few years). It was close to lunchtime, so there was always a chance that she could wrangle him into a mid-day date.

Stepping out on the floor the BAU was situated on, she padded through the glass doors, her flats hardly making a sound on the floor. Since she couldn't really bend all the way over that eliminated any shoes that required tying. That day she was wearing black flats and a bright blue miniskirt, the yellowing bruises on her legs displayed carelessly. To cover up her top half she had on a black top, the kind with the lace inlay in the back, displaying the upper most part of her bare back. Some of the more professional people (pretty much everybody except her) gave her some odd looks, but Alix didn't pay any attention. She'd long ago accepted the fact that she was an odd bird, the square peg trying to fit in a round hole. At least the good thing about being on leave was that she could wear whatever she wanted to. Yesterday she spent the whole day in leggings and a crinoline puff skirt because she could, dammit.

Spencer wasn't at his desk, but the cute little blonde girl, Seaver, was. Alix sat down at Spencer's desk and shot the girl a wide smile. "Hey, Seaver, right?"

"Yeah," Ashley looked up from her paperwork to smile. "Are you looking for Reid?"

Alix shrugged her shoulders. "Not actively. I'm reasonably sure that if I just stay here for a bit, he'll find me."

The blonde grinned. "It's nice to see him, you know, with somebody. At first he kind of freaked me out."

Hazarding a guess, Alix asked, "Because he's monstrously intelligent?"

"Ah, yeah." The blonde blushed.

"And cute?" the brunette persisted with a grin and an eyebrow waggle.

Ashley laughed. "Only for all of five seconds until I got to know him. He's pretty sexually ambiguous. Around here, I mean."

"Like an amoeba?" Alix chuckled.

"Oh my god, yeah, or a flagellum. He just scoots around with his whip-tail spouting statistics." Seaver and Alix locked gazes for a moment before they began laughing hysterically.

"Flagellum," Alix gasped between giggles.

Ashley had her head down on her desk still chuckling. "I can't believe I said that."

"It was hilarious," the other agent told her matter-of-factly. "I'm glad you did. Ah," she slipped her glasses off for a second and wiped the tears from the corner of her eyes, "Totally awesome. Thanks for that."

"Not a problem." Seaver looked up, blue eyes turning serious as she analyzed the other woman. "You look good. Much better than the last time I saw you."

With a wry grin, Alix told her, "Thanks. It's the steady diet of pain pills."

The blonde chuckled.

Just then they both heard, "What are you two laughing about over here?" a second before a warm hand curved over Alix's shoulder and then slid inward, cupping the back of her neck above the lace on her shirt. Alix glanced back with a devilish glint in her eye.

"Hey, pretty boy, isn't that your girl?" Morgan asked as they walked back to the bullpen from Garcia's adjacent batcave.

Reid glanced up from the file in his hand. Sure enough there was the back of Alix's head, and the set of her shoulders. It was funny that he didn't even have to see her face to recognize her. He could pick her out in a crowded room just from the way she carried herself, that subtle challenge in her poor posture that read 'I don't have any fucks to give,' and the way her short hair revealed the nape of her neck, which admittedly he was fascinated with. She and Seaver were laughing about something, and Reid felt a grin tug his own lips upward.

"Yep," Reid agreed lightly, and he knew the look on his face must be a bit silly because Morgan had that look on his face that precipitated a teasing comment.

"Aw, look at the boy genius, all smitten with a bad girl," Morgan laughed and gave him a one-armed hug.

Spencer shot him a look.

The good-looking man grinned unrepentantly. "Hey, just messing with you."

"I know," Reid agreed with a hint of exasperation. "You know, I kind of thought that with Seaver joining the team that some of the teasing would get moved onto her."

"Reid," Morgan began, his face and voice utterly deadpan, "You should know by now that you're my favorite person to mess with. Nobody could ever replace you." His lips twitched, and then a smile broke out on his face.

Reid decided that would be a prudent point to walk away, but he did have a little smile on his face as he did so. It wasn't that he didn't mind the teasing—he did; it got annoying, and after all their years together he'd have thought that his team would grow out of it—but that he'd come to accept it. Their teasing him was a way of lowering the mythos of his intelligence to a more feasible height, of dragging him down to their level, and including him in their circle of camaraderie. He could accept it if it was only meant in jest.

"What are you two laughing about over here?" Spencer asked as he approached Alix from behind, his hand settling over her shoulder. It gravitated back to her neck automatically though, enticed by the sweet vulnerability of it as she dipped her chin just so and the edges of her hair rose up a little higher.

She turned ever so slightly, not enough to dislodge his palm, but enough so that their eyes met and he could see the curving of her lips as she smiled in greeting. "Nothing much," Alix began saucily, "Just flagellum."

Raising his eyebrows, Reid replied, "Flagellum?"

Alix nodded firmly. "Flagellum."

Seaver spluttered and got up from her desk, turning a little red in the face as she stated, "Well, it was nice talking to you, Alix. I'll, uh, see you around."

"Bye, Ashley. Oh, hey," Alix paused, and Seaver froze mid-turn, shooting her a curious look. "Domino was wondering if you're single."

The blaze that heated Ashley's face was certainly interesting, Reid noted idly. "I, uh, I'm not…that is…" Seaver tripped over her own words.

Alix shrugged. "Hey, you don't have to explain it to me. Domino's got a way about her. She attracts the bi-curious." There was a little smile playing at the edge of her mouth that she was trying to suppress.

"I'm not gay," Ashley finally hissed.

"Yeah, I know," Alix agreed coolly, "But that doesn't mean…" She shook her head. "Look, it's none of my business. Domino thought you were cool though, and I wanted to pass on the message."

"That's…" Seaver shifted nervously, and cast worried blue eyes on Spencer.

He shrugged and told her, "It's none of my business either. As far as I'm concerned, this conversation isn't happening."

Apparently that was just the thing to ease her mind, because Seaver turned back to Alix and said, "She's cool. If…if she wants to be friends—just friends—that'd be nice. Tell her she can, um, e-mail me, and we'll make plans." With that Ashley took a deep breath, turned on her heel, and fled into the break room.

Alix glanced at her retreating back then tipped her head up to lock eyes with Spencer. "I give it a month, maybe a month and a half."

"Before?" Reid prompted.

"Before Domino gets her in bed," his girlfriend replied cheekily. When she started shifting in his chair, her legs uncrossing and feet planting on the ground, Spencer gripped the back automatically to keep it from rolling as she got up. The last thing she needed was for the chair to slide abruptly and torque her healing ribs. "So," Alix began as she stood up carefully, "What are you doing for lunch?"

"Ah," he winced, "Sadly, I don't have time. Morgan and I ate with Garcia in the tech-cave. I only have fifteen minutes left of my break."

"Oh," her face fell a little. "Well, I should have called ahead," Alix continued brightly, and with a little shrug.

"I can walk you to the parking lot," he offered, and then chuckled. "We can stop at the coffee vendor for a five minute date."

Alix wiggled the cup in her hand, sloshing the liquid contents within. Then, thoughtfully, she took a little sip and grimaced. "Yeah, this is cold. Sounds good. Five minute date it is." She slipped her arm through his, and just when he thought she was about to lean in and kiss him she paused, cocking her head to the side. "Why is it whenever I come up here your team stands around eyeballing us?"

Spencer glanced around the bullpen noticing that Seaver and Morgan were hovering in the doorway to the break room, and Hotch and Rossi were talking out on the catwalk, and Garcia appeared to be sneaking in the door. He frowned. "I guess it's like naturists observing the mating habits of duck-billed platypi."

Much to his surprise, Alix chuckled and cooed, "Aww, that's so sweet, baby. How did you know my favorite animal was the platypus?"

Laughing abruptly, they began walking toward the door, her arm sneaking around his waist. "Maybe," Spencer drawled, "it was the framed poster of a platypus in your living room. Besides, it seemed apt."

"We are odd, I suppose," Alix agreed lightly as they stepped onto the elevator together, disentangling just enough that the other occupants weren't disconcerted by their closeness. They were already eyeing Alix's decidedly not Fed-appropriate clothing. Spencer fought the urge to stick his tongue out at them, and concluded that Alix was a bad influence on his behavior if he was actually considering doing such a thing.

They hit the lobby, and Alix stepped off the lift quickly before people started brushing past her. They didn't walk holding hands through the high-ceiled, expensively tiled area. It was lunch time so the floor was busy with foot traffic, and neither of them wanted to make a display of their relationship, particularly not in front of perfect strangers. It was only when they were outside, having pushed through the great wall of glass doors, that Alix reached for him. The crowd thinned out, the sea of corporate casual busybodies heading toward their destinations. The line at the coffee cart was huge, but they waited anyway, chatting about the weather, their plans for the day, and a History channel special that Alix had seen early that morning about Hitler's mistress which of course led to a rousing discourse related to the topic…which then strayed from the topic and into a more general discussion on women being attracted to powerful men, even if they were assholes.

Their conversation drew chuckles from some of the people standing in line with them, but neither of them paid much notice to it. Spencer had a tendency to do that when Alix was around. Her own uncaring attitude of what people thought of her rubbed off on him, and he found that he was less self-conscious in her presence. It helped that when he spoke she actually understood what he was talking about, and never ever looked at him like he was 'that weird smart kid.' It was easy to get lost in the rhythm of their dialogue, even as he was noticing that her eyes looked particularly green today and huge. He suspected it had something to do with the dark eyeliner she was wearing, and the touch of violet glitter he could see sparkling at the corners.

They got their coffee, and Alix threw out her old cup as they headed toward the parking structure. "It's a biological imperative, Spencer," she was arguing, "A holdover from our evolution. In the past, of course females would have wanted mates that were strong and commanding. Their genes would be the best ones to pass on."

"I'm not arguing with that," Spencer agreed placidly as they took the parking lot elevator up, "But by your own logic, women should still be subject to that biological urge. You're dating me. That debunks your theory in and of itself."

"It does not," his girlfriend refuted crossly, "Just because you aren't a two-hundred pound mongoloid with your muscles oiled up—"

Spencer let out a surprised bark of laughter at the imagery.

"—does not mean you lack qualities one would like to pass on to their offspring."

Reid ignored the way that talking about offspring made him tense up, and asked lightly, "Oh, like what?"

"You're incredibly intelligent, and good-looking—"

He scoffed.

"Spence, if you wanted to you could rival some of the male models I've seen. You're very attractive, almost androgynously pretty, and I say that with utmost honesty." Alix squeezed his hand, making him look over at her smiling visage. "You know me. I'm not going to stroke your ego."

Reid grinned and acknowledged to himself that no, she wouldn't. "Alright," he conceded, "So I'm smart and pretty."

"From an anthropological perspective, you're also healthy, which is an ideal trait to pass on," she continued.

"Ah, but you are forgetting the fact that my mother is schizophrenic," Spencer countered as they got off on the floor where Alix had her car parked, a little gray Toyota that her brother had restored for her.

"True," Alix grudgingly admitted. "Evolutionarily, that's not exactly a great recessive trait to pass on."

"Recessive? How do you know its recessive?" Reid argued.

Shooting him a withering look, she coolly replied, "Spencer, I'm fairly certain that you would have begun to show symptoms by now."

He didn't say anything more, but the niggling fear at the back of his mind popped up and said that she didn't know that, she hadn't calculated the odds. He had. He did. He was obsessed with it, constantly worried that he was going to fall apart one day and end up in the room next to his mother's. That was his worry though; there was no need to burden Alix with it as well.

They reached her car, and Alix put her coffee down on the roof as she leaned back against the door, pulling him close and sliding her arms around his waist. "Spencer, you're not going to go crazy," she whispered quietly a second before she brushed her lips over his. "Not unless I drive you to a psychotic break."

He chuckled, and let himself accept the comfort she was offering, swooping down and kissing her hard. His fingers tangled in her hair tightly, tipping her head back further.

She made a small noise, and her fingers balled up the back of his cardigan. The tiny ball on her tongue rubbed against his, and he shuddered, the sensation something he was rapidly growing more and more accustomed to. Normally, he avoided the touch of metal on his skin, finding the sensation disturbing, going so far as to wear his watch over his sleeve, but there was something about the touch of her tongue ring that he didn't mind so much. Maybe it was that his subconscious mind had associated the feel of it with sexual gratification. Then he wondered at the oddness that his aversion to touching didn't seem to extend to Alix at all. In fact, as her teeth nibbled his lower lip, and trailed her mouth over his chin and down his neck, nuzzling the skin above his collar, he thought to himself that he rather craved contact with her almost like a drug. 'Biological imperative,' his mind whispered.

He groaned as she sucked a small patch of his skin into her mouth and fought the urge to lean into her, to press her up against the door with his body and feel her along every inch of him.

Like she knew just what he was thinking, she whispered over his damp skin, her voice low and hot, "Do you think we have time for a quickie?"

The very idea, the scandalous nature of it—crawling into her car, tugging her skirt up and pressing inside of her, fucking violently fast right there in the parking lot when anybody could just walk by and see what they were doing—forced a low sound from him as things deep within him jerked and tightened with wanting. He slid his lips over hers, swallowing her quiet noises of pleasure, before it registered that her hands were sliding over his back, trying to press him closer.

He broke the kiss with an agonized moan. "I don't think so," Spencer forced himself to say.

Alix's kiss-reddened lower lip jutted out in a pout.

"Your ribs," he admitted. "I don't want to hurt you."

A sigh exploded out of her. "Man, if I could I'd go punch that bitch in the face all over again. She's not even alive anymore, but she is seriously cramping my style."

He laughed and dropped a kiss on his girlfriend's forehead, glad that she was beginning to joke about it. "I know. I'm sorry."

She lifted one shoulder in a casual shrug. "No biggie," she stated, "But…I should probably go, and you need to get back to work."

"Okay, yeah, you're right," he replied, and stepped away so that she could open her car door. "I'll see you later?"

"Bet your ass you will." Alix winked as she swiped her coffee off the roof of the car and carefully slid into the driver's seat.

Spencer ducked in and gave her a last peck goodbye, and then turned away, heading for the elevator with his hands in his pockets. Damn. Who'd have thought he got off on the idea of public sex? It was probably a good thing Alix was injured. He kind of liked his job, and really didn't want to get busted for public indecency on Federal property. That probably wouldn't go well. Still, he was smiling at the thought of trying to explain how she'd managed to talk him into it to his superiors. 'Well, you see, Hotch, when a beautiful woman says she wants to jump your bones, you just kind of listen. Yes, I realize we were in a parking garage, but she had this look on her face and I just couldn't resist.' Yeah, that would go over great. He chuckled to himself.

Alix was tired of being injured. Over the course of the past three weeks she had tried to initiate sex four times.

Each time she had been shot down.

It was aggravating the fuck out of her.

She had a calendar up on the fridge, and each day she drew a black 'X' over the corresponding square with a Sharpie marker, leading toward the doctor's appointment where they were going to check up on her healing progress. The day was marked with a big, glittery gold star sticker, and she'd drawn streamers and confetti around it in blue pen.

Once she was cleared, all bets were off: she was tying Spencer to the bed for a day.

That was the thing about sex: as long as you didn't know what you were missing, everything was fine, manageable. However, once you had a steady diet of just the right stuff, it was hard to give it up.

Not that she was just with Spencer for the sex. Truthfully, she'd had better. Spencer was learning, but he wasn't a Jedi master quite yet. It was just…well, Alix liked sex. It was fun, and it felt good, and she liked being close to Spencer like that. Not being able to touch him the way she wanted to, but still seeing him all the time was driving her a little nuts.

…Okay, a lot nuts.

Thank god that she was back at work! Even if it was just desk duty being able to do something other than sit around at home bored stiff was a nice distraction. Then it was only when Spencer spent the night-which was a fair amount of the time-that she felt like a kid with an itchy cast.

Fortunately, he'd been out of town for two nights now hunting down serial killers. The reprieve was strange; she missed him, and yet having her place, her thoughts all to herself was soothing.

He still called every night though to wish her sweet dreams.

It wasn't the same. She had nightmares every night.

"Hi, Ms. Smith," Alix stated, smiling politely at the older black woman that opened the olive green apartment door. She looked tired, as she often did, but she moved with a kind of purpose and determined cheer that the Federal agent admired. Her thick black braids were shot through with gray, and pulled back into a ponytail, and she was wearing her work uniform, the black pants and navy polo shirt that all the employees wore at the diner.

Ms. Smith offered her a grin with her red painted lips. "I thought we went through this, Alix; you call me Cherise. Jenna's in her room minding those plants." She shifted aside and let Alix pass through the doorway into the small kitchen, crowded even more by the scarred wooden dinette set, and the bicycle propped up against the wall. However tiny it was though, the room was still cheerful, painted a bright white with hand-painted flower-and-vine details around the doorways and windows. The butter-colored curtains and walls made the room look brighter than the outside light streaming in from the open windows really allowed. Most of the natural sunshine was blocked by the neighboring buildings; the only room that got really good light was the living room, and Alix suspected that was only from dawn until mid-day. "Pretty soon," Cherise laughed, "There's gonna be a jungle in that room."

Alix chuckled. "But it's a great experiment, right? I'm telling you, she'll get the scholarship."

The woman's face softened. "I know. I say a prayer every night that she will, and I know I've said it before but I want to thank you again for helping her. You've been a great influence, kept her out of trouble these past few years. I don't know what we'd have done without you. I don't know anything about getting into college, applying for scholarships and whatnot. You've really pushed Jenna to try her hardest, and that…that means a lot. It means a lot to me to know that she won't have to raise her kids in a one-bedroom apartment. So, honey, if there's ever anything I can do to return the favor, you let me know." Cherise touched her arm briefly in a gesture as sincere as any hug that Alix had ever gotten, and then moved on to sit at the kitchen table and the window she had cracked open. The dark-skinned woman fished a cigarette out of her purse, and lit it with a cheap plastic lighter.

Alix grinned, and told her, "Well, if you want to thank me, can I grab a cup of coffee?"

Jenna's mom laughed, and waved her hand with the cigarette perched between her index and middle fingers toward the half-full coffee pot on the outdated Formica counter top. "Help yourself."

She already knew which cabinet the mugs were kept in, and Alix poured herself a cup of black coffee. "Thanks, Cherise." The woman lifted her full mug up slightly in a toast.

"No problem, honey. I'm just gonna smoke this, then I'll be out of here. Lock up when you leave, yeah?"

"Yep," the brunette agreed cheerily, slipping quietly through the doorway into the living room. The hideaway bed was tucked into the couch cushions, and the blankets and pillows that Cherise used at night were piled up on the old La-Z-Boy. The shades were open, revealing a rare snatch of almost-unhindered skyline.

That was the thing about volunteering with AGGA. It was good, rewarding work, but it was hard. People who lived in urban sprawl often had a different set of problems. Cherise was a single mom who worked her butt off to make sure that her daughter, Jenna, had more opportunities than she'd ever had. She sacrificed for her kid: Jenna was given the only bedroom in the small apartment, and her interests, her needs took priority over Cherise's. The experiment was costing them, Alix knew, but in the end a successful experiment meant an application to a full-ride scholarship to the school of her choice so long as Jenna majored in the science department. Since Jenna wanted to be a botanist, that worked out well.

It was heartbreaking in some ways to watch them struggle, but the love that existed in their household was strong enough to endure the hardships. In a way, Alix was jealous. Her family had been poor white trash, so she was familiar with the quandary of money troubles. It might have been different if her father hadn't been an abusive alcoholic, if her mother hadn't left her children and taken their money; it might not have been so goddamn hard. Alix hadn't had a Cherise or an Alix or Amazing Girl Genius Association in her life. Maybe if she had her life wouldn't have gotten quite so far off track.

She knocked on Jenna's door.

The young woman called through the solid wood, "Just a second!" Then the door swung wide, revealing Jenna's dark springy curls, and her quiet smile. She reached out to hug Alix, and the woman stepped back hurriedly, one hand held up in defense. "Whoa, girl, I can't hug. I'm injured."

Jenna froze, frowning, and looked carefully at her mentor, dark brown eyes taking in her appearance.

Alix was wearing a black jacket with cropped sleeves, and a white camisole underneath it. The low neck showed the ugly line where she'd been sliced open all those weeks ago, though it had healed enough that the stitches were taken out. She knew what it looked like, angry red with little dots above and below it where the needle had pulled her back together.

Jenna bit her lip, worry in her gaze. "You okay?"

Shrugging, the older woman told her, "Physically, yeah. My ribs are still healing though." It was the closest she'd come to admitting that the episode in Las Vegas had affected her in a way that was going to take some time to get used to.

"Well, come on in," Jenna told her, and stepped aside, "But close the door. I don't want the environment getting compromised." 'The environment' was one of the control variables for the experiment they were running. Jenna was growing tomatoes in her room, the garden set up in huge plant pots around the room with the exception of a few Topsy-Turvy plants hanging from the ceiling.

Technically, they had designed a dual experiment, potted plants versus Topsy-Turvy plants being one of the variables. Each type of plant was then divided into three categories, those watered with regular water, those watered with Miracle-Grow, those with manure in the pots, and finally those with a special mixture that Jenna had designed herself. She charted their growth rates, size and color of the fruit, and taste to determine which method of growing produced optimized fruit. Unfortunately, to do so indoors meant that Jenna had to keep her room relatively warm with the addition of heat lamps, and moist enough that the dry heat from the furnace vents didn't negatively affect the plants.

Cherise wasn't exaggerating when she said the room resembled a jungle.

"Everything looks good," Alix complimented as she perched on the end of Jenna's neatly made twin bed. "I hope you're doing okay with sleeping in here."

Jenna shrugged. "I don't mind it," she commented, sitting down at the wooden chair in front of the desk she used for homework and lab reports, a large corner of it taken up by a monitor and keyboard. There was a tower on the floor that Alix had actually asked Garcia to update for Jenna with more memory and a new disc drive when the original one abruptly died. "I like to think of it as practice for when I'll be tromping through the jungle for real."

Alix grinned.

Her charge's smile fell as she looked at Alix's scar again. "I knew something was up when you canceled on me. You never cancel. What happened?"

The brunette shrugged. "Work hazard. An assignment I was on went sideways. I got my ass handed to me."

"Damn," Jenna sighed and shook her head, the seventeen year old girl giving way to a young woman who had already seen too much devastation in her short life. "Is this the part where you tell me I should've seen the other guy?"

"Hell fuckin' no," Alix drawled, "I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy. It's over now though. That's the important thing. Now, let's see the most recent data you've collected, and then we'll work on finding some more scholarships for you. They won't be worth as much as this one, but every little bit helps."

Jenna nodded and smiled at her. "I know. Hanging all my hopes on this one opportunity would be stupid."

"Competition's stiff," Alix admitted, "But I haven't made any secret about that."

"Yeah, I know," the girl agreed, "You're pretty straight with me. I like that about you…even though you're a skinny white girl from Cali who doesn't like Biggie." They shared a laugh.

"2-Pac all the way," Alix joked, throwing up a west coast sign. "I have to represent." She said the last in an exaggerated 'white-person' tone of voice, carefully enunciating and making her tone a little more nasal than usual.

Jenna cracked up. "Girl, you crazy," she stated between giggles.

Alix crossed off another day on her calendar, and absentmindedly answered her cell phone as it began to ring. "Blackwood," she called into the mouthpiece. "What's up?"

"Hey, stranger," her sister-in-law's voice came over the phone, "What's up with you? Haven't heard from you in awhile."

Sighing, Alix prepared herself for a freak-out, even though she knew she'd have to tell Melissa and Rob eventually. "Sorry about that. I was laid up for a couple weeks. I should have called, I know."

There was a pause and then Mel asked, "Laid up? You mean injured? Jesus Christ, with what? What happened?"

"Work happened." Alix shrugged even though nobody was there to see it, and grabbed a beer from the fridge. She wasn't taking the pain pills anymore, so she could drink again. In fact, now that she thought about it, she hadn't been taking anything for awhile, and her ribs really hadn't hurt much the past couple of days. That was a good sign, she thought.

"Work happened?" Mel replied incredulously. "I hate your job. You should change careers. I hate fucking worrying about you."

"Again?" Alix joked, "I think once was enough." It was a familiar conversation. Melissa was a pretty average girl—grown up in the suburbs, working for her father's company distributing building materials mostly to contractors, married with two kids, and living in a suburb not too far from the one she'd grown up in—and had a hard time understanding why any woman would want to have such dangerous jobs as the ones that Alix seemed to prefer.

Melissa let loose a gusty sigh. "I can't win with you, can I?"

"I'm not my brother," Alix agreed calmly as she popped the cap off the bottle of beer and put the opener back in the utensil drawer.

"No, you really aren't," Mel agreed, her voice laden with exasperation. "Your brother is perfectly content using his college degree to run a fairly profitable family business and going to his kids' baseball games. He does not, insofar as I know, have any wild urges to go out and catch bad guys."

"I did inherit all the adventurousness it seems," Alix laughed and settled down on the couch.

Melissa was quiet for a moment before she huffed, and said, "You're okay now, right?"

"Yep," Alix lied easily, "Healing up just fine. I'm going to the doctor the day after tomorrow to get my ribs x-rayed, and pending the doctor's verdict, going back into the field. The internal investigation was concluded pretty fast. There was video evidence that it was self-defense."

Mel gasped. "Holy fuck, did…did you kill somebody?"

Alix could have slapped herself. "Ah, shit, I didn't mean to say that. Sorry, Mel, forget it; it just slipped out. Highlight and hit delete." She turned on the TV, but kept the volume low enough that she could still hear her sister speak clearly, simply losing herself in the pretty pictures.

"I…I don't know what to say," she responded tremulously.

"Don't say anything," Alix suggested with false cheer.

"Okay," Mel drew the word out longer than necessary. When she spoke again it was decidedly brisk and with more of an effort to sound chipper. "So what are you doing this weekend? Any plans?"


"No hot date?" her sister-in-law wondered, "What happened to that guy you were seeing?"


Mel made a noise of agreement.

"I'm still seeing him," she said.

"Great!" Melissa cheered, "You can bring him to the barbecue on Saturday."

Pausing, Alix searched her memory for any prior knowledge of such an event. Coming up empty-handed, she asked, "Uh, what barbecue?"

"Well," Melissa began, "We asked Andrew what he wanted to do for his birthday this year, and he said he wanted to have a barbecue. He was really upset when we pointed out that it was already getting colder, and by the time we reached his actual birthday it probably would be too cold for that. You know Andrew—he started crying—and you know Rob—he can't deal with that. So Rob made him a deal: we'd pick a nice weekend now and he could invite his friends from school, and we'd have the party ahead of time, then when his actual birthday came up we'd do something quiet with just the family. Your mom won't be here this weekend as it's not technically required, but it would still be nice if you'd show up. The boys miss their Aunt Alix. So please say you'll come. You can bring your boyfriend, and help keep me sane when the children invade."

"Of course I'll come," Alix told her, her voice making it clear that she was stupid to think that Alix would do otherwise, "And truthfully it'll be easier for me if I don't have to see Valerie. You know she makes me insane."

"I know," Mel sighed. "To be honest, I'm glad she's not coming either. I know she's your guys' mom, but I can't stand that woman. Rob fucking dotes on her even though she has to be reminded of her grandchildren's birthdays, and half the time doesn't bother to show up to family functions, and she's always dropping hints about how she needs money."

"Do not let Rob loan her money," Alix barked emphatically.

"I know, I know," Melissa quickly placated her. "I've made it perfectly clear to him that he is not to do so. I don't know what the hell she spends it all on because she's not wearing any designer labels whenever I see her and her house is in a pathetic state of disrepair. The only thing she's got worth any money is that car of hers."

"Her mid-life crisis car?" Alix chuckled humorlessly.

"The one and only," her sister agreed.

"She gambles a lot," the brunette admitted, sliding her hair behind her ear on the other side of her face, "And last I saw her and really spoke to her, she was into party drugs. Uppers, mostly."

"Does Rob know?" Melissa wondered.

"I have no idea. We don't talk about mom and dad. You know us, our relationship; most of the time we're pretty copacetic. The only time we really fight is when we start talking about mom and dad."

"You know," Mel hesitated, but then when she continued her voice was thick with anger, "Rob's told me a lot about your dad. If that man was still alive, I'd beat him to death with a skillet."

Snorting, Alix told her, "No, you wouldn't. He was a mean son of a bitch, but he was big and tough. Even Rob was afraid of him."

Her brother's wife exhaled slowly. Finally, she said in a defeated tone of voice, "I suppose you're right."

"Usually am," Alix responded as she took a gulp out of the sweating bottle of beer she'd been holding in her lap. "So I'll see you Saturday," she said after she'd swallowed, wanting to get off the line and away from the melancholic turn the conversation had taken.

"Yes," Melissa agreed, sounding like she'd just snapped to attention.

"Bye, Mel."

"Bye, Alix."

The apartment seemed too quiet after she'd set her cell phone down on the coffee table, ringing with the echoes of memory. The slurred roar of her father's voice when he came home drunk and wanted to fight with somebody too weak to defend themselves, the sting of his hand, the sound of her own cries, of her mother's cries, of her brother's cries the few times he'd tried to defend the woman that Alix now refused to call anything but 'Valerie;' she didn't deserve to be 'mom.' Alix wasn't sure what was worse, the memory of his dismissive sneer that was only ever aimed at his wife, and then later his daughter, or the times when she had his attention and waited with sick dread for the inevitable explosion.

She turned the volume up on the TV louder than it needed to be, and tried to immerse herself in the fantasies it projected.

That night the nightmares were worse, Marie Coolidge's face morphing from its harsh beauty to her own more elfin looks and then changing entirely to those of a man. Her father's green eyes shot venom in her direction, and his hands were huge, monstrously huge. He took his belt off, and she was fourteen again, small and terrified, bent in supplication. Her skin sang with the heat of repeated lashings, pain pulsing along her nerves. There would be bruises, and she would hide them, and no one would ever know what went on behind the closed doors in their home. She would pretend because that was how she survived, locked away inside her own head.

Alix screamed, really screamed that night, so loud that she woke herself up, and she may have cried but if she did, she wouldn't admit it.

The rest of the night was passed at the kitchen table with an easel and paints and a very old canvas that would never be finished. It was black and red and brown and puke green, heavily textured. That night she added violet and blue and the yellowing of a faded bruise. Somewhere in all the confusion she painted a very tiny image of a body doubled over, arms outstretched, reaching for salvation that never came.

Two days later, she was perched on the edge of the exam table in the doctor's office wearing another fucking atrocious hospital gown. She had been waiting for twenty minutes after they took x-rays, and was growing impatient.

Her phone rang, and she fished it out of her purse, wondering idly if her reception was going to be any good buried this far in the building. "Hey," she answered, smiling outright because of the name on the display.

"Hi." Spencer's voice echoed slightly in her ear, but she figured that was just because of her location, like she'd anticipated. He sounded happy enough, but tired. "I just wanted to call and let you know that we're on our way back."

"Oh, that's good," Alix replied. "This was a tough one, hey?"

"Yes," the analytical Dr. Reid answered her, but would say nothing more. "Anyway, I just wanted to let you know because I'm pretty exhausted, so I'm just going to spend the night at my place. I know we haven't seen each other in awhile, but I think if I don't get a full night of sleep I'm going to start micro-napping."

"That bad? Yeesh! Yeah, definitely go straight home. Get some rest. If you're—" The doctor stepped back in the room, a short, balding older man with a European accent, and he was holding her chart in his hands. He looked dwarfed by his lab coat, and she was reminded of children playing dress-up. "Shit, can you hold on a sec? I'm at the doctor, and I'm about to find out what's up with my ribs."

"No problem," Spencer responded, and she took the phone away from her ear for a little bit.

"So, doc, give it to me straight," Alix demanded with a bright smile on her face.

The doctor looked up from her charts, and told her, "You seem to be healing nicely. Barring any unforeseen complications, you should be fully healed in another month."

"A month?" she shouted, and then clapped a hand over her mouth when she remembered that Spencer was on the line and had probably heard her indignant shriek loud and clear.

The experienced physician gave her a wan smile, completely unruffled by her outburst. "A month," he calmly reiterated, "You see, at this point your ribs are mostly healed, but they are still weak. A hard knock would easily re-break them. You can go back to your normal routine, but you should take care not to put any unnecessary stress on yourself. In short, you can engage in light physical activity, but nothing like sparring or hand to hand combat. No chasing down bad guys, Ms. Blackwood."

She slumped a little.

Seeing her disappointment, the doctor told her, "I'm sorry, but this is just the way the human body works. Give it time to heal, Ms. Blackwood. I really don't want to see you here again for another month, when we perform what should be your last check-up. You make my staff nervous."

Alix grinned fiercely. "Thanks, doc. I try." She knew that she wasn't the best patient in the world, that doctors and needles and waiting rooms made her edgy. Unfortunately, some of that leaked over onto the staff, resulting in a bad attitude on her part, and wary nurses on theirs. Of course, she liked to think that she was just livening up their days a little, and the squat nurse who worked the front desk with the thinning blonde hair kept tied in a tight queue always gave her a sucker as she left—her favorite was the mystery wrapper; Alix liked being surprised, at least when it came to sucker flavors. Anyway, she couldn't be that hated if they were giving her candy, right?

He smiled ruefully and left the exam room shaking his head.

Raising the phone up to her ear again, Alix asked, "Spence? You still there?"

"I am," he replied.

"Heard that?" she wondered.

"Some," Spencer admitted. "I take it you're on light duty for awhile?"

"Fuck my life," she groaned. "I don't know how I'm gonna survive. I'm so bored!" Her hand slapped the exam table, and the paper made a loud pap against the vinyl. Spencer sighed, but before he could say anything else she continued on. "Anyway, if you're feeling up to it tomorrow, my brother and sister-in-law are having a barbecue, and they invited us. I'm going regardless—they're celebrating my nephew's birthday like a month early—but attendance is optional for you."

"Your brother?" Spencer replied, his voice sounding faint and far away.

Alix chortled at his expense. "Yeah, my brother. Don't worry; he's not going to grill you or anything. Ha, grill. Get it?"

"Oh god," the great and powerful Dr. Reid whimpered.

"Seriously, it's no big deal," Alix tried to reassure him, a little worried by the panic he was displaying. She just didn't think meeting her brother was that scary of a thing. Truth be told, Rob was kind of a pussy. Melissa was the one that Spencer should have been worried about. She was like one of those olden-day female assassins, slipping poison in your drink while she sat there across from you and smiled pretty, and then calmly watched while you choked and died.

"I'll, uh, I'll call you beforehand. What time is the party?" he asked.

Alix would have laid down money that he wasn't going to call, but she answered him anyway. "Starts at one in the afternoon, and I should get there a little early to help set up. It's an hour drive so we'd have to leave by eleven, eleven-thirty-ish." Hesitating, Alix told him, "Spencer, you don't have to come if you're really uncomfortable. I just thought I would extend the invitation."

"No, I know," he said quickly, "I'm just not sure if I'll be up for it. I'll call you early in the morning and let you know how I'm feeling."

For an agent, he was a terrible liar, at least when it came to this. She wasn't sure if she'd ever want to play cards with a guy who could calculate the odds in a nanosecond though. Reid was always curiously blank-faced when he was doing math. "My brother's not going to beat you up for boffing me," she repeated again just in case he hadn't gotten the message the first time around. Maybe that time it would sink in, breaking through the paranoia that he was clearly wrapping himself up in.

His response was a weak, "He played football, right?"

"In college," she scoffed. "I guarantee that you can outrun him should you need to. He's got a bum knee, and a bad hip."

Reid made a quiet sound of affirmation, and then abruptly said, "I've got to go. We're getting ready for take-off."

"Bye, Spencer," she cooed, smothering her laughter and her disappointment.

"Bye," he replied quickly.

The call ended, Alix got off of the exam table and started pulling on her clothes. As she was leaving the doctor's office, she whimpered to herself. "Another month?"

Reid woke up at seven in the morning, his tired mind informing him that something was just not right. The silence in his apartment was disturbing, and the only warmth in the bed was accumulated from his own body heat. He hadn't realized just how accustomed he was to sharing a bed now.

His body was not programmed to sleep in, which was unfortunate because he actually could have used a few more hours lying down. His insistent bladder pushed him out of bed, and when he was finished in the bathroom, Spencer went to the kitchen, put the coffee on, and poured himself a bowl of cereal while he waited.

He knew he probably shouldn't be so hesitant to meet Alix's brother. Alix kept telling him that her brother wasn't the type to harass her dates, but Spencer wondered if maybe he just did it whenever Alix wasn't in the room and it was for that reason that he was waffling on whether or not he should accept the invite. Besides, meeting the family was like…a big deal, colloquially, wasn't it? That was the impression he was laboring under anyway, and as it didn't seem like Alix was going to introduce him to her parents, meeting her brother, Rob, was probably the closest he was going to get to that.

And if he met her family did that then mean he was obligated to introduce her to his? He couldn't really picture dragging her all the way out to Vegas—and good god, who knew if she'd even want to after what happened there—to meet his mom at the sanitarium. Besides, his mom didn't always react well to strangers. It depended on how good of a day she was having, and that was almost always up in the air. Plus maybe if Alix saw his mom, a tiny voice piped up in the back of his head, saw how awful the schizophrenia was, she'd begin to have doubts about Spencer. Yeah, she said he wasn't going to go crazy and whatnot, but as the saying went, talk was cheap. Maybe after some first-hand experience she'd change her mind, decide he wasn't worth the risk after all.

On the other hand, if he didn't go she might take that as a sign that he wasn't as interested as he really was. It may form a wedge between them and turn into one of those things that grows and festers, and then takes over.

Spencer laid his head on the breakfast counter, letting the coolness from the tile heat under his skin. The drip on the coffee pot slowed, so he slipped off the chair and went to pour himself a mug with two spoonfuls of sugar and some milk. It took two cups of coffee, but eventually he made up his mind to go. Picking up his cell phone, he called Alix a little after eight o' clock. She answered by grunting into the phone, and growling, "What?"

"Uh, hey," Spencer began, "Good morning."

A lingering silence settled between them during which he heard some shuffling and cursing, and knew that she was probably reaching for her alarm clock to check the time. "Goddamn," she sighed, "It should not be morning yet."

"I agree," he shot back lightly.

"Mm, so go back to bed," she grumped. "I've got some time before I have to get ready. Enough for another hour or two of precious, precious sleep." He heard her sigh over the phone, and the sound of sheets moving.

"You're already up," he pointed out. "You won't go back to bed now."

"Fuck you and your deductive skills," Alix shot back, but he knew better than to take offense. She really did not like to be woken up. "You don't know. I could roll over and fall back asleep right now." A fake snore traveled over the airwaves, and he chuckled.

"I'll meet you at your place around eleven," he told her.

"You will?" she blurted out, unable to hide the surprise in her tone.

Spencer winced. Obviously she'd already assumed from his panic on the phone yesterday that he wasn't going to show up. "Yeah," he responded, trying to sound calm and matter-of-fact about it. "Do I need to bring a present?"

Alix hesitated. "I have an extra one. I was going to give it to Andy on his actual birthday, but if you want, you can give it to him."

"What is it?" Spencer found himself asking. If he was going to pass off a gift as something he bought, it should at least be feasible. Alix, as his aunt, might have bought him clothes. Since Spencer didn't actually know the boy, that would be kind of an odd gift for him to give.

"It's, ah, it's a rocket building kit. I bought it thinking that he and I could put it together one weekend at my brother's place. They'll never do it, but they don't care if I supervise the questionable activities." She laughed.

Of course Alix wouldn't get him something so boring as clothes though, Spencer chided himself. What had he been thinking? "What are you going to give him on his actual birthday then?"

He could almost see her shrugging her shoulders in that careless way she had. "I'll get him something else. Maybe a skateboard. His parents would love that." They shared a laugh, and then Alix went on talking, "It's really not a big deal. I'll wrap it up in the comics right now. It'll take me two seconds."

"Alright," he agreed, "But only because I wouldn't begin to know where to start shopping for him, and I'm sure you'd like to get there sometime today. So just tell me how much I owe you for the kit."

"It was only twelve dollars," she told him, "An easy loss. You don't have to pay me for it."

"I kind of do," Spencer replied. "That way at least I can say with a straight face that I bought your nephew a birthday present."

He surprised a laugh out of Alix, and her sharp, low bark made him pause as his brain analyzed that sound. It was a hairsbreadth away from the kind of laughter she had when she was turned on: low, dark, sensual. A quick pulse of lust fired through him, which he quickly smothered like a fire before it caught aflame. Light duty, he reminded himself.

"Alright, fine, whatever. Give me the twelve dollars and we'll call it even. So I'll see you at eleven?" she asked abruptly.

"Yes." Idly, he noted that his voice was a little lower pitch than usual, growing throaty. Alix didn't seem to notice it, which he rather thought was kind of a good thing. She would only be more persistent if she knew what he was thinking.

"Good. Later," she called and hung up the phone, and that time there was a distinctly pleased note in her sing-song farewell.

Alix's brother and sister-in-law lived in a two-story colonial house in an older suburb of Leesburg, Virginia. The classic design was updated a little due to the brown brick siding. The front door was cherry wood, and the shutters were a deep forest green. A six-foot tall wood fence surrounded the back yard starting from the side of the attached garage, whose door matched the green shutters, and wrapping all the way around to the other side of the house. It looked picturesque, like some little girl's idea of the American Dream, Spencer thought as Alix put her car in park right in front of the garage on the right hand side. He assumed that was to leave room for other cars to park in the driveway.

He stepped out of the passenger side door, grabbing the bag with the presents from the back seat. Between the two of them it was an acknowledged fact that Alix's car got much better gas mileage than his ancient station wagon, and since it was her car and her destination, they agreed that it was more logical for her to drive. Some men might have had a problem with that, but Spencer didn't really care who drove. In fact, he preferred being driven. Heavy traffic made him nervous, which was why he usually took public transportation in the city.

"So, this is it," Spencer breathed aloud, and there was more nerves in his words than he wanted there to be.

Alix glanced at him and grinned sardonically across the low hood of her Toyota. She looked very pretty that day, he thought, and was distracted from his anxiety for a moment as he looked at her; her eyes the color of spring grass, wide, and with the little tilt at the corners accented by a touch of eyeliner. He knew because she hadn't been quite ready when he'd shown up, and then they'd lost some time saying hello to one another. In the end, he'd sat on the closed toilet lid in the bathroom and they'd talked while she did her make-up. She hadn't put on much, and Spencer realized that she never really did unless she was going out late at night and wanted to look dramatic. A little eyeliner and mascara, and a touch of neutral-pink lip stain, and she was done. Such minute changes, but they had the right effect, calling attention to her eyes, which he privately thought was one of her best features, certainly something he'd noticed right off the bat.

Her eyebrow quirked when he stared a little too long, and she stepped around the car wordlessly, a sway in her hips that said she knew he was watching her and her body was responding to his gaze with a nonverbal invitation of its own. It wasn't like she was wearing anything overtly sexual, but he found himself devouring the sight of her anyway. It was just a sundress, a white sundress with black stem-and-leaf patterns on it. At the very bottom there was a border of huge, bright pink flowers. When he'd first stared she had grown self-conscious and told him, 'It's a barbecue. I figured I should make some effort. Besides, it's nice enough outside today.' Her only concession to the season was a black sweater with cropped sleeves that she still hadn't buttoned up. Her legs were displayed wonderfully, encased in sheer skin-colored hose, ending in flat black dress shoes. He had been totally distracted by the long length of her thigh and the lacy top of her thigh-high as she drove with her skirt hiked up a ways the entire way there.

It wasn't that Alix wasn't normally beautiful. Spencer thought she was always beautiful, even as battered as she'd been in the hospital. However, it was rare that she made such an effort, and he never saw her wear dresses, not ever. It was a thoroughly new sight for him, and he was taking it in.

Alix's arms linked around his neck, and she stretched up on her toes, pulling him down to her for a long, gentle kiss. "Do you think I look gorgeous today?" she asked in a near whisper when they had pulled away by mutual decision.

"Yes, I do," he agreed, his arms loose around her waist, voice dipping into seductive tones again.

Her smile was resplendent. "Thank you," she said, and stepped away from him, but reached back to take his hand. "Now come on, and let's go inside."

They walked up to the front door, and she pulled open the screen door, pounding a cursory knock on the front door before she walked right in, dragging Spencer behind her like a recalcitrant puppy on a leash. He wasn't sure if they should just walk in like that, didn't think it was very appropriate. They were guests, after all.

Alix raised her voice, calling out, "Hey, I'm here! Where's everybody at?"

"Auntie Alix!" came the resounding chorus, and the sound of feet slapping against tile. Two boys came careening out of a doorway, and Alix dropped his hand, sinking gracefully to one knee, arms open. She managed to lock her arms when they flung themselves at her, holding them away from her long enough to suck the impact out of their charge and protecting her midsection, then she tugged them in close, their little arms wound around her neck.

"Hey, guys!" she laughed. "It's been awhile. Jeez, you get bigger every time I see you."

The older boy disentangled himself first, grinning and dancing back. He had a look of mischief in his eyes that Spencer recognized from his aunt. "Hi, Auntie. We missed you," Andrew began, but rattled on excitedly before she could even respond, "I grew an inch, and won second place in the spelling bee."

"You lost because you forgot the 'y' in crayon," his brother announced with a hint of smugness, pulling away from Alix's shoulder, though he kept an arm looped over her back as she did him.

"Shut up," Andy shouted.

"You shut up!" the younger boy shot back.

Alix pinched her nephew's waist lightly to get his attention. "How about you both shut up?" she suggested lightly, "I don't want to play referee today, and Colin, you know your mom will send you to your room if she catches you picking on your brother at his own party."

"Yeah," Andy snidely backed up his aunt, sticking out his tongue at the younger boy.

"Good god," Alix sighed and stood up, hoisting her younger nephew with her. "I can't believe you're at it already." The last was said almost under her breath. When she glanced around she caught Spencer's amused gaze, and shrugged sheepishly. "Siblings," she said like that explained it all, and to her mind it probably did. To Spencer, who was an only child and had no experience in that realm, it seemed an inadequate explanation. "Boys," she turned to her nephews, "I want to introduce you to somebody. This is—"

"Santa Claus?" Andy chortled.

"Ronald McDonald?" Colin continued, following his older brother's lead.


"The Pink Panther?" Colin squealed excitedly and wiggled in his aunt's arms.

She set him down quickly, frowning. "Close, but no cigar. This is my friend, Spencer."

The boys looked at him curiously. Spencer gave them a little wave and said, "Hi."

"Hi," they chorused.

"Spence," Alix continued, "These are my nephews, Andrew and Colin. In case you get confused, Andy is the troublemaker, and Colin is usually the one who takes the fall for Andy's schemes. Curse of the younger sibling, I think. My brother did the same thing to me. 'Hey, Ali, you know what'll be fun? You get in this garbage can and I'll push you down the hill. Then you can do it to me!' Only after I almost got hit by a car, Rob decided that was not a good game to play." Both little boys laughed, and behind them a deeper, older version of the same laugh joined in.

A man came out of the swinging kitchen door, and he knew that it must be Alix's brother. They had the same hair, sleek caps of dark brown, and even though Alix dyed hers frequently and it wasn't quite the same shade as her brother's natural color, they still looked similar enough. They even had the same eye shape and long lashes, though her brother's eyes were blue instead of green. He was also taller than her, closer to Spencer's height, and broad in the shoulders with a hint of stubble on his cheeks. He was wearing jeans and flannel shirt, and looked like a man's man type of guy. "I never would have done anything if I thought it would actually get you hurt," the man argued, though there was a dimple on his cheek as he grinned unrepentantly.

When the boys turned to look at their father, Alix quickly flipped off her older brother. He just laughed and strode forward, extending a hand to Spencer. "Hi, I'm Rob, Ali's brother."

He made himself shake it even though he preferred not to shake hands often. Spencer figured it might help make a better first impression. It was the socially acceptable form of greeting, after all, and people, men in particular, judged each other's characters by the strength of their first handshake. As Alix would say, he didn't want to look like a pussy in front of Alix's brother. "Hi, Spencer, Alix's…"

Alix snorted and supplied the word, "Boyfriend. He's my boyfriend, who is terrified of meeting you because he thinks you're going to bust out a shotgun."

"Well," Rob drawled playfully, dropping Spencer's hand, "Now that you mention it, I was going to show you my collection." After a second of frightfully good poker-face, he burst out laughing. "Oh, man, you should've seen your face." The older man slapped his knees, still chortling.

His sister, of course, joined him in cheerfully poking fun at her boyfriend, and stated, "Seriously, Spence, for a second there you looked like you were gonna bolt." Her laughter was lighter though, less raucous, and she gripped his hand, squeezing gently so that he knew she wasn't trying to be mean.

Rob straightened up and told him with a grin, "Trust me, my sister doesn't need me to get out the shotgun. She is way scarier than me."

Alix stuck her pierced tongue out at him, and he responded in kind.

A voice came from the kitchen. "Where's my sis?" a woman yelled.

"She's stressed," Rob whispered conspiratorially to the brunette on Spencer's arm.

"Of course," Alix snapped back in her 'duh' voice. She disentangled herself from them, walking toward the kitchen. "I'll go help. Rob, don't make my boyfriend cry. I'll beat you up," she warned as the door swung closed behind her.

Sometime while he was being introduced to Rob, the boys had disappeared in the sneaky way that children often have. Spencer glanced around, desperate for a distraction. The living room was pretty big with a brick fireplace at one end, and an upright piano shoved into a corner. The room was decorated in shades of green—hunter, sage, and something with a little more yellow in it—with gray accents. It was a little feminine, but not overly so. Desperate for something to say, he was about to open his mouth to comment on the décor of all things, when Rob saved him and stated, "Come on, I'll give you a tour of the downstairs." As they were walking through the living room to the wide wooden doorway—not the swinging kitchen door, Spencer noted—Alix's brother asked, "So how did you meet my sister?"

"Ah—" Spencer hesitated.

"Wait, let me guess," Rob laughed, "It'll be more fun. This is the dining room. As you can see, we've prepared to host a bunch of pint-sized mess-makers today." His words held true, because as Spencer looked around he noticed that the long table, wooden from what he could see of the legs, was covered with a plastic tablecloth, and underneath it was some kind of plastic rug, sparing the cream colored carpeting from most spills. There was a small pile of presents on one end of the table, and Spencer added theirs to the mix. A happy birthday banner was tacked up on one wall, and balloons and streamers were clustered in every available corner. "We're going to try to eat outside at the picnic table, but just in case the weather takes a sudden turn, we've got a back-up plan."

"You sound like you've done this before," Spencer chuckled, "Like you're organizing a battle plan or something."

"Not a bad analogy," Rob agreed with a thoughtful look on his face, "A birthday party is kind of like Invasion of the Tiny Destroyers. You have to set up your line of defense. Make a plan, make a back-up plan, and make a back-up back-up-plan just in case."

"Honey, where are you?" The same woman called, sounding harried.

"Oh god," Rob blanched. Louder, he replied, "I'm giving Spencer a tour!" and started guiding him toward a plain wooden door with quick, urgent shoves. "Go, go!" Alix's brother hissed at him.

Hurriedly opening the door, Spencer stepped through only to find himself looking at a minivan and a sedan. "What—" he began asking, but found himself cut off as Rob quickly shut the door and walked over to a workbench taking up the front end of the garage.

The older man heaved a sigh of relief. "Man, you will not believe how many times today my wife has taken a strip out of my hide already. I'm so glad that we don't have to do this again until the spring. Colin's birthday isn't until May," Rob told him absently, fishing a pack of cigarettes out of a red toolbox and lighting up. He popped open another door in the garage and leaned against the jamb.

Spencer smelled fresh air and grass, and saw some kind of stone patio.

"The back yard," Rob explained, noticing his gaze. "One of the doors that goes out there anyway. There's a door in the kitchen too, and a patio door in the family room."

"Ah, I see," Spencer replied, though he really didn't. He had no idea why they were in the garage except that apparently Rob was hiding from his wife.

"So, anyway, let's see…Okay, well, I know Ali, so I'm betting you met at a bar," Rob stated surely, and blew his cigarette smoke outside. "I'm not allowed to smoke in the house," he confided to Spencer, "but Mel doesn't care if I smoke in the garage, just not around the kids."

"Where'd they go anyway?" Spencer asked.

Shrugging, Alix's brother replied, "Probably upstairs, maybe in the family room. They'll want to stay inside though so they can be close when people start arriving."

"First on the scene," Spencer mused.

"You got it."

"Aren't you worried about them answering the door?" he asked automatically.

Rob glanced at him for a long time, and then just shrugged. "They check to see who it is first, and they know everybody who's coming. If it's a stranger, they'll get me or Mel. We've got 'em trained."

"Isn't that…a little dangerous?" Reid replied hesitantly, but bit off the urge to start spouting kidnapping statistics. The last thing he needed was for Alix's brother to give him that look—the one people gave him whenever they thought he was being a supercilious little prig. "You know, kidnappers and everything."

Rob blew smoke out of his nose like some great dragon, and lifted his shoulders in another shrug. "If you spend your whole life worrying about everything that could happen, you'll go crazy. We do our best, teach our kids to be cautious and use their better judgment, and we pray to god that nothing bad happens despite all that. That's really all you can do."

Just then the garage door opened, the one that led into the house, and Alix poked her head out, hissing, "Get your ass in here, and calm your woman. One of Andy's friends showed up early, and she's not done frosting the cake yet. You'd think somebody had just dropped a ticking time-bomb in her lap, and she only had thirty seconds to deactivate it." Her eyes lit on Spencer, and she grinned. "Hiding out in the batcave already, eh?"

He shrugged, and offered her a sheepish smile. "Your brother was pretty insistent."

Alix leveled a playful glare at Rob. "Stop bullying my boyfriend. Come on, Spence, I'll introduce you to Mel. And put that damn cigarette out before you stink up the house." That was the second time she'd called him her boyfriend in front of her brother. Hm.

Rob chuckled and flipped her the bird.

Reid, as he followed Alix back in the house and shut the garage door behind him, wondered idly if that was a fairly typical sibling relationship, or if they were really as weird as he thought they were.

On the opposite end of the dining room there was another swinging kitchen door that Reid hadn't noticed before, and Alix pushed through ahead of him calling out a warning just in case Melissa was behind the door for some odd reason. The woman in question was standing with her back to them at the counter wielding an icing cone. The first thing Spencer noticed about her was how tiny she was. He'd thought that Alix was fairly petite; her sister-in-law looked to be not only shorter than her, but also small and delicate like a fairy. Her hair was strawberry blonde, and cropped short like Audrey Hepburn.

When she finished whatever she was making with the icing, Melissa turned, the worry lines between her high, arching eyebrows smoothing away. She was freckled—very freckled—and for some reason he noticed it more when she smiled, her cheeks lifting up and drawing attention to the freckles up high on her face. She wasn't unattractive though. On the contrary, she was very pretty. "Hello there, you must be Spencer. I'm Melissa."

"Hi, Melissa," he began with an answering grin, "Yes, I'm Spencer. It's nice to meet you."

"You too," she chirped, and waved the icing cone a little. "I hope you don't mind if I don't offering to shake your hand. I have to finish making this dinosaur cake. And before you even say anything, Alix—"

Sure enough out of the corner of his eye he saw Alix's mouth snap closed.

"—I know I could have just ordered a damn cake, but it's not the same. Andy wanted a cake with a stegosaurus on it. All they had was a T-Rex," Melissa finished and turned back around to her masterpiece. She consulted a piece of paper left lying next to the cake, and then began to wield her medium of choice once again. "So, Spencer, have a seat at the breakfast counter, why don't you? Do you want something to drink?"

"There's plenty of orange and white soda," Alix dryly intoned.

Grinning at her, he slipped onto one of the comfortable stools on the opposite side of the counter. There was a dog bed in the corner, and food bowls next to the back door, and he wondered where the dog was. He hadn't heard a peep since they'd been there. "A soda's fine. Whatever you have," he replied.

"Alix," Melissa said. That was all, but apparently she got the drift because a second later his girlfriend was rummaging in the fridge. When she returned it was with a can of coke in one hand, and a can of Miller High Life in the other. She offered him the soda with a "here ya go," and hopped up onto the other chair, popping the top on the beer. "It's a little early for that, don't you think?" her sister-in-law asked pointedly.

Grinning cheekily, Alix replied, "I'm relaxing for the both of us."

Just then her brother came in the kitchen, glanced at Alix, and said, "Good idea." He too grabbed a beer out of the fridge.

Mel sighed, wiping her cheek on her shoulder, and asked rhetorically, "What am I going to do with you two?"

"Give us something to set on fire?" Alix cackled.

"Something to blow up?" Rob added.

Alix gasped. "Even better; something that will make pretty colors as it blows up?"

Rob glanced over at her and stated with obvious relish, "I can't wait for Fourth of July."

"Me either!" his girlfriend crowed and raised her palm. Brother and sister high-fived, and then Alix continued, "A toast to things that go boom!"

"Here, here!" Rob echoed her sentiment, and they clinked cans and chugged.

Spencer looked around at them all, at the defiant siblings, and the lovingly exasperated look on Melissa's face, and thought back to meeting Andy and Colin, and the brothers' performance in the entry way, and he started laughing. When all of the other adults turned astonished faces to him, he flushed and took a sip of coke, then admitted as his laughter sputtered back to life, "You guys are so funny."

Alix pinched his cheek teasingly and drawled, "Hey, mister, watch it. Remember, I'm the one who sexes you up. Don't make fun of me."

He laughed harder, and she tugged him close and chastely kissed him right there in front of her brother and his wife. Spencer stopped laughing.

"Yuck," Rob groaned, and threw a fistful of mini-pretzels at his sister. "Let's keep it PG up in here. There's kids running around here."

"And children masquerading as adults," Mel put in, her voice laden with amusement.

"Speaking of, where are the kids?" Rob asked, taking another drink from his can.

"In the family room," Melissa replied.

"They're watching Jurassic Park," Alix added helpfully.

"Jurassic Park!" Melissa shouted.

Both Alix and Rob rolled their eyes. "Dude, it's not that bad of a movie," she drawled, "Those kids have seen worse on the Disney channel."

"Besides, I've already let them watch it before," Rob added.

Melissa huffed. "Fine, it can stay on for now, but I better not get any complaints from Tim's mom that I let her son watch Jurassic Park."

"He seemed cool with it," Alix shrugged, "Said his mom's let him watch it before too."

"Did it ever occur to you that he was lying?" Melissa asked in tightly leashed irritation.

"Sure, it did," Alix chortled. "That's why I asked him how it ends. I'm not stupid, Mel. Just because I don't have kids doesn't mean I don't know how they think." She made a face at her sister-in-law's back.

Rob just grinned when Melissa's protestations subsided into silence and kissed his wife on the back on her neck. "I'm going to go see if the boys want something to snack on while they wait." The doorbell rang. "Nevermind, I'm going to get the door," he swiftly changed his mind, heading out the other swinging kitchen doorway, the one that led out to the living room and the foyer.

Alix drained the last of her beer, and slid her hand up onto his knee.

He covered her palm with his own, and they shared a secret smile. Warmth suffused him.

Maybe this is what home feels like, Spencer thought to himself.

Spencer's ears were ringing, but it was the good kind of ringing, if there was such a thing; nothing that precipitated a headache at any rate. He was overwrought with the sound of screeches and laughter. By the time everyone had arrived, Andy's guest list was up at six children. Rob grilled hamburgers and hot dogs, and the kids all ran around outside and played pirates and dinosaurs—whose rules were still incomprehensible after he'd casually observed them for half an hour-on the jungle gym until Melissa called them inside to open presents. The rocket was a hit, as Alix had clearly known it would be. She'd also gotten Andy a model car that he could build by himself. Apparently, he really liked making things. After that there was cake and ice cream, and Alix almost got a chair backed into her fragile torso. He'd quietly insisted that she leave the serving to the other adults after that, and surprisingly she'd agreed with him.

Once the kids had burned off their sugar highs playing party games, and beating the crap out of a piñata, and some of the parents began to arrive, Alix sat in the family room and told a story to her nephews and two of Andy's friends about a ragtag group of dinosaurs. He listened long enough to realize that she was snagging bits of the plot from The Land Before Time, and merging it with the show Dinosaurs and what he thought was The Fifth Element, which was one of Alix's favorite movies. He'd seen it three times since they started dating.

He walked into the living room, eyes roving over the family portraits. The butler door to the kitchen was propped open, and he could hear Melissa and Rob talking quietly, barely audible over the din as they cleaned up. There were the boys' school pictures, and a big family portrait taken a few years ago. Colin only looked about three or four in it. He moved on, lingering on the family shots, and got to the ones with Alix in them. She always looked happy in them except when there was a certain blonde-haired blue-eyed woman in them. Then there was a pinched look about her eyes and mouth as she smiled and tried to pretend.

The older photos were up in collages: Melissa with her family, and Rob with his. Most of the pictures were just him and his sister, though occasionally there would be pictures of the blonde-haired woman, and even rarer still a tall, dark-haired man with an imposing look on his face and an ever-present drink in his hand. There was one picture that Spencer kept coming back to, obviously an impromptu shot. They were standing on their front lawn. The man had a drink in his hand full of amber liquid and a cigar chomped between his teeth, and was sitting a little to the left of the middle of the front steps. The blonde woman was balancing a basket of laundry on her hip, half-turned as she tried to go up the steps, a small grin tugging up the lips in a face that simply looked too tired to smile all the way. Alix was standing next to the man with her hands clasped in front of her, and she looked tense and uncomfortable, though her lips were quirked upward as well. Her hair was long, and a rich brown like the man with the drink in his hand. She was wearing a uniform, a plaid skirt and white button-down with matching tights. A younger version of her brother had an arm thrown over her shoulder, and was grinning widely, showing his teeth. He was the only one whose smile looked genuine.

"That was a good day for me."

Rob's voice startled him, and he jumped and spun to face him guiltily.

The other man just gave him a sad little smile. His eyes slid back to the picture. "I'd just found out that I had gotten a football scholarship to UCLA. My girlfriend at the time, Kelly, took a picture when I got home to tell my parents. She wanted to be a photographer." Rob sighed, and stuffed his hands in his pockets. "Unfortunately, it was a bad day for my sister. She'd come home late because she had detention, and the teacher called home. Apparently, she'd gotten in an argument with a nun about the doctrine of the Lord. It wasn't what she did that was important though. It was that my dad had to come and pick my sister up from school when she knew that he was going out with his buddies."

"What happened?" Spencer asked when Rob fell silent; ignoring the terrible burning in his gut that told him he already knew the answer to his question.

Rob looked away from the picture, met Spencer's eyes as though he was surprised to note that he had a captive audience, and finally shrugged. "My dad whooped her ass. He was a hard man to like. Mom got the worst of it, of course, but when she left he turned his focus to Ali. She was the only one still living there, so you know…of course that's what happened. Then she ran away for like, a year, and nobody knew where she was except she was still going to school, so we knew she hadn't died or anything."

"That's—" he paused, searching for words, for the right word, for something that wouldn't trivialize what they had gone through, "—rough." It was inadequate, but it was the best he could do.

Rob shrugged again, and shot him a sardonic grin. "That's life. We all survived it."

"Where are your parents now?" Spencer asked.

"Well, our mom, Valerie, lives in Portland, and our dad died awhile ago. Car accident."

Behind Rob, Spencer could make out a slight shifting movement in the long hallway that led to the first floor rooms and a big pink flower on the hem of a dress. He figured that Alix had probably been eavesdropping for awhile, debating whether or not she ought to interrupt. Finally, she slipped around the corner.

Their eyes met.

Hers were worried.

His were sad.

She cleared her throat.

Rob turned around and smiled at her. "Hey," he said, "Your Indian name should be Walks-Like-Shadow."

"Fuck yeah," she grinned, "That'd be pretty sweet. So, um, I'm done entertaining the kids. They're watching some cartoon that I don't know about because I'm not cool enough."

"Thanks," her brother replied, "I appreciate that. I was hoping that Brian and Mandy's parents would be here sooner, but they called just a little bit ago and said they're running late."

Alix walked further into the room, around her brother so she could slip her arm around Spencer's waist. "It's okay. I get it, and I'm happy to help."

"Alright," Rob said slowly, a curious twinkle in his eyes, "I'm going to see what Mel's doing. I'm sure she's replenished my list of tasks by now." He turned on his heel to go.

For a long time Alix didn't say anything. She just tipped her head against him, and he twined his arms around her. They swayed a little almost like they were dancing. Finally when she spoke, it was a calmly stated, "You will never meet my mother, not unless you come here for Christmas one year when she doesn't fucking blow my brother off. I hate that bitch." Her voice was so cool, so emotionless. "I will never forgive her for leaving me in that house alone knowing what kind of man my father was. I will never forgive her for saving herself by placing me in the line of fire. Rob doesn't understand that. He thinks I need to move on, that I should just get over it. He doesn't see that I can't just 'get over it.' I love my brother, but he always had it easy. He was born with the right set of parts, and so most of the time my dad let him get away with all sorts of shit as long as he never got in the way when dad was wailing on me or mom. Rob got to go to college, Valerie got to go to Reno, and I got stuck cleaning up after it all."

She fell silent again, but licked her lips anxiously, tightening her grip on him spasmodically. Spencer knew she wasn't done talking yet, and he told himself to wait, to be patient until she spoke again. He let out a silent sigh when Alix began once more, her voice soft so that no one would overhear. "Rob was so calm when he told you that our father turned his rage onto me, but he never really saw what it was like, he never experienced it. I was fifteen when Valerie left us and Rob moved away. My dad's drinking got even worse, and he got more violent. I lived in constant fear because one moment he'd be fine and the next he'd be beating the crap out of me for something I didn't even know I'd done wrong. I had locks on the inside of my bedroom door. Locks, Spencer. Plural. It was…insane. He was plummeting in this downward spiral, and dragging me with him. For two years I lived like that until finally I couldn't take it anymore. I moved in with my drug-dealer boyfriend because I would have rather been blown up in a meth lab than deal with my father's alcoholic rages anymore." Pulling back, Alix looked him square in the face. "And I don't think I need to tell you to keep this to yourself. The last thing I need is this crazy shit winding up in my psych profile at work."

Hurt that she would doubt him; Spencer frowned at her and withdrew from her touch. "Alix, I'm not going to go run back to D.C. and tell everybody I know about this. It's your private business, and if you want it to stay that way then I'm fine with that."

Her smile wasn't very happy, but she did nod as she said, "Good. That's…that's good. Thank you, Spencer. I appreciate your discretion." She brushed her lips against the corner of his mouth, and he imagined that he'd be able to taste her sorrow if he licked his lips.

It was dark out by the time they got back to Alix's apartment. She pulled into her spot in the massive carport that she and her brother had erected in the old parking lot, a lower-cost solution to keep the snow off their tenants' vehicles, and killed the engine. The strange mood lingered though the music they'd used to cover it up had subsided into silence. The only sound in the car was the tick, tick, tick as the engine cooled.

At first she'd tried to talk, keeping her voice deliberately cheerful and bouncing from subject to subject as she tried to pretend that nothing was wrong.

Finally, Spencer had glanced over at her, waiting until he caught her gaze, and then carefully said, "Alix, it's okay to be in a bad mood."

Her teeth clicked as she shut her mouth on whatever she was about to say next. Unable to bear the quietness that rushed to fill its place, she'd cranked up the volume on the radio. Somewhere along the way she relaxed enough to tap her fingers on the wheel, singing along quietly to the parts of the songs that she knew; a phrase here and there, but never the entire song. She felt self-conscious all of the sudden, which was something she hadn't felt in Spencer's presence in weeks. Now though with her dirty laundry aired out to him, she wanted to retreat, she wanted to be anybody else but who she really was; she wanted to fade away into the old gray upholstery.

Spencer's hand wrapped around the fingers of her right hand where she was subconsciously white-knuckling the steering wheel, and he offered her a tiny smile. "Let's go upstairs," he said, but there was a hint of a question mark there in his eyes. He'd leave if she asked him to, if she'd rather be alone.

The strange thing was that she didn't want to be alone, not really. She just didn't know how to be so vulnerable in front of anyone and still look them in the eye.

Alix stepped out of the car and began walking toward the back entrance of the building, dodging between the row of flowering bushes she'd planted, and going up the narrow sidewalk. When Spencer hesitated behind her, she reached back quickly and kept him from dancing away, from heading to his car parked on the side of the road. He stilled. She got the door unlocked, and they pushed inside, got all the way upstairs without saying a word and inside her apartment too. Leaving her keys and purse on the counter, Alix wearily sat down on the sofa, a puff of air leaving her as she lowered herself a little too fast and her ribs twinged.

Reid didn't know what to do. Her false cheer had annoyed him; her perpetual silence worried him. It seemed that he couldn't win. He couldn't see past her blank face and tell what she was feeling or thinking, and he knew that asking her to talk about it would be disastrous. Alix didn't want to talk about the bad things. He understood why. She'd grown up in an environment where to cope with the trauma they had simply ignored it. Telling her to drag it all out into the open now was counter-intuitive to her. It made her more uncomfortable, not less.

He hovered in the kitchen anxiously, chewing on his lower lip. He watched her fidget on the couch, unable to settle. She turned on the TV, and then turned it back off after staring at the screen for a minute.

Alix sighed and drifted into the kitchen, and it was as she had her head leaned into the fridge, examining its contents, that he had an idea. He wasn't sure if it was the right idea—in the past few months he had dealt with more uncertainty than in the other thirty years of his life—but it was better than nothing.

She pulled out a bottle of beer, the dark, nutty, imported ale that she preferred, and opened the drawer where she kept the bottle opener.

Spencer stepped up behind her, and put his arms around her waist, palms flat on the fabric of her dress. "Alix…"

A quick little exhalation escaped her. It wasn't quite a sigh because it came out of her nose, not her mouth, but he knew that it would have been if she'd let herself.

"I'm not great at explaining things to others," he began, "Especially about, like, how I feel about things. That's…hard for me." Tucking his chin down, he nuzzled the back of her neck.

Her hands flattened on the counter.

"You," Spencer nipped her with his teeth, "don't like to talk about feelings."

Alix chuckled, and replied, "Understatement," in a low, melodic voice, almost like she was singing it.

"That's okay most of the time," he forged ahead, his tone mellow and relaxed, "But sometimes things like this happen, and you shut down, and I'm the clueless wonder—"

Her laughter came out like a sharp bark, and he grinned against her skin then bit her a little harder to punish her for it. A shiver traveled down her spine.

"I could talk until I was blue in the face, Alix," Spencer admitted in a whisper, "But I don't think you'd really believe me, not completely. You live your life wrapped in lies, whether at work or at home, and people who lie a lot find it difficult to believe in the truth even when it's right in front of them."

She stiffened in his arms, and drew a breath to argue. He pressed on her stomach, low enough that he was sure it wouldn't hurt her healing midsection, in warning. 'Let me speak,' he ordered her without words. Alix's protestations subsided. With his hands on her hips, he turned her around. She met his eyes defiantly, and he grinned to see a hint of her usual sass in them.

That was when he kissed her; she was getting mad at him, and he thought the moment was too perfect to pass up.

She bit his lip, and he laughed and mashed their mouths together with even more ferocity, loving that spark in her. It was the thing that had drawn him to her from the outset. Going home with a woman, one he'd just met in a bar no less was completely uncharacteristic for him, but he hadn't been able to refuse her vivaciousness, her lighthearted invitation. It was something he wanted to possess; he wanted to lick the sweat from her body like an elixir to give him whatever she had that he didn't.

By the time the kiss ended they were both breathless.

He slipped his fingers under her chin, kept her gaze locked with his, and told her straight-faced, "You understand actions, so that's what I'm giving you." Spencer waited until realization dawned in her eyes, and he tracked it with the widening of her eyelids, in her mouth opening in a tiny 'o'.

He kissed her again, put the beer back in the fridge, and led her by the hand into her room. He'd have to be careful, but he felt that it would be worth it when they lay side by side after and she looked up at him with that smile, the one that was soft, warm, intimate, the one he never saw her smile at anyone else; when she settled against him like an extension of himself once more-'everything is fine.'

They undressed slowly, standing at the foot of the bed. Her sweater went first, and then he slowly unzipped her dress, letting it slide to the floor. Her underwear was a matched set, white and lacy with a tiny bow between her breasts. Her shoes were toed off, and he pulled his vest off. She unknotted his tie with a slight smile as his hands hurriedly undid the buttons on his shirt, tossing his watch on the huge steamer trunk at the end of the wrought iron four-post bed. His shoes and socks, his pants, and after a moment's hesitation, his underwear, all joined the pile of clothes on the wooden floor. He stood nude in front of her, and did not try to cover himself or rush her gaze.

Spencer had no illusions about his body. He was tall and wiry, and always would be. He wasn't the most beautiful man in the world. Alix seemed to like it though; that was enough for him.

She leaned in close, brushing her lips against his. Her fingertips feathered delicately over his flat stomach, traced the line of dark brown hair that led to his groin, and his breath came out in a shaky exhalation. With a quirk to her lips that said without words she was pleased with his reaction, Alix kissed him for real, slow and languorous, her tongue swirling around his. He grasped her shoulders and kissed her back, sliding his hands down her front, cupping her lace-cradled breasts in his palms and massaging them the way that made her nipples peak so quickly.

Alix mewled into his mouth, and raked her nails lightly up his chest. It made him gasp as he followed the edge of her bra band around her sides with each of his index fingers. When they met at the clasp, he popped the little hooks out—he was getting a lot better at that—and drew the now-useless fabric out of the way. He was so caught up in her that it took a minute to notice that her hands had left him.

He opened his eyes and drew back just in time to watch the matching lace hipsters go the way of the rest of their clothes—that is, to the ground. As always, the sight of her made his breath come short—pale and perfectly curved, looking like something he'd paint if he had such a talent. She grinned wickedly at the poleaxed expression on his face, and asked sweetly, "Do you think you could help me take these off?" She traced the lace edge of her left thigh-high, looking up at him coyly from beneath the dark fan of her eyelashes. "It was hard enough getting them on by myself," Alix admitted, the barest hint of a tease overlaying the truthfulness of her statement.

Smiling at her, Spencer told her, "Of course. Get on the bed. Carefully."

She grinned. "When am I anything but?" However, he noticed that she followed his instructions, moving a bit gingerly onto the bed spread. Lying on her back horizontally across the mattress, she lifted her leg, toes pointed. He grasped her foot in his hands, and slid them up the satiny nylon, grasping the lace top in his fingers. He ran them on her skin underneath the fabric, listening for that quick intake of breath then pulled the fabric down. After repeating the procedure, Spencer crawled up after her, and she welcomed him between her legs. Using them like an extra pair of arms, she hitched them up around his waist, and he lowered himself in a half-pushup motion, bringing their lower halves together as his mouth found hers. He made sure to keep his weight off of her upper body, even when her hips twisted against his, and her hands curved over his back, trying to bring him in closer.

Resisting, Spencer pulled back from her lips far enough to say sternly, "Stop that, or it ends now."

Alix made a face at him. "Fine, fine," she huffed, and moved her hands lower so that she cupped his butt, moving him against her with a little tug, "But then get on with it. Trust me, I don't need a lot of foreplay tonight."

He grinned and ducked his head, licking her throat, nibbling over the tendon that stretched and stood out rigidly as she groaned and tipped her head back against the bedspread. "We'll see," he murmured, as he ran a hand up her thigh, and lifted his lower body up. His fingertips stroked the velvety softness of her skin just where it connected to her groin, and then fluttered over her outer lips. She gasped and twitched, and he caught a wince on her face before she managed to hide it.

Alix must have moved wrong again, but she didn't dare tell him to stop. It was a small pain, an irritant really; it wasn't enough to make her want to give this up. It wasn't that she thought that having sex would make her problems go away; she'd wake up tomorrow and still have the same issues buried deep within her. It was more about reaffirming that Spencer still wanted her even though she was a head case whose only coping method in life seemed to be 'ignore it and it will go away.' It was about making sure that his newfound knowledge didn't change them, as a couple. The sex, the orgasm was just a part of that, a by-product of the need to connect.

Opening her up, his fingers played in her wetness, and his mouth trailed over her collarbone. "Stay still," he whispered against her skin. "I don't want to hurt you."

She agreed with a nod, though it was an act of will as he slid inside of her, and stroked her inner walls, looking for and finding just the right angle to make that tiny, shocked "oh!" pop out of her mouth. Alix felt him grin as he kissed the skin over her heart, and run his lips up over her neck once more, nipping her chin on her way to her gently parted, kiss-swollen pout. With his thumb, he began rubbing the swollen bundle of nerves just above her slit, and her breathing began to speed up.

Alix broke away from him with a gasp mewling his name in that tone, the one that sent a fissure of lust streaking down his spine, his scrotum drawing up tight against his body. Roughly translated, that tone meant 'please, please, now.'

Hands holding him up on the bed, Spencer slid within her, the slick channel grasping him, pulling him in without resistance. God, she was so tightwethot, so good, and he shamefully admitted to himself that he'd missed this; he'd missed it a lot, maybe more than he should have.

"Mm, oh, yes," her murmured words fanned across his neck as she trailed her lips over him. "Please move. Please. God, that's so good."

He shifted, and she let out a joyous little cry. Seeing her ecstatic nature and knowing the cause of it was the reunion of their flesh, Spencer cast aside his guilt. It wasn't just him craving her body; it was her craving him as well. Somehow, that made it okay. The needs of the flesh hadn't superseded their caring for each other, but rather was a part of it. Buried within her once more, and feeling that everything was as it should be made him realize that.

His lips feathered over her hair, her forehead and eyebrows, down her nose and across her cheeks. He felt intoxicated, and as he moved, his thrust shallow and leisurely, and her eyes darkened with ecstasy, Spencer concluded that he quite liked this game. She obeyed him, and didn't move, trusting him to play her body like an instrument. He pushed her to her climax, adjusting his angle slightly, remembering the precise way he'd had to curl his fingers to find her G-spot, and then he was running his length over that same place within her, listening to her cry out and pant his name—he was the artist now; she the canvas-her hands clutching his flexing ass with something akin to desperation.

She snaked a hand between them, finding her clit with deft fingertips, and circling the slick, swollen flesh in rough circles. The look on her face was wild. Sweat was beading at her temples. He licked it off, a quick swipe of his tongue, and it dawned on him that he felt as wild and frenzied, and the control he had over his body was slipping.

"Yes!" she cried out as he thrust within her fast and harder than he'd meant to. Her nails bit into his skin, traveled up his back until she fisted his curls, and pulled back. Alix bit him and sucked, her tongue laving over his frantic pulse, and he came with a low groan, feeling her tighten around him, wringing out every last drop of his pleasure.

She fell back, breathing fast.

His arms felt weak, so he pulled out of her before he was really ready to, collapsing by her side.

A shudder traveled down her frame, and she reached down, covering her over sensitized flesh.

Spencer kissed her shoulder and said, "Your past doesn't change how I feel about you, not even a little. Besides, I already kind of knew. I'm a profiler, and a genius. Give me some credit, Alix."

She eyed him sidelong, and finally shook her head and laughed. After a moment, she decided to shrug off the heavy weight of history in favor of something better. "That was wonderful." Her voice was quiet, but heated. He'd always wondered how such cool, green eyes could spark with such heat, but they did. He felt a surge of masculine pride. Then he glanced down, saw her teasing herself, drawing out the golden glow of orgasm just a little bit longer.

"I forgot to use a condom," he admitted.

Her shrug was casual. "On the pill, remember?"

"Yes, but…your bed is…" Already he could see that her fingers were wet with their combined fluids, his sticky semen and the thinner liquid that her body produced to lubricate their union. "That's…disgusting," Spencer said, but hesitated because even as he said it something within him was flaring with sexual interest at the sight.

Alix watched the expressions passing over his face, and whatever she saw reassured her. She laughed, dark and heady, and kept touching herself. "Are you sure?" she asked throatily.

He swallowed convulsively. "No," he admitted, and he watched her face screw up in concentration as she shivered and came again with a little sigh.

Afterward, they laid together as entwined as two people could possibly be, Reid thought about anglerfish, how the males latched onto the females and became a part of them. If one conveniently forgot that the males began to die the instant this happened, that they existed only long enough to release their sperm into the female when she ovulated, it was almost romantic; two beings living symbiotically as one.

He glanced down at his girlfriend, slumped mostly on his chest and breathing quietly, the space between them lengthening. She was falling asleep. He murmured quietly, "We'll have to wash the comforter tomorrow."

Alix hummed contentedly. "Worth it," was all she said, and that was the last thing she said before she dropped off to sleep.

Later that night when Marie Coolidge showed up in her dreams bearing her teeth, Alix punched that bitch square in the face.

The dream shifted.

She was at her brother's house making out with Spencer in front of a fire. The scent of grilled meats and charred wood hung heavily in the air. There was a pop and a boom and a sizzle as a golden shower of sparks littered the sky. Their spotted, old mutt, Billy, danced and woofed, shying away from the site where Rob was setting up another round. She felt happy.

Alix extricated herself from Spencer's arms, laughing as she ran over to Rob and stole the lighter. "You're doing it wrong, stupid."

"You're stupid," he said, and made a face at her.

The next round of fireworks was a team effort.

The night was perfect.

Somewhere in the woods she felt the monsters finally lay down in defeat.