Title: All Which It Inherit 1: Insubstantial Pageant
Author: Brandon D. Ray
Written: July 12, 2000
Disclaimer: If I owned them, I would no longer be making monthly mortgage payments. It's as simple as that.
Categories: X-File (Mytharc), Romance, Angst. Lots of angst.
Keywords: MSR. MulderAngst. ScullyAngst. Colonization. Oh, and some MulderTorture for my dear friend Vickie Moseley, who begged *so* nicely, to wit: "Pretty please? Cherries and whipped cream? He's just so adorable when he's cross-eyed."
Spoiler Statement: Anything up through "Hollywood A.D." is fair game.
Timeline: Takes place towards the end of U.S. Season 7. The prologue is the infamous missing scene for "all things". The main body of the story starts a few hours after "Hollywood A.D." The datestamps used were chosen based on the premise that "all things" *has* to have taken place after "Chimera", which in turn occurred "two weeks" after Easter Sunday. HOWEVER - nothing after "Hollywood A.D." has happened.
Rating: NC-17
Content Statement: Explicit sex. Children are murdered, but it happens "offscreen". Do I need to mention bad language? Probably not, but I may as well.

Summary: "There's a storm building, a mighty tempest that will rock the foundations of the planet, leaving death and ruin in its wake. Few will remain standing once the gale has abated. This storm has been foretold for decades, but the preparations made by those who knew of its coming are pitifully inadequate."

Our revels now are ended.

These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

--The Tempest, Act IV, Scene 1


//Speak to me, baby, in the middle of the night.//

The words are echoing inside her head as she awakens. She first heard the song on Saturday afternoon in the basement office, when her partner - that sweet, lovable, infuriating man - was playing it on his boom box. She shut off the machine when she entered the room, but the words have been following her ever since - in her head, on the telephone when he called her, and other times throughout the weekend.

Somehow, whenever she heard those words, the events of the moment have taken on added significance.

Such as now.

She's curled up on his sofa, wrapped in a blanket. He must have covered her; the last thing she remembers is listening drowsily to the balm of his voice, luxuriating in the comfortable knowledge that she's finally sure she belongs exactly where she is. She feels warm, now, and confident.

She's happy in a way she hasn't been for more than a decade -- since before she began the affair with Daniel.

There is one last piece of the puzzle, though, that remains to be put in place. She had more or less expected it to happen earlier tonight, when they came to his apartment, but there'd been so much she wanted to tell him, and there hadn't seemed to be any hurry.

She surprised herself by falling asleep so abruptly, and he in turn surprised her by not waking her up again. She knows that he wants her; she knows it with a certainty that denies any possibility of misunderstanding. And she thinks, maybe, that he now knows that she wants him. He's always been a gentleman, though, she reminds herself. For as long as she's known him, he's been willing to wait. For her.

But the time for waiting is over.

She rises to her feet, shrugging off the blanket as she does so. She smiles at her own compulsive neatness as she pauses briefly to fold the blanket and drape it carefully over the back of the sofa. Then she straightens again and looks briefly around the room.

Nothing has changed since the last time she was here. That was in February, the night she told him the results of his mother's autopsy. She spent many long hours in this room that night, just sitting with him in silence, cradling him in her arms. Trying to ease his pain.

That was the night she finally acknowledged in her own mind where the two of them were heading. It has taken her three more months to settle her remaining doubts and insecurities, but now her last ghost has finally been laid to rest.

She supposes she should feel foolish about having taken so much time. Not just the past three months, but the past two years. Ever since their return from Antarctica, she's known how he felt and what he wanted. Her man - she knows, at last, that he *is* her man - has always worn his emotions on his sleeve, and on this issue above all others he has left little doubt in her mind.

So perhaps she should feel foolish, but she does not. She needed that time, to get her thoughts and feelings in order.

She's always been a cautious person, and much as she sometimes yearned simply to throw herself from the safety of her castle and into his arms, she could never bring herself to do it. But now she's finished with her deliberations.

And the answer is yes.

She knew that it would be.

//Speak to me, baby, in the middle of the night.// Again the words resonate in her mind - and once more, she smiles. As has happened so many times in the past, there are two paths before her tonight, as she stands in her partner's living room in near-total darkness. Two paths, leading to two different futures, this time in a very real and concrete sense. One of those paths leads out the door and downstairs to her car, and thence to her own apartment, so many miles away.

The other does not.

This time she doesn't need a sign to tell her which path to follow.

A half dozen steps, and she's at his bedroom door - a door which, significantly, he has left standing open. There's an invitation in that, clear and unmistakable, delivered in the private code they've built up over the years. Come on in, his voice intones. Come on in, if you're ready. Please come in. Please be ready. I've waited so long.

//Speak to me, baby, in the middle of the night.// The song continues to play in her head, mingling with her partner's unspoken plea, as she moves forward into the room.

There is no doubt here; no uncertainty. She's done with that. She stops by his bedside, and as she quickly and efficiently undresses, she looks down at the man who will soon be her lover.

At last.

He's awake, and somehow that does not surprise her. Of course he's awake; how could he possibly sleep, on this night of nights? He's awake, lying in bed under a heavy comforter, his eyes focused on her as she disrobes. She shivers slightly under the intensity of his gaze, but she does not look away. This is the path she's chosen, and she intends to experience it all.

He pulls back the covers, then, revealing his own nakedness, and moves over slightly to make room for her as she slides into bed. The bedclothes are soft and comfortable, and warmed by the heat of his body. She inhales deeply, allowing his scent to fill her lungs, and then she emits a sigh of contentment as she snuggles down into the sheets and blankets and pillows. This is right. This is where she belongs.

"I hoped it would be tonight," he says softly, not yet reaching out to touch her. There's a look of awe and wonder on his face, as his gaze roams ceaselessly across her body, probing at her and caressing her down to her very soul.

Again, she shivers.

Again, she refuses to look away.

"You didn't hope." She whispers her response, speaking with more certainty than she can ever remember feeling before. "You knew."

"Yes," he admits, a smile of pure joy spreading across his face. "I knew."

He takes her in his arms, then, pulling her close, and she goes willingly. Their lips meet, their bodies shudder at this first, intimate embrace, so long delayed, and the rest of the world drops away and out of their consciousness.

No further words are necessary - but still she hears them in her head. She will always hear them, now, whenever she thinks of him. She will hear them on her deathbed, and if there is truly anything after that, she will hear them then, as well.

//Speak to me, baby, in the middle of the night.// Outside, the wind picks up, and tree branches brush against the window. There's a storm building, a mighty tempest that will rock the foundations of the planet, leaving death and ruin in its wake. Few will remain standing once the gale has abated. This storm has been foretold for decades, but the preparations made by those who knew of its coming are pitifully inadequate.

The wind blows a little harder.

Window panes rattle in their frames.

Neither of the lovers notice.

/End Prologue/

Chapter One

Four Seasons Hotel
Beverly Hills, California
Saturday, May 27, 2000
4:58 a.m.

It was raining again. It had been raining a lot these past eleven days, but Scully didn't care.

She moved slightly in bed, then smiled as Mulder's arm reflexively tightened around her waist. Even in his sleep, he was possessive; a bit clingy. From her long, platonic association with this man she'd more or less expected that, even dreaded it a little. Perhaps that expectation had played a small role in the protracted seduction she and Mulder had engaged in these past two years.

But that no longer mattered, she reminded herself, because now they were finally past that. Now they were finally together. And much to her surprise, Scully was discovering that she actually *liked* being the center of this man's universe.

It had never been that way for her before. The two other major loves of her life, Daniel and Jack, had each in his own way been demanding of her time and attention, and she had responded by expending considerable energy in keeping them at arm's length. Dana Scully valued her independence, and she'd feared being smothered if she ever let any man get too close.

Somehow, though, being with Mulder was different. She supposed that part of it was simply the euphoria that went with any new relationship, but if she was honest with herself, she had to admit that there was more to it than that. Mulder was Mulder, and she loved every part of him - including the parts that sometimes drove her to distraction.

She even loved the dark, lonely spot in his soul, the part that made him need her so very desperately. Finally reaching the end of his quest and learning Samantha's fate had eased his burden a great deal, and allowed some light to filter into his psyche, but Scully knew better than to expect him to be completely healed, all in an instant. In fact, she expected to spend the rest of her life soothing his hurts and holding him in the night.

The strange thing was, she didn't mind at all. In fact, she was looking forward to it.

A flash of lightning illuminated the crack in the curtains, followed some seconds later by a distant rumble of thunder, and Scully forced herself back to the present. She was still in bed with her partner, his body spooned around and draped over hers, and she needed to extract herself somehow.

With great reluctance, she reached down and gently stroked his hand, where it lay cupped around the slight swell of her abdomen.

"Mulder," she whispered. "Mulder, I need to get up, now."

She waited for a moment, listening. There was another flash of lightning, and more thunder, still far in the distance.

Mulder's breathing didn't change; it continued to be slow and even. But somehow, she knew that he was awake. "Mulder?"


His voice could have been angry or petulant, since she had resisted his obvious desire that she spend the entire night with him any of these past eleven days, but it was not. It was low and warm and slightly rough with sleep, and hearing him speak to her *that way* sent a tingle down her spine.

"I'm not sure," she admitted, after a short pause.

Scully thought briefly about all the practical reasons to go back to her room - her clothes were there, and her make-up, not to mention her personal toilet items. And then there was the chance that Skinner would somehow find out where she'd spent the night - although from the way that woman had been all over him at the film premiere the night before, Scully guessed that he was probably too preoccupied to notice. Assuming that he even cared. It wasn't as if they were on the Bureau's time, after all.

But none of those things were the reason. She didn't know what the reason was, but she knew none of those things were it. She supposed she still just needed some space for herself - that she wasn't *quite* ready to dive headfirst into the sea of Mulder that beckoned to her so enticingly.

No matter how warm and comfortable that sea might be.

"It's okay, Scully. If you need to go, you go." Mulder's voice was firmer now, more awake, and when he chuckled, in perfect unison with another round of thunder, the sound rumbled from his chest to her back, filling her with almost subliminal comfort. He laced his fingers through hers, and nuzzled the base of her neck. "But you know you're always welcome to stay."

//Please stay.// She could hear the silent addendum so clearly; he might just as well have spoken it aloud.

//Please stay.//

She knew him so very well.

Scully smiled, and turned over in his arms to face him. Her heart beat a little faster as she saw him once again: the tousled, bedroom hair; the intense, luminous hazel eyes, somehow made even more alluring by their soft drowsiness; the sketch of a smile on those wonderful lips...

"Good morning, Agent Scully," he said, very softly. His head dipped briefly, and he brushed his lips across hers. "Still want to drive back to D.C.? Or have you decided you want to spend some time with your *other* boyfriend?" His smile broadened and mischief danced in his eyes. "Is that the *real* reason you want to sneak out of my bed at five in the morning?" she giggled, then, something she hadn't done in years. She giggled as she remembered the look on Mulder's face when Tea Leoni delivered that line in the film last night, and the way his eyes had briefly widened when she, herself, repeated it to him later in the evening, when she finally tracked him down on the sound stage.

Scully closed her eyes, and pressed her face into the hollow of her partner's neck, and for a moment she allowed herself to remember. They'd really done the town last night, she thought, and that had been another new thing for them: going out together, on what could only be described as a date. They'd gone to three different nightclubs, savoring the ritz and glitz of Hollywood at the Bureau's expense - with their supervisor's blessing, no less.

They ended the night with a long walk up Melrose, hand in hand, before finally returning to the hotel and going to bed. But they hadn't slept for another hour and a half - On an impulse, Scully rolled onto her back, pulling her lover with her until he was lying partly on top of her. His body was warm and heavy, and perfectly Mulder, and for a few seconds she just lay there, eyes still closed, enjoying the feeling of his weight pressing her into the mattress. It was Mulder; it was all Mulder, and it was *really* Mulder.

Maybe she didn't have to go quite yet.

"I think Associate Producer Skinner is going to have to find his own girl," she said at last, opening her eyes and looking up at him. "I'm taken."

"I think he may already have a handle on that, judging from what we saw at the premiere," Mulder replied, echoing her thoughts of a few moments before and smirking. Then his voice turned serious, and he added, "And yes, you are taken." And he covered her mouth with his.

As always, sparks flew. It seemed strange, after only a handful of encounters, that sharing this with Mulder could be so comfortable and familiar, but it was. Not that it was any less exciting for all of that; Scully couldn't imagine that it would *ever* stop being exciting. But there was very little of the awkwardness that she might reasonably have expected to feel with a new lover. Even the first time, in his apartment, the night he got back from England, she'd felt nothing but friendly intimacy, as if they'd been making love for years.

Perhaps, in a way, they had.

Scully deepened the kiss, slipping her tongue into his mouth, and shuddered as she tasted faint traces of herself still lingering on his lips, a reminder of things that had happened in this bed a few hours earlier. God, it had been good. So very, very good. So good that she felt herself once again becoming intensely aroused, just thinking about it. Just the memory of what he'd done to her with his mouth was all it took.

Scully realized that he had stopped kissing her; now she opened her eyes, to find him looking down at her, affectionate amusement in his gaze. "Thinking again, aren't you?"

"Uh uh," she denied, allowing a smile to creep across her face. "Remembering." She pulled his head down for another kiss, and whispered, "Anticipating."

This time the kiss went on for quite a while. Scully found herself squirming and shifting beneath her partner, until finally he completely covered her, like a warm, living blanket. She spread her legs slightly, allowing him to settle between them, needing more contact, and was rewarded when she felt his erection brush the inside of one of her thighs.

They both moaned then, into each other's mouths, the mingled sounds of their pleasure seeming to echo and reverberate inside Scully's head, reaching inward until it touched her very soul. This *was* where she was meant to be, and this was who she was meant to be with. It was no longer possible for her to entertain even the slightest doubt or

uncertainty. She was Mulder's, and he was hers, and God help the man or woman who tried to put them asunder.

Mulder finally broke the kiss, but before Scully could voice her disapproval he was continuing his assault on her senses, showering her face with quick, tiny kisses, trailing his fingers up and down her flanks, shifting his body once again so that it settled even more snugly between her thighs.

She closed her eyes then, and gave herself over to him.

Sometimes she wanted control, and so far, in the few brief days of their sexual relationship, he had never denied it to her. But this morning he was in control, and she was determined to let him take her where he would.

His mouth continued to work on her, kissing her and licking her, his lips and tongue painting his passion on the canvas of her skin. His hips shifted, too, moving at nearly random intervals, keeping time to a rhythm that was never quite resolved as he pressed his lower body against hers, each touch sending a new jolt of pleasure through her.

His head dropped lower, allowing his mouth to briefly caress her neck and shoulders. Eyes still closed, Scully gasped repeatedly as her lover nipped sharply at her collarbone and the tendons in her neck. She was distantly aware that he was leaving marks, and she flushed slightly at the realization. She hadn't had a hickey in more than fifteen years, not since her freshman year in college - but as with so many of the new things that had entered her life in the past eleven days, somehow this seemed so very right.

Mulder moved lower still, capturing one of her breasts with those gorgeous lips, suckling on her and running his tongue in light, quick circles around a nipple that was already so hard and tight that it almost hurt. Scully heard herself moaning as he continued ministering to her breast, and her arms instinctively wrapped themselves around his head, desperately trying to hold it in place.

A futile effort, and she knew it. Mulder could never stay still for long; his entire life was a testament to motion, activity and progress. L'audace, she thought, remembering a phrase from a long-ago impromptu history lesson received at her father's knee. Toujours l'audace. Audacity. Always audacity. That was Mulder, all right. Mulder to a fault.

Mulder to perfection. Mulder as he was, and had to be.

He released her breast at last, and she emitted a sigh that was a mix of disappointment and anticipation. In the next instant, he descended on her other one, and proceeded to give it the same treatment as the first had received: licking, suckling, even nipping, very lightly and in just the right way to drive her into a frenzy of groans and mumbled nonsense phrases.

After an unmeasured, blissful time, he left her breasts behind. Downward. Downward. Sprinkling kisses across her ribs and abdomen. Warm, wet, open-mouthed kisses that somehow always landed in just the right place to further stoke her burgeoning arousal. There was a fire in her belly now, an unbearably hot, burning sensation, that could only be quenched in one way, and only by one person.

Mulder. As always, it all came back to Mulder.

At last Scully felt his breath puffing against her intimate folds. Her muscles tensed in anticipation, and she had to restrain herself from jerking her hips upward and forcing herself against his mouth. There was a gentle, pleasurable tugging, and she opened her eyes and lifted her head, to see that Mulder was now delicately pulling apart her outer lips, his mouth only an inch or two away from the center of her arousal.

Scully felt herself flushing in a combination of

embarrassment and excitement, as she watched him lay her completely bare, an expression of utter love, devotion and fascination on his face. He was studying her, looking at her most private places, and he was going to make her absolutely crazy if he didn't do something concrete very damn soon.

"Mulder," she whispered impatiently, shifting her hips slightly as she spoke his name.

He looked up at her briefly, and smiled a smile that went straight to her core, then closed his eyes and lowered his head those last two inches. At last, his lips touched her, in the gentlest, most intimate kiss imaginable. Scully's eyes slammed shut again and she groaned, as her head fell back on the pillows once more. She felt his tongue flicking out, caressing her sensitive flesh in all the right places, sending waves of pleasure through her body.

This was yet another difference between Mulder and the other men with whom she'd been intimate. Daniel had done this for her only twice, in each case with such obvious reluctance and distaste that she'd been too embarrassed and ashamed to really enjoy it. And Jack had flatly refused, the one time she dared broach the subject. But Mulder seemed to regard the performance of oral sex as an indispensable staple of lovemaking, something *he* actually enjoyed doing.

For her. It was all for her.

And dear God, he was good at it. He was suckling very delicately on her folds, tracing their outline with the tip of his tongue. Scully couldn't keep herself from squirming, as she ran the fingers of one hand through his hair, while her other hand clutched desperately at the bedclothes. His stubble rasped against the insides of her thighs every time his head moved, and that just made it better. He had one finger inside of her, now, and he was sliding it slowly in and out, in and out, each stroke at a slightly different angle...

There was no hurry here, she thought woozily, through a hormone-drenched haze of arousal. *Mulder* was in no hurry.

He wasn't doing this as a quid pro quo, preparatory to fucking her, and he wasn't trying to bring her to orgasm as quickly as possible. He was just ... pleasing her. He was making her feel better than any human being had any right to feel, and he seemed content to keep doing it indefinitely - lightly stroking her with his lips and tongue, gently pumping into her with his fingers, bringing her close, oh so close, and then backing off, tenderly drawing her away from the brink...

Three times he worked her to a frenzy, stopping just short of pushing her over the edge to orgasm; three times he moved away from that hot, bright moment, keeping her with him and allowing her to cool slightly before renewing his assault on her body. All the while, his fingers and mouth worked in perfect harmony as he touched and caressed, tasted and kissed...

Finally the fourth time approached, and once again Scully's muscles tensed and quivered, and her breath came in short, sharp gasps. She lifted her hips and rotated them as Mulder continued to work around and across center, never really touching it, but not completely avoiding it, either. She was so close this time, so very close, closer than she had been before, and abruptly she simply couldn't wait any longer...


That word, high and breathy and desperate, was the only one she could think of; it was the only thing she could feel.

She was suddenly overwhelmed with need; it was rushing through her body, filling her completely and demanding release. She lifted her hips higher, straining her muscles and whimpering, not caring about anything but getting that tongue and those lips where she most needed them. Mulder took her cue, and immediately the speed and depth of his pumping fingers increased, and then he took her clit between his lips and suckled on it, and the world exploded...

That was thunder, Scully mused groggily. That was thunder in the distance, and raindrops pattering lightly against the window. Thunder, and the beating of a heart. Her partner's heart. Her lover's heart. Mulder's heart. His chest, warm and smooth and firm, rested beneath her ear, and the gentle drubbing noise she heard was his heart. It was louder than the thunder, at least from her vantage point, and was beyond question the most intimate, comforting sound she'd ever heard in her life.

He was talking to her, she realized; that was the low rumbling noise providing counterpoint to his heartbeat and the thunder. He wasn't saying anything, really; just speaking to her in low tones, uttering soft endearments and nonsense sounds, crooning her name, and gradually helping her find her way back to Earth. And finally, she was able to speak.

"That was amazing," she murmured, rubbing her cheek against his chest. The thunder made itself known again, a little closer than it had been before, and then she heard Mulder's low, intimate chuckle. He tightened his arms around her waist a little, in silent acknowledgment of her


It occurred to her that she ought to do something for him; something to satisfy him, and release his own pent up arousal. In fact, most men - any of the other men she'd known and been with - would probably already have taken what they needed.

Not that she would have *minded* that, exactly; she loved this man desperately, and she was here because she wanted to be. But it was so very Mulder that he had waited for her to come back; that he had such respect for her that he was unwilling to take anything for himself, unless she was fully aware of what was happening, and freely giving herself to him.

She wondered for a fleeting instant what he would do if she just snuggled down against him and went back to sleep. But she already knew the answer to that question; this was Mulder, after all, and she had finally allowed herself to believe that he loved her at least as much as she loved him.

If she went to sleep, he would accept it, without protest or recrimination. There was no need to conduct *that* experiment.

Besides, she didn't *want* to go back to sleep. Not yet, anyway.

Scully rolled onto her back, her body still feeling surprisingly heavy and lethargic. Well, Mulder really did throw himself completely into everything he did.

Eventually, perhaps she'd become accustomed to having all that single-minded intensity focused entirely on *her*.

Eventually, maybe she wouldn't be left breathless just from having him look at her. Eventually, it might all get to be routine and ordinary.

But, God, she hoped not.

He was on top of her, then, settling once more between her thighs as her hands gripped and caressed his shoulders. He was on top of her and moving into her, and Scully sighed with contentment. As he moved into a strong, steady rhythm, she closed her eyes and buried her face in the hollow of his neck.

This, too, he was good at; so very good. Scully didn't think she was going to come again - not as tired as she was, and not after the completely mindblowing orgasm he'd just given her. But that was okay; she didn't need that.

For now, it was enough just to savor the closeness and intimacy: the weight of his body; the smell of his sweat; the flavor of his skin; and the wonderful, indescribable fullness that came from having him inside her.

Unfortunately, it didn't seem as if it was going to last very long. Already, Mulder's pace had increased sharply, until he was driving into her, giving a low grunt with each inward thrust. She brought her legs up to help him, wrapping them around his waist so as to offer deeper and easier penetration. She was clinging to him, now, holding on for dear life as he filled her, over and over and over.

He was close; so close. Scully could feel the muscles in his back straining from the exertion. His entire body seemed poised; on the brink. There was an energy there, too, like a crackle of electricity, flowing from Mulder to her and then back again, the two of them creating a completed circuit.

She began whispering to him, talking to him, urging him onward, trying to make love to him with her voice as well as her body: "Yes, Mulder. Yes. Give yourself to me, Mulder.

Now, Mulder. Now, now, now-"

And suddenly he was there, all in an instant. Mulder was there; he was on the brink. His strokes became frantic, and even harder and deeper, and he was gasping her name and moaning and sobbing. There was one more mighty thrust, and he cried out as he spent and emptied himself into her.

And Scully held her lover in a tight, four-limbed embrace, continuing to talk to him, soothing his shaking body, as he had done for her, grounding him and keeping him safe, until they both drifted back to sleep.

Outside the hotel room, it was still raining.

Occasionally, there was the sound of thunder.

Chapter Two

Northbound on Interstate 15
Near Baker, California
Saturday, May 27, 2000
4:02 p.m.

"I thought this was supposed to be the scenic route," Mulder hollered into the wind. His partner gave him an amused look, then turned her attention back to guiding the convertible through the California desert. Mulder

continued, "I mean, that's what it said on the map." The map that was now blowing merrily across that selfsame desert, somewhere northeast of Barstow, because Mulder had held it a little too high and the wind had taken it.

"You just don't appreciate beautiful scenery when you see it," Scully shouted back, a slight smirk on her face.

Mulder raised an eyebrow as she pressed down a little harder on the accelerator. The Mercedes SL500 seemed to quiver with joy as it surged forward, until the needle on the speedometer hovered around 80.

//A Mercedes, Mulder?// He smiled as he remembered Scully's tone of delight when he'd presented her with the keys earlier in the day. //I didn't even know it was *possible* to rent a Mercedes.// //This is Hollywood,// he'd replied with a smirk. //You can rent *anything* here.//

She hadn't questioned the expense, much to Mulder's own delight; she hadn't even demanded to pay her fair share.

He'd meant the fancy car rental as a gift, plain and simple, and she'd surprised him by accepting it as such.

She'd also surprised him the night before, when he nervously suggested that they drive home instead of flying. Mulder had expected his staid, sensible partner to raise all sorts of staid, sensible objections, and he'd prepared a list of counter arguments, beginning with the point that they both already had leave scheduled for the following week, and ending with a naked plea that he wanted a chance to spend some time alone with her, now that they'd finally embarked on a personal relationship.

But he hadn't needed any of those arguments, because Scully simply flashed him a grin, and said it sounded like fun - as long as *she* got to do some of the driving.

Dana Scully, the lover, appeared to be a rather different person from Special Agent Scully of the FBI.

Mulder was loving it.

The biggest surprise of all - and the one that made him the happiest - was waking up shortly before eleven this morning, and finding her still in his bed. That was another milestone in their relationship; on their previous nights together, she had slipped away and gone home, or back to her own room, sometime before dawn. She seemed to need a little distance, or at least a some privacy, and as much as Mulder understood and respected that, it still had made him feel a bit as if he were being pushed away.

Even after their encounter early this morning, when she first tried to leave, he'd expected to wake up and find her gone. But it hadn't happened that way, and when Scully woke up a few minutes after he did, she'd been cheerful and full of smiles, obviously happy to be where she was. They hadn't made it downstairs to breakfast for another hour - "Did you see the look on Skinner's face this morning?"

Mulder turned his attention back to his partner, to see her smiling into the wind. It seemed as if he'd seen her smile more in the past eleven days than in the previous seven years - and today the phenomenon was even more pronounced.

He also thought he knew what she was talking about, but he was having too much fun listening to her to say anything, so he simply shook his head.

"For a minute I thought he was going to go into shock,"

Scully went on after a moment, still with a happy grin on her face. God, Mulder realized with amazement, she'd been showing off. When they bumped into Skinner on their way to breakfast, *Dana Scully* had been showing off! And she continued, "I suppose I could have worn a turtleneck, but-"

"But that wouldn't have been as much fun, would it?" Mulder interrupted. He let his gaze drift across her neck, and the three unmistakable love bites that were plainly visible there.

She shook her head and her smile broadened. "No, it wouldn't have."

"You were *hoping* we'd bump into someone we knew," he went on, in a mock-accusatory tone of voice. She was laughing now, a beautiful, joyous sound, and he added, "Having it turn out to be Skinner and that ... that-"

"Floozy," Scully supplied, still laughing.

"-- *floozy* was just the icing on the cake, wasn't it?"

Scully glanced at him briefly, and gave him the eyebrow. "What if it was?" she asked, her lips quivering with suppressed amusement.

"Well, then, Agent Scully," Mulder replied, lowering his voice, "I'd have to say that you've been a very bad girl, and you may need to be punished."

His partner didn't answer, but turned her attention back to the road in front of them, a faint smile still tugging at the corners of her mouth.

MGM Grand
Las Vegas, Nevada
8:59 p.m.

It had taken Scully less than an hour, once they finally emerged from the suite they'd booked before leaving L.A., to find a private game of five card stud. "You can't win in the casino," she'd explained, as if she were talking to a child. "Those games all have a percentage for the house, and the percentage comes out of every player's hide."

"Yeah, I got that, Scully," Mulder replied, exasperation fighting with amusement in his voice. "What I *don't* get is why you want to gamble at all. I would never have guessed-"

"I don't wanna gamble," she interrupted - and if he hadn't known better, Mulder would have sworn there was a note of smugness in her tone. "I wanna play poker. That's not a game of luck; it's a game of skill."

"Uh huh."

She'd looked up at him, then, with those impossibly blue, innocent-looking eyes. "Don't think I've got it in me, Mulder?" she asked, a predatory look on her face. "I'm a sailor's daughter. I grew up on Navy bases. If I hadn't learned to play stud, I'd have lost my virginity by the time I was twelve."

"I don't think I want to know the basis for that assertion," Mulder murmured, struggling not to smile.

"Strip poker, Agent Mulder," she replied briskly. "And don't even *try* to convince me that you never used a card game to get a girl undressed." The smugness returned. "But they never even got my bra off." Another eyebrow. "Except once. When I *wanted* it to happen."

So now here he was, nearly an hour later, feeling very much like a third wheel as he watched his partner play poker.

She was the only woman at the table, and although her sex and the short, green dress with the plunging neckline were providing an obvious distraction for the other players, Mulder had quickly realized that it wasn't really necessary.

This woman was a pro.

She was already up more than two hundred dollars, by his count. He suspected that she was bluffing at least part of the time - the best players always did, in his limited experience - but he couldn't for the life of him figure out when those times were.

And, in all honesty, he was getting a little bored. Scully was clearly having the time of her life, and for a while he'd been content just to watch her having fun. It wasn't something he got to see very often. But as it became plain that there was no real suspense involved - she was going to win, the only questions being how quickly and how much - Mulder's attention began to wander.

And that's how it was that he saw Kurt Crawford.

At first, he almost didn't recognize the man. It had been more than three years, after all, and the circumstances of their brief meeting had been very different from their current situation. But it was Crawford; it really was. He was standing about thirty yards away, leaning against a pillar, his hands in his pockets, and making no attempt whatsoever to conceal his presence or identity.

And he was watching them.

As soon as their eyes met, Crawford smiled faintly and raised his eyebrows. He stood motionless, for perhaps five seconds, then he turned and disappeared into the crowd.


For an instant, Mulder was tempted just to let him go. He and Scully were supposed to be on vacation, dammit, and he was in no mood to go chasing after a mysterious informant who was so obviously dangling himself out there like bait.

But then the reflexes developed as a consequence of a decade of single-minded pursuit of the truth kicked in, and Mulder found himself following the man through the casino.

He caught up with him in the lobby. Crawford had come to a stop at a cluster of slot machines, and was methodically feeding coins into one of them as the Saturday night crowd of gamblers swirled around him.

"I find I prefer these old-fashioned models," the man commented, as Mulder came to a halt a few feet away.

Crawford dropped a dollar coin in the slot, and pulled down hard on the lever. "Video and computer technology is all very well," he went on, as he watched the cylinders spin behind the window. "But there's something especially satisfying about seeing it all fall into place, and knowing it's not just an image generated by a silicon chip."

Crawford sighed as the machine purred to a stop. No payoff.

He shrugged, and turned to face Mulder. "The odds are the same, though, I suppose. And the percentage always goes to the house."

"Do you have a point, Crawford?" Mulder asked brusquely, barely keeping his irritation in check. "I do have plans for this evening."

"A point?" The man smiled thinly, in brief amusement. "There's always a point, Agent Mulder. But now is not the time. I simply wanted to make contact, before you and ... she left again in the morning."

"Make contact?" Mulder felt his pulse quickening in spite of himself. "About what?"

"Not now, Agent Mulder." Crawford turned back to the slot machine, fed it another dollar and pulled the lever, a trace of amusement still on his face. "You have plans for the evening, remember? And so do I. Morning is plenty soon enough." The cylinders whirled to a halt, and the machine spit out a few coins. The man smiled, and added, "Aha. Now I'm ahead of the game."

"Morning," Mulder repeated. "Why should it wait for morning? Why not now?"

The other man glanced at him briefly, and shook his head. "Because I said so," he replied. He scooped up the payoff, rapidly dropped the coins back into the machine, and pulled the lever again. "How does ten o'clock sound? We can have a delightful little brunch, just the three of us, and talk things over." Crawford's eyes never left the machine as he spoke.

Mulder shrugged, waiting for the cylinders to slow to a halt. Again, Crawford lost his bet. Finally, Mulder said, "Or maybe Scully and I will just get in our car and leave. We're on vacation, and you've given me no reason to change our plans."

"Oh, I don't think you'll do that, Agent Mulder," the man replied distractedly. He was groping in his pocket, a sad look on his face. "And I seem to be out of change. Such a pity - I was just hitting my stride, too." He turned away and started to leave.

Mulder took two quick steps forward and grabbed the other man's shoulder, stopping him and turning him around. "Crawford-"

"Not *now*," the man said insistently, shaking his head. "But you really don't want to miss what I have to tell you."

He hesitated, and cocked an eyebrow. "You're a clever man, Agent Mulder. I'm sure you're smart enough to have worked out that Emily Sim was not her *only* child." He reached up and patted Mulder's hand where it rested on his shoulder. "And that's really all I'm going to say tonight. Have a nice evening." And again, he turned and walked away.

This time, Mulder let him go.

Chapter Three

MGM Grand
Las Vegas, Nevada
Sunday, May 28, 2000
9:42 a.m.

It had rained the night before, a sudden cloudburst coming from nowhere in the hours after midnight. But the storm had quickly passed, and when the sun rose the few remaining traces of moisture rapidly evaporated, leaving only a small puddle here and there, hiding in the shadow of the hotel.

Mulder turned away from the sitting room window of their suite, and glanced impatiently at his watch. It had occurred to him last night, after it was too late, that Crawford had not said anything about where they were to meet. He was forced to assume that the other man would either call or appear at their door at the appointed hour.

It was pretty clear that Crawford knew where they were staying.

He heard the shower in the next room stop, and he nervously paced to the bedroom doorway. Scully's reaction last night, when he told her of his conversation with Crawford, had been unreadable; closed-off. She'd almost seemed like the cool, remote Special Agent Scully, rather than the warm, happy woman he'd worked for so long to lure out of hiding.

//You're a clever man, Agent Mulder. I'm sure you're smart enough to have worked out that Emily Sim was not her *only* child.// Crawford's parting words still rang and echoed in Mulder's head, and he winced as he remembered the wild flashes of emotion that had swept across his partner's face last night, before she shut herself down. Longing, fear, anger ... a lot of anger. But then it was gone, completely gone, all in an instant, and Scully had simply nodded and asked a few questions, once more the consummate professional.

He'd even found himself unsure what to expect when it got to be bedtime. He didn't really think she would retreat to a separate room - and she hadn't, much to his relief. But it was clear that there were things going on inside her head, many of them unpleasant, and he'd been unable to find a way of broaching the subject. Their relationship was still too new and fragile, despite their years of friendship.

He was awakened in the night by Scully's hands on his body, as rain pounded against the window. Neither of them had spoken as they moved against each other, touching, tasting, feeling. His partner's willingness to express her need, even obliquely, had reassured Mulder, and as he responded to her, he found that he, too, had unresolved feelings - He was drawn from his reverie by Scully stepping from the bathroom, a towel wrapped around her body. She paused briefly when she saw him standing in the doorway, then raised one eyebrow and gave a quick smile before crossing the room to where her suitcase sat open on the low bureau.

On an impulse, Mulder walked quickly up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist, drawing her into a deep embrace. Scully started briefly at his first touch, but did not resist, and for a moment or two they simply stood together in silence. Finally, Scully stirred slightly, and Mulder reluctantly let her go.

"What was that for?" she asked softly, apparently unwilling to turn and face him with her question as she pulled fresh clothes from her suitcase. Jeans and a t-shirt, he noted with relief. Not that they had brought work clothes with them on this trip, but she had more formal clothes with her, and could have chosen them.

Somehow, it made him felt better that she had not.

"Because I wanted to," he replied, equally softly. "Because I can." He moved up behind her again, and gently laid his hands on her shoulders. "Scully, turn around." She did as he asked, clutching her clean clothes between them like a shield, and looking up at him with an uncertain expression on her face. "Don't shut me out," he said, still very quietly, and that was all.

//Don't shut me out.//

Barry, Pfaster, Melissa, Schnauz, Betts ... Jerse. The cancer. The remission. Emily. The second abduction.

Diana. Padgett. Pfaster again. All these and so many more flashed through his mind, seemingly reflected in the deep blue of her eyes. The eyes that were always shuttered, closed off, whenever things really got important to her.

The eyes that were always there for *him*, but so rarely allowed him to be there for *her*.

//Don't shut me out.//

Suddenly she was on her toes and kissing him, pressing her body against his and twining her arms around his neck. The clothes she'd been holding fell to the floor, and her fingers threaded through his hair and caressed his scalp.

His own hands pressed firmly against her back, through the thin hotel towel, drawing her closer, and for a few seconds the rest of the world went away.

Kissing Scully was like nothing else Mulder had ever experienced. He'd long suspected that might be true, and when he finally had the chance to *really* kiss her, less than two weeks ago, he'd been nearly overwhelmed by the reality. He still wasn't used to it, and he was beginning to have hope that perhaps he never would be.

At last, they reluctantly broke apart. Mulder opened his eyes, and looked down to find his partner looking up at him, a sober, serious expression on her face.

But not a closed off, lifeless one.

Nothing else was necessary.

10:02 a.m.

"I suppose you're wondering why I've asked you here this morning."

Scully did not respond to Kurt Crawford's words, but did her best to project an air of aloof disinterest as she sat next to Mulder in the loveseat of their suite's sitting room.

Crawford sat across from them in a straight chair, wearing a conservative three piece suit, and looking as if he was about to tuck a Bible under his arm and step in front of a Sunday school class.

Scully already felt herself starting to hate him, just a little. She knew it was an irrational reaction; the man hadn't done anything to warrant her dislike. Not yet, anyway. Part of her even felt that perhaps she should feel grateful to him for finally coming forward and offering to shed some light on one of the darker moments of her life.

Of course, another part of her could not forget that this man had also been a participant in the experiments that had been conducted on her, and on her daughter - and on countless other helpless innocents, as well. She couldn't forget that; she didn't *want* to forget it, no matter how remorseful he now seemed to be.

Scully had worked hard to get past that horrible experience, and the confusing maelstrom of emotions that had been generated by her brief, heartbreaking association with Emily. Even after the Roberta Dyer case, when she had finally managed to let go of Emily, at least symbolically, those feelings had haunted her, and it had taken many long hours of counseling with Father McCue before Scully had really been able to find peace, both with herself and with God. And now here was Crawford, threatening to open those old wounds and stir things up, all over again.

"Well," Crawford went on after a moment, apparently deciding that neither she nor Mulder were going to say anything, "why don't we just get down to business." There was a faint smile on his face as he set his briefcase on the coffee table that stood between them. A few seconds later he was pulling a manila envelope from the briefcase and opening it.

"I have here some pictures, and some background information," the man announced. He extracted an eight by ten photograph, looked at it for a moment, then dropped it carelessly on the table next to the briefcase.

Scully had tried to prepare herself for what she knew was probably going to happen this morning; nevertheless, she felt her eyes widening in shock at what she saw. It was a picture of a boy, perhaps four or five years old, with unruly red hair and happy blue eyes. He was looking right at the camera, a know-it-all smirk on his face, and he bore a vivid resemblance to photographs of her older brother that had been taken at about that age.

"That is Timothy Donohue," Crawford intoned cheerfully. "According to the official record-" Somehow, Scully tore her eyes away from the picture, and saw that the man was reading from a computer printout. "-- he was born on November 21, 1994, in Montpelier, Vermont. Regrettably, his birth mother was unable to care for him, and the child was turned over to social services. In the fullness of time, he was placed with Steve and Marcia Donohue, of Burlington, Vermont, where he lived without incident until a little over a month ago."

Scully felt Mulder stirring beside her, but she reached out and grabbed his hand, silently urging him to remain still.

She wanted his support in this; she knew he needed to give it, almost as much as she needed to receive it. But right now, she wanted to listen to the man in front of them. "What happened a month ago?" she asked.

Crawford glanced up at her briefly, frowning, then looked back at the printout. "It was a terrible tragedy," he replied gravely. "Their house burned to the ground on Easter Sunday. The entire family died."

//The entire family died.//

The words echoed and reechoed in Scully's head, and she forced herself to look down at the picture of the boy again.

November 21, 1994. Less then three weeks after she was returned from her first abduction. Her son, although Crawford hadn't come right out and said so, and he'd been living in Vermont all these years.

Until this past Easter.

Another photo landed on the table, on top of the one of Timothy Donohue. This one showed two blonde girls playing on a swing set. They were dressed in identical blue jumpers.

"Rebecca and Marilyn Garcia," the man announced. "Twins, obviously. Born December 2, 1994, in St. Ignace, Michigan. Their parents both died in an automobile accident a few days after they were born, and they were subsequently raised in a foster home in Detroit. They died in a fireworks accident in their own backyard, on Cinco de Mayo."

Another photo was added to the pile, this one a picture of a dark-haired girl who bore an uncanny resemblance to Scully's own mother. "Terri McAllister," Crawford went on, implacably. "Born October 31, 1994; died two weeks ago. A propane tank exploded at the family's Mother's Day barbecue, which in turn ignited the natural gas lines leading into the house. There were no survivors. Would you like me to go on?"

Scully felt a terrible constriction in her chest, and an empty, aching feeling low in her abdomen. Four children - her children. The fruits of her body, torn from her without her knowledge or consent, given to strangers to raise, experimented upon, manipulated ... and then they died.

Before she even had a chance to know them, they died.

"How many?"

Scully had almost forgotten that Mulder was sitting next to her. Now she turned to look at him, and saw that his face was cold and remote. But he was not aloof or emotionless; far from it. Deep in his eyes, she could see pain and rage battling for ascendancy, just as they were doing in her own heart.

"How many?" Mulder repeated, after a few seconds. "How many have you killed?"

"How many have *we* killed?" Scully shifted her gaze back to Crawford, to see that he was shaking his head. "It's not *our* doing, Agent Mulder," he said sadly. "But to answer the intent of your question, there have been eight so far, all in the past six weeks. Eight young lives cut short, for the convenience of an agenda." He leaned forward a little, his own gaze locked with Mulder's. "But it was not my employers who did this. In fact, two of my brothers - two of those who you met at the Lombard Clinic - have died in the same manner."

"So you say," Mulder replied flatly.

"I'm not here to play games, Agent Mulder," the other man said sharply. "I'm here because there's a real problem, one that she has an interest in. And I think you know who's doing this; you've seen their work before. At Ruskin Dam, among other places. They kill by fire. Flames are cleansing; they leave nothing behind that can be resurrected. And now they're killing her children."

"Why?" To outward appearances, Mulder seemed to be unmoved by Crawford's words. But Scully knew better; in his eyes, she could see that the hurt was winning, gradually squeezing out the anger. Just as was happening inside of her.

"We don't know why," the other man replied. "And to be perfectly honest, my employers don't care, which is why I've come to you. As far as they're concerned, that phase of the Project has been completed. Successfully completed." He turned to look at Scully. "You know about that already, of course."

"Cassandra Spender," Scully said, not bothering to keep the disbelief from her voice. "That's impossible. She died at El Rico."

Crawford shook his head. "She did not die," he said flatly.

"She's alive and well - or at least, as well as can be expected, under the circumstances. I've met her, and spoken with her." The man sighed, and continued, "In any case, your children are now superfluous, at least so far as the Project is concerned. We've found what we were looking for. Unfortunately, our adversaries seem to have other ideas."

"Why?" she asked. "If my - if these children are no longer useful to anyone, why are they being ... being..." Her voice trailed off; she couldn't force herself to say the words.

"We don't know why," Crawford repeated. "Anymore than we really understand why they were doing the same thing to former abductees two years ago. Their motives ... well, they're not human motives. Obviously." His eyes seemed to bore into hers, and she found that she couldn't look away.

His gaze was intense and penetrating. "But we do know that there are still two of your children left alive."


"In Boulder, Colorado, and Rochester, Minnesota," the man continued, as if he hadn't heard the interruption. "A boy and a girl. As I say, the men I work for don't care, and are content to abandon them to their fate. But my brothers and I felt otherwise, and that's why I've come to you."

Chapter Four

Northbound on Interstate 15
Passing Cedar City, Utah
Sunday, May 28, 2000
1:15 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

Once more they were on the road, and Scully was driving. But this time, neither of them was having any fun.

Mulder found himself looking out the window at the passing scenery, and stealing occasional glances at his partner as she drove. They were in the mountains, now, but not the very highest ones. Those still lay ahead. The day was bright and clear, and the sky was a deep, deep blue. A perfect day for driving, if only - "I'm sorry."

Mulder looked at Scully in surprise. It was the first time she'd spoken since they'd left Las Vegas, more than an hour earlier, and those were the *last* words he would have expected to hear from her. But before he had a chance to say anything, she went on.

"I'm sorry about ... about this," she said, staring straight ahead through the windshield, her voice deceptively calm.

She sounded as if she were apologizing for a forgotten lunch date or something. "I know this was supposed to be a fun trip, a way for us to spend time together, and I-"

"Scully," he said, finally realizing where she was going with this. "Scully, don't. None of this is your fault. And even if it were-"


"Even if it were," he repeated, raising his voice and overriding her, "that doesn't mean you did anything wrong. Christ, Scully, you followed me around for seven years, dropping everything on a moment's notice so you could help me look for Samantha. I don't think it's unreasonable that we devote a little time and energy to *your* concerns for a change."

For a moment she continued to sit in silence, her posture rigid, her hands tightly gripping the steering wheel.

Finally, her shoulders drooped, and she sighed.

"You know," she said, "I don't even remember what she looked like anymore."

"Emily?" he asked.

Scully nodded, and gave a bittersweet smile. "I kept a picture of her. Just one. I got it from Detective Kresge. You remember him?" She glanced across at him.

"Yeah, I remember," he replied with a nod.

"Well, I never gave it back. And I used to take it out and look at it, but never when anyone was around. Especially you." Mulder nodded again, but she wasn't watching. And she continued, "I was trying ... I dunno what I was trying to do. Convince myself of something? But whether I was trying to convince myself that she was really my daughter, or *wasn't* really my daughter - I'm not sure anymore."

"The DNA tests-"

"Yes, I know," she agreed quickly, cutting him off. Another brief glance, then she looked back at the highway. "But knowing it from the DNA tests and knowing it in my heart - those are two different things." She looked at him yet again, and this time her eyes were warm with affection. "That's something *you* taught me." Once more she turned her gaze to the highway, and for a few moments she was silent. At last, she went on.

"But after the Roberta Dyer case, I stopped looking at the picture," she said. "At least, I didn't look at it as often. I felt as if I shouldn't *need* to look at it anymore. I thought I'd resolved my feelings about Emily, and so finally I put the picture away in a drawer. I haven't taken it out in more than a year. I haven't even thought about in months."

"Do you feel guilty about that?" Mulder asked.

Scully frowned slightly. "I guess so, a little. I feel as if I've let her down. I think about how you are - how you were about Samantha, and I feel as if ... I dunno. As if I'm not really trying."

Mulder shook his head slowly, the words seeming to come almost of their own volition. "Scully, I don't think you should be using me as a model in this. I think we can both agree that my response to Samantha's disappearance wasn't exactly healthy." He was surprised at how little pain that admission was causing him. Had he really only just come to realize that? Or had the knowledge been lurking deep down inside all these years, just waiting for the chance to make itself known?

"Mulder, I never begrudged you any of that. Not once." She sighed, and went on, "I know it's too late to do anything for Emily, but I feel as if I should have known there were more like her. Maybe I *did* know, in my heart. But I wouldn't let myself think about it. And now my nose is being rubbed in it, and it's too fucking late." The last line was delivered with an unaccustomed, almost vicious bitterness.

"We should have looked sooner," Mulder suggested quietly.

Scully gave a tight, unhappy smile, and nodded. "Perhaps we should have. But it's too late for that. The one question I *do* have is, why now? Why all of a sudden, out of the blue, is someone killing them, and why are *we* being asked to intervene?"

"I don't know the answers to those questions, Scully. But I don't think we can ignore this. Something's going on. It may not be what it's being presented as, but we have to look into it."

"I know," she said. "And we are. We will. I just wish ...." Her voice trailed off, and for a moment Mulder didn't think she was going to complete her thought. The old Scully, the Scully he had known for so many years and come to love, would not have.

But this one did.

"I just wish it didn't have to disrupt our ... our honeymoon." Mulder felt his eyes widening in surprise at her choice of words. His partner continued, her voice still very low, but a little firmer than before, "I mean - I don't expect that we'll ever really have anything like that. It doesn't seem like it's something in the cards for us."

She paused briefly, and glanced over at him, and Mulder nodded sadly. He knew exactly how she felt.

"But this week ... this trip..." Again her voice trailed off, and she waved one hand in apparent angry frustration. "Dammit, Mulder, I was looking forward to this." Her voice lowered still further; her tone was tight and foggy, as if her throat were closing up on her. "I wanted us to have this. Just for a few days, I wanted it for us."

Mulder sat quietly for a moment or two, trying to think of something to say, but there really wasn't anything. At last, he reached out and put his hand over one of hers where it rested on the steering wheel, and squeezed gently.

The highway continued to drop away behind them, each passing minute bringing them one mile closer to Boulder, Colorado.

Near Vail, Colorado
8:35 p.m.

They stopped for dinner at a tourist trap along the Interstate, just outside of Vail. Afterwards, without ever quite having spoken about it, they found their way to a scenic overlook outside of the city, parked the car, and got out to enjoy the view. Mount of the Holy Cross stood to the south, its peak more than 14,000 feet above sea level, thrusting up into the last rays of the setting sun, as if by so doing the mountain could somehow deny the Earth's attempt to cast it into shadow.

It was an understandable urge, Mulder mused, as he stood next to his partner, gazing at the vista. Her hand rested lightly in his, and her hip brushed his upper thigh as they walked. Trying to escape the shadows - that was a sane, sensible reaction, and he was suddenly puzzled that neither he nor Scully had ever tried to do that.

For years, he had thought that his quest was about his sister. He had thought he was searching for Samantha. And, of course, in part he was. But there was more to it than that, and Mulder had had his first inkling of the truth when Scully had been torn away from him, apparently vanishing without a trace, just as had happened to Samantha twenty years earlier.

Even after Scully was returned, he'd tried to persuade himself that it was still about Samantha. He'd spent many sleepless nights wrestling with the problem, telling himself that he was simply identifying Scully with Samantha, and that his lonely quest could continue unhindered, now that this innocent bystander was safe once again.

His psychological training screamed to him that this was so, that he was substituting the living, breathing woman who stood before him for the one he had sought for so many years. He *wanted* it to be true, because anything else would seem like a betrayal of the one who was still missing.

But it wasn't true, and when he stood by his car at Memorial Bridge in Bethesda, only a few months later, he finally accepted it. His partner had been taken again, and the people holding her were demanding that the woman he thought was Samantha be returned, in exchange for Scully's freedom.

Mulder could have walked away, then. He'd found his sister -- or he thought he had - and he could have refused to make the deal, on the very sound principle that it never paid to negotiate when you were under duress. Scully was an FBI agent, after all, and she knew the risks of their mutual profession. She also knew and understood that no Hostage Rescue Team would ever, under any circumstances, trade a civilian for a special agent. If Mulder had really, truly been as single-minded in the pursuit and rescue of Samantha as he believed himself to be, it would have been an easy decision to make.

And it had been an easy decision. But he hadn't chosen Samantha. He'd chosen Scully.

He'd never regretted it, but it had taken him more years and endless heartache before he'd finally faced up to himself and articulated the reason why, at least in his own mind.

Samantha wasn't worth saving, if he didn't have Scully with him while he did it. The *world* wasn't worth saving, if Dana Scully wasn't in it.

It was as simple as that.

"It's a beautiful evening."

Scully's voice was low and meditative as she finally broke the silence. Mulder turned towards her, and watched her as she continued to stare out at the mountaintop, now barely visible as the last vestiges of sunlight were banished from the world. It *was* beautiful, he thought. But not beautiful enough to hold his attention when Scully was near.

"Have you ever been mountain climbing, Mulder?"

He smiled at her question, and nodded. There were so many things they still didn't know about each other; things both big and small. Things most couples would spend a lifetime learning. He and Scully didn't have a lifetime, though; they had only rare, brief moments of quiet, like this one.

Moments snatched beneath the shadow of the sword.

"Once," he said at last. "I did climb a mountain once. The first summer when I was at Oxford, a group of us went to the Alps for a couple of weeks."

"I never have," she replied, still gazing out into the distance. "I've always wanted to. Did you reach the top?"

"No," he said, with a shake of the head. "We tried, but we didn't quite make it. We got to within a couple thousand feet of the peak, but we ran out of time and had to turn back."

"That's very sad," she said quietly, her voice quivering slightly.

"It was," he agreed. "I always meant to go back and try again, but the next summer ... well, I was with Phoebe then, and she wouldn't have liked it. And then I was at Quantico, and Patterson recruited me, and somehow there was never any time. But I've always wished I'd gone back."

"You still could, you know." At last, she turned to face him. It was now so dark that he could barely see her face, but he could still make out the unshed tears in her eyes. "It's never too late, Mulder. You could go back. *We* could go back. We could find a mountain and climb it together. We just have to want to do it."

"We could, Scully," he said solemnly, reaching out and taking both her hands. "We could do that, and no one would stop us, or think less of us. God knows we've earned it. But then who would do the work? Who would see that what needed to get done, got done?"

Scully sighed, and her shoulders slumped a little. She smiled, but it was bittersweet. "No one would," she answered. "So I guess that's that, huh?"

"I guess so," he replied regretfully. He turned once again to look at the mountain, now a dark shadow against the evening sky. "But we can stop and look for a few minutes, every now and then. And maybe someday-"

"Let's not talk about someday," she interrupted, stepping around in front of him and putting her hand over his mouth. "Please, let's not." She seemed to be struggling to find the words, and Mulder was once more amazed at the changes that were sweeping over his partner. Two months ago, she wouldn't have even tried to tell him what she was feeling.

Finally, in a very low voice, she finished, "We have to live in the present. It hurts too much to do anything else."

//It hurts too much to dream.// The words were unspoken, but crystal clear.

Mulder nodded in silent acceptance of her request, and she took her hand away, and turned once more to face the mountain. He slipped his arms around her waist and drew her close against him, her back against his chest, his chin resting on top of her head, and for a few minutes the two of them stood together in silence, watching the black, mysterious bulk of the mountain.

At long last, she stepped out of his embrace, took his hand, and led the way back to the car.

Chapter Five

Residence of Charles and Phyllis Donnelly
Boulder, Colorado
Sunday, May 28, 2000
11:01 p.m.

The house was a smoking ruin. Mulder couldn't honestly say that he was surprised. Somehow, it had been inevitable that they would arrive too late.

"You have to be careful where you step," the sheriff's deputy was saying, as he led the two agents across the wreckage-strewn landscape, past and around more than a dozen emergency services workers, who were apparently still engaged in the search for survivors. "There are still some hot spots, and some of those pools of liquid are aviation fuel."

Mulder nodded silently, and saw Scully's head also bob in understanding. Her face was a cool, professional mask - just as it had been ever since they heard the first report on the radio, a couple of hours ago. And he didn't have a clue what she was thinking.

According to the radio report, a small, private plane had crashed into this isolated home on the outskirts of Boulder.

No further details had been available at the time; no word on survivors - or the lack of survivors. The initial story hadn't even included the names of the pilot or the homeowner.

But it didn't have to. Mulder knew who it would turn out to be. And from the way she'd shut herself down after hearing the news, it was clear that Scully did, too.

Mulder allowed his gaze to drift across the scene as they walked. If anything, he had underestimated the level of destruction, from what they'd heard on the radio. All that remained of the house was the foundation, and part of one wall, blackened by smoke and exposure to heat. An odd, shadowy shape, vaguely cylindrical, rested against that wall -- or more properly, the wall rested against it - and after a moment Mulder realized it was the crumpled fuselage of the plane.

"It just went up like a fireball," the deputy continued, as they came to a halt about twenty feet from the ruins of the house. "There was one witness. He said the plane crashed into the house, and the whole place blew apart, almost like a bomb was dropped on it."

"Is there any evidence of that?" Scully asked quietly. Her face was calm; so very calm. Almost eerily so. "Any evidence of explosives or incendiaries, I mean."

"We don't know," the man said, shaking his head. "The NTSB told us not to touch anything, beyond what was needed for public safety and to rescue survivors, if any. They have a crew on the way already. Should be here in a few hours."

"This doesn't fit the profile," Mulder commented, looking thoughtfully at the carnage around them, and trying to suppress concern for his partner's emotional state.

"Profile?" the deputy asked.

"Agent Scully and I have been working on something this might tie into," Mulder replied. He waved a hand at the burned out house. "A series of mass killings by fire. But those were done with handheld weapons." He thought briefly about the incidents at Ruskin Dam and El Rico Airbase, then pushed the thoughts away. No time for that now.

"You mean like a flamethrower?" the deputy said, raising his eyebrows in apparent disbelief.

"Something like that," Mulder agreed.

"They might have reasons for using a different methodology this time," Scully said quietly. There was a peculiar flatness in her voice that made Mulder shiver slightly. "After all, we don't know what resources they have available, and if our informant is correct, they've been trying to make these latest events look like a string of unrelated accidents."

"That's true," Mulder replied. "But that *also* doesn't fit their past behavior. These people aren't long on 'subtle'."

His partner nodded in reluctant agreement, and he turned to the deputy again. "Have you recovered any bodies?"

"Four so far," the man replied. "One male adult in the plane, and one male adult and two children in the rubble from the house. We're assuming that the two adults are the pilot and the father of the children. We're still looking for the mother."

"Are you sure she was home when this happened?" Mulder asked.

"Until we find the last body, no," the deputy answered with a shrug. "But the family owned two cars, and they're both here. And it's Sunday evening on a holiday weekend, so the smart money is that they were all home together."

Mulder nodded again, but before he could say anything, Scully responded, in very low tones, "I'd like to see those bodies."

Mulder winced at her words, but he knew there was no point in arguing. This was what they had come for, after all.

And in the event, it was just as bad as he'd been expecting.

Four corpses were laid out on the ground, charred and burned beyond any hope of visual identification. Mulder wondered idly how the deputy had known that the two adults were male, but then decided he didn't really want to know.

He'd never been really comfortable with this part of the job, although he continued to force himself to attend Scully's autopsies from time to time, just to show himself ... something. He wasn't quite sure what.

Scully's reaction, of course, was a different matter. She had never in Mulder's recollection shown the slightest sign of squeamishness or discomfort, even when faced with the most gruesomely decayed corpses imaginable. Now she was pulling on a pair of latex gloves and kneeling next to the smallest of the four, her grim, professional mask firmly in place.

"What time did this happen?" Scully asked, not taking her eyes from the body in front of her. "About three hours ago, right?"

"The first call came in to 911 at 8:14 p.m.," the deputy replied, his voice very quiet. Mulder saw Scully glancing reflexively at her watch - And the bodies were gone.

For a few seconds, Mulder stood perfectly still, staring at the empty stretch of grass where the four burned corpses had just been resting, his mind refusing to accept what he'd just seen. Despite all he and Scully had been through and seen in the past seven years, a part of him was screaming that things didn't just disappear into thin air, that it couldn't happen. Nothing vanishes without a trace - "Fuck."

Scully's voice, low and steady, brought him back to reality, and he turned his gaze to his partner. She was still kneeling on the ground, staring at her watch.

"Scully?" she didn't respond, but remained still and silent for a few more seconds. Abruptly, she rose to her feet and began stripping off her gloves.

"Scully?" Still she didn't respond, and he had to repeat her name a third time before she finally turned to look at him.

"Let's go, Mulder," she said quietly. "There's nothing left to look at." And she turned and strode rapidly back towards their car.

He caught up with her just as she reached the yellow crime scene tape; automatically, he held it up so that she could duck under it, and then followed her again as she walked briskly down the rural lane that led away from the house.

They had been forced to park some distance away because of all the emergency vehicles.

"Missing time," Scully said flatly, as Mulder finally fell in step next to her. He felt his eyes widening, but before he could reply, she went on, in carefully controlled tones, "Nine minutes. I was looking at my watch when it happened."

"Jesus." That was all he could think of to say. Jesus. "Then-"

"They took them," Scully continued, her voice still flat and emotionless. "They took the bodies, and there's not a damned thing we can do about it."

Mulder shook his head, not in denial, but in despair of finding anything useful to say to her. Damn it, he should be able to think of *something*. He knew from bitter, firsthand experience what it was like to have evidence snatched away like this. And this case was particularly galling, and *very* personal - "Crawford."

Once again, Scully's voice drew Mulder out of his thoughts.

He glanced briefly at her, and saw that she was staring ahead, into the darkness. He turned his own gaze in that direction - and froze as he saw Kurt Crawford, standing next to their rented Mercedes.

"What the hell is going on here?"

Scully didn't even try to keep the anger from her voice as she stalked up to Crawford. The rational part of her was urging restraint, but she was too tired and her emotions had been yanked in too many different directions.

"Did you hear me?" she repeated, as she came to a stop in front of the man. "What the hell just happened?"

Crawford's eyes were liquid and sympathetic, but Scully didn't believe it for a minute. What little goodwill she'd felt for the man had already been expended. "I was afraid this might happen," he murmured, slowly shaking his head. "But I hoped that with my warning you might arrive in time.

I'm so terribly sorry."

"You knew this would happen," she accused. "You knew!"

"It happened in the other instances," he admitted solemnly. "As I said, I'd hoped that you-"

"Why didn't you tell us?" She moved forward into his personal space, but he didn't step back. He just tilted his head down, and continued looking at her with apparent sorrow. "And what the hell good would it have done if we *had* arrived a couple of hours earlier? Are you saying we could have *stopped* this somehow?"

Crawford sighed, and shook his head again. "I'm sorry," he repeated softly. "I told you what I thought you were ready to accept; what you were ready to believe."

"Bullshit," she pronounced succinctly. "You told me - you told *us* what you wanted us to know." She hesitated, trying to get her thoughts in order. There was nothing left here; that was certain. The local police and the NTSB would do all the routine follow up, and Skinner would be able to obtain the investigation reports from them. The only real piece of evidence - the body of a child who might have been a hybrid, and might have been her daughter - was gone. "Get in the car," she said, nodding sharply towards the Mercedes.

"In the car?"

Crawford's eyes widened slightly, but before he could say anything, Scully felt a gentle touch at her elbow. Mulder.

She turned to face him.

"He's a suspect, Mulder. We're not letting him out of our sight until this matter is resolved."

"A suspect?" her partner asked quietly. "How do you figure?"

"He had prior knowledge of a possible criminal act," she said flatly. She tossed her head slightly, trying to shake off the odd feeling that had suddenly settled over her. She and Mulder had been swapping roles more and more frequently since her trip to Africa, but she still wasn't comfortable with her new position. "Prior knowledge, Mulder," she repeated. "That makes him a suspect."

"An act which he reported to us - two law enforcement officers," Mulder pointed out.

"That does not exculpate him," Scully insisted. "If his 'report' was intended to facilitate the criminal act, he remains responsible. And at an absolute minimum, he's still a material witness." Mulder looked at her for a few seconds, uncertainty on his face; finally, he nodded his assent, and she turned back to Crawford. "In the car," she repeated.

The man hesitated only a moment, then nodded slowly. The convertible had no back seat as such, but somehow he managed to tuck himself into the small cargo space behind the passenger section. He shifted slightly, apparently in an effort to find the most comfortable position, and then he was still.

As Scully slid into the driver's seat, she saw a few drops of rain splatter on the windshield, and felt one land on her right wrist. Glancing briefly at the sky, she noted a slight haze, but you couldn't really call it cloud cover; the stars were still visible.

She waited until Mulder had settled into the passenger seat; then she turned the key in the ignition, put the car in gear, and pulled through a quick U-turn, so that they were headed back in the direction of Boulder.

Rochester, Minnesota, lay 900 miles to the east.

Chapter Six

It's dark, and Scully is dying...

Mulder swears at himself, and pushes the thought away. She is *not* going to die; it's impossible, and he will not permit it. That's why he's here, after all, breaking into a fertility clinic in the middle of the night. Alone...

Not quite alone, of course. Byers is with him, and Frohike and Langly are nearby, monitoring the operation. Somehow, that doesn't make him feel any less isolated and exposed, though. And it certainly does nothing to diminish his sense of desperation...

She's dying ... she's dying ... she can't be dying...

//Langly, are you reading this?//

Byers' voice forces Mulder back to reality. They've come to a locked door with a security keypad, and now Byers is listening intently to whatever is being said over his headset. Impatiently, Mulder snatches the headset away from his friend...

//You guys couldn't spring for two of these? Langly, what the hell is going on?// His own voice, irrationally lashing out at the men who are trying to help him, at no small risk to themselves...

//Mulder.// A brief pause, then Langly continues, //This is going to take a moment.//

Mulder wanders away from the door in frustration, leaving Byers to wait and report on Langly's progress. His eyes fall on a list of names, and Scanlon's name is on the list.

Kevin Scanlon, Dr. Kevin Scanlon, the oncologist who's treating Scully...

He can't remember how it happened, but suddenly he's inside the security door. Byers is no longer with him, but in the next instant he remembers that he sent his friend away.

Sent him to warn Scully, and tell her that Scanlon is not to be trusted, that he may be an Angel of Death, a spiritual brother of Josef Mengele...

Kurt Crawford is here, of course - three of him...

//But it was not my employers who did this. In fact, two of my brothers - two of those who you met at the Lombard Clinic - have died in the same manner.//

Mulder shakes his head angrily. He can't think about that right now. Here, today, these men are alive and well.

Whatever fate may await them in the future, at this moment they are his only hope of finding Scully's lifeline. They can save her; they can tell him how to save her. He has to believe that they have the knowledge, because if they don't, there will be no hope at all...

The Crawfords lead him into a vault, a vault filled with dozens or hundreds of metal drawers. Something is not quite right with the room; something is different...

It's the drawers, he realizes. The drawers are too large.

They should be the size of file drawers, but they're not; they look more like morgue compartments. Then one of them begins to slide open, seemingly of its own volition, and Mulder sees that it contains the body of a child. A little girl with short blonde hair and blue eyes that stare up at him sightlessly...

Emily Sim...

//I'm not here to play games, Agent Mulder,// one of the Crawfords says sharply. //You know who's doing this...

they kill by fire. Flames are cleansing; they leave nothing behind that can be resurrected. And now they're killing her children...//

//.... they're killing her children...//

Emily's eyelids flicker, and then her eyes begin to track.

Mulder flinches at the sudden movement, the sudden evidence of awareness, and he has a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. Emily is alive, but she won't be for long. Of that he's certain...

Just like her mother...

He fumbles desperately in his pocket for the vial of green fluid that he stole from the nursing home, but it's not there. Not even the vial of Scully's ova is there, although it should be, and that means Emily's going to die. She's going to die, just as Scully's going to die. She's a miracle, but a miracle that was never meant to be, and he can't find the fucking vial...

//.... they kill by fire. Flames are cleansing...// //... they're killing her children...//

//... they kill by fire...//

"Mulder! Mulder, wake up!"

Mulder shook his head blearily, as his eyes gradually began to focus. For a few seconds he was confused and disoriented. The freezer drawers - where were they? His seat was rocking gently, and vibrating, and there was a humming sound - The car. He was in the car, slouched down in the passenger seat, and Scully was driving. They were on the highway, and it was still dark out. They were on their way to Rochester, Minnesota. He shook his head one more time, and looked inquiringly at his partner.

"We're in western Nebraska," she said, her gaze focused on the highway. "Coming up on North Platte. You were having a dream." She glanced at him briefly. "A nightmare?"

"Yeah," Mulder agreed. "A nightmare." He fell silent, not sure whether he should tell her the details. He cast a glance over his shoulder, and saw Crawford still sitting in the luggage space, looking back at him with a solemn expression on his face.

"We don't require much sleep," the man said offhandedly, as if that answered every possible question. Mulder shook his head, and looked back at Scully.

"He said anything?" he asked, jerking his head in Crawford's general direction.

"Not a word," she replied. "Until now." A moment's silence. Then, hesitantly: "Do you want to tell me about your dream?"

"I ... I'm not sure," Mulder replied. He thought about it for a minute, then went on, "It was just a dream, and I don't want to upset you."

Scully shook her head slightly, and murmured, "It's too late for that." Mulder felt his eyebrows shoot up in surprise at this open declaration of her feelings, but before he had a chance to respond, she went on, "Look, Mulder, I think I've figured some things out while you were asleep. The most important thing I've figured out is that this isn't about Emily."

Mulder's eyebrows rose even higher, but he didn't challenge her statement; he simply nodded for her to continue.

"I think I really am over Emily," she said quietly, calmly. "And I don't think I ever really loved her - not the way I thought I did. Not as a daughter. I empathized with her; I felt sorry for a little girl who had been tortured and abused and finally left to die. But ... I ... did ... not ... love her. Not the way a mother loves a daughter."

Mulder reached out and covered one of her hands as it gripped the steering wheel. "Scully," he said, very softly.

"It's okay to grieve." He was uncomfortably aware of Crawford, who still sat in the luggage space, watching them.

To hell with him, though; this was for Scully.

She nodded, and he saw that now there were unshed tears in her eyes. "I do grieve," she replied. "I have and I will, every day for the rest of my life. But just because she carried my genetic code, that doesn't mean she was my daughter. She was Marshal and Roberta Sim's daughter. They were the ones who raised her and cared for her and loved her. I loved the *idea* of Emily; they loved the ... the actuality."

Scully paused and took a breath, then continued. "This also isn't about my own *barrenness*," she said, putting a little stress on that last word, as she always did on the rare occasions that she discussed it. "And it's not about the callous sons of bitches who used me and defiled me and took my fertility away from me, forever. I refuse to play the victim, and I won't allow them the ... the romanticism of being villains. I won't *let* this be about *them*."

Mulder nodded, and asked, "So what *is* it about, Scully?"

Scully didn't answer. It was a rhetorical question, and they both knew it, and in its wake, silence once again descended on the car. And after a while, despite his best intentions, Mulder found himself drifting back to sleep.

Eastbound on Interstate 80
Approaching Grand Island, NE
Monday, May 29, 2000
5:32 a.m.

//So what *is* it about, Scully?//

She hadn't answered Mulder's question; not in words. The answer was in both their minds, though. A plain and prosaic answer - at least, as prosaic as anything could be, in the world that they inhabited.

A child was at risk. Nine others had already died horrible deaths, and a tenth was threatened. She and Mulder could no more turn away from such a thing than they could stop breathing. The very basis for all of their work was one lost little girl, and in Scully's mind that little girl had in turn gradually come to stand for all the other innocents who went about their daily business, never suspecting the shadow that had fallen over their lives.

God willing, none of them would ever have to know.

"You're driving a little fast, aren't you?"

Scully glanced briefly in the rear view mirror, to see Kurt Crawford looking at her calmly from his place in back. He'd scarcely moved since they'd left Boulder, and he'd spoken only a handful of times, never of anything consequential.

Then she glanced down at the speedometer, and saw that the needle was now creeping up towards eighty. She did not slow down.

"This car is built for speed, of course," Crawford continued after a moment. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him running one hand lightly along the back of Mulder's seat, before he added, "That's good. Speed is what's needed in this instance."

"It wouldn't have been quite so necessary, if you had come to us sooner," she replied, keeping her voice calm, and her eyes on the road.

"That is regrettably true," the man answered with a sigh. "Most regrettably true. And again, I'm sorry. But we - my brothers and I - we thought we had matters well in hand."

"Apparently you were mistaken."

"Yes, we were." Crawford was briefly silent, and another half mile or so passed beneath the wheels of the car. "But we were well-intentioned in our error," he said at last. "You must believe that." Another pause. Then, hesitantly: "Do you remember me?"

Scully frowned, not sure where he was going with this. "I remember meeting you," she said. "In Allentown, three years ago."

"That wasn't me," the man replied quietly. "That was one of my brothers. He's dead now." Again he hesitated, before continuing, "I was referring to another time when we met. When you were taken."

His voice was simple and matter-of-fact, as if he were referring to a chance encounter in the park, and it took a few seconds for the words to sink in. Her abduction.

Crawford was talking about her abduction...

Scully's hands tightened on the steering wheel, as unwanted images flashed through her mind: Duane Barry breaking into her home. The long, hot ride in the trunk of his car. The white light, unbelievably bright and painful. Faces peering down at her, cold and impersonal. Pain. Fear. Despair - "I was one of them," Crawford continued flatly, dragging her out of the fragments of her memory. "I was one of the technicians who performed procedures on you. But you don't remember."

"No, I don't," she said, shaking her head sharply and fighting to control her breathing. "I don't remember ... I don't remember you."

"I thought as much," came the sad reply. "It's just as well."

"Why?" The word was out of her mouth before she realized she was going to speak, but she did not regret it. She'd been waiting for years to address that one question to someone - anyone. And now the opportunity was before her, and she would not allow it to go by. But Crawford remained silent, and so she repeated, "Why?"

"That's a difficult question to answer," he said at last, very slowly. There was a hollowness in his voice, now, as he continued, "I don't know if it's possible for you to understand what it means to have been *made*, rather than born as an expression of love." He paused, then added, "It makes one feel as if ... as if God is overtly present, watching your every move, always ready to judge, and to act on His judgment. It is not a comfortable feeling, nor is it a life designed to lead to independent thought and action."

Scully wasn't sure what to make of that statement. The fact of God's presence in her life was something she had been raised to believe in without question, but that faith had ebbed as she grew older - and now the events of the past year had shaken and battered the fraying remnants almost to destruction. Despite all that, she had never felt that God was an oppressive force in the universe. Even now, on rare occasions, she could sometimes hear the still, soft voice - "It's not the same." Scully glanced again in the rear view mirror; Crawford was staring at her intently, his eyes burning with something dark and horrifying. "You're thinking of your God - of Jehovah, the God of the Bible.

You're thinking of your Christ, who spoke of love. But I tell you now that it is not the same thing at all."

"Why not?" she asked. "What's different?"

"Imagine for a moment that your God truly walked the Earth," Crawford said flatly. "Imagine that He was real and corporeal, and that at any moment He might shake His head in disgust and terminate you, leaving nothing behind."

He suddenly leaned forward and brushed his fingertips against the scar on the back of her neck, and Scully had to fight herself not to pull away. Very softly, his breath hot against her ear: "Imagine that you had no soul, and that *this* meant not your salvation, but eternal servitude and eventual obliteration. And imagine, finally, that this was all that you had ever known."

As abruptly as it had appeared, the horror in Crawford's eyes vanished, and he chuckled quietly as he dropped his hand back into his lap. A few seconds later, he was once again the calm, affable man that he had been in Las Vegas, as he added, "Your God allows free will in His creatures. Mine does not."

"But you're here," she pointed out. It wasn't what she wanted to say, but somehow those were the only words she could find.

"Yes, I'm here," he replied quietly. "They didn't think this would matter, so they did not forbid it. Curious, isn't it? That their greatest strength - their carefully cultivated lack of passion - should also be their greatest weakness?" He closed his eyes, then, and leaned back as best he could in his cramped compartment. "In any case, I thought it only fair that you should know."

After that it was quiet in the car.

Chapter Seven

Residence of Timothy and Erin McIlwaine
Rochester, Minnesota
Monday, May 29, 2000
2:47 p.m.

"Agent Scully, I'm afraid I don't understand your purpose here." Timothy McIlwaine was short, in his mid-30s, with brown hair and a premature bald spot. Scully suspected that his features were pretty bland most of the time, but at the moment he looked ... well, "cornered" was the best word she could come up with. His wife, he'd said, had gone to run a few errands, and would be back shortly.

"It's nothing to be alarmed about, Mr. McIlwaine," she assured him, as soothingly as she could manage, considering how short she was on sleep. She glanced briefly past his shoulder, into the backyard, where Mulder was crouched down by the swing set, talking to several children, including Kyle Aaron McIlwaine, the boy they had come to save. For just an instant, she felt something twist in her chest at the sight of her partner surrounded by children, but she quickly suppressed it. There was no time for that now.

"We just want to ask you a few questions," she continued, taking the man's arm and drawing him towards the footpath that led to the front yard, and away from the others. "It will only take a few minutes."

"What this all about?" McIlwaine's unease seemed to increase as she took him farther from his children, but Scully kept walking, continuing to exert slight pressure on his elbow as she did so. Finally they rounded the corner of the house; a few paces more and they were standing in the driveway, next to the Mercedes. She saw Crawford leaning against a telephone pole a short distance down the block.

He looked bored.

"Agent Mulder and I are in the midst of an investigation," Scully said, turning her attention back to McIlwaine. "I'm afraid that due to the nature of the case, I can't discuss the details, but we've come across some evidence that points in the direction of your son, Kyle."

"Evidence of what?" he asked. "Perhaps I should call my lawyer."

Scully took a deep breath, and tried to contain her temper.

She'd slept only two hours in the past thirty, and had got that much only because Mulder absolutely insisted on driving the last 150 miles himself, after having slept most of the night.

"There's really no need for concern," Scully repeated, hating herself for the lie, but knowing that at this juncture it was necessary. "The evidence I spoke of does indicate some ... some issues involving your son, but there's nothing at all to suggest any criminality on the part of any member of your family."

The man looked at her for a long moment, and she could almost hear the gears turning in his head. She and Mulder had talked over the apparent fact that Emily's adoptive parents had had some conscious knowledge - possibly culpable knowledge - of the experiments that had been conducted on the little girl, but they'd never been able to determine the actual level of the Sims' complicity. Which left them guessing as to just how much the McIlwaines knew about Kyle's true heritage and probable fate.

"Ask your questions," McIlwaine said finally, obviously with great reluctance, and Scully nodded in silent recognition of the words he'd left unspoken: //Be brief.//

She paused for just a moment to gather her thoughts. Damn, but she was tired; too tired for this. She and Mulder had discussed their strategy, before he fell asleep on the drive from Boulder, but it had been a long, tiring trip, and she had had too little sleep. She wished they could have waited even a few hours - but of course, there was no time. And so she began.

"Mr. McIlwaine, how did you and your wife come to adopt Kyle?"

The man's eyes narrowed. "I thought it might be about that," he replied. "As soon as you mentioned Kyle, I suspected it." He jabbed a finger at Scully's chest. "But let me tell you, this adoption is rock-solid legal. I've read about Baby M and Elian Gonzalez, but if you think you can get Kyle away from us, you've got another think coming."

"Please, Mr. McIlwaine," Scully said, trying not to let the frustration show on her face or in her voice. McIlwaine was not being completely rational - but whether this was the normal reaction of a parent protecting his child, or something more, Scully wasn't sure. "This isn't anything like that," she went on. "My partner and I have no desire to interfere with your family in any way. There *is* a potential problem, but we want to help."

She paused, but McIlwaine did not respond. "Please, sir," she added. "You said you'd answer my questions. Agent Mulder will keep an eye on the children." She felt another twinge in her chest, as she remembered her partner making faces at Emily and asking her if she'd ever seen a Mr. Potato Head. "He's very good with them."

There was another brief silence. Finally, the man's shoulders slumped, and he sighed. "Fine," he said, his voice tinged with resentment. "You want to know how we adopted Kyle? It's all on the public record, anyway." He stuck his hands in his pockets and turned and started walking down the driveway to the street. Scully followed.

"It was the summer of '95," he went on. "Erin and I had decided we'd had all the children of our own that we wanted, or should have." He colored slightly and shrugged. "I got a vasectomy after Jamie, our third. But we both love kids, and we got to thinking that there were lots of children needing parents who didn't have them. So we went to the state agency and asked about it. We already knew that the waiting period for a healthy infant was years long, but we were asking about special needs children. You know? Disabled kids. Like that."

Scully nodded. "Yes, I know." The two of them had reached the foot of the driveway. McIlwaine hesitated, seeing Crawford still leaning against the telephone poll a few feet away, then turned the other direction and started walking down the block, away from the house.

"Anyway," he said, "we put in an application, thinking we would still have to wait a while - they warned us that we probably would - but much to our surprise, it wasn't more than a few weeks before we got a call from a social worker. About a kid whose birth mother was a crackhead, and had abandoned him in a church somewhere. And we went in to take a look at him and go through his file - and we fell in love with him."

"Kyle," Scully said. It wasn't a question.

McIlwaine nodded, and Scully noted that he seemed to be loosening up as he talked about his son. "Kyle," he confirmed. "He was about nine months old when we first saw him, and, well ... to make a long story short, they put us through their review process, and the next thing we knew, we were bringing him home. On probation, of course. They keep an eye on you at first; they want to make sure you're treating the kid right, you know? But we loved him right from the start; there was never any trouble."

The man's face softened, and he stopped walking and turned to face her. "We love all of our children, Agent Scully. But Kyle ... I don't know if I can describe it. There's something special about him. His brothers and his sister all love him, too; they dote on him. We couldn't have asked for a better son."

Scully nodded, feeling a sudden tightness in her throat.

She was past this, she told herself firmly. She might still have some residual wistfulness over the life she'd given up, but that's all it was - nostalgia. She'd made her choice, and she was happy with it. She asked, "Does Kyle have any special medical needs?"

"Of course," McIlwaine responded. "I told you; his birth mother was a crackhead. We have to take him into a clinic in Minneapolis a couple of times a month for treatment."

"What sort of treatment?" she asked, already knowing what the answer would be. "And what's the name of the clinic?"

"Injections," he said. "They said that his birth mother's drug habit damaged his genes. But as long as he gets his shots, he's fine."

Scully frowned. "Cocaine doesn't cause genetic defects in unborn children, Mr. McIlwaine," she said. "There were some early studies that seemed to suggest that, but-"

"All I know is what they tell me," the man interrupted, shaking his head. "And I *do* know that Kyle needs those shots. I saw what happened the couple of times he didn't get them on time." Abruptly, he looked past her, and his expression became one of surprise - and anger. "What the hell?" he asked, pushing by her and breaking into a run. "Here to help us, are you?"

"Mr. McIlwaine?" Scully found herself running after him, her own eyes widening in surprise as she saw four police cars approaching at high speed. As she watched, one of them jerked to a stop in front of the McIlwaine home, while the other three continued down the block.

"All residents are cautioned to remain in their homes," a man's voice boomed, coming from one of the prowl cars. "This neighborhood has been ordered sealed and an immediate curfew has been imposed. There is no cause for alarm, as long as you remain calm, stay in your homes and allow emergency services workers to do their jobs. Repeat-"

Scully was abruptly knocked off her feet, as another body collided with hers. She hit the ground with a dull thud, and for a few seconds she had to just lie still, trying to catch her breath. She was urgently aware of her attacker reaching under her armpits and dragging her somewhere, and she felt a sharp prickling, and realized she was being carried into a bush of some sort. Finally, she regained her strength and started to struggle.

"Stay calm." Crawford's voice, murmuring in her ear. "You don't want to attract their attention."

Scully shook him off, and rolled to her hands and knees, scrunching around awkwardly until she caught sight of the McIlwaine residence again, partially concealed by the leaves and branches. The police car in front of the house had now been joined by a van that proclaimed itself as belonging to a HAZMAT response team. As she watched, the back doors of the van opened, and several people dressed in isolation gear climbed awkwardly down to the street, before hurrying in the direction of the house. One of them wore a pair of large tanks on his back - "That's the flamethrower," Crawford said calmly. "I'm afraid we're too late after all."

Scully felt her eyes widening further, and before the man's words had fully sunk in, she was trying to scramble to her feet - only to be knocked to the ground again, as Crawford once more tackled her and sent her sprawling.

"Damn you!" she hissed. His body now completely covered hers, and he was holding her down with surprising strength. "Let me up! I've got to help them." Mulder, she thought. She had to save Mulder. No one else really mattered.

"It's too late," Crawford said firmly, sadly. Looking up, she saw the by-now-familiar expression of sorrow engraved on his face. "I'm so sorry, but there isn't anything you can do."

Scully forced herself to relax for a moment and closed her eyes. He had her at a disadvantage, but she could get herself out of it, and she could do it in time. She *had* to do it in time. No matter how strong this man was, it was highly unlikely that he'd had the training and experience she had in hand-to-hand combat. She forced herself to relax further, and took a deep breath that she devoutly hoped sounded like a sigh of resignation - And Dana Scully exploded, bucking one knee up into Crawford's groin without warning. In the same instant, she applied pressure in two key places, and suddenly his superior upper body strength was working against him, forcing him to roll off and land next to her with an undignified grunt. She paused only long enough to deliver a powerful blow to his solar plexus, and then she was on her feet and running, drawing her weapon as she ran.

The house was only twenty yards away, but out of the corner of her eye she saw a flash of blue, and realized one of the cops was closing in on her, shouting something that she couldn't be bothered to listen to. She turned her attention to the front, and saw one of the HAZMAT workers toss something in a basement window and duck to one side; a fraction of a second later there was a dull boom, and flames erupted from the window - And Scully felt herself being lifted off her feet. For a few seconds she thought Crawford had caught her again, or the cop, but there was no one touching her; she was simply suspended in the air perhaps ten feet off the ground. Her vision blurred, there was a horrible buzzing in her ears, and she felt wave after wave of nausea pass through her body. The whole world seemed to be shaking around her, and she tasted blood in her mouth as her teeth snapped against the tip of her tongue. She was short of breath; her heart was racing, and dear God, where was *Mulder* - Everything went black.

Chapter Eight

Time and Location Unknown

Mulder awoke suddenly, to find himself lying on the floor of a plain, concrete cell, with no recollection of how he'd got there.

The last thing he recalled was standing in the McIlwaine's back yard with the children, being held at gunpoint by men in police uniforms as he watched the approach of three people in isolation suits, one with a pair of tanks strapped to his back. He remembered a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, as he realized who these people were and what was probably about to happen. Instinctively, he scooped Kyle McIlwaine up into his arms, telling himself it was because Kyle was the smallest of the children. And he remembered praying that, somehow, Scully was safe.

Then an explosion had erupted from the basement of the house, causing the ground to shake and almost knocking Mulder off his feet. He'd felt Kyle slipping from his grasp, and heard screams of terror from all four children - And suddenly he was here. Wherever "here" was.

Slowly and carefully, he pushed himself to a sitting position. Much to his surprise, he seemed to be suffering no ill effects from the experience - not even the sore muscles and stiff joints he might have expected after sleeping on a cold concrete floor.

It took him only seconds to take stock of his surroundings.

The cell was barely large enough to lie down in, perhaps six feet by eight, with a ceiling so low that Mulder suspected he would not be able to stand upright. There were no furnishings or decorations. The only things marring the starkness of the walls was a single light bulb, burning brightly behind a metal lattice work in the center of the ceiling, and a formidable-appearing metal door set in one wall. A few seconds later he confirmed what he'd known would be the truth: the door was securely locked from the outside.

And he was naked. They hadn't just taken his badge, his SIG and his other belongings; they'd also taken every stitch of clothing, leaving him with absolutely nothing that he could use as a tool or a weapon. Obviously, he wasn't getting out of here anytime soon - not without help, at any rate. At an absolute minimum, he was going to have to wait until his captors opened the damned door, and hope that an opportunity would present itself.

In the meantime, where was Scully? The question had been hovering in his mind ever since he awakened; now, with his environment completely cataloged, it immediately pushed its way to the forefront.

Where was Scully?

The last he'd seen of her, she was walking slowly away with Timothy McIlwaine, trying to find out what she could about how the couple had come to adopt Kyle. He and Scully hadn't been entirely sure what that conversation was going to yield, but there really hadn't been any other way to proceed.

So now, where was she? Had she and McIlwaine managed to stroll far enough from the house to escape whatever it was that had happened? Or had they been accosted in the front yard, and subsequently been caught in the same net? And what about Kyle, and the other children?

There was no way to know, and the more he considered the matter, the more Mulder felt the old, familiar urge to do something - *anything*. He wanted to bang his fists on the door, and start yelling. Anything to generate some activity and get a little attention. In times past, he probably would have done just that.

But things had changed. Just as Scully had gradually become more open, and displayed less of the kneejerk skepticism that had been her hallmark for so many years, Mulder had found his own behavior maturing, and becoming more responsible. Raising hell at this point was unlikely to accomplish anything; he'd either be completely ignored, or he'd be inviting pointless mistreatment on the part of his captors. Neither of those things would be of any benefit in trying to find out what had happened to Scully - or even in winning his own freedom.

But damn, it would feel good just to cut loose...

With a sigh of resignation, Mulder settled down on the floor again to wait.

Scully awoke slowly, and at first all she was aware of was a low thrumming. It was not quite a sound; it was more of a feeling. A sensation. Something originating outside, but resonating inside her body as well.

It was the car's engine, of course, purring quietly as they sped along the highway. For a few drowsy seconds she thought they must not have arrived in Rochester yet; that the strange, disturbing images in her head were the remnants of a dream. A nightmare in which anonymous men threatened the lives of children, for no reason other than their own convenience, and Mulder - //Let me tell you something you should know.// The voice of the man Mulder had called Deep Throat suddenly echoed in her mind. //In 1987, a group of children from a southern state were given what their parents thought was a routine inoculation. What they were injected with was a clone DNA from the contents of that package you're holding, as a test.

That's the kind of people you're dealing with.//

She hadn't believed him then; not really. It had taken more time and experience - it had taken her own abduction, the deaths of Penny Northern and the other MUFON women, and then finding and losing Emily - before the lesson had truly sunk in, and she'd finally accepted the thing she had not wanted to believe on that warm spring evening during her first year with the X-Files.

The fact that there really was evil in the world, and that sometimes it manifested itself in human beings.

And no. It hadn't been a dream.

She sighed in resignation, and opened her eyes. She was in the passenger seat of the Mercedes, and Kurt Crawford was driving. The sun was low on the horizon directly ahead, indicating that many hours had passed, and that they were driving west. A sign flashed by: Interstate 94. What the hell?

"We're in North Dakota," Crawford said cheerfully. "And we are, as the police like to say, in pursuit of an alien spacecraft."

"Alien spacecraft?" Scully shook her head, trying to clear the muzziness from her mind. "Where's Mulder?" she asked, fear suddenly descending on her in some sort of strange, delayed reaction. The last thing she remembered was running towards the house, and then there'd been an explosion - "To the best of my knowledge, Agent Mulder is alive and well," Crawford replied, his attention still focused on the highway in front of them. "At least, as well as can be expected, considering whose custody he's in."

"*Where is he?*" she demanded. By the barest of margins, she kept herself from swearing at the man. That wouldn't help Mulder, and it wouldn't help her *find* Mulder. Control; she had to maintain control -

"I believe he's near Minot," the man replied. "That's based on the departure trajectory, of course."

"Departure trajectory? How-"

"I was outside the affected area," Crawford explained. "I was able to see the ship. Not well; they were using what a science fiction movie would probably call a 'cloaking device'. But well enough." He added, "You were on the edge of the field; the boundary between normal time and the effect you refer to as 'missing time'. That's why you had the experience you did."

"You knew," she murmured. There were easily a dozen important implications in the man's simple statement, but for the moment the only one she could latch onto was that, somehow, he had known in advance that this was going to happen.

"I didn't know," Crawford corrected. "I hoped. But it was an educated hope, based on what happened in Boulder. And it's really just as well, isn't it?" he asked, glancing briefly at her. "Had they not arrived when they did, your partner and those children would most certainly be dead."

"Who were they?" she asked. Her thoughts were in a whirl, as she tried to digest the things he was telling her. Mulder. She had to keep the focus on Mulder. "And how can you know where they went? If all you have is a departure trajectory-"

"I have *two* departure trajectories," the man said. "I was able to make similar observations in Boulder. All I had to do was determine where the two lines intersected."

"And that's Minot." It was a statement, not a question.

"Southwest of Minot," Crawford replied. "A town called Makoti. We should be there in a few more hours."

Time and Location Unknown

For a while, Mulder tried counting his heartbeats in order to mark the passage of time. Seventy-two beats per minute -- maybe less, since he was so completely inactive. Call it sixty-five beats per minute, and that meant three thousand, nine hundred per hour, and ninety-three thousand, six hundred in a day. If he kept it up for a week, that would be six hundred fifty-five thousand, two hundred.

He couldn't keep at it for very long, of course; not even thirty minutes at a stretch. He didn't really expect to.

Counting heartbeats was just a diversion, one of the many games he'd taught himself over the years. Originally devised to help pass the long, lonely hours when nightmares and insomnia came to call, he'd subsequently adapted it for use during stakeouts and other enforced periods of inactivity.

Now he was using it in a cell. Not the first time for that, either, he thought, shuddering slightly as memories of the trip to Tunguska floated in and out of his mind. Still, thinking about that was better than thinking about his current situation. At least that time, he'd been reasonably sure that Scully was thousands of miles away, and safe from harm - as safe as either of them ever was, anyway.

God. Scully. Where was she? He replayed the scene once again in his mind, watching out of the corner of his eye as she and Timothy McIlwaine disappeared around the corner of the house. How long had they been gone? Ten minutes?

Fifteen? He hadn't noticed, most of his attention being focused on entertaining the children.

It couldn't have been more than fifteen minutes, he decided.

But even in that short amount of time, and even at the slow, ambling pace they'd been using when he last saw them, Scully and McIlwaine could easily have put enough distance between themselves and the house that they would have been in no danger. Or they could just have been standing on the front lawn. There was no way for him to know, although surely McIlwaine wouldn't have gone far from his children - not if he was any kind of father at all.


Suddenly, he heard a humming noise coming from the door, and Mulder shook himself, driving the thoughts away. In the next instant he was scrambling to his feet, even as the door was swinging open. A figure stood framed in the doorway, a *human* figure, a woman, but it wasn't Scully; she was too tall to be Scully.

It was Cassandra Spender.

"Agent Mulder," she said, stepping into the room. She carried a tray of food, and Mulder was suddenly so hungry that it wasn't until after she'd knelt down to set it on the floor that he realized she was as naked as he was. "I hope this is all right," she went on, as she straightened up again. "They don't pay much attention to our needs, so it's kind of catch as catch can."

"I'm sure it's fine," he replied, glancing briefly at the tray. Some crackers, a couple of apples, and a sandwich of some sort. He turned his attention back to Cassandra, and for a few seconds had to struggle to keep his gaze on her face, rather than allowing it to slip downwards. He couldn't keep his lips from quirking slightly, as he said, "I hate to belabor the obvious, but where am I?"

"I don't know," she answered calmly. "And it's okay to look; everyone does, at first. After a while, people stop noticing."

Mulder swallowed and nodded, but he lost none of his self-consciousness; if anything, he was even more acutely aware than before that he was alone in a room with a woman, and that they both were naked.

"They don't allow us clothes," Cassandra went on after a moment. "They like to be able to see everything - and of course, this is one way of discouraging us from running away. I don't know where we are, but I do know it got very cold last winter." She gave a bitter smile. "Besides, it's more convenient that way when they want to conduct an experiment."

Mulder nodded again, and the mention of experiments allowed him to find his focus once more. "Scully," he said, struggling to keep the renewed sense of fear from his voice.

"Where is she? Is she here, too?"

"Dana?" Cassandra frowned in apparent puzzlement. "I haven't seen her. You were brought in a few hours ago, along with four young children. Was she with you when you were taken?"

"Not exactly," he replied. "But she was nearby. I thought maybe..." He let his voice trail off; he wasn't quite sure *what* he'd thought.

At that moment, the room was rocked by a powerful explosion.

Chapter Nine

Near Makoti, North Dakota
Monday, May 29, 2000
11:24 p.m.

It took longer to reach their destination than Scully had hoped. After leaving I-94, Crawford had followed a seemingly endless series of state highways, and eventually county roads, some of them narrow and paved with gravel, and looking as if they had not had serious work done on them in fifty years.

"Time is still of the essence," he'd explained, in answer to her questions. "But we must take precautions that our approach is not observed by our adversaries."

Scully mulled his words in silence. She was bleakly aware that she was putting herself - and Mulder - in the hands of a man whose loyalties were at best uncertain. Even before he had admitted that he'd participated in the experiments that were conducted on her, she'd known that at the very least he was an accessory after the fact.

This man, she reminded herself, had contributed to the sorts of crimes for which people had been hanged at Nuremberg.

Not just crimes against her, either, but against countless other innocent people. Penny Northern. Cassandra Spender.

Emily Sim. Even Duane Barry had been a victim. And all in pursuit of ... what? Mulder had told her of the Smoker's claim that he acted from righteous motives; Mulder even seemed to think the old man had been sincere. But was that enough?

//We forestalled an alien invasion... We saved billions of lives.//

Scully could hear the words in her head, almost as clearly as if she'd been present when they were spoken. Mulder had been obsessed with that conversation for weeks after the El Rico massacre, and had repeated them to her countless times, until they were imprinted on her memory.

//We saved billions of lives.//

But even if the Smoker was right, that didn't justify the things he and his colleagues had done. Did it? The ends couldn't justify the means, she reminded herself, because the ends were *part* of the means. How you fought the battle was as important - if not more important - than whether you won or lost. She'd always believed that, and she wasn't about to change her opinion now. C.G.B. Spender and his cohorts were evil men who had to be opposed, and Kurt Crawford was part of it.

And yet, at least for the moment, she seemed to have little choice but to work with Crawford. Had she been conscious when he began his pursuit - his alleged pursuit, she corrected - she might have resisted, argued, even fought with him. But by now, what alternative was there? She could have overpowered him; he'd left her weapon in its customary place behind her right hip. But by the time they had driven all the way back to Rochester, she knew from bitter experience that any useful evidence would long since have vanished.

And Crawford did seem to know things, albeit he dispensed information at times and places of his own choosing. It was his tip that had started them on this line of investigation in the first place. That didn't mean that he hadn't lured Mulder into a trap, and was now trying to finish the job by leading her into one, as well. But she had no other leads, and given her current resources, she was at a loss as to how else to proceed.

At last Crawford brought the car to a halt along a quiet country road, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Scully looked at him inquiringly as he switched off the lights and the ignition, and he said simply, "From here, we walk."

And they did walk, away from the road and into the darkness.

The ground was rough and uneven, and covered with light brush, but it was also very flat. Scully tried counting paces to estimate the distance, but her companion's intermittent comments distracted her and made it difficult.

She noticed that Crawford occasionally consulted a small device that he held in his hand, and deduced that it was probably a GPS tracker, but he did not offer to share whatever readings he was receiving. She thought they had walked a little over two miles, though, when he abruptly dropped to the ground.

Automatically, she followed suit. She hadn't heard or seen anything, but she had long ago learned the wisdom of taking cover now and asking questions later. The reflex had saved her life on more than one occasion.

"I think we should crawl from here," Crawford announced in a whisper.

"Why?" she asked. "Did you see something?"

He looked at her for a moment, his face unreadable in the darkness. "You can't feel it, can you?" he said, his voice tinged with melancholy. "There are certain ... resonances generated by living beings, and they vary from species to species. I have been designed to sense those resonances, although not terribly well. We attempted to code this ability into your DNA, as well; you were one of our more promising subjects. Apparently, we were unsuccessful." He shook his head. "So many failures."

Scully suppressed a shiver at the man's words, but before she could formulate a response, he'd risen to his hands and knees, and was moving off through the low brush. Again, she had no choice but to follow.

The ground was tending slightly upward, now, she noted, and she could see a bulge against the sky in front of them that marked the rise of a hill. Crawford was about fifteen feet ahead of her, moving slowly up the slope. The summit, such as it was, must have been closer than it looked, because even as she watched, the man lowered himself all the way to the ground, and wriggled slowly and carefully the rest of the way to the top. She followed his example, and in a matter of moments, she was lying on the ground next to him, looking down into the small valley that lay beyond.

"This must be it," Crawford said, satisfaction in his voice.

Scully shook her head in confusion. They were looking down on a small collection of ramshackle buildings, perhaps a dozen in all, and apparently unoccupied. There were no lights, and no other signs of activity - not even any vehicles parked in the area. As best she could tell in the darkness, the brush and prairie grass that grew around the buildings seemed about the same height and thickness as the terrain they'd just crawled through. The tiny settlement, if that's what it was, seemed to be deserted.

"Most of the installation is underground, of course," Crawford explained, in answer to the questions she hadn't asked. He held out his GPS device for her inspection. "This is the spot we were looking for, based on those trajectories. And I'm afraid you're going to have to take my word for it, but the resonance I mentioned is much stronger now." His teeth gleamed faintly. "Everything seems to be working out just as we planned."

Scully was distracted from any reply by the sound of several engines in the distance, growing rapidly louder.

Reflexively, she rolled onto her back and looked in the direction they'd come, just in time to see half a dozen black shapes appear against the horizon. The objects came rushing towards her, and she realized that they were helicopters just before they flew over, no more than thirty feet off the ground. They were followed immediately by six more.

Then the sky was lit up by rockets, and Scully heard gunfire. A few seconds later there was a series of explosions on the far side of the hill.

"Agent Mulder! Agent Mulder, wake up!"

It was a woman's voice, he mused groggily, and a woman's hand was touching him, shaking his shoulder. Could it be Scully?

"Agent Mulder, you must wake up *now*!"

No, that wasn't Scully. The voice was wrong. And besides, Scully never called him 'Agent Mulder', unless she was speaking to an outsider. This was someone else then. He forced his eyes open - Cassandra Spender. Kneeling next to him and roughly shaking his shoulder. He blinked slowly and looked around, and realized he was lying on the concrete floor of a small room.

The air was filled with dust - or was it smoke? - and his head and his left shoulder were both throbbing as if they had been used in batting practice. Christ. What had happened to him *this* time?

And then, suddenly, everything came rushing back.

He tried to push himself to a sitting position, but fell immediately, as his injured shoulder refused to support his weight. He swore, then turned onto his back, slowly and carefully, to see Cassandra still hovering nearby, a frightened expression on her face.

Another explosion shook the room, followed in quick succession by three more. Working only with his right arm, and with some belated help from Cassandra, Mulder managed to struggle to a sitting position. A few seconds later, and he was staggering to his feet.

The room swayed and pitched, and for a moment Mulder thought there'd been another explosion. But then he tried to take a step, and realized that it was his own equilibrium that was at fault. His head was still pounding, and he felt nauseous. Great. A concussion. Just what he needed.

"Agent Mulder?" Cassandra's voice. "Agent Mulder, I think we'd better get out of here. There's a huge crack in the ceiling."

He turned almost a full 360 degrees before he finally located her, standing in the hall just outside his cell. He joined her there, and looked up, to see that she had, if anything, understated the problem. The ceiling did not simply have a crack in it; it had buckled and sagged under the force of the explosions, and looked as if it might give way at any moment.

It occurred to Mulder to wonder at the source of the blasts.

For that matter, he didn't even know who had taken him.

The Colonists? The faceless aliens? The Consortium? It could be any of them, and he knew so little about the relationships between the three groups that it was useless to speculate as to who might be attacking whom. All that really mattered was that they get out, before the building collapsed.

As if to add emphasis to that thought, there was another explosion, louder than the ones before, and Mulder was thrown to his knees as chips of concrete fell from the ceiling and more smoke poured into the hallway.

"Come on." Cassandra was kneeling next to him, forcing his good arm around her shoulders and helping him to his feet again. Mulder's brain was becoming more and more foggy, but a distant corner of his mind managed to wonder why this woman was here, and what was driving her to help him instead of just leaving and saving herself.

Somehow, they made it to the end of the hallway, only to find themselves at the bottom of a stairway. "It's only one flight," Cassandra told him. "Do you think you can make it?"

"Yeah," Mulder replied through gritted teeth. But then something else occurred to him, and he shook his head sharply.

Pain lanced through his head like a white hot dagger, followed quickly by nausea, and the world seemed to spin out of control. Mulder saw bright sparkles in front of his eyes, and that hurt, too. In the next instant, his knees buckled, and he fell once again to the floor.

It was comfortable there on the floor; warm and comfortable and dark. There were colors in the darkness, swirling and coruscating, not quite formless, and always just out of reach. They seemed to be enticing him, leading him on, trying to get him to do something...


His eyes snapped open, and he saw Cassandra bending over him, a worried expression on her face. "Are you all right?" she asked.

"Y-yeah," he said, cautiously struggling to his feet once again. What choice did he have? He had to be all right. "But I just realized..." His tongue seemed thick and clumsy, and he had to suppress the urge to shake his head again. "The children. You said I was brought in with children." One of them was Kyle; one of them was Scully's son...

"They're not down here," Cassandra replied, leading him gently but firmly towards the stairs again.

"You're sure?" He turned and squinted back down the hallway. It was lined with doors, just like the one in his cell. The children could be here, or other prisoners - "Yes, I'm sure," she said, tugging on his arm and trying to get him to turn back to the stairs. "And even if they were here, there wouldn't be anything we could do about it.

Those doors only open if they want them to. But the children aren't here; this is a holding area for people they aren't sure what to do with." Then, in calm, matter-of-fact tones that made Mulder feel as if ice water had been injected in his veins: "The children are in the lab."

//The children are in the lab.//

His mind was assaulted by the images conjured by that simple phrase, as all his worst nightmares about Scully's abduction were suddenly resurrected. Cold metal tables beneath harsh, unforgiving lights. Remote, unsympathetic technicians performing unspeakable acts, while the screams of their "patients" went unheeded. Vaguely inhuman shapes, moving forward out of the shadows - Yet another explosion rocked the building, and the ceiling gave a hideous groaning sound. Looking up, Mulder saw that the crack he'd seen before now extended the entire length of the hallway, black and jagged and ominous. Time to get out of here. He turned to face the stairs one more, and again Cassandra moved to help him.

Climbing was agony. It was only a single flight, but by the time they reached the top, Mulder's heart was hammering in his chest, and he was gasping for breath. Cassandra stayed with him every step of the way, holding his good arm and guiding him forward, but there were still easily a half a dozen instances when he thought he would collapse.

Somehow, they made it to the top, to find themselves facing a decrepit-looking wooden door. Mulder knew they had to get out, but he needed to rest, just for a minute, and so he leaned against the wall to catch his breath, while Cassandra watched anxiously. Finally, he was able to nod and wave towards the exit, and she stepped forward and pushed it open, and led Mulder through the door and into an annex of hell.

Chapter Ten

Near Makoti, North Dakota
Monday, May 29, 2000
11:46 p.m.

Scully's first instinct upon hearing the explosions was to throw herself flat and cover her head with her arms. The noise washed over her, the ground shook slightly, and in the distance she heard the beat of helicopter blades, and then more explosions and more gunfire. Finally, cautiously, as it became clear that nothing was happening in her immediate vicinity, she lifted her head and looked over the crest of the hill. And gasped.

The small group of buildings were now under full assault by the helicopters. That much, Scully had guessed from the sound effects, but the tableau before her looked like something out of Dante, and was rapidly getting worse.

Gunfire raked the compound, and four of the structures were already on fire. Squinting against the glare of the flames, Scully could see shadowy forms moving between the buildings -- forms that were not quite human. As she watched, a pair of helicopters sent another volley of rockets into the fray, raising huge gouts of dirt and smoke into the night sky.

"One must admire their courage, at least." Scully's head whipped around at the sound of Crawford's voice, to see that he was also peering down into the growing maelstrom. "I mean the attackers, of course," he continued. "Courage is a distinctly human quality - one that is not found in the others to any significant degree. Or for that matter, among the Colonists." He shrugged, as if it were of little consequence. "Still, it's an attribute of your people that has always fascinated me."

Her attention was drawn back to the battle, as more explosions tore at the buildings, setting two more of them on fire, and damaging others. But the defenders were giving as good as they got, and even as her mind cataloged the destruction on the ground, two helicopters burst into flames, and a third went careening out of control to smash against the hillside, only fifty yards below Scully and Crawford's position.

"They're trying to land troops," Crawford commented. His voice carried a tinge of excitement, as if he were giving the play-by-play at a football game. Scully squinted again, and saw that he was correct: on the far side of the compound, two helicopters now hovered a few feet off the ground, while soldiers jumped from an open hatch. In a matter of seconds, the operation was complete, and the choppers were lifting up and away.

Scully caught a flash of motion out of the corner of her eye, and once more turned her gaze towards Crawford, her eyes widening in surprise as she saw that he was holding a cell phone to his ear. As she watched, he smiled slightly, then closed the instrument and slid it into his pocket.

"What the hell was that about?"

"I was summoning assistance," the man replied, a beatific expression on his face. His voice almost seemed to glitter as he spoke. "I'd say they could use some help, wouldn't you?"

"Assistance from *who*?" Scully demanded, shaking her head angrily. Something was wrong; something was *very* wrong.

She could feel it. "Aren't those your people down there?"

An expression of distaste passed quickly across Crawford's face, and he shook his own head. "Hardly. At most, we have a common employer - and some days, not even that." He turned back to look down at the carnage once again. "And look," he added cheerfully, pointing down to the near edge of the compound. "I believe that's one of the people you're looking for."

Scully followed his gaze, and her heart leapt into her throat as she saw two figures, a man and a woman, moving away from one of the buildings, and going further into the battlefield, apparently heedless of the destruction raining down around them. The woman's silhouette looked vaguely familiar, but Scully couldn't quite place her. The man was definitely Mulder.

Scully scrambled to her feet, drew her weapon, and started running down the hill.

As Mulder stepped through the doorway there was a flash of light, followed almost instantly by the dull boom of another explosion. The ground heaved, and Mulder staggered; seconds later, he was pelted by countless tiny clods of dirt.

"This way!" Cassandra grabbed his hand and pulled him forward, even as his vision was still adjusting to the uneven lighting. Gradually, his eyes began to fill in the details.

They were at the edge of a small cluster of frame buildings, several of which were already on fire. The flames shooting up into the sky cast an evil, orange glow on everything in sight, and clouds of smoke drifted between the buildings, obscuring his view. Intermittently, for brief instants, large dark shapes that must be helicopters flitted by against a backdrop of stars, and the gunfire and other sounds of battle were little short of deafening.

And Cassandra Spender was leading him deeper into the chaos.

"Where are we going?" he asked, as he stumbled along, perhaps half a step behind her. He still felt nauseous and his headache seemed worse; all he really wanted was to lie down and sleep. But he lacked the initiative even for that.

The sights and sounds of combat continued to assault his senses, as well. More explosions shook the area at frequent, irregular intervals, and now he could also hear distant screams of men in agony. And occasionally, he saw things moving in the shadows...

"Wait here."

Mulder blinked, and realized that he was leaning against one of the few buildings that was not in flames. Cassandra's voice ... that had been Cassandra's voice, and now he blinked again, and realized that her form was already receding into the darkness as she moved along the wall away from him. He tried to call out to her, but she was gone before he could muster the strength.

Should he wait? Or follow? She'd told him to wait, but should he? Maybe he should go after her ... or maybe she was abandoning him, and he should just try to escape on his own.

Shit. Mulder shook his head, then winced as more pain lashed through his head. Who was he kidding? He'd get about fifty feet on his own. He'd only made it this far because Cassandra had urged him on - she'd practically dragged him, at one point. He didn't have any choice but to wait. Wait for her to come back from wherever she'd gone and help him again. Wait for Cassandra. Wait...


God. Where was Scully? He'd completely forgotten about her. Cassandra had said that Scully wasn't here; she wasn't a prisoner. But what if Cassandra was wrong? What if Scully *was* here, somewhere, needing to be rescued? What if, even now, they were sliding a tube down her throat, and sealing her into a canister filled with cold, green fluid - There was a mighty roar, and Mulder fell abruptly to his knees as the ground shook once again. His ears were ringing, but whether it was from the incessant noise, or the pounding inside his head, he couldn't tell. He slumped down the rest of the way to the ground, leaned against the wall and closed his eyes, desperately trying to make the world stop spinning...

He must have lost consciousness, then, because the next thing he knew, Cassandra was back. She was bending over him, just as she had back in his cell. For just a second, he thought he *was* in his cell, and the rest of it had been some weird hallucination - but then a helicopter flitted by, directly overhead, and he came back to his senses.

And that's when he realized that Cassandra was no longer alone. Standing close to her, his arms wrapped tightly around her legs and a look of mortal terror on his face, was Kyle McIlwaine. The children. That's where she'd gone; to get the children.

"The others," he managed to croak out. Where were the others? There had been three more, in addition to Kyle. Where were they?

Cassandra shook her head, her expression infinitely sad. "They were past saving," she replied, her voice very low.

She looked as if she was about to cry, but then she shook her head again. "Now we need to get going. There's no telling how much longer this will last."

Getting past the burning wreckage of the crashed helicopter was only the first of several obstacles Scully had to overcome as she made her way down the hillside. Unlike the ground she and Crawford had hiked across earlier, the terrain here was rough and uneven, with a couple of small gullies partly hidden by the underbrush - and the constantly shifting shadows, caused by the fires up ahead, didn't help matters at all.

Finally, she reached level ground again, and hurried forward towards the buildings. Which one had Mulder come out of?

She stopped for a moment and frowned as she tried to remember the layout. Everything had seemed so clear from the top of the hill, but now that she was down here, with smoke and fire and destruction all around her - One of the buildings on the far side of the compound abruptly exploded, as if a bomb had gone off inside of it.

The force of the blast knocked Scully off her feet and sent her rolling through the tall grass, until finally she struck the wall of another of the structures. By great good fortune, she didn't hit her head, but it was still several seconds before she could make herself move again.

Carefully, she pulled herself up into a crouch, and looked around. Where the hell was she? She needed to find Mulder and get him out of here, and she needed to do it fast, but she was now completely turned around, and wasn't even certain which direction she'd come from.

At last, she spotted a plume of smoke that she was pretty sure marked the wreckage of the helicopter that had crashed near where she and Crawford had been hiding. Okay, so this very building must be the one that Mulder had come out of, and he had headed off in *that* direction.

Scully turned around without hesitation, and plunged further into the chaos.

Somehow, with Cassandra's help, Mulder had struggled to his feet again, and now he found himself holding one of Kyle's hands, while Cassandra moved ahead, trying to pick a path for them. A number of the buildings were now burning brightly, which improved the lighting, but there was also more smoke, which made matters worse. And of course, there was the ongoing barrage of gunfire and explosions that continued to assault his senses.

Kyle had been completely silent ever since Cassandra returned with him, and Mulder was concerned about that, as well. He didn't know if the boy had been drugged, or if he was simply so terrified that he was unable even to cry.

This experience would doubtless generate nightmares for the child - assuming he survived at all. But there was nothing to be done about it now, other than to try to get clear of the danger zone as quickly as possible.

And there was still the problem of Scully - where she was, and what she was doing. Cassandra would surely have said something if Scully had been in the lab with the children.

Wouldn't she?

Wouldn't she?

//They were past saving.//

Mulder shivered as he remembered his companion's words from a few moments earlier. The other children; she'd been talking about the other children. He knew that was a tragedy in its own right, and a piece of his heart ached for the suffering they'd had to endure, and for the McIlwaines' loss. But Scully had not been among them, she hadn't been there, and so his own world hadn't ended. There was still hope. As long as there was Scully, there was hope.

After what seemed like an endless time, but couldn't have been more than a few minutes, they came to a stop in a particularly high clump of prairie grass. Cassandra crouched down, and Mulder and Kyle followed suit. Mulder watched as she crawled a few feet forward and peered out of their hiding place at the terrain ahead of them.

"I think we're almost clear," she said, still looking forward. "If we can just make it past these last few buildings and up over the crest of that hill-"

And as quickly as that, Cassandra Spender was gone.

Vanished without a trace.

Chapter Eleven

Near Makoti, North Dakota
Tuesday, May 30, 2000
12:05 a.m.

For a pair of minutes, Mulder kept perfectly still, the sights and sounds of the battle receding from his awareness as he stared at the spot that Cassandra had occupied a moment before. She was gone. She was simply gone. For a brief instant he wondered if he'd lost consciousness again, and she'd moved - but he was still crouched down in the grass, more or less upright, and Kyle was still tightly clutching his hand.

So apparently he hadn't passed out.

But Cassandra was gone, nonetheless.

He shook his head, trying to clear it, and this time it actually did some good. The pain was still there, and so was the nausea, but it seemed to Mulder that his thoughts were flowing a little more smoothly than they had been a few minutes before. They were going to have to, if he was to have any hope of getting himself and Kyle out of this mess alive.

He wasted little time wondering about Cassandra's fate. He knew with sick certainty what had happened and where she was, and he had as much chance of finding and rescuing her now as he had had of finding and rescuing Samantha, all those years ago. Once he and Kyle were free and clear, there would be time to consider what had happened to Cassandra, and try to find a way to help her. But not now.

He turned to look at Kyle. The little boy was hunkered down on the ground, his face a mask of fear. This wasn't going to work; Kyle was going to have to get up and walk again, because Mulder was in no condition to carry him. Hell, he'd be doing well if he managed to make it to safety *without* the extra burden.

He immediately berated himself for his choice of words.

Scully's son was not a burden; he could never be a burden.

Still, he was going to have to walk on his own, no matter how scared he was.

There was a rattle of an assault rifle nearby, followed a few seconds later by still another explosion, forcing Mulder's attention back to the current situation. A quick survey of the immediate area revealed that all of the buildings were now engulfed in flames, and that the fire had finally spread to the prairie grass.

Mulder felt a sharp jolt of his old fear of fire, but he quickly suppressed it. He couldn't afford that; if he froze up now, he'd die, without ever seeing Scully again. More importantly, Kyle would die - by fire, if he was lucky, and if he was not, he'd experience a death at least as horrible as the one Emily had suffered. And that was totally unacceptable.

He grabbed the child's wrist, and forced him to his feet.

The boy did not resist, but neither did he really cooperate; he seemed to be completely overwhelmed by everything that was happening. Mulder sympathized; a small but important part of his own psyche was crying out desperately for him to give up and let it all go. It would be good to rest; it would be so good just to close his eyes and sink into the darkness...

But he couldn't do that; Scully wouldn't like it. More importantly, *she* wouldn't give up, so he couldn't either.

He tightened his grip on the boy's wrist, and led him onwards, out of the clump of grass they'd been hiding in.

And he made it all of a dozen steps before his legs gave out, the world spun out of control, and the ground came rushing up to meet him. His last thought, as consciousness fled, was that he'd failed.

//Scully, I'm sorry!//

Scully was lost, and very close to despair.

For the last several minutes, she'd been stumbling from one building to the next, trying to find some trace of Mulder, but nothing had presented itself. Worse, the smoke and flames and noise had become so intense that she was no longer sure which way she had come from; it was entirely possible that she was walking in circles.

Twice, she'd narrowly avoided encounters with combatants, in each instance dropping prone to hide in the grass as small groups of shadowy figures moved swiftly by. The second time, she'd even heard a man's voice, but she'd been unable to make out his words.

She gasped as she stumbled over something lying on the ground, and backed up a couple of steps. Another body.

That made three. The other two had been human, but this one lacked a face, and was already in the process of dissolving into a green puddle. Which demonstrated that the assault troops knew what they were up against, and had been trained and equipped to deal with it.

Scully hurried past the rapidly-decomposing body of the faceless alien, reflecting briefly on the grim irony that she was blithely passing by the very evidence that - A assault rifle chattered, and suddenly the ground in front of her was churned by the impact of bullets. Instinctively, Scully dove to the right, and kept on rolling after she hit the ground. The weapon continued to fire, and she knew that if the gunman could still see her, it was all going to be over very quickly. She'd lost her SIG somewhere along the way, but that scarcely seemed to matter - A deep, booming explosion overrode everything else, cutting off the assault rifle in mid-phrase. Scully was lifted off the ground by the resulting shockwave, then thrown down again, adding new bruises to the ones she already had. As the ringing in her ears faded, she realized that the gunfire had stopped, and been replaced by the screams of a man in mortal agony.

She shook her head. Nothing she could do about that, or for him. She had to stay focused on her task; she had to find Mulder, and get both of them the hell out of this place.

She rose cautiously to her hands and knees and looked around. She didn't see any immediate threats, but based on what had just almost happened to her, she was going to have to move even more carefully than she had before.

Okay, what was her next objective? That particularly high clump of grass about twenty yards ahead and to the left.

She nodded to herself, and started to crawl.

It seemed to take forever, with death and destruction dogging her every foot of the way. The smoke was becoming thicker by the minute, making every breath a challenge, and now she saw that the prairie grass had also caught fire, which of course added to the hazard.

She had almost reached her goal when she caught a flicker of motion out of the corner of her eye. Turning her head to look, she saw another shadowy figure, this one moving away from the clump of grass, and into the smoke and chaos.

It was Mulder. The shock of recognition burst upon her in a fraction of a second, so powerful and compelling that she almost called to him. But then caution borne of experience took hold, commanding her to remain silent as she turned and started to crawl in the direction of her partner.

Suddenly he was gone, collapsing into the grass like a puppet whose strings had been cut, causing Scully's heart to leap into her throat. In the next instant, she was on her feet and running, covering the thirty yards or so separating her from Mulder in a matter of seconds, then dropping to the ground again with brutal disregard for her knees.

"Mulder!" Her voice was a painful croak, her throat raw from exposure to the smoke clouds that now almost completely covered the site. She knew she shouldn't move him, not until she'd had a chance to assess his injuries. But under the circumstances she had no alternative, and so she pushed and heaved, and finally turned him onto his back.

Her heart clenched as she saw that Mulder's face was covered with blood. Hurriedly, but with practiced gentleness, she probed at his face and scalp with her fingers, looking for the wound. It had to be a minor injury; it had to look worse than it really was. She didn't have the resources to deal with anything serious. All awareness of her surroundings dropped away as she focused her attention on Mulder.

And then she found it: a lump on her partner's head, just above the left ear. It was hot to the touch and oozing blood; clearly, he'd taken a hard blow on that spot. He almost certainly had a concussion, and a fracture or an internal bleed - or both - were distinct possibilities.

He could be dying, even as she crouched here next to him.

She shook her head violently. He was not dying. She would not allow it. She'd come in after him and found him, against all odds, and she was, by God, going to get him out of here, and he was going to *live*, dammit!

//Please, God. Let him live.//

Mulder was aware of Scully's voice, echoing to him from the far end of a long, dark corridor. He wanted to go to her so badly, but it was warm and comforting here in the dark - and besides, he wasn't sure which way he needed to turn.

She seemed to be everywhere; everywhere, and nowhere. If only he could find her...

Then suddenly he was staring up at her face. God, she was perfect. Her features kept blurring in and out of focus, but nothing could keep him from seeing the beauty and intelligence that made up Dana Scully...

//Mulder.// There was her voice again; she was speaking to him. It was so hard to listen; his head hurt so much, and he just wanted to sleep. But she was talking to him; he had to listen to her. He had to...

//Mulder. Mulder, you've got to wake up. I've got to get you out of here. Mulder, can you understand me?//

Her words seemed familiar, and he shook his head groggily, trying to remember what they meant, and where he had heard them before. The cold metal of the exam table was hard and unyielding against his back, and he wanted to sleep. He felt something warm and moist land on his face, and realized it was Scully's tear. She was crying; she was crying for *him*, but he needed to sleep...


This time he heard Scully's voice with his ears, and somehow he knew that everything else had been a dream. His eyes snapped open, and he saw his partner bending over him. Her face was smudged with dirt and soot, and relief and anxiety did battle across her features. She'd come for him; she really had come for him. Just as she always did.

"Scully," he said. "You're here."

"Yeah, Mulder," she replied. "I'm here. But we have to get going. Can you stand?"

Yes, Mulder could stand; he could do anything Scully needed him to do. Slowly and painfully, with considerable help from his partner, he made it to his feet. He swayed slightly, and for an instant he thought he was going to fall, but Scully tightened her grip around his waist, and after a moment he'd found his equilibrium, and was able to stand on his own.

As he did so, the universe was gradually expanding once again, and now he stood once more in the middle of a combat zone. The sound of gunfire seemed to have receded somewhat, as if the battle had moved elsewhere, but the air was now thick with smoke, and flames danced everywhere he turned.

The grass was burning, too, he remembered; it was only a matter of time before they were surrounded; cut off by the fire. Maybe they already were - "Okay, Mulder, let's get going." Scully's voice again, cool and reassuring, breaking through his panic and calming him.

He felt her small, strong body nestle up against his, and then she was guiding him, and together they were moving ...

away from the fire and the death and the destruction, and towards safety - "No!" Mulder stopped, suddenly, realizing that something had been forgotten. "Kyle," he said. "Where is he?"

"Kyle? He's here?" There was a note of ... something ... in his partner's voice, but Mulder was too tired and his head hurt too much for him to be able to tell what it was.

So he simply nodded, and gestured back in the direction from which he thought they'd just come. "Yeah," he replied. "Back there. He was ... he was with me. When we lost Cassandra."

"Cassandra?" she answered. "Cassandra Spender? *She* was here?"

Now there was doubt in her voice, and Mulder realized that Scully was wondering if his head injury was affecting his memory. He shook his head to deny the skepticism she hadn't voiced, and said, "Yeah. Yeah, she was here. I never would have made it this far without her. But they took her, Scully. They took her away, and there's nothing we can do."

He stopped to cough, and that just made his head hurt more.

Somehow, he forced himself to continue, "But Kyle's still here. He was still here after she was gone. We can't just leave him-"

"Okay. Just a minute." And then she was gone.

//But Kyle's still here. He was still here after she was gone. We can't just leave him --//

Mulder's words echoed in Scully's ears as she searched the tall grass for the little boy. He had to be here somewhere; Mulder had been so sure. Of course, he was also sure that Cassandra Spender had been here, but that was impossible.

Cassandra was either dead, or, if one believed Kurt Crawford, she was with what was left of the Consortium - When she finally found Kyle, Scully almost fell over him.

He was curled up in a fetal ball a few yards from where she had found Mulder. He was clearly conscious, and didn't seem to be hurt, but he didn't make a sound as Scully coaxed him into unwrapping himself and standing up.

She wanted to take a little time to check him for injuries, just a minute or two, but the noise of the battle was getting louder again, and the heat of the fire was becoming intense. She hesitated just an instant, then hurriedly pulled off her jacket and wrapped it around the child and took his hand and led him back over to where Mulder was waiting.

And now, finally, everything seemed to be going their way.

In less than two minutes, Scully was able to guide her charges past the last few buildings and into the clear area leading up to the hill. The smoke was still present, but it was thinner here, and with every step they took they left the battlefield that much further behind. Finally, they reached the foot of the hill, and started to climb.

It was a long, exhausting journey. A distance she had covered in a couple of minutes on the way down took easily fifteen on the way back up. The reason, of course, was Mulder and Kyle. Each of them seemed close to their limit, and it took all of Scully's willpower, plus constant cajolery and even wheedling, to keep them both on their feet and moving.

At last they reached the crest of the hill and crossed over to the other side. The sounds of combat had already been trailing off; now that the rise was between them and the action, it dropped to almost nothing, and Scully allowed herself to relax, just a little.

"Scully, can we stop for a minute?" Her partner's voice sounded so tired, but she knew that they needed to keep moving. It was a long walk to the car, and the grass fire could still catch them if they waited too long.

"Mulder, I don't think that's a good idea." Scully shook her head, and sighed in frustration as Kyle took advantage of the break in her stride by collapsing to the ground. "We need to get you - *both* of you - to an emergency room. You could be seriously injured, and-"

"That may not be possible."

Her head whipped around, and she squinted into the darkness, finally making out Kurt Crawford's form. He was seated placidly on a rock a few feet away, but the dim lighting made it difficult to discern his expression. She shook her head again, this time in annoyance; she was exhausted and worried, and she was sick and tired of Crawford's cryptic pronouncements. But before she could give voice to her thoughts, he spoke again.

"Actually, you might just make it," he said calmly, the characteristic touch of mirth in his voice. "I wouldn't expect emergency medical services to be overwhelmed until Tuesday evening at the earliest. Perhaps even Wednesday."

"What are you talking about?" she asked sharply.

"He's talking about Cassandra." Mulder's voice was weary, but his voice was steady. "I told you, Scully. She was here. They took her." He moved a couple of unsteady steps towards Crawford, and added, "That's what it was all about. Wasn't it?"

"She was the key," the other man affirmed with a nod. "We -- my employers - have been looking for her for more than a year. Ever since we heard the rumors that a human-alien hybrid had finally been created. It was a long search, and at times a frustrating one. But what else could one do?"

"'Rumors'?" Scully said sharply. Despite her exhaustion, she felt a chill race down her spine. There was something very wrong here, but she still hadn't put all the pieces together. "Your employers *created* Cassandra Spender; you made her what she is. How can you claim that you didn't know-"

"*His* employers didn't create her, Scully." Mulder's voice came to her softly out of the darkness, cutting her off. "He doesn't work for the people we thought he worked for."

//At most, we have a common employer - and some days, not even that.//

Crawford had spoken those words earlier in the evening - right after she'd challenged him as to why he'd made that cell phone call. She'd thought then that it was odd, and she'd had a premonition that something terrible was about to happen, but she hadn't had time to puzzle it all out. Now she did, and the realization sent ice water pouring through her veins.

"You work for the Colonists," she said quietly. It wasn't a question.

"That's correct," Crawford replied. He paused briefly, then continued, "And as I said, Cassandra Spender was the key. We had to find out whether the rumors were true. The Colonists are a very cautious people, after all, and they loathe precipitous action. But if the human collaborators -- the ones you call the Consortium - *had* perfected a hybrid, immediate prophylaxis would be imperative." He glanced at his watch, then looked up at the sky. "It won't be long now, I wouldn't think. The testing should take only a few minutes."

"It was all a scam," Mulder said flatly. There was a deadness in his tone that made Scully shiver anew, and she moved over to stand next to him, putting one arm around his waist and gathering Kyle close in against her with the other. "You were just using us as bait," Mulder went on, "so you could find out where Cassandra had been taken."

"Yes, of course," Crawford replied calmly. "The human collaborators were looking for her, too, and we used their search to piggyback our own. We knew that the faceless ones were interested in the Consortium's biological research; we've known it since they stole an alien fetus from Ft. Marlene." He cocked his head. "Did you know about the fetus?"

Mulder glanced at Scully, and she nodded. "We ... we knew that such a thing existed," she said, remembering a day years ago when she had taken such a fetus from a storage facility in Maryland, then used it as a bargaining chip to save Mulder's life. "We didn't know that it had been stolen."

"It was stolen," Crawford repeated. "Last year, just before the massacre at El Rico, by the faceless ones. And so the Consortium deduced that other ... research products could be used as a means of attracting their attention."

"You murdered those children," Mulder said. If anything, his voice was even more flat and dead than before, and Scully had a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach as his words sunk in. "You burned them to death, in hopes that your enemies would take notice and do something stupid. Something that would lead you to Cassandra."

"Unfortunately, it wasn't working," Crawford said, unperturbed. His gaze fell on Scully, and the look of sadness that she'd come to expect from him fell across his features. "That's why we had to involve the two of you, much to my regret. We knew through various sources that your activities were being monitored. We hoped that adding your presence to the situation would finally draw them out from their hiding place. And we were right."

At that moment the darkness was banished, as a meteor streaked across the sky from north to south, leaving a trail of blue-green light in its wake. As it approached the southern horizon it burst apart, the fragments twinkling and glinting as they settled slowly towards the earth. The meteor was followed quickly by a second, and then a third.

"It's really quite ingenious." Scully looked around, to see that Crawford had risen to his feet and was walking over to stand next to them. She shook her head, and turned her gaze back to the sky, to see that the number of meteors was steadily increasing. There'd been more than a dozen already, in every color of the rainbow, and she was still trying to absorb what was happening. It couldn't be happening; it was impossible - "The capsules enter the atmosphere," Crawford went on after a moment, his voice still calm and relaxed, as if he were lecturing students in a classroom. "And of course the temperature rises as the heat shield ablates. As the carriers descend into the atmosphere the heat increases, until finally it reaches a critical value and the capsules burst, each of them distributing the virus over several dozen cubic miles of airspace. The virus settles slowly towards the ground, and ... well, you can deduce the rest, I'm sure."

Yes, Scully could deduce the rest. The virus would have been designed so that it would be absorbed through the skin.

It would then permeate the host's body, exploring and taking up residence and beginning the gestational process, consuming the host's life force in order to sustain the monster growing within. In a matter of hours, at most a day or so - Another meteor flashed by, this one almost directly overhead, and so low to the ground that a dull whoosh was distinctly audible. The sky was now filled with light, like the greatest fireworks show ever given - "It's a shame, actually," Crawford said abruptly. "This is a lovely planet, and the original intention was to leave it more or less intact. That's why the Colonists waited as long as they did; they have great respect for the biosphere.

Unfortunately, the human collaborators have forced matters, and now that will not be possible." He sighed, shook his head, and murmured, "So many failures."

But Scully was no longer listening. Her eyes were glued to the heavens, where projectile after projectile continued to rain in upon the Earth, each one bursting in turn, the deadly cargo scattering and drifting downwards towards the unsuspecting populace. The fragments glistened in the starlight as they fell, like tiny diamonds, or drops of water in the afternoon sunlight. And all that Scully could think was that it looked as if God were crying.

The End

Thanks and Credits:

To Paulette and Vickie, for tireless beta reading.

To Brynna, Narida, Sharon and Trixie, for listening to my late-night ravings as I worked on the outline.

And to April for the encouragement, and the occasional kick in the butt.

You know ... all the usual stuff. ;)

Author's Note: 've been wanting to try my hand at a colonization scenario for a while, and this is it.

Note that this is the first in a series of three stories; the other two have not yet been written, but they will be - I swear it! [ archivist note- they were! see links below]

However, this is not a WIP; each story should stand fairly well on its own.

For those who collect trivia, the other two titles are:

All Which It Inherit 2: Melted Into Air

All Which It Inherit 3: Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On

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