Title: All Which It Inherit 2: Melted Into Air
Author: Brandon D. Ray
Written:August 22, 2000
Categories: X-File (Mytharc), Romance, Angst. Lots of angst.
Keywords: MSR. MulderAngst. ScullyAngst. Colonization. Character death (not Mulder or Scully)
Spoiler Statement: Anything through "Hollywood A.D." is fair game.
Timeline: Set at the end of U.S. Season 7, four days after the end of "Hollywood A.D". Nothing subsequent to that episode has happened. For events leading up to this story, you may wish to read All Which It Inherit 1: Insubstantial Pageant , available on my web page. However, this story stands alone, and reading AWII 1 is not necessary in order to understand this one.
Rating: NC-17
Content Statement: Explicit sex. Explicit violence. Character death (not Mulder or Scully).
Disclaimer: If I owned them, I would no longer be making monthly mortgage payments. It's as simple as that.

Summary: This is the way the world ends. Contiuation of All Which It Inherit 1: Insubstantial Pageant

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


Trinity Medical Center
Minot, North Dakota
Tuesday, May 30, 2000
8:01 a.m.

Wendy Marder took a few minutes to stretch out on an unused guerney outside the emergency room. It had been a long night, and it looked to be a long day. First there had been a multi-car pile up on U.S. 63, just north of town; that had been followed by a couple of kids who hurt themselves playing with firecrackers, a middle-aged, overweight man with his first heart attack, and of course the usual run of accidents and illnesses, with never a break that would allow her to lie down and close her eyes. And then around five a.m. that FBI agent had come in with the head injury ....

//Well, it was your idea to go into emergency medicine, Wendy,// she thought. //You could have been a dermatologist, like your father wanted.//

She sighed and shook her head. No use following that train of thought. She'd made her decision, and now here she was -- and truth be told, despite the long hourrs and the constant stream of tragedy that paraded through the E.R., she was happy with her job. And now her shift was over and she was ready to go home. She was so tired --

"Dr. Marder?" Wendy opened her eyes, to see the dayshift charge nurse standing next to the litter. "The radiologist just called about Mr. Mulder's head CT. He said to tell you it was negative."

"Great," she replied, swinging herself to a sitting position and then jumping down off the cart. "That's the first good news I've heard in hours." She strode rapidly past the nurse and down the hall towards Trauma 3, stopping only long enough to grab the patient's chart off the carousel at the nurses' station. But just before she pushed the door to the exam room open, she heard voices, and she paused for a moment to listen, wanting to make sure that she wasn't walking into the middle of a private conversation.

"I finally reached Skinner." It was the woman speaking, the redhead who had brought Mulder in. His partner in the FBI -- or so the two of them claimed, although Wendy thought they acted more like husband and wife. And there was that little boy they had with them --

"What did he say?" That was the patient's voice, and he was definitely sounding better. Wendy had poked her head into the room an hour or so earlier, after the CT had been completed, and he'd still seemed a little groggy. Now, he sounded much more lucid.

"We weren't really able to talk," the woman replied, an edge of tension in her voice. "It wasn't a secure line. He confirmed what we saw on CNN, though: the meteor shower was not just a local phenomenon; it was worldwide. And Skinner wants us back in D.C. *now*. So I've made reservations on a flight that leaves in about three hours - assuming that they clear you medically."

"Sounds good." Brief pause. "Have there been any ... incidents reported?"

"Nothing. Not yet."

Wendy remembered the meteor shower. It had started shortly after midnight, and lasted the better part of an hour. She'd heard the staff talking about it, but hadn't taken the time to look for herself; she'd had too much else to do, and her only thought had been that it meant more work for the E.R. if one of the damned things actually managed to hit somebody.

She pushed the thought away and stepped through the doorway into the trauma room. The patient was sitting up in bed, while his partner occupied the visitor's chair next to him. The little boy was curled up in another chair, fast asleep. Wendy saw a brief flicker of motion, and suppressed a smile as she realized that the woman had just extracted her hand from the patient's grasp, and now had both her hands clasped demurely in her lap. Just partners, huh?

"Well, Mr. Mulder," she said briskly. "I have good news. Your CT was negative - no fracture, no bleed. I'd like to keep you here for observation until this afternoon-"

"I can't," he interrupted. "We have to get back to Washington immediately."

"Well, that's not my first choice, but it'll probably be okay," Wendy said with a nod. "Your partner will be traveling with you, right? And I gather from your history that this isn't the first time something like this has happened?"

"That's right," the woman replied. Scully; that was her name, Wendy suddenly remembered. She looked tired, but confident, and the physician had no qualms about releasing Mulder to her care.

Wendy nodded again. "Okay. You probably know what to look for, but just in case ...." She rapidly ran over a list of symptoms that might indicate problems, advised the patient to take Ibuprofon for the pain, and had him sign a copy of the discharge instructions. Then she turned to go, ready to hand off the code pager to her relief.

She'd barely turned down the hallway before she was nearly bowled over by the charge nurse. "Dr. Marder!" the other woman said breathlessly. "I was just coming to get you. We've got an emergency." She turned and started hurrying back down the hall.

"What have you got?" Wendy asked, running a few steps to catch up. "And where's Dr. Ferrie?"

"Not here yet," the woman replied. Wendy shook her head in disgust, and wondered why she'd even bothered to ask. Ferrie was *always* late; why should today be any different?

She followed the nurse into a treatment room, where a man in his late 20s was stretched out on an exam table, not moving.

A pretty brunette of about the same age stood next to him, tears running down her cheeks. She was wearing a bathrobe, and apparently little else. The charge continued, "His wife brought him in; she said she found him unresponsive when she got out of the shower this morning. He'd been fine a few minutes earlier."

Wendy nodded as she moved towards the patient, listening with one ear while the nurse rattled off a report. The man was tachycardic, but an EKG showed him to be in normal sinus rhythm. He'd been cyanotic on arrival, but now he was on two liters of oxygen, and seemed to be doing better. Anaphylaxis, she thought. A good first assumption, anyway, for a man this young with no known history of anything else.

She leaned down and started to peel back the victim's right eyelid. In the back of her mind she realized she should be wearing latex, and that weariness was no excuse for sloppy procedure, but there'd be time for that in a minute. First, she wanted to check his pupils --

She jerked her hand back, as it touched something wet and slimy. Rubbing her fingers together, she saw that they were coated with some sort of black oil. It almost seemed to be moving of its own volition, and was rapidly evaporating even as she watched. Shaking her head at her own carelessness, Wendy turned towards the sink, intending to wash whatever it was off.

Abruptly, she was hit by a wave of dizziness. She stumbled, and found herself hanging onto the sink for dear life, trying to maintain her balance. She heard the nurse's voice, asking what was wrong, but that didn't seem important. Her ears were roaring, her heart was pounding, and suddenly she couldn't catch her breath. She tried to speak, but her throat was closing up. She lost her grip on the sink and started to fall --

Everything went black.

Chapter One

Minot International Airport
Minot, North Dakota
Tuesday, May 30, 2000
10:08 a.m.

"They didn't have any coffee."

Mulder turned away from the window, where he'd been looking blindly out at the tarmac, to find his partner standing in front of him, holding a McDonalds bag in her hand.

"No coffee?" he asked. They were speaking in short, staccato sentences this morning. Disjointed fragments of thought. He went on, "At an airport McDonalds at ten o'clock on a Tuesday morning? I didn't think that was possible." He took the bag from her and opened it up, to see that it held three Egg McMuffins. He pulled one out and returned the bag to Scully, then sat down in one of the hard, plastic seats, next to where Kyle was sleeping.

Briefly, Mulder let his gaze fall on the boy. He had experienced something of a shock yesterday afternoon, when he got his first good look at Kyle. He was a little over five years old, and from the unruly shock of red hair, to the somewhat ungainly bone structure, to the slightly pudgy face, he looked like nothing quite so much as a miniature version of his partner's older brother.

"They said the truck didn't come in," Scully was saying, drawing Mulder's attention back to her. The tension was evident in her voice as she took the chair next to his.

Mulder nodded slowly, and felt a chill trickle down his spine as his partner's words echoed in his mind. They were ordinary words, he told himself; a simple, logical explanation as to why, at this particular McDonalds, there was no coffee this morning. That's all they were; just words. But he couldn't make himself believe it.

//They said the truck didn't come in.// Twenty-four hours ago, he would have made some wisecrack about the driver oversleeping, or speculated about a traffic jam or an accident. He would have griped to Scully about having to get through the morning without his caffeine fix, and she would have rolled her eyes and told him to suck it up. In a few hours, the incident would have been forgotten.

But now, almost against his will, his mind assigned a new meaning to her words.

//They said the truck didn't come in.//

There might still be some perfectly innocent explanation, Mulder told himself. The invasion had started less than twelve hours ago; so far, there had been no reports of anything untoward happening anywhere - although the morning news anchors had been ecstatic over the "meteor shower" the night before. To them, the unusual meant ratings; nothing more, nothing less, and hang the long term consequences. They had never considered the possibility that there could come a time when there were no Nielsen families left, and no ratings to report.

//They said the truck didn't come in.//

The words floated in his mind, suddenly ominous and menacing. This time, it was entirely possible that the driver hadn't overslept, that he wasn't stuck in traffic somewhere, and that he hadn't had an accident. This time, there was a very real possibility that he had been infected by an alien virus, and was lying somewhere in a coma, waiting for the monster growing inside him to tear its way out of his body.

Or perhaps it already had --

"That isn't going to help, you know." Mulder turned to look at his partner, who was gazing back at him intently, a sober, serious expression on her face. To anyone else, Mulder knew that she would appear to be no different than she ever did: a cool, experienced professional, dealing with a minor inconvenience. He was the only one who knew her well enough to see the swirl of emotions that lay just beneath the surface.

Impulsively, Mulder leaned over and kissed her, briefly but thoroughly. Scully blinked in apparent surprise at the unaccustomed public display of affection, then gave a small, distracted smile. "Thank you," she said.

"I'm sorry," Mulder answered softly. "I'm still trying to ... to absorb it all." He waved his hand at the other passengers waiting to board, and went on, "After all this time, it's hard to believe it's here, and I ... I just don't know what we're supposed to do."

"I know," she replied quietly. "Me too." She smiled again, but it seemed more than a little forced. "I guess for the moment, we get back to D.C. and talk to Skinner. And the guys. Maybe they'll have some ideas."

"Maybe they will," Mulder replied, without conviction. He sighed, and closed his eyes briefly, trying to banish the overwhelming sense of unreality that had settled over him since they'd witnessed the meteor shower the night before, and realized what it meant. "I dunno, Scully," he went on, his voice very low. "I keep feeling we should be *doing* something - warning people; telling them to get the hell out of the cities. Anything's better than just sitting here."

"Do you think they'd listen?" she asked quietly, shaking her head. She glanced quickly around the waiting area, then back to Mulder. "What would we tell them? How would we get them to listen?"

"I don't know," he admitted. "But shouldn't we try?" He nodded towards Kyle, still sleeping next to him. "And what about him?"

"What about him?" Scully shifted uncomfortably in her seat, and Mulder winced, knowing he'd thrown a somewhat low blow. "Under normal circumstances, I'd say we should return him to his parents as soon as possible. His mother is almost certainly still alive - she wasn't even home when the ... the incident happened. And his father *could* still be alive; I don't know where he was when -"

"Under normal circumstances," Mulder repeated, finally cutting her off. "But these aren't normal circumstances, are they?"

"No, they're not," she agreed. There was tension in her voice, and Mulder knew she was having as hard a time figuring out how to talk about this as he was. "But what's your point, Mulder? That we should just give up, and let it all roll over us?"

"No, of course not," he said. "That's why we're going back to D.C., right?" They were like homing pigeons, Mulder thought suddenly. Homing pigeons with nothing to do but follow their programming, even after it had all become useless.

"We can't give up," Scully said fiercely. She was still clinging to it, the same way he was, he thought, and wondered how long it would be before one or the other of them gave up. It wouldn't be Scully, he amended in his mind. She was too strong to break, and perhaps her strength would be enough to see them both through. God, he hoped it would be.

"Were you able to reach your family?" he asked, changing the subject, and yet not. There seemed to be little to talk about this morning that wasn't laden with grimness and potential sorrow.

"No," she said briefly, and now her eyes were glistening slightly. "Still no answer at Bill and Tara's, or at Mom's.

And as I told you, Charlie's out at sea right now. I don't know what I'd tell them, anyway." She glanced again at their fellow passengers. "It's the whole credibility problem all over again."

"I know."

"Mulder, Mom should have been home this morning," Scully went on, her voice tight and unhappy. "It's Tuesday, and she always does her laundry on Tuesday morning. Why isn't she home?"

"I don't know, Scully," he said quietly. "Maybe she had errands to run. Maybe she was out of detergent." And it really was possible, he thought desperately. This morning, at least, most people were still okay; most people didn't even know that the meteor shower had been anything other than a spectacular light show. The odds --

"Maybe," she replied, not as if she believed him. "Or maybe --"

"Shhh," he said, feeling a tightness in his throat as he laid a hand on her shoulder. Neither of them were ready to go there; neither of them were ready to talk about that.

But the time would come when they'd have to.


"I did reach Langly," she said after a few endless seconds. This time it was her turn to change the subject - or at least divert it. "Finally."

"What did he say?" Mulder asked. The Gunmen were wonky and erratic, but they were three of the four people on this planet who he trusted. Maybe they would find the answer. God knew, somebody needed to.

"They'd already figured out what's happening, of course," Scully said. "Langly wouldn't say much over the phone; he seemed even more paranoid than usual." She shrugged. "Not that that's surprising - or even unreasonable, all things considered. But he said that they're working on it. They've taken some of our blood samples out of the deep freeze." She abruptly stopped talking, but Mulder's mind promptly filled in the words she wouldn't allow herself to speak. Perhaps their mutual exposure to the vaccine would let the Gunmen find a solution. Of course, it hadn't worked before, and now they had only days instead of years ....

But they had to try, didn't they? At least now they would have actual samples of the virus to work with, instead of having to make do with computer simulations.

Who else even had a chance of finding the answer?

"I wish I could make love to you one more time."

Mulder blinked, and once again focused his gaze on his partner. She was still sitting next to him, staring at her uneaten Egg McMuffin, but she suddenly seemed to be a million miles away. "I wish this damned ... *thing* had waited a few more days," she went on, her voice low and steady, "so we could've had our trip together. I wish we could go to a baseball game, so I could make fun of grown men hitting a horsehide with a stick, and you could laugh at me and buy me beer and hot dogs." Her shoulders were shaking now, and Mulder slipped an arm around them, drawing her awkwardly closer over the obstacle of the hard plastic chairs. "I wish ... I wish ... God, Mulder, I wish this wasn't happening. I want it to stop."

She wasn't going to let herself cry, he realized. Not Scully. Despite all the changes she'd been going through this past year, she still wasn't going to be able to cry, even now. And that meant he was going to have to help her find some other way to vent her emotions - when he wasn't even sure how he was going to take care of *himself*.

It wasn't supposed to work this way, he thought petulantly. *Scully* was supposed to be the strong one; she was supposed to be the one who held things together. She was the one who came to him and held him through the night because his mother killed herself. She was the one who walked up to a stranger's house and asked questions until Samantha's fate was finally determined. She was the one ....

And this rambling, disjointed conversation and this morbid chain of logic weren't helping matters at all. There had to be some words, some magic phrase. Something about touchstones and being a whole person and one in five billion and you're the only one I trust --

"May I have your attention, please?"

Mulder started at the sound of the woman's voice, then looked around for the source. His eyebrows shot up in surprise as he saw that the speaker was wearing combat fatigues and captain's bars, and was accompanied by half a dozen men and women of lesser ranks, all bearing rifles. "May I have your attention, please?" she repeated crisply, then waited for a few seconds until all eyes were on her. "You are required to leave the airport at this time. This facility has been placed under military jurisdiction, and all civilian flights are canceled until further notice." There was a rising babble of voices, and the captain raised her own voice in order to be heard over them. "There is no immediate danger. Please move promptly towards the exits. Persons remaining in the terminal in fifteen minutes will be subject to arrest. There are trucks waiting at all exits for those unable to provide their own transportation."

As she spoke, the soldiers under her command were fanning out through the crowd. They were not interacting with anyone - not yet - but their presence alone was ominous and threatening, and many people were already moving back down the concourse towards the main terminal. A few were hanging back, but Mulder knew that in a few minutes the silent intimidation would escalate into chivying and, if necessary, force.

He wondered what had happened to provoke this reaction. The invasion, obviously, but had there already been some overt incident? Something Skinner hadn't heard of, perhaps? Or was this part of a contingency plan activated by whatever was left of the shadow government, as they came to realize what was about to happen?

"Mulder, we'd better get going."

He nodded, and watched as Scully rose to her feet and crossed to Kyle's chair, then knelt down and gently shook the child's shoulder. The boy came awake easily, but for a few seconds he remained curled up in the chair, blinking at her with sleepy solemnity. He did not speak. He hadn't spoken since Cassandra Spender pulled him out of the wreckage of the faceless aliens' laboratory the night before.

Scant moments later, the three of them were following the crowd as it streamed down the concourse. Scully had grabbed their carryons, while Mulder was carrying Kyle as best he could with his good arm. Fortunately, his shoulder had turned out to be neither broken nor dislocated, but it still hurt like hell, and he had very little strength on that side. As they walked briskly along, Mulder noted that the people being evacuated included airport personnel, such as flight crews and ticket agents, and even airport security officers.

Small groups of soldiers were stationed at every departure gate, making sure that no one attempted to remain behind. The McDonalds where Scully had bought their breakfast was also deserted, except for one middle-aged woman, apparently the manager, who was arguing strenuously with a grim-looking lieutenant. The argument ended abruptly when the officer drew his sidearm; the woman paled, then backed hastily away, and turned to join the retreating crowd. Mulder shook his head and looked away; they really were serious about this. Not that he'd had much real doubt on that score, but knowing that incidents like that were going to happen, and actually seeing them come to pass, were two very different things..

Finally they reached the main terminal, to find that people were being quickly and efficiently herded towards the exits.

More troops waited at each doorway, and a cordon had been formed outside, ensuring that no one went anywhere but to the parking areas, or to the line of military trucks waiting by the curb.

Once the crowd reached the parking lot, the system started to break down, as people in ones and twos and small groups tried to find their way to their own vehicles. In addition, some had already reached their cars, and were trying without much success to maneuver them through the throngs that were still on foot. Soldiers stood silently around the perimeter of the parking area, watching everything that happened, but they made no move to intervene.

At last they reached their own car - the silver Mercedes that Mulder had rented in Hollywood, seemingly a lifetime ago. They hadn't bothered to turn in the keys when they arrived; that was one of a great many things that had seemed to lose significance in the wake of the reality of Colonization actually underway. Now, Mulder silently thanked whoever was willing to listen that they'd kept the keys; otherwise they would have been forced to fall back on the questionable hospitality of the U.S. Army and its row of olive drab trucks.

Then they were in the car and moving, albeit slowly, the traffic jam becoming incrementally worse as additional cars were steadily added to the mix. Scully was behind the wheel, while Mulder sat in the passenger seat with Kyle curled up in his lap, once more asleep. Mulder envied the boy in his ability to shut himself down so easily, although in his heart he knew that the somnolence most likely was due to the trauma Kyle had gone through at the hands of the faceless aliens. This was the child's only way to escape the horrible things that had been done to him.

"I'm sorry." He looked at his partner in surprise, to see that she was staring grimly ahead, her hands tightly gripping the wheel. She went on, "I shouldn't have broken down like that, back in the terminal. It wasn't-"

"Scully," he said, laughing briefly and mirthlessly, cutting her off. "That was not a breakdown. Not by anyone's standards but your own, anyway. That was-"

"My standards are the ones that matter," she insisted firmly. "I should have kept myself under better control. We have a problem, and we need to deal with it, but-"

"But that doesn't mean we have to stop feeling," Mulder interjected. The frustration he'd been feeling towards her back at the departure gate was gone, and now he wanted nothing more than to comfort her and give her the support she needed. His own fears could wait.

He reached out with his free hand, the one not holding Kyle in place on his lap, brushing his fingers along her forearm and wincing slightly at the renewed pain in his shoulder. "We have to stay human," he said softly. "That's the whole point. If we can't stay human, why even bother?"

For a long minute she remained silent, her knuckles almost white from holding onto the steering wheel as she guided the car slowly through the mob of people and vehicles. Finally, her shoulders slumped slightly, and she nodded. "You're right, Mulder," she said. And then she was silent.

"I'm right?" Mulder forced a smile, trying desperately to lighten the mood, and shook his head slightly. "That's it? After seven years, that's all I get? 'You're right, Mulder'?"

She seemed to struggle with herself for a moment, but finally she matched his smile, and repeated, "You're right. And that's a pretty big concession; I'd think you'd be doing back flips." Brief pause, and the smile died. Then: "I'm sorry, Mulder. That's ... that's really all I can manage right now."

"That's okay, Scully," he answered, reaching out to stroke her forearm again. "That's okay. As long as we've got each other, things will work out, somehow. They have to."

Scully nodded, but from her expression it was plain she didn't really believe him. Which was only fair, Mulder thought; he didn't really believe it, either.

Chapter Two

Southbound on U.S. Highway 83
Near Max, North Dakota
Tuesday, May 30, 2000
2:17 p.m.

It had taken nearly two hours to get clear of the traffic nightmare in and around Minot, and Scully's grip on the steering wheel never slackened the entire time. Now her hands hurt, and she had no one but herself to blame. But at least now they were finally past the congestion, and making reasonable time.

She glanced briefly over at Mulder, who was dozing in the passenger seat, with Kyle curled up in his lap, also sleeping. The boy had fallen asleep almost as soon as they got to the car, while Mulder had drifted off while they were still tied up in traffic, north of Minot. Well, they both needed it; they'd been through a lot in the past twenty-four hours.

And so had she, of course. At least in her own mind, Scully was able to admit that. And actually, it had been more than forty-eight hours since Kurt Crawford dropped his bombshell on them in a Las Vegas hotel room. Forty-eight hours and then some, and in that time they'd driven halfway across the country, witnessed the aftermath of a set of brutal murders, Mulder had been abducted, and finally they'd been forced to fight their way clear of an actual combat zone, all on very little sleep.

God, she was tired. Scully couldn't remember the last time she'd been so tired.

And she needed to call Skinner, she suddenly realized. He was probably still expecting them on the late afternoon flight they'd been booked on - and even if he'd heard of the air travel interdiction, he would need to know what their revised plan was.

She should also make another attempt to reach her mother, but she wasn't sure she could cope with calling and getting no answer yet again. Logically, she knew that Mulder was probably right; Mrs. Scully was almost certainly fine, and had simply gone out this morning for some reason. But that didn't stop her imagination from conjuring up the vision of her mother, lying in a helpless coma, while black oil swirled across her eyes and a monster grew within her body --

Scully shook her head violently, forcing the image away -- as far away as she could manage, anyway. Nothing was going to make it disappear entirely, not until she heard her mother's voice. And even then, the fear would remain, because that would just mean it hadn't happened *yet*.

Fumbling with one hand, while keeping the other on the steering wheel, Scully pulled out her cell phone and brought it to her ear, punching Skinner's speed dial with her thumb.

That call had to come first; that call was business. Professional concerns to come before personal ones; that was the only way she could cope with everything that was happening.

"Skinner." Her supervisor's voice was short and clipped, and almost completely devoid of emotion. His Assistant Director voice, of course, perhaps just a bit more brusque and remote than usual.

"Sir, this is Scully," she said. "I'm calling to report a change of plans." She briefly described the scene at the airport.

"Shit." The profanity was delivered in the same flat, professional tone, and she heard the quiet clattering of a computer keyboard. "Just a moment, Agent Scully; I haven't checked my email in a few hours; it's been a busy day." A few seconds of silence, then the A.D. swore again. "Okay," he said. "It's not just Minot. Civilian air transportation has been suspended in the continental United States and Canada until further notice, by presidential order. There are a few other measures, all in the same vein, and they've invoked emergency censorship regulations as well, so it's not making it out on the news media." He snorted, a discordant sound when considered in the context of what he was saying. "Tell Mulder the order originated with FEMA; it'll make his day."

Scully's gaze flicked briefly at her sleeping partner, then back to the highway. "I'll tell him, sir. Have there been any incidents?"

"Yes," Skinner said flatly, and Scully's heart sank as she realized that she'd still held out hope that it was all a mistake. "Nothing on the national news, due to the censorship order, but individual television and radio stations in a number of cities have reported an influx of casualties - they're calling them 'unexplained illnesses' -- in local emergency rooms. Uh ... half aa dozen major cities so far, and at least twice that many smaller towns." Another brief pause. "I take it you and Agent Mulder are driving?"

"Yes, sir," she replied. Business, she told herself. She had to focus on business. "It took us a while to get clear of Minot, but we're making good time now. If we drive straight through, we should be back in D.C. tomorrow afternoon or evening."

"Well, if that's the best you can manage, it'll have to do," he said, his voice still flat and emotionless. "I'll see what I can do about getting you some sort of waiver on the air travel ban, but don't count on it. I'll call you if I have any news. Is there anything else?"

Scully felt a sudden, almost overwhelming urge to ask the A.D. to send someone out to check on her mother, but she shook her head. She was not going to ask for special favors; not now, when the world might literally be coming to an end. Skinner presumably had personal concerns of his own, but he was at his desk, taking care of business, and she was willing to bet that he would stay there well into the night, and would return early tomorrow morning.

Business. It had to be about business.

"Agent Scully?"

"N-no, sir," she replied, forcing herself to focus on the conversation again. "There's nothing else."

"Very well," Skinner said. "I'll see you tomorrow evening, then." The connection was broken.

Before Scully had a chance to press her mother's speed dial, the cell phone shrilled at her. Thinking that Skinner must have thought of something to add, she punched CONNECT and said, "Scully."

"Dana, this is your mother. I'm returning your call. Is everything okay?"

"Mom ...." Scully's words caught in her throat, and she felt tears of relief forming in her eyes. Her mother was still alive, and from her relaxed tone of voice, she wasn't particularly alarmed, beyond the obvious worry generated by the fact that her daughter had called her while in the middle of a field assignment. "I ... thanks for calling. I need ... we need to talk about something. Something that's come up."

Scully hesitated. How was she supposed to go about this? As she'd said to Mulder while they were still at the airport, there was going to be a credibility problem here. Scully had never told her family much about the work she and Mulder did; a lot of it was hard to believe, and almost all of it was disturbing and frightening. They knew about her abduction, of course, and they knew that she blamed her cancer on the abduction. They also knew about a few isolated incidents, such as the encounter with Donnie Pfaster, the previous winter. But beyond that, Scully had done her best to keep her family life separate from her professional one.

This had seemed like a sane and compassionate decision at the time; a protective measure, so that those she loved wouldn't have to worry about the very real monsters and demons that haunted her own nightmares. Unfortunately, it meant that she had laid no groundwork for what she now had to tell her mother.

"Dana? Are you there?"

"Yeah, Mom, I'm here, but I'm in traffic. Just a sec." She paused, thinking for another moment. Then: "Mom, did you hear about the meteor shower last night?"

"Of course," Mrs. Scully replied. "In fact, Tara called me last night while it was going on, so I got to see the tail end of it. Did you and Fox get to see it?"

"Yes, we did," Scully said automatically. "But Mom, it wasn't just a meteor shower."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean ...." Her voice trailed off again. Damn it! Try another tack. "Mom, you need to get out of the city. As fast as you can."

"What? Why?"

"Mom, those meteors ...." Just say it, Dana! This is your mother. She's not going to just laugh it off; at the very least she'll give you a chance to explain. "Mom, those meteors carried a virus. A virus of extraterrestrial origin. It's extremely toxic. The government already knows about it; they suspended civilian air travel a few hours ago, although they haven't allowed the media to report that.

And right now, before it's too late, you have *got* to get out of town."

For a dozen heartbeats, Mrs. Scully was silent, while Scully simply prayed. Her mother's life literally hung in the balance, and she wasn't sure what else she could say to convince her, if that hadn't been enough. Finally, the other woman simply said, "Where should I go?"

"I don't have any particular place in mind," Scully admitted, breathing a huge sigh of relief. "Anywhere, as long as it's not too close to too many people. The virus spreads by contact - *any* contact. The fewer people you ... you interact with, the better." Sudden inspiration struck her. "You could go and visit Uncle George." Her father's brother, a retired steelworker, lived in a rural area of Pennsylvania, only a few hours' drive from Mrs. Scully's home in Washington.

"Yes," her mother said. "I suppose that would work. I'll give George a call, and plan to leave in the morning."

"No!" Scully felt as if walls were closing in on her. "Mom, the government should be evacuating cities right now, and they're not. You need to leave now. Just pack a bag and go. Tomorrow could be too late." Today could be too late, but Scully wouldn't let herself think about that possibility.

"Now?" Mrs. Scully replied doubtfully. "Is it that serious?"

"Yes," Scully replied flatly. "You have to leave as soon as possible. Now, Mom. Promise me?"

Again there was a brief pause, while her mother apparently considered her response. Finally, her voice firmer than before, but with a hint of resignation: "Okay, Dana. I'll be on the road in an hour." She hesitated once more. "Have you reached your brothers? And what about you and Fox? You said in your message that you're out of town-"

"Charlie's out on a deployment," Scully reminded her mother.

"I tried calling Bill this morning, but there was no answer. And Mulder and I are in North Dakota. We're on our way back to D.C. by car, but we won't be there before tomorrow evening. I'll keep trying to call Bill as we drive."

"You could just come to George's, too," Mrs. Scully suggested hopefully. "It's right on your way, and I'm sure you and Fox would both be welcome. We could all wait together ...." Her voice trailed off, and she sighed softly.

"Mom, I have work to do," Scully answered quietly. "You know that."

"I know." Brief silence. "I'm sorry. It was always hard letting your father leave for sea duty. Watching you children do the same isn't any easier. Be careful, dear."

"I will, Mom," Scully said. She suddenly felt awkward about the whole conversation. It was time to bring it to an end, but she didn't want to stop listening to her mother's voice.

Not when it might be the last time she would ever hear it. "Mom ... I love you."

"I love you too, Dana." After that, there didn't seem to be anything else to say.

Chapter Three

There continued to be no answer at Bill and Tara's. As the afternoon wore on, Scully disciplined herself to wait thirty minutes between tries, and finally ceased leaving messages on her brother's voicemail after the third attempt. She'd also tried calling the O.D. at Jacksonville N.A.S., Bill's current duty station, where she was politely but firmly informed that unofficial calls were not currently being accepted.

Mulder had awakened shortly after her conversation with her mother, and Scully was glad to have his company. She knew that he was at least as edgy and frightened as she was, but somehow, unlike earlier in the day at the airport, they managed to stay away from Topic A. Perhaps being on the road helped, she thought. It was such a familiar situation that it allowed them to pretend, at least for the moment, that nothing had changed.

Traffic conditions certainly abetted them in such wishful thinking. Maybe it was a little light for a weekday afternoon, but not impossibly so, and none of the other drivers appeared to be in much of a hurry - no more so than usual, at any rate. They did encounter several convoys of military vehicles, but Scully refused to allow herself to dwell on the possible significance of that.

They stopped at a grocery store in Bismarck to pick up some food and other necessities for the trip home. Implicit in this decision was the possibility that they might not be able to get drive through for very much longer, and without quite discussing it they found themselves filling the trunk with canned goods and other non-perishable items. Then they sat in the parking lot for twenty minutes, and the three of them - Kyle had finally awakened - ate ravenously. Soon they were on the road again, this time heading east on Interstate 94. The traffic definitely seemed lighter than usual now, and once more Mulder and Scully's conversation became strained and discordant, until finally they both fell silent. Kyle fell asleep again, while Mulder sat quietly, staring out at the scenery, effectively leaving Scully alone with her thoughts.

Unfortunately, that was not a particularly comfortable place to be. Ever since yesterday afternoon, when Mulder was taken, Scully had been running on pure adrenaline, with the pressing needs of the moment - finding her partner, rescuing him and getting him to safety, and then trying to find a way back home so they could get on with fighting this thing - absorbing all of her attention. She'd had a brief moment of near collapse in the airport parking lot, as the sudden realization of what lay ahead threatened to overwhelm her, but Mulder had reached out and with just a few words managed to pull her back from the brink. Thank God for that. But now he seemed to be a million miles away, and Scully found herself unable to ask for the attention she needed. She was an adult, after all; she should be able to take care of herself. It occurred to her that the radio might provide a distraction, and so she fiddled with that for a while. She wasn't sure whether to be relieved or dismayed to find no emergency news bulletins or special reports; instead, the airwaves were crowded with the usual chatter of late afternoon drivetime deejays making the same, tired old jokes, occasionally interspersed with music. Mulder made no comment - showed no reaction at all, in fact - but Scully found the combination unnerving, under the circumstances, and finally she switched it off again.

And so her thoughts twisted and skittered down odd and sometimes disturbing side paths, as the miles continued to roll by beneath the wheels of the Mercedes. Images kept flitting through her mind, some of them memories of things she and Mulder had seen in the past, some of them the product of her fears and imagination. -- Her first daughter, Emily, bleeding the green blood that was incompatible with human life. -- That power plant worker in Phoenix, nearrly two years ago, with a hole torn in the center of his chest. -- Flashes, the barest suggestions, of bizaarre, impossible ... things. Things she associated with a horrible, bone chilling cold ....

She needed to be logical about this, she reminded herself firmly. She needed to focus on the job, and the problem. She and Mulder had been acting as if it was all over, but that couldn't be so, could it? Every problem had a solution; they just had to keep working until they found it.

//What I find fantastic is any notion that there are answers beyond the realm of science. The answers are there. You just have to know where to look.//

Scully couldn't keep herself from smiling as her own words from so many years ago came floating up into her consciousness. So much had changed since then; so much about *her* had changed. She'd lost so much - but she'd also gained one thing of inestimable value: Mulder. His faith and confidence in her was humbling, and the strength of their bond went beyond anything she'd ever thought she would experience. As long as she had Mulder, she could face anything. She reached over and lightly touched the back of his hand, and was reassured as he glanced briefly at her and smiled. As long as they were together ....

They reached Fargo with the sun hanging low in the west. It was after rush hour, so they continued to make good time as they traversed the city - although Scully felt an unpleasant tingle on the back of her neck as she wondered how much difference it would have made even if they *had* arrived an hour or two earlier. Maybe the highway would have been empty, anyway.

//I wouldn't expect emergency medical services to be overwhelmed until Tuesday evening at the earliest. Perhaps even Wednesday.//

Kurt Crawford had spoken those words just the night before, shortly before the meteor shower began. But it couldn't be happening that fast. Could it? Everything had seemed normal in Bismarck, and that had been only a few hours ago. Could the world really end in the space of an afternoon?

At the Minnesota border they encountered the first real evidence since Minot that something was out of the ordinary.

The evidence came in the form of a roadblock, supposedly established to catch a group of convicts who'd escaped from the state penitentiary back in Bismarck. A line of cars was sitting in the breakdown lane, while state troopers went through each of them in great detail, under the watchful eye of troops from the Minnesota National Guard.

Scully wondered what they were really looking for. And were the guardsmen operating under orders from the governor? Or had they been federalized? Were they even actually who their uniforms and vehicles said they were? From the cold, remote expressions on the faces of the soldiers, those didn't seem like good questions to ask.

After nearly an hour of waiting, they were allowed to pass. The sergeant who searched their car raised his eyebrows at the trunk full of canned goods, and raised them even farther at her partner's complete lack of identification. It took a lot of discussion, and ultimately a phone call to Skinner, to convince the man that Mulder was who he said he was. But finally they were on the road again, angling southeast on I-94, on their way to the Twin Cities.

Mulder was driving now, while Scully shared the passenger seat with Kyle. The child was awake again, nestled between her body and the door, peering out at the passing scenery with apparent interest. It occurred to her that perhaps his family had driven this way on outings in the past.

She felt a twinge of guilt at the thought, remembering the three McIlwaine children who Cassandra Spender had been too late to save. God, and there was Cassandra, too - what had happened to *her*? Mulder had said she'd been taken, and Crawford had confirmed that. The Colonists had needed to verify her status as the first successful human/alien hybrid -- but what had they done with her afterwarrds? Yet another question that might never be answered.

Scully drifted in and out of wakefulness as the sun went down, and some of the things she saw, she was sure had to be dreams. They passed countless small towns surrounded by farms, but the fields were plowed in strange geometric shapes, looking like pictures she'd seen of crop circles in some of Mulder's reference books.

Suddenly she was in England, with Mulder, on the trip she'd refused to take a few weeks earlier. He was wearing a three piece suit and wire rim glasses, and stood in front of a classroom, lecturing to a group of students. He was pacing back and forth, his hands behind his back, talking to them about crop circles and the Mandelbrot Set, while fractals swirled across the blackboard behind him, seemingly of their own volition.

Scully found herself fascinated, almost mesmerized, by the ever-changing shapes and colors. They really were beautiful, and now they seemed to be moving in time with her partner's voice. He was rattling on about aliens, and asking whether anyone believed in the existence of extraterrestrials, and Scully frowned, thinking that perhaps she should have answered that question differently, all those years ago. He'd been right after all, hadn't he?

All those years ago ....

//I don't think you can know,// Mulder said, now standing perfectly still and staring directly at her, his eyes seeming to bore into her as he responded to her unspoken question. //I mean, how many different lives would we be leading if we made different choices? And all the choices would then lead to this very moment. One wrong turn, and we wouldn't be sitting here together .... we wouldn't be sitting here together .... Scully? Are you listening? I said we wouldn't be sitting here together .... //


She jerked awake, then, and blinked sleepily at her partner.

The wind whipped at her hair, and her nose detected the faint smell of smoke. She looked around uneasily, trying to find the source, but there was nothing. She looked back at Mulder, who glanced briefly at her and nodded.

"Back a few miles," he said. "Little place called Ashby. Looked like most of the town was on fire."

"You drove right by," she replied, her voice thick with sleep, trying not to make it an accusation. She wanted to understand what he was telling her, but she didn't want the explanation to be that he'd fallen so deeply into despair that he'd stopped caring. She didn't think that was possible for him, but if it was, she didn't want to know it.

"Yes, I did," Mulder answered steadily. He shrugged, and glanced over at her again curiously. "Emergency services people were all over it, Scully. They had the exits blocked."

Scully let out a sigh of relief, and nodded. "Okay," she said. Then, hesitantly: "I'm sorry." I'm sorry I overreacted. I'm sorry I suspected, even for a minute, that my partner and lover had suddenly become callous and uncaring while I slept. I'm sorry that the world is ending.

I'm sorry --

"It's okay, Scully," he said softly, almost as if he could hear her thoughts. He reached out and squeezed her left hand, looking briefly at her before returning his gaze to the road. "It's okay."

They drove on.

They reached the Twin Cities shortly after midnight, and once again they changed drivers. From there they took I-35 south, and soon crossed the border into Iowa. They'd discussed the possibility of continuing on 94; it would have been a little shorter, and considerably faster. But neither of them wanted to take a chance on what they might find in Milwaukee or Chicago.

Twelve hours earlier, Skinner had reported outbreaks of the virus in half a dozen major cities, but he hadn't named them. It must have continued to spread since then; they had to assume that by now all of the important population centers were danger zones.

Another issue was what to do about Kyle. They hadn't discussed that question, but in her heart, Scully knew that they should detour to Rochester, and make an effort to return him to his parents. The fact that the world might be ending within a matter of days made that seem more important, not less, at least in some ways. They'd missed one chance already, by taking I-35 out of the Twin Cities instead of U.S. 52, and Scully could feel the guilt for that non-decision gnawing within her. Yet when the time came that they could have veered off onto U.S. 14, neither of them spoke, and soon that opportunity lay behind them, as well. And after a while, it stopped seeming quite so important.

In the small hours of that Wednesday morning, it was easy for them to continue the pretense that nothing had changed. If they met no other cars between Mason City and Waverly, who was to say there was anything wrong with that? If the streets of Waterloo were completely deserted, with not even a patrol car to be seen, how could that be judged to be out of the ordinary? It was three o'clock in the morning, after all, and human activity was at its lowest ebb. Most people were asleep.

Mulder slept again, and so did Kyle, and now Scully felt her maternal instincts rising to the surface. Back in North Dakota, she'd wished for a few more days before the axe fell. Now she knew that she'd been selfish and unrealistic.

Oh, a part of her was still wistful for the future that she and Mulder would never have, but she'd had the privilege of sharing seven years of his life, and fourteen days of his bed. That was a gift worth treasuring, and she was going to cherish every remaining moment that they were granted.

At length they reached Iowa City, and turned east onto Interstate 80. It was now past five a.m., and starting to get light, and there was no longer any use in trying to fool themselves, or each other. They'd done enough late night driving, and shared enough early mornings, that they both knew that by now the delivery trucks and the first wave of commuters should have started to appear, but there was nothing. The highways around the Quad Cities, an hour east of Iowa City, should have been buzzing with life, but they were not.

Something had changed, and not for the better.

It was an hour or so later, just outside of Peoria, Illinois, that they had their first encounter with the Invaders.

Chapter Four

Eastbound on Interstate 74
Near Peoria, Illinois
Wednesday, May 31, 2000
7:43 a.m.

Mulder squinted into the rising sun, trying to blink sleep from his eyes as he guided the silver Mercedes along the highway. It had been a long, scary night, full of lonely introspection when it was his turn to drive and Scully's to rest. Conversely, his own attempts to sleep had been repeatedly interrupted by strange, troubled dreams - dreams that were low key and hard to understand, but no less terrifying for all of that. A highway sign flashed by, indicating that Peoria was not far ahead, and in the distance he saw an exit ramp, with a collection of service station signs rising above it in the morning sunshine. The needle on the gas gauge was under the one quarter mark, and this seemed like as good a place as any to refuel.

"Looks like an oasis, Scully," he said softly, glancing over at his partner. She was only half awake, with Kyle cuddled sleepily on her lap, holding a half-eaten jelly donut. The child had been quiet since they left Minot; in fact, he hadn't spoken a word since Cassandra rescued him from the faceless aliens' lab. Mulder had not had a lot of contact with young children, but he knew enough to realize that the boy's behavior was far from normal. Presumably it was due to whatever horrors Kyle had witnessed during his hours of captivity, and Mulder knew with a sad certainty they were going to have to dig into it and find out what, exactly, he'd seen, if there was to be any hope of him regaining his equilibrium. But that was going to have to wait. Right now, they needed to get back to D.C. If they were all still alive a week from now, that would be soon enough to begin working on the problem.

He eased the car over onto the exit ramp, decelerating as he went. Their last fueling stop had been at an all night truck stop in central Iowa, around four in the morning, and Mulder was suddenly acutely aware of the pressure in his bladder.

The service station parking lot was virtually deserted, with only two cars parked in front, and a battered Celica peeking out from around back of the only building. None of the drivers were in evidence.

Mulder brought the Mercedes to a halt next to the rank of gas pumps furthest from the building, got out and began the process of refueling. Scully climbed wearily from the car and trudged off towards the restrooms, located around the corner from the storefront. Kyle remained in the car.

At least the pumps were still running, Mulder reflected, as he stood leaning against the car and gazing at the empty highway a few yards away. In his mind's eye he could see the commuters who should have been there, car after car whizzing by, some already late for work ....

He wondered where everyone could be. It had been less than twenty-four hours since they left the emergency room in Minot, and at that point everything had still seemed normal.

Could an entire world really fall apart in less than a day?

Was it different in the towns and cities? If they left the isolated, transient environment of the Interstate, would they find the houses of Peoria filled with bodies, their chests ripped open by the creatures that had grown within them? Or were people simply afraid, and cowering in their homes? And if it was the latter, where were the police and military personnel who should have been out patrolling and maintaining order?

Maybe everybody really *was* dead.

The gas pump clicked off, and Mulder returned the nozzle to its holder. The urgency in his bladder wasn't going to wait a minute longer, but it occurred to him that Kyle might have to go, too. He got back in the car and started it, and moved it away from the gas pumps, then got out again and walked around to the passenger side of the car.

"Hey, pal," he said, leaning over the door frame and trying to keep his voice warm and friendly. "How about a pit stop?" There was a brief pause, and a faint look of puzzlement appeared on the boy's face. Mulder forced a wry smile, and added, "Bathroom? You need to go? Because now's the time."

There was another brief pause, almost as if the child had to filter Mulder's words before deciding whether it was safe to respond. Finally he nodded, a small, sharp jerk of the head, and Mulder popped open the car door and stepped back, allowing the boy to exit. A moment later, he was leading him by the hand towards the restrooms.

"You wanna get the tab?" Mulder asked his partner, as they met halfway between the car and the bathrooms. He doubted if there was anyone here to take their money, but he wasn't willing to give up on the rules of civilization quite yet. Apparently Scully felt the same way, because she nodded silently, obviously still not completely awake, and turned away towards the storefront.

Fortunately, Kyle was old enough that he needed no help at the urinal; there was even one set low enough that he could reach it without assistance. Mulder moved a few steps away, to another facility, and averted his eyes while he tended to his own needs, giving the boy such privacy as he could. The two of them were just finishing up washing their hands when the door to the outside slammed open.

"Mulder!" Scully's voice, now fully awake, and obviously alarmed. "Mulder, come quick. We've got a problem."

Automatically, Mulder reached for his weapon, then cursed as he remembered that his gun, along with his badge and everything else, had been taken from him at the time of his abduction. In place of his customary SIG, he therefore found himself holding the short-barrelled Smith and Wesson that Scully usually carried as a holdout. He grabbed Kyle's wrist with his free hand and followed after his partner; a few steps took them outside and around the corner to the storefront. Scully pulled open the door and started to lead them inside. Mulder hesitated, not wanting to expose Kyle to what was almost certainly waiting in there, but not wanting him out of his sight, either. Finally, as a compromise, he positioned the boy so that he could be seen from the inside, but so that he could not see inside, and ordered him to stay put. Then Mulder turned and followed his partner into the building.

The place was a mess. The gas station included a small convenience store, and packages of food and other necessities for travelers had been swept from the shelves and lay scattered across the floor, looking as if a tornado had passed through. The metal shelving was twisted and torn, and the glass front on the refrigerator section had been shattered.

And there was a man's body, lying face down on the floor partway along one of the aisles, in a large pool of semi-coagulated blood.

Mulder glanced quickly back at Kyle, reassuring himself that the boy was still standing where he'd left him, and that he couldn't see far enough into the building to see the body. He then moved forward to join Scully, who was already kneeling next to the dead man, and accepted without comment the pair of latex gloves she was offering him. She waited while he pulled them on, then caught his eye and nodded slightly, and between the two of them they wrestled the man over onto his back.

As Mulder had expected from the moment he saw the body, the chest and abdomen had been ripped open, apparently from the inside, just like the one in Phoenix, two years before. There was a look of horror and agony on the man's face, and the entire front of his torso - what was left of it - was covered with blood.

"Well I guess that settles any lingering doubts," Mulder commented grimly. His partner nodded, and he continued, "How long has he been like this?"

Scully shrugged, and touched the pool of blood with a gloved fingertip. It was dark red, and quite sticky and viscous. "I'd say no more than an hour or two," she replied.

Mulder nodded. "Then we'd better get out of here. The thing that did this could still be around."


They both rose to their feet, stripping off their gloves as they did so. Mulder turned away, and noticed that Kyle had moved forward into the doorway. The boy's eyes were big as saucers, and his chin was quivering, but he was still absolutely silent.

"It's okay, pal," Mulder said gently, crossing hurriedly to the child and crouching down next to him, trying to block the child's view of the carnage with his body. "Everything's going to be fine." Kyle looked at him blankly for a moment, then slowly shook his head. Mulder sighed, and straightened up again. "Come on," he said, taking the boy's hand. "Let's get you back to the car."

"Mulder, I'm gonna check the back, in case there's anyone still alive."

He turned, to see Scully striding briskly towards the checkout counter, and the partly open door behind it. This was not good, he thought instantly. They shouldn't separate, even for a minute, and they shouldn't waste any time at all in getting out of here. There was danger present; he could feel it.


"I'll just be a minute," she interrupted, looking back over her shoulder. Brief pause, and then a slight note of pleading entered her voice. "Please, Mulder. If it were back there, don't you think it would have heard us by now, and come out? And I ... I couldn't live with myself if I didn't check."

Mulder hesitated, hearing the words she hadn't spoken: Dana Scully was determined to remain human, right to the bitter end. He nodded reluctantly. "All right. But if you're not out in two minutes, I'm coming after you." He turned away before he had a chance to second guess himself, and urged Kyle away from the doorway and towards the car, Scully's holdout still in his hand.

They hadn't gone ten paces across the parking lot when Mulder saw a flicker of motion out of the corner of his eye.

He turned sharply, raising his weapon, ready to face the threat - then sighed with relief as he saw that it was a battered red pickup truck, coming down the off-ramp from the Interstate. A few seconds later it was pulling into the parking lot and coming to a stop next to the nearest rank of gas pumps.

There were three men in the truck, and the initial relief Mulder had felt at seeing that they were human quickly dissipated as the doors popped open and they climbed out of the vehicle to stand on the pavement. These were not men you could turn your back on.

He immediately identified the driver as the leader. He was short and balding, in his mid-40s, and his body language radiated dominance and authority. A substantial beer belly hung out over his belt, and he carried a sawed-off shotgun in his right hand, as casually as a construction worker might carry a crowbar. The other two men were less important, but Mulder quickly cataloged them in his mind: both younger than the first, one tall and thin, with thick black hair, the other blond, short and stocky, his muscles not yet gone to flab. Either of them would be trouble in a fight, but the driver was the one who was truly dangerous, despite his age and poor physical condition.

"Hey there, fella," the leader said, his voice deep and casual. He walked up to Mulder and stopped a few feet in front of him. The other two followed, flanking him and just a step or two behind, like some sort of honor guard. Each man had a pistol in the waistband of his jeans. A cigarette dangled from the corner of the tall one's mouth.

"Hey, yourself," Mulder replied. He realized he was still holding his weapon in a position that could be interpreted as threatening, and carefully lowered it. "Sorry. You're the first people we've seen in a while. I was nervous."

One of the younger men snickered, but the leader nodded soberly. "Most people are sick," he answered. "A lot of 'em are dead." His gaze flicked briefly to Kyle, then back to Mulder. "Where you headed?"

"We're on our way home," Mulder replied. "To the east coast. We were on vacation when ... when it happened."

The man nodded speculatively, and one of his friends laughed again. Suddenly, the older man's gaze went past Mulder, and Mulder knew that Scully must have come out of the building.

"Well hello!" the man said, phony good cheer evident in his voice. "This must be the boy's momma." He looked back to Mulder, and something ugly glinted in his eyes. "You been holdin' out on us."

"Nobody's holding out on you," Mulder replied carefully. "I told you - we're on our way home." He risked a glance over his shoulder at Scully. She was standing just outside the the door, her body angled so that the men couldn't see the weapon she still held in her hand. Her expression was calm and serene, and slightly puzzled, giving the appearance of a soccer mom who hadn't yet figured out how much trouble they were in.

"So you say," the man said. He moved a few steps closer, and Mulder smelled beer on his breath. "*I* say you been holdin' out." He moved the shotgun, so that it wasn't quite pointing at Mulder. "And I say you ain't man enough for a lady as fine as she is."

There were a few eternal seconds of silence, and Mulder became aware of Kyle, pressing against his leg. He glanced down, and saw that the boy was now clinging to him, clutching his pants leg so hard that his knuckles were white. Mulder looked back up at his antagonist. "Look," he said, choosing his words carefully. "We don't want any trouble. We just stopped for some gas, and now we'd like to get going again." He paused and licked his lips. Without breaking eye contact with the man in front of him, he said, "Kyle, go get in the car."

Again there was that brief pause, as Kyle apparently processed what had been said to him. Then he let go of Mulder's pants and began obediently walking across the parking lot towards the Mercedes. He almost made it.

"Stop!" The man's voice cut through the air like a knife, and he abruptly raised his shotgun until it pointed directly at Mulder's chest. "Tell him to come back," he ordered. "We might need him to keep momma under control." He grinned nastily. "And long as we got him, we don't need you, now do we?" His grip on the weapon tightened, and Mulder prepared to throw himself to one side, in a hopeless attempt to avoid the blast. At this range, with that weapon, the man couldn't possibly miss.

"Bobby! She's got a gun!"

Suddenly everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. Mulder saw the man's eyes narrow as his gaze flicked again towards Scully. The shotgun quivered in his grip, and the barrel started to swing in her direction. Mulder tried to bring his own weapon up, but the other man saw it and jerked the shotgun around, striking him in the wrist with the barrel and knocking the pistol from his hand.

The two younger men were going for their own guns, and Mulder knew that if they'd had them drawn when they got out of the truck, it would already have been over. Then he heard Scully fire, once, twice, three times. The older man's body jerked and writhed, and he doubled over, staggered a step, and fell face down on the ground, the shotgun flying from his grasp and skittering across the pavement.

And it was going to be too late anyway. The tall, thin man had his pistol out and was brandishing it in Scully's direction. Mulder dove for the fallen shotgun, knowing that he couldn't reach it in time, but there was nothing else to do, the bastards were going to shoot Scully, and then they were going to rape her, and she could take out one of them, but not both, and he had to do *something* --

There was a bloodcurdling scream, followed by two more gunshots. Mulder rolled across the shotgun, scooping it off the ground as he went, and kept on rolling until he reached a sitting position. He steadied himself, forcing himself not to look in his partner's direction. She was okay; she had to be okay, because the other alternative was unacceptable. It couldn't happen. He raised the weapon and swung it around, looking for a target - and froze in shock.

The tall man was now firmly in the grasp of a nightmare done in black. It was taller than its victim, its body encased in a dark, chitinous shell, and its razor-sharp claws were doing unspeakable things to the fragile body of the man in its clutches. Blood was spraying everywhere, and body parts that Mulder had previously seen only on Scully's autopsy table were all too apparent. And the man's screams continued --

"Mulder! The cigarette!" Mulder's head whipped around at the sound of Scully's voice, just in time to see her go racing past him in the direction of the first rank of gas pumps. He looked in the direction she was running, and saw with horror that the cigarette the tall man had been smoking was bouncing across the pavement, in the direction of a puddle of some sort next to one of the pumps.

She wasn't going to make it. Even as the thought went crashing through his mind, the butt came in contact with the puddle. The liquid immediately ignited, the flames reaching upward towards the gas pump's hose --

The air was shattered by the force of the blast, the tall man's screams completely eclipsed by the whooshing roar of the explosion. Mulder was lifted from the pavement by the shockwave, only to be smashed down again a fraction of a second later. He couldn't possibly have heard anything in that instant, but somehow he was aware of something heavy hitting the ground a few yards away - and somehow, he knew that it was Scully.

Then he was scrambling to his hands and knees, and scuttling in her direction. He bent over her, and breathed a sigh of relief as he saw that her eyes were open, and that she was breathing.

"Are you okay?" he asked urgently.

"Yeah." As he helped Scully struggle to a sitting position, Mulder took a quick look around, making a survey of the carnage. The tall man was now lying on the ground, his body ripped almost completely in two, his internal organs spilling out in plain sight in the bright morning sun. The older man, the one who had challenged Mulder, was lying a few feet away, where he'd fallen after Scully had shot him. The third man was a short distance beyond him, his body ripped and torn much as the tall man's was. And the alien ....

Mulder swore as his gaze finally fell on the creature. It had moved past the burning gas pumps in the direction of the Mercedes, and now it stood directly in front of the car. Just a few feet from Kyle.

And Mulder was on his feet again, and running towards the boy. He didn't know what he planned to do; he didn't know what he *could* do. But he had to try. He heard footsteps behind him, and knew that they belonged to Scully, but all of his attention was focused on the tableau in front of him.

The monster was standing perfectly still, staring down at Kyle. The child was also motionless, looking back up at the creature, an expression of sheer terror on his face. As Mulder came abreast of them he slowed to a stop. Once more he heard footsteps pounding up from behind, and a few seconds later Scully was standing beside him.

What the hell were they supposed to do now?

The creature turned its head, almost as if it had heard Mulder's silent question, and for a few seconds it stared directly at him. Its eyes were hard and cold and black, as if they'd been carved from obsidian, and Mulder shivered as the monster continued to stare all the way down into his soul, leaving him feeling foul and unclean, before it finally turned its gaze back to the boy. Mulder felt heat on the back of his neck as the gas pumps continued to burn, and he knew they had only minutes -- maybe only seconds - before the fire reached the underground storage tanks. They had to *move*, they had to get out of here, but he was afraid that any attempt to do so would send the alien into attack mode again.

It was Scully who finally broke the impasse. Taking slow, deliberate steps, as if she were trying not to startle a wild animal, she moved forward until she could reach out and take Kyle's hand. Mulder watched the monster as she did so, alert for any sign of hostility, but the creature continued to stand there, unmoving, as Scully led the boy the rest of the way to the car, and helped him climb into the passenger seat.

"Come on, Mulder," she said, her voice amazingly, almost impossibly calm. "Let's get out of here before it changes its mind."

Mulder nodded, and without another word he walked carefully around the alien, giving it a wide berth as he moved towards the Mercedes. It seemed to take forever, but finally he was sliding in behind the wheel and starting the ignition. Thirty seconds later they were out of the parking lot and accelerating up the ramp to the Interstate.

In the rearview mirror, Mulder could see the monster continuing to stand perfectly still, its form silhouetted against the burning gas pumps as it watched them leave.

Chapter Five

Eastbound on Interstate 74
Passing Morton, Illinois
Wednesday, May 31, 2000
8:29 a.m.

"How did you know?" Scully glanced up from stroking Kyle's hair, and saw that Mulder was looking at her, an expression of confused relief on his face. As soon as he'd caught her eye, he looked back at the highway in front of them. Scully shrugged.

"I didn't know," she replied, continuing to ruffle her fingers through the boy's hair. He was cuddled closely in her lap, his eyes squinched shut and his arms wrapped around her neck. If not for the uneven hitch in his breathing, she might have believed that he was asleep. "I just ... hoped," she went on, shrugging again. "It *had* to work; there wasn't any other way out." She shook her head, and repeated, "It had to work."

Mulder nodded, but did not reply, and Scully turned her attention back to Kyle. The boy's breathing was finally evening out; maybe he actually was falling asleep now. She gentled her touch until her fingers were barely making contact with his scalp, and tried to put her thoughts in order.

Her heart had almost stopped when she saw the monster towering over Kyle. For a few endless, agonizing seconds she was frozen in place, unable to move, unable even to breathe, as her mind leapt forward to the moment when the creature would grab the boy and tear him literally limb from limb, as it had the men from the pickup truck. She could already hear him screaming, and she could see the blood spattering his pavement in the bright morning sunlight.

But it hadn't happened and it hadn't happened and it hadn't happened, and then time was surging forward again and she was on her feet and running after Mulder, still expecting at any instant to see it all come crashing down. Kyle would die in agony, and then it would turn on Mulder, and finally on her, and it was going to hurt, God, it was going to hurt, but at least it would be *over* --

But again, it hadn't happened, and then somehow Scully had come to realize that it wasn't *going* to happen. The monster was standing absolutely still, almost as if it were mesmerized by Kyle's presence. And she remembered Kurt Crawford's words of two days before:

//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 ....//

He'd said that they'd failed in their attempt to give her this ability. They'd failed with her, but the creature they'd seen at the gas station might be expected to have it in full measure. And Kyle, of course, was not completely human ....

Scully shook her head, forcing her attention back to the present. She could speculate endlessly about what had just happened back at the gas station, but she would probably never know for sure. What mattered was that it had worked.

They'd passed beyond the outskirts of Peoria, now, and soon they were coming up on Bloomington and Normal. Now that it was full daylight, they saw occasional signs of life, such as plumes of smoke or distant motion that might have been human figures. Once, they saw what seemed to be the contrail of a jet aircraft, but who - or what - was piloting the plane was impossible to say.

Scully continued her intermittent efforts to reach Bill and Tara, to no avail. The duty officer at Jacksonville N.A.S. no longer answered, and attempts to call their home number were met with a fast busy signal, indicating that the circuit was not available.

They crossed over into Indiana, and by late morning they were approaching Indianapolis. They briefly discussed whether it would be wise to avoid the city, but finally decided that the risk was outweighed by the need to make the best time possible. In her heart, Scully wasn't sure it was the right decision; what had almost happened that morning in Peoria had caused her to realize that the humans left alive could pose as much of a threat as the Invaders. It was also unclear to her why they were in such a hurry. What was left for them in Washington? Or, more correctly, what was likely to be left by the time they arrived? If the Bureau even still existed by then, would it be anything more than an empty building? In her mind's eye, she could see the bodies scattered through the bullpen, their chests torn open by the genesis of the creatures that had grown within them. Skinner was there, and Kimberly Cppl, and Tom Colton,

and dozens of others whose lives suddenly seemed very precious, now that they were most likely lost.

As they approached the Ohio border, with Scully now behind the wheel, she felt more and more of an urge to do as her mother had suggested. Uncle George lived near Johnstown, Pennsylvania. She and Mulder could be there in a matter of hours; far sooner than they could reach Washington. They could hide there; they would be safe. For a while, anyway.

For as long as *anyone* could be safe, anywhere.

It was east of Indianapolis that they started to see cars on the road again. They'd passed vehicles abandoned by the side of the highway all morning, and when the third one they checked turned out to have two bodies in it, one with its torso ripped open, and the other apparently torn apart by the monster that had been unleashed, they'd ceased stopping to look for survivors. But now there were other cars in motion, with human beings clearly visible behind the steering wheels. Not many, but a few, and with rare exceptions they all were heading east.

Scully wondered about that, as she continued to drive through the Ohio countryside.. Mulder and Kyle were asleep again, the boy cuddled comfortably in the man's lap, the latter's arms encircling the former in a possessive, almost fatherly way. Scully was unwilling to interrupt their slumber, which meant that she was unable to bounce her ideas off her partner, but now that she considered it, it seemed logical that the distribution of the virus might not have been uniform. Perhaps now they had left an area of heavy concentration, and were entering a region where the infection was less well established. Her pulse quickened as she considered the possibility. Perhaps there was still hope, after all.

Perhaps her mother and her brothers were still alive.

Almost as quickly as the thought had formed Scully was shaking her head firmly, admonishing herself not to get her hopes up. She couldn't afford to assume anything but the worst, and she'd seen with her own eyes that the virus was present and doing its horrible work. She would not allow the appearance of a handful of cars to lead her down a false trail, and disregard everything else that she'd seen.

Traffic continued to get heavier, though, with more cars seeming to appear almost out of nowhere as the silver Mercedes continued eastward. Scully found herself actually having to maneuver a bit to continue on course, as the other drivers seemed to have little concern for safety - their own, or anyone else's. The ones she saw were hunched over their steering wheels, their expressions uniformly grim and ... hunted was the word, she decided.

She shivered, and glanced over at her partner, wishing that he would wake up. She'd never felt so alone in all her life -- not even when she was dying of cancer. It hadn't really bothered her until now, but somehow, seeing all the other cars, with their bleak, unhappy drivers, was bringing it all to the surface.

Their progress actually slowed to a crawl as they neared Columbus, and at first Scully couldn't figure out why. The traffic hadn't seemed *that* bad, but suddenly both of the eastbound lanes were packed, and so was the breakdown lane, the columns of vehicles moving forward only a few feet at a time. But finally they rounded a bend in the road, and she saw a line of military trucks blocking the highway.


It took nearly thirty minutes to cover the 500 or so yards to the checkpoint, and Scully had plenty of time to observe the procedure. Cars were being allowed through three at a time, only to be stopped at a second barricade a short distance beyond the first. The vehicles were then hurriedly but efficiently searched by troops in full combat gear, and the drivers and passengers were forced from their cars and given a quick but thorough examination that seemed to be intended to find any signs of infection. Twice, the searched yielded bodies, although whether they were dead or merely comatose was impossible to say. Those poor souls were carried away and placed in a waiting truck. On another occasion, the driver started yelling as soon as the officer in charge approached his car; he was forcibly dragged from his vehicle, held at gunpoint and strip searched. Finally his clothes were thrust into his arms, and he climbed back into his car and was allowed to continue on with the others.

"I think I left the sunblock in Vegas," Mulder commented, as the troublemaker drove away. Scully hadn't realized that her partner was awake; now she looked over at him inquiringly. He gave a crooked smile and glanced up at the sky. "No clouds," he explained. "And I know how easily you burn. I guess that means I'll have to behave myself, huh?"

Scully forced a smile at his weak attempt at humor, and nodded. Mulder reached over and squeezed her hand as it gripped the steering wheel. "Sorry," he murmured. "I didn't mean-"

She let go of the wheel long enough to return his squeeze. "It's okay," she said, and this time her smile felt more genuine, at least to herself. She hoped it appeared that way to Mulder. "You may be an asshole, but you're *my* asshole."

Mulder was silent for so long that Scully was beginning to fear that she'd offended him. His ego was so fragile, even if he did try to hide it with wisecracks and sarcasm. She glanced over at him quickly, and saw that he was watching her, and the look on his face almost took her breath away.


"Shh," he said, shaking his head, then suddenly smiling. "Don't say anything else. You'll ruin it."

Scully felt a sudden tightness in her chest as Mulder's words sank in. His phrasing was ambiguous, as was so often the case when one or the other of them tried to talk about their feelings. But there was no mistaking the emotion in his tone. Somehow, she'd apparently managed to say just the right thing. Thank God.

A few minutes later they finally reached the front of the line and were waved forward to the inspection area. Scully barely had time to switch off the engine before the car was surrounded by half a dozen soldiers.

"I'm going to have to ask you folks to get out of the car." The man's voice was calm, but Scully thought she detected an edge to it. Even as she was complying with his order, she looked sharply at him, trying to decipher the expression on his face. He was young - under thirty, more like twenty-five - with curly black hair and soft brown eyes. His uniform might have started the day immaculate, but now it was creased and rumpled, and he had a pronounced five o'clock shadow.

And he was scared.

Scully handed over the car keys and allowed herself to be led away as her world fell apart and then rapidly reassembled itself. She'd been thinking of this man and the troops under his command as adversaries - faceless tools at best, and actively complicit in the evil that was descending on the world at worst. She'd had the same reaction to the soldiers they'd encountered outside of Fargo, the day before; she'd wondered if they might be impostors, rather than who they claimed to be.

But this man was, after all, a human being, and Scully was ashamed that she'd allowed herself to think otherwise. He was a human being, and he had friends and family and loved ones, and right now he was worried about their welfare and terrified by the things he'd seen and been told. Despite all that, he was out here in the afternoon sun, doing his duty, a pair of latex gloves the only concession to the risk he was taking by touching people and things that might very well be contaminated by the alien virus.

She wondered if he would still be alive, come morning.

The examination was quick and impersonal, almost perfunctory. The man's face betrayed no further emotion as he peered into her eyes and then patted her down. He found her weapon, of course, and confiscated it, along with her cell phone, and Scully was relieved to see that Mulder was raising no objection as he and Kyle were subjected to similar treatment by a pair of enlisted men.

"Okay, folks," the man said wearily, clearly having delivered these words countless times over the course of the day. "You're free to go. The highway is closed to civilian traffic past exit 112, but there've been a number of shelters established in Columbus; if you take any of the city exits and follow the signs, you should find one with no trouble." He turned to go, his mind obviously already turning to the next carload of refugees.

Scully could see Mulder starting to cloud up even before the officer had finished his speech. Hoping to forestall an explosion, and the possible repercussions, she took a step after the man, keeping a self-conscious eye on their guards, to make sure they didn't interpret her movement as threatening. "Excuse me ... Lieutenant ...?"

"Matthews," he said briefly, half-turning back towards her. The expression on his face said that he'd been through this conversation before, too. "And I'm sorry, but those are the rules. I don't know what your personal situation is, but I'm sure it's very real and serious. Unfortunately, I'm not able to make exceptions. This is-"

"Sir," she interrupted, risking another step forward. She spoke quickly, wanting to get everything out before the man could decide against them. "Lieutenant Matthews. My partner and I are federal agents, and we are in the middle of an assignment that's directly connected with this emergency. It's imperative that we be allowed to continue to Washington as soon as possible." Moving slowly, so as not to alarm anyone, she reached in her pocket and withdrew her badge, offering it to Matthews. "You can verify this by contacting Assistant Director Walter Skinner at FBI Headquarters."

He wasn't quite convinced; she could see it in his eyes. But he did seem to be thinking about it. She could almost hear the internal argument: on the one hand, the officer didn't want anything disrupting his routine. He had a tough job, it had obviously already been a long day, and it was undoubtedly easier to cope with it all if he wasn't forced to think too much. On the other hand, he was probably getting very tired of all the bullshit --

"Okay," Matthews said abruptly. "I'll see if I can reach your assistant director. Wait in the car; it shouldn't take more than a few minutes, if it can be done at all."

In fact, it took slightly more than fifteen minutes, and it seemed like an hour. Scully tried to occupy her mind by listening to Mulder tell a story to Kyle - one that she quickly recognized as an expurgated version of one of their early cases. The boy seemed interested, but whether it was due to the subject matter, or Mulder's soothing tone of voice, was impossible to say.

At last Matthews returned, carrying their weapons and Scully's phone. He passed these items over without comment, then took a slip of paper from his pocket and handed it to Scully.

"This is your travel pass," he stated. "It authorizes you to drive from Columbus to Washington via Interstate 70. You are not to leave the highway for any reason, with the exception of one fueling stop at the Texaco station at exit 26, southeast of Pittsburgh."

Matthews paused, and waited until Scully nodded her understanding before he continued. "You must yield right of way to any and all military traffic, and you must obey the orders of any military personnel you may encounter. Finally, if you should experience mechanical difficulties with the car, pull over to the side of the road and wait. Someone will come looking for you when you fail to report at the next checkpoint. Do you have any questions?" Scully shook her head. "Very well. Your pass expires at midnight." There was a brief pause, and something flickered in his eyes. "Good luck with your assignment."

"Thank you."

Another flicker, but this time the man didn't speak; he simply nodded sharply, and turned and walked away. Scully watched him go for a few seconds, wishing that she could go after him; she might even have done so, if she could have thought of anything to say. Finally, she shook her head, threw the car in gear, and accelerated back onto the highway.

Five hours later, they were in Washington.

Chapter Six

Office of the Lone Gunmen
Washington, DC
Wednesday, May 31, 2000
7:08 p.m.

"Dammit, Frohike, open up!" Mulder shouted, banging on the door for a third time. He knew the boys were in there; he'd talked to Langly on Scully's cell phone only twenty minutes earlier, after they'd passed the final checkpoint and were allowed to enter Washington. And they were running late. The delay at the first blockade had been bad enough, but they'd subsequently been stopped six more times during the drive to D.C., by suspicious military officers who'd been told to neither expect nor allow civilian traffic in their sectors. Fortunately, the pass given to them by Lt. Matthews turned out to be valid, and in each instance they were allowed to continue on there way - after a short delay.

Mulder had been somewhat surprised when Scully suggested they stop by to see the Gunmen before checking in with Skinner, and even more surprised when she stated calmly that the boys were more likely to have found some answers than the Bureau's crime lab. He recognized that she'd been through a lot in the past year, in terms of reexamining her belief system, but no matter how hard he worked, he could never quite seem to keep up. She really did keep him guessing, this past year more than ever before. He wondered if she realized how much he respected the spiritual and emotional journey she'd been on, or how impressed he was by her willpower and strength of character.

He paused briefly in his pounding, and looked down at Scully, standing next to him and holding hands with Kyle. She was tired of course, just as he was. Neither of them had slept in a real bed since Saturday night, in Las Vegas, and catching naps in a moving car just wasn't the same. Even the idea of stretching out on his lumpy old couch, as he had on so many long, lonely nights in the old days, was starting to sound like a good idea - and he hadn't slept there in more than a year.

At last he heard footsteps approaching, and a few seconds later the familiar sound of bolts being pulled back. At last the door swung slowly open.

"Hey," Langly said. He nodded at Scully as he stepped back to allow them to enter. "Frohike's upstairs," he added briefly, closing the door behind them.

Mulder frowned as he watched his friend begin to reset the locks. Langly had always been the most hard edged of the three, but tonight he seemed even more intense than usual. That was understandable, of course - god knew that he and Scully had had a rough time, and they'd at least had a few hours to prepare for the idea before the world literally came crashing down. No doubt an objective observer would find their own demeanor to be shockingly grim - but in Langly there seemed to be something more.

The Gunmen were all cynics, of course, owing to the things they'd discovered in the course of the past ten years, but in Langly there'd always been a special anger and bitterness that seemed to lurk just beneath the surface, and very occasionally erupted into full view. When that happened, Mulder had long since been informed by Byers and Frohike, the only remedy was to make yourself scarce, and wait for the storm to pass. And not even they knew what the underlying cause was.

Langly turned away from the door and looked at Mulder speculatively, giving Mulder had the uncomfortable feeling that his friend knew exactly what he'd been thinking. For a few seconds Langly just stood there, staring at him, and Mulder braced himself for a confrontation - but then the moment passed, and the other man stalked on by, leading the way up the stairs to the Gunmen's office.

Mulder felt himself relaxing a little as he surveyed the familiar, cluttered environment of his friends' work area. He'd spent a lot of time here over the years, and it was reassuring, after the strange, frightening journey he and Scully had just been on, to finally be in surroundings that he recognized and was comfortable with.

"Hey, Mulder. Scully. You're just in time." That was Frohike, giving a brief, distracted half-wave with one hand, while the other continued to work with the mouse attached to one of the several computers scattered around the room. The little man's eyes were glued to the monitor in apparent fascination, as rows of numbers marched across the screen. Frohike abruptly let go of the mouse, and his fingers flew across the keyboard; a few seconds later, an irregular swirl of blue and red blotches appeared on the screen. The shapes slid and twisted around and through each other, and Mulder suddenly realized that their movements were not entirely random. There was a pattern emerging, slowly but surely - And then all at once it shattered. In a matter of seconds the last trace of order was gone, as the screen seemed to explode in a shower of writhing light and color. Finally the display settled down again, and at last it became still -- but there was no longer any discernible pattern. Nothing but random static.

"Fuck!" Frohike pounded his fist on the desktop. "I thought I had it that time." Shaking his head angrily, he pushed his chair back and stood, turning to face Mulder, Scully and Kyle. "I thought I had it." He stalked past them and threw himself down on a battered sofa that stood against one wall.

"You thought you had what?" Scully asked, leading Kyle over to the sofa and easing him down next to Frohike. She perched on the arm of the couch, and looked expectantly back at Mulder. He hesitated only an instant, then crossed the room and stood beside her, still uncertain of what she wanted. His eyebrows shot up in surprise as she reached out and firmly took his hand, pulling him a little closer, before she finally turned her cool gaze back to Frohike.

"Shit." The little man's head was resting on the back of the sofa, eyes shut; now he waved a hand in the general direction of the computer. "What would I be working on? The vaccine, of course." He sighed and opened his eyes. His gaze flicked quickly to Mulder and Scully's joined hands, then away, as he turned his attention to the boy. "This must be Kyle," he added. "Pleased to meetcha."

The child nodded, solemnly shook the hand Frohike was offering him, then folded his hands quietly in his lap again. Frohike studied him for a moment, then shook his head. "I can certainly see the resemblance," he commented softly. "Those bastards." He shook his head again and looked back at Mulder and Scully. "Well, I guess they're getting their reward. Too bad they had to take the rest of us with them."

He heaved himself to his feet, and swayed slightly as he crossed back to the computer. "This'd be easier if I had Byers to help me," he muttered as he took his seat. Mulder's scalp prickled as visions of his friend, torn to ribbons by one of the gestating monsters, flashed through his mind. But in the next instant Frohike glanced back over his shoulder and added, "He left this morning. Said he was going to find Susanne."

"Futile." Mulder looked over at Langly, now standing next to a window, his hands in his pockets. "Absolutely fucking futile," the man went on. "She's probably already dead. And so is Byers."

"You can't be sure of that," Frohike responded gently, as if they'd already had this conversation. "Her hidey hole is in a pretty isolated area, and you know how careful Byers is."

"Fuck careful," Langly said, his voice brittle with anger. "Careful isn't enough. This shit is everywhere." He turned away to stare out the window, and Mulder had the impression that he was looking at things only he could see. After a moment of silence, he shook his head and left the room without a backward glance.

"He does have a point," Frohike muttered, once his friend was safely out of earshot. "But what can I do but keep trying?" He turned back to Mulder and Scully, jerking his head at the computer. "This was my fifth attempt," he stated. "And I really thought I had it this time. But it always falls apart when I try to catalog the alien proteins from your blood samples. It's the same problem we've always had - too many unknowns. I need a bigger baseline." He hesitated, his gaze focusing on Kyle. "Look, I know this is a sensitive subject. But if there's any way I could get some specimens from the kid ...."

Frohike's voice trailed off, and Mulder felt Scully stiffening slightly, her grip tightening as she held his hand. He resisted the urge to say anything; this was going to have to be her decision. He remembered how adamant she'd been when Emily was dying, how determined she was that the little girl not have to endure further indignities - even at the hands of well-intentioned people who were trying to help her.

Scully would have to decide.

He felt her shoulders slump slightly, and he knew the answer before he heard the words: "I'll draw the samples."

As he had been in everything else, Kyle was completely cooperative as Scully and Frohike worked on him. He would be familiar with needles, of course, Mulder reflected, as his partner filled a fourth vaccutainer with blood. Poor kid. Only five years old, and his life was one long series of shots and blood tests, and god only knew what else. The same as with Emily ....

"That ought to do it," Frohike said, taking the last tube from Scully. For a moment his hand stayed in contact with hers, and the two of them looked at each other. There'd always been something there, Mulder knew - something that went deeper than the innuendo and exasperation that they always seemed to be flinging back and forth. Something important and meaningful.

Mulder had never felt threatened by his partner's relationship with the little man, though, not even in the past, when things between him and Scully hadn't always been as good as he might have wished. He certainly had no reservations now about giving them a moment of quiet. And while he waited, it occurred to him that Scully might not have agreed to taking the blood samples, if anyone other than Frohike had asked.

Then suddenly Frohike was pulling his hand back, almost as if he'd been burned, and Scully was turning away and stripping off her latex gloves, her face calm and expressionless, as if nothing had happened. "We'd better get going," she said. "Skinner's expecting us."

FBI Headquarters
Washington, D.C.
7:46 p.m.

The meeting with Skinner was just as brief, and even more direct and to the point.

"Agent Scully," the A.D. said, without preamble, "I attempted to find out the status of your brothers and their families through my contacts at the Navy Department. I regret having to report that I was unsuccessful."

"Thank you for trying, sir," she replied. Her voice was calm and expressionless, as if she'd just been told there was no more salad dressing, but Mulder knew better than to take that at face value. She'd been worried about her family ever since they first realized what was happening, and except for one brief conversation with her mother, she'd had no news at all. And in this instance, no news was definitely not good news.

"I don't really have very much to tell you," Skinner went on, speaking in short, clipped tones. He was seated behind his desk, same as always, but there the semblance of normality ended: instead of his usual suit and tie, the A.D. was wearing a flak vest, while a dark, deadly-looking assault rifle was propped in one corner, beneath the photograph of Janet Reno. From what Mulder had seen in their hurried walk through the Hoover Building, this was now standard equipment at the Bureau.

"As you've already discovered," Skinner went on, "much of the Eastern Seaboard was placed under martial law earlier today. The military zone extends from Connecticut to North Carolina, and reaches inland several hundred miles - the demarcation is technically a line that runs from Toledo, Ohio, south to Lexington, Kentucky, and then southeast to the Atlantic. There are minor deviations, due to local geography, but that's the essence of it.

"The purpose of all this," he continued, rising from his desk and beginning to pace, "is to try to prevent the plague from spreading." Mulder snorted; Skinner looked sharply at him, and said, "If there's something funny about this situation, Agent Mulder, it must have escaped my attention."

He paused, glaring at them, then continued, "As Agent Scully correctly deduced, although the meteor shower was seen worldwide, the coverage was not uniform. Many places -- most parts of the United States - have been devastated, and must now be considered enemy territory. But a few areas are *relatively* untouched."

"Hence the military zone," Scully said quietly. She held Kyle on her lap, and was absently running her fingers through his hair as he dozed. Skinner had raised his eyebrows slightly on first seeing the boy, but hadn't said anything. Their initial phone report, the day before, had included a mention of the child, and where he'd been found -- although Scully had asked Mulder not to disclose Kyle's parentage. She'd never told Skinner all the details about Emily's heritage, either, Mulder remembered.

"Hence the military zone," Skinner agreed. "And so far, it's been at least partially effective. There have been outbreaks within the zone, of course - there's no way to prevent that, since the virus is here, too. But we've managed to stamp out some, and quarantine the rest." His gaze flicked to Mulder again. "All these plans were in FEMA's computer system, just waiting to be activated. It would seem that our smoking friend and his colleagues gave this scenario some thought."

Mulder nodded. "They were nothing if not thorough," he commented. "So what's our assignment?"

"The Bureau has been tasked with internal security within the District of Columbia," the A.D. answered. "We've been working with the Marine detachment stationed at Quantico to establish a system of checkpoints throughout the city, and we've invoked a dusk to dawn curfew, as of 9 p.m. tonight. So far, things have been going as well as can be expected." He paused, and his gaze flicked briefly at the closed door that led to the outer office. "But there have been casualties."

For a second, Mulder didn't understand what he was talking about - but then he got it, at about the same time that Scully did, judging from her sharp intake of breath. "Kimberly?" she asked.

Skinner nodded minutely. "This morning," he confirmed, his voice flat, mechanical. "She was taken to Georgetown Memorial, and they euthanized her, per FEMA's protocol. Unfortunately, the ... the thing was born anyway. It didn't live very long, apparently because it was premature. But it killed six people before it died."

"I'm sorry, sir," Mulder said quietly.

Skinner nodded again, then sighed, took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "This whole thing is a nightmare," he admitted, his voice losing some of the drill sergeant bark. "And quite honestly, I'm afraid we're going to lose." He put his glasses back on and looked first at Scully, then at Mulder. "This is not to leave this room. But this afternoon the vice president and other key officials were evacuated from Washington. It was felt that they could be better defended at Mt. Thunder. At least, that was the reason given."

"The *vice* president?" Scully asked.

"The vice president," the A.D. repeated. "The president has been infected, and the vice president is acting under the disability clause of the 25th Amendment." He smiled mirthlessly and glanced briefly at his watch. "They couldn't bring themselves to euthanize the commander in chief." Mulder nodded in silent acknowledgement of what Skinner had not said. By now, it no longer mattered.

"Sir, what's our assignment?" Scully's voice at last broke the silence, dragging them all back to business. Skinner nodded once more, and returned to sit behind his desk.

"Your first assignment," he answered, "is to go home and get some rest." Mulder opened his mouth to protest, and he was aware of Scully stirring beside him, as well, but the A.D. raised his hand, forestalling them. "That's an order, agents," he said. "You're both dead on your feet, and you're no good to anyone that way. We've already made our dispositions for tonight, in any case. The curfew begins in thirty minutes; that should give you time to get home. Sunrise is at 5:43 a.m. I'll expect both of you in my office at 6:15, ready for duty. Are there any questions?"

There were none of any consequence, and a few minutes later Mulder and Scully were on their way to Georgetown.

Chapter Seven

Residence of Dana Scully
Washington, DC
Wednesday, May 31, 2000
8:28 p.m.

The drive to Scully's apartment was short, and completely silent. Mulder was driving, leaving Scully free to think about what they'd learned from Skinner and the Gunmen.

There really wasn't very much, and none of it was new. Boiled down to its essence, it was simply confirmation, from two very different sources, of what they'd already determined. The world was coming to an end, and there was apparently nothing anyone could do to stop it.

It had all happened so terribly, terribly fast. Forty-eight hours ago, they'd had no idea the stakes were this high. Scully had been terrified on Mulder's behalf, and determined to get him back from whoever had abducted him, no matter what the cost. She'd also wanted to find Kyle, and his brothers and sister, but that had definitely been a second priority, no matter what the rule book said about hostage situations. But she'd had no idea that the whole thing had been a blind, that the two of them had been charging after the bullfighter's cape, never suspecting that the sword was being readied --

"We're here."

Scully tried to pull herself out of her brown study, and looked around. According to the ephemerides, the sun would not set for another few minutes, but Scully's street ran north and south, and already it was dark enough that the streetlights were on. How strange was that, she wondered. The world was coming to an end, but the streetlights continued to work. Would they still be burning in a week? In a month? How long would mercury vapor and halogen continue to illuminate the streets of America, once there was no one left to see them?

"Hey, Scully?" She turned her head towards her partner, and saw him looking at her solemnly. "Don't freak out on me," he said quietly. "Not now. Not after everything we've already been through."

"I'm sorry," she said automatically. Her arms tightened around Kyle as she held him on her lap. "I ... I don't mean to be ...." Her voice trailed off, but the final word echoed inside her head, nonetheless: //... weak.// "It's okay," he replied, and actually forced a lopsided smile. "It's been getting to me, too. It's just ... I get my courage from you. But I shouldn't have asked you not to be afraid. That was pretty stupid."

"No it wasn't." She let go of Kyle with one hand, and reached over and lightly stroked his cheek. "You can ask me for anything, Mulder," she said quietly. "I may not always be able to give you what you need, but you know I'll do my damnedest." Pause. "Don't you?"

"Yeah, I know," he answered. "We always take care of each other." He turned his head slightly, and softly kissed her palm. "Come on. Let's go inside."

It took only a few minutes, Mulder carrying their bags and Scully carrying Kyle. The boy was heavy, his sleepy weight straining her arms as she walked, but she welcomed the effort, and the warmth of his body snuggled against hers. For just a moment she let her imagination ramble: she and Mulder were coming home after a long weekend out of town. Their son had been so well behaved, and now he was sleeping on her shoulder as she fumbled awkwardly for her keys --

No! Scully stopped short, silently cursing herself. No, she was not going to go there. Mulder was right to have pulled her back from the brink of despair, but wallowing in fantasies of what could never be was just as bad. She shook her head violently, trying to clear it, then slipped her key into the lock and opened the door.

It took her only a few steps to reach the sofa, and she gently laid Kyle down on it, lifting his head slightly to slide a pillow under it. The boy did not wake, but actually murmured something soft and unintelligible in his sleep. She brushed his hair back out of his eyes, then turned towards the hall closet, intending to get a spare blanket -- only to find that Mulder had beaten her to it. She silently accepted the bedclothes from him and spread them over the sleeping child, tucking the sheet and blanket securely around his small body. Finally, she straightened and turned towards her partner, and allowed herself to move into his embrace at last.

God, she needed this. She'd needed it for a long time, but it was only the last two weeks that she was finally allowed to reach out for it. She'd been such a fool to deny this to herself - and to him - for so long. Well, that was past now. Now they could finally turn to each other for comfort, and Scully intended to take full advantage of the situation.

For a few minutes she simply stood in Mulder's embrace, allowing him to hold her in his arms. She found herself breathing in time with him, and when she turned her head and pressed her ear against his chest, she realized that their hearts were beating in unison, as well. It was such a change from what they'd been through the last few days. It was so calm and quiet.

It was perfect.

At last she felt her partner stir slightly. She pulled back a little and looked up, to see that he was looking down at her, a solemn, serious expression on his face.

"We should probably get cleaned up and go to bed," he suggested, very softly.

Scully nodded in agreement. Suddenly a shower and about ten hours of sleep seemed like a wonderful idea. She hadn't really allowed herself to think about how tired she was; there'd been too much else that needed to be done. Even when Skinner mentioned their obvious exhaustion, she'd tucked the idea away in the back of her mind; the journey from the Hoover Building to her apartment had seemed long and perilous, just like everything else that had happened since Saturday night. But now they were here, at last, and there was nothing to prevent them from collapsing for a few hours.


Scully felt a sudden tingling, low in her abdomen, as she took Mulder's hand and led him down the hall to the bathroom. She hadn't thought about *that* very much since Saturday, either. It had been so easy to fall back into the old habits and patterns, especially since there hadn't seemed to be any time for anything but sheer survival. But now, tonight, there was.

Mulder paused at the threshold of the bathroom, and Scully turned to face him, still holding on to his hand. "Come on," she said quietly, backing up and pulling him on into the room. "We're entitled to take a little time for each other."

He stopped hesitating, then, and she let go of his hand and turned away to start the shower. By the time she had the water temperature adjusted, he was already naked, standing close behind her, his hands resting lightly on her still-clothed hips. Scully straightened up and leaned back against her partner, humming slightly as his arms slid around her waist. She tried to pull away so that she could undress, but he just hugged her closer - and now she felt his erection pressing firmly into her back.

"You need to let me take my clothes off," she whispered, her words barely audible over the noise of the shower.

"Uh uh." She felt him shaking his head, but before she could respond his hands moved upwards, and he began unbuttoning her blouse.

This was still another new thing between them, she thought, as her partner eased the garment down off her shoulders. Their handful of previous encounters had been brisk and businesslike, at least when it came to disrobing. It had seemed sensible and practical and efficient that they each get rid of their own clothing, but in retrospect Scully wondered why they'd done it that way. Even now, when all the barriers should have fallen away, there were so many things they'd been too timid to explore.

She gasped as Mulder let her bra fall to the floor, and cupped her breasts in his warm, gentle hands. His thumbs stroked her nipples, sending jolts of electricity coursing through her body, and his fingers tickled the surprisingly sensitive undersides of her breasts.

"M-mulder," she sighed, and that was all. Just his name, as if it were a talisman, a magic word that could shield them and protect them, shutting out the darkness and ugliness that had fallen over the rest of the world. And perhaps, for a few minutes anyway, it could.

Scully moaned in disappointment as her partner's hands fell away from her breasts, then impatiently shifted her weight, rubbing back against his body as his fingers fumbled with the clasp and zipper of her slacks. A moment later the rest of her clothes were on the floor, and they were stepping into the shower together.

The water was hot, just short of scalding, and the room had already filled with steam as they began to wash each other. Scully luxuriated in the opportunity simply to touch her partner, trailing her palms and fingertips across his soap-slick flesh, working the lather around and around, even as he was doing the same for her.

Her fingers found his cock and she felt his body shudder as she lightly grasped it, and began sliding her hand along it, over and over and over. He had one arm around her shoulders, apparently to steady himself, while his free hand was once again fondling her breasts.

She looked up at him, as she had in the living room, and once more he was looking back down. His expression was still sober and serious, but now there was a hungry look in his eyes, a look that made her shiver with excited anticipation. Their hands continued to move, exploring each other's bodies as if it were the first time, slowly building the fire of their mutual arousal ... and then he was bending down and she was stretching up, and their lips met in a soft, sensuous kiss.

It was, Scully thought dizzily, both the sweetest and the most erotic kiss she had ever had. If her body had been on fire before, it must now surely be burning to ashes from the heat of their passion. There was no longer space between them for their hands, as they pressed their soapy bodies together, skin sliding against skin. Hot water continued to pound down on them, and the steam picked up the scent of their mutual arousal, wafting it through the room and filling her lungs with every breath she took.

At last their lips separated, but still they clung together, supporting each other and catching their breath. Scully nuzzled her face against her partner's chest, wrapping her arms around his waist and trying to pull him closer, and felt his embrace of her tightening in return. She felt drunk with emotion and desire; all other concerns had fled. Right now, and for the next little while, the rest of the world simply did not exist.

Then Mulder was fumbling for something behind her back, and she realized what it was when the shower was suddenly suffused with the smell of lemons. Her shampoo ....

Then Mulder's fingers were massaging her scalp, working the shampoo into her hair. Scully closed her eyes and tilted her head in encouragement, moaning again as she did so. She'd never realized that her scalp was an erogenous zone, but apparently it was. At least, when Mulder touched her there, it was.

Finally, he was done - and then it was her turn. Mulder stooped slightly, dipping his head so that she could reach him, and Scully found herself taking surprising pleasure from the act of shampooing her lover's hair. This was not the first shower she'd shared with a man, of course, but in the past it had always just been a means to an end; a form of foreplay. This time it was serving that purpose, as well, but Scully was also discovering a special intimacy in the process of cleaning each other, most especially in hairwashing. Energy seemed to be flowing from Mulder's scalp into her fingertips, and thence directly to her groin, causing her body to shudder intermittently. She was also intensely aware of his erection, as it probed firmly and insistently at her belly, seeming to burn her skin wherever it touched her. It was all she could do not to collapse into the bottom of the bathtub and pull him down on top of her. Not yet, she counseled herself ... not yet, but soon ....

At last they turned off the water and stepped out of the tub. Drying each other with big, fluffy towels was yet another sensual delight, one that was over far too quickly. Scully couldn't decide which was more intensely pleasurable:

rubbing Mulder's body through the towel, or having him rub hers. She caught herself rising up on her toes, arching her back and humming, almost like a cat. For a second she was embarrassed by her own response to his ministrations, but she quickly banished the emotion. What Mulder was doing to her felt indescribably good, and she refused to allow any negative feelings to intrude.

Somehow, they made it to the bedroom. Scully let go of Mulder just long enough to shut the door, out of deference to Kyle, who still slept only a few feet away, at the other end of the short hallway. She then turned back to face her partner, who now stood at the bedside, an expression of naked hunger on his face that made her feel weak in the knees.

She closed the distance between them, and once more burrowed into his embrace. His body was warm and hard as it pressed against hers, and his arms held her with a firm gentleness that made her want to weep. She inhaled deeply, taking in his scent, filling her lungs with it, gratified to find that despite their just-completed shower, there was still a unique muskiness that she had long since come to associate with her partner.

She turned her head, and began to plant a row of tiny kisses along his collar bone, nipping lightly each time her lips descended, and then licking delicately with the tip of her tongue before moving on. Mulder's breathing quickened as she moved inward, and when she finally reached the base of his neck he gave a soft moan that sent yet another tingle of arousal through her system.

She could feel his hands on her back as she worked, large and warm, as they roamed ceaselessly up and down and side to side, touching and caressing, finding sensitive spots she hadn't even known she had. Ribs, shoulder blades, spine ... everywhere Mulder's fingers touched, she felt a jolt of electricity. Everywhere they lingered, a new fire was lit. And when he actually lifted his hand away for a second, she felt bereft.

Scully continued her series of kisses, now working her way down and across his chest, the sparse, curly hair tickling her nose as she went. She reached his right nipple and took it into her mouth, suckling on it and licking it and scraping her teeth across it, each action eliciting a new, exciting noise from Mulder.

Downwards, downwards, across his ribs to his abdomen, kissing, tasting, biting, licking. His skin quivered against her mouth, and as she knelt down his hands came to rest on her shoulders, his fingers trailing lightly across her collar bones.

Her mouth drifted down past his waist, and now his body shuddered every time her lips touched him. Scully explored her partner's hip and thigh, moving downward and inward, shuddering herself whenever his erection brushed her cheek. They were both moaning, she realized, as she continued her oral devotions. They were both making small, breathless sounds, noises that mingled and seemed to fill the room, and echoed and reechoed inside her head, spurring her on. Scully could not remember ever being this attuned to all her senses while making love. Sights, smells, tastes, sounds -- everything she experienced seemed to reinforce her arousal, seemed to deepen the aching need in her belly. The slightest, most incidental touches from her lover were evoking spasms of pleasure, making her almost frantic with desire. She never wanted it to end; she wanted the feelings to just go on and on and on.

She slipped her mouth over the head of his penis, circling the tip with her tongue and greedily lapping up the salty, bitter pre-ejaculate that had formed there. Dana Scully had never been a fan of the flavor of semen, but at this moment she was so intensely aroused that she scarcely noticed. She moved her head gradually forward, taking more of him into her mouth, a half an inch at a time, until finally the head bumped against the back of her throat.

God, he was big. She'd known that for years, of course, due to the need to help him when he was hurt, and also from the accidental exposure that happens occasionally when two people spend a lot of time together in close quarters. But it was only the past two weeks that she'd allowed herself to take a personal interest in the matter. The throbbing ache between her legs intensified, as she began to bob her head, pulsing in anticipation of what would soon be filling her emptiness.

Mulder's fingers were now tangled in her hair, and he was breathing in short, sharp gasps. Scully slid her own hands back and around his hips, until they found and cupped his buttocks, squeezing and kneading them as she continued to suck on his cock. She'd admired that ass for years, and now it was finally hers to do with as she wished. She flexed her hands, and dragged her fingernails across its surface. Mulder's hips jerked forward at the stimulation, and he cried out.

At last, sensing that he was nearing completion, Scully reluctantly allowed him to slip out of her mouth, placing one more kiss on the very tip before finally letting it go. Then she stood up, keeping her hands on his butt as she did so. Mulder wrapped his arms around her, pulling her in close, and lowered his face to cover her mouth with his as the two of them fell over together onto the bed.

For a few minutes they lay in each other's arms, kissing and touching and waiting for their breathing to return to normal. Scully was so eager she was trembling, but she forced herself to hold back. She'd taken Mulder very close to the edge, and she knew he needed a little time and a little distance, or it would be over far too quickly. She wanted this to last.

And there was something to be said for a little cuddling, as well. Mulder now lay half on top of her as he nibbled at her neck and ears and fondled her breasts. Her arms were wrapped around his head, holding it tightly in place, and when he shifted his weight and slipped one of his legs between hers, she instinctively wrapped her legs around his thigh and began to rub her groin frantically against it.

Mulder chuckled against her neck, then forced his head up against her grip until he could see her face. There was a happy twinkle in his eye - merriment shot through with need and desire. His face was flushed, just as she knew hers must be, and beads of sweat trickled down his forehead.

"Don't laugh at me," she murmured, trying but failing to keep the amusement from her voice, and still rubbing her body against his. "You want it just as much as I do."

The smile abruptly vanished from her partner's face, and he lowered his head until his lips were brushing against hers. "Oh, no, Scully," he whispered. "Oh, no. Much, *much* more than that."

And suddenly Scully just couldn't take any more; she could no longer force herself to wait. She needed him, now, and so she pushed against his chest with her hands, rolling him onto his back and moving to straddle his thighs in one smooth motion, reaching down and tightly gripping his upper arms as she did so. For a moment she hovered above him, poised, letting her eyes drink in the vision of her partner, lying on the bed beneath her.

Sweet Jesus, he was beautiful - and never moreso than right now, as he lay there gazing up at her, face flushed, looking as if he wanted to devour her. His hands were gripping her hips, and as she continued to look down at him, he pulled her forward and lifted her up a little. Almost as if they'd rehearsed it, Scully reached down between them and grasped his erection, tickling and stroking it gently for a few seconds before finally guiding it to her entrance.

Their groans as she sank down on and around him were deep and guttural, and in perfect unison, almost as if a single creature were crying out in unbearable pleasure. Scully felt herself stretching to accommodate him, and it seemed to go on and on and on as she slid slowly down on him, until, finally, he was completely sheathed within her.

For just a few seconds they both held perfectly still, eyes locked together, her hands once more gripping his upper arms, while his still held her firmly by the hips. Scully felt completely full, in a way she hadn't felt with any other man. Not just physically full - spiritually and emotionally as well. This man was everything she needed, and everything she would ever need.

//As long as we've got each other, things will work out, somehow.//

Those were her partner's words, spoken on Tuesday morning as they were leaving Minot. She hadn't believed them then, and from the expression on his face he hadn't, either. But now, when they were together like this, it was impossible for Scully to be afraid or uncertain. The sheer joy of being joined with him banished all other emotions.

Then she began to move, slowly at first, sliding up and down on his proud, rigid cock. God, it felt good; it felt so good. Everything tonight felt good, but this ... this bordered on the sublime. Scully had never had much time for romance novels, thinking them unrealistic and impossibly sentimental. But these last two weeks with Mulder had caused her to revise her opinions, and tonight was best of all.

They picked up the pace, Mulder's hips beginning to move in counter-rhythm to her own, thrusting up at her and filling her even as she was pushing down to engulf him, over and over and over, each stroke a little harder, a little faster, a little deeper. Already, Scully could feel herself teetering on the brink, ready to slide over the top. She'd wanted this to last, but it wasn't going to happen, but that was okay, she was ready, she was ready, she was so very, very close --

So very close --

And she was there, she was flying, and the rest of the world just disappeared, leaving nothing but her and the man she held tightly between her thighs. She was assaulted by wave after wave of ecstasy, it wasn't ever going to stop, and Mulder was still thrusting up into her, his hands gripping her hips so hard she was sure he'd leave bruises, but she didn't care, it didn't matter, because it all felt so impossibly *good* --

And she was *still* coming, each upward thrust by Mulder taking her a little bit higher, a little bit farther. She was riding him, now, holding on for dear life and looking down at him, at his beautiful, sweat-slick body, as he filled her and fulfilled her, again and again and again --

Suddenly, his face contorted in a grimace of pleasure and he cried out. Scully felt his cock expand inside her, and with one more mighty thrust he emptied himself into her, grinding his groin against hers and pulling her upper body down into a crushing embrace. For a few timeless seconds her entire world was Mulder. He was wrapped around her and buried deep inside her; he was everywhere - Finally, gradually, she felt his body relax, and his arms around her loosened slightly. He still held her, and he still rested inside her, but the tension was rapidly seeping out of him, and Scully felt herself sinking down into a seemingly boundless pool of relaxation and contentment. For tonight, at least for the next few hours, she had no worries, no concerns. There were no aliens, there was no virus, and everything she truly cared about was here in this bed, securely wrapped in her four-limbed embrace. And again, as she hovered on the verge of sleep, she heard her partner's voice:

//As long as we've got each other, things will work out, somehow.//

Scully slept.

Chapter Eight

Residence of Dana Scully
Washington, DC
Thursday, June 1, 2000
4:58 a.m.

Mulder awoke to the sound of someone screaming.

For a few seconds he was confused and disoriented. It was dark, and the bed felt funny - the mattress wasn't quite as firm as he was accustomed to. And there was someone lying next to him --

Scully. Right. He was in Scully's bed, and it was she who was curled up next to him. Still asleep, but that wouldn't last long; not with Kyle screaming the way he was. Yeah, Kyle. That was who it was.

Still not fully awake, Mulder stumbled out of bed and hurriedly groped his way to the door. The child's screams had not let up, and even seemed to be getting louder. He pushed open the bedroom door, ducked into the bathroom just long enough to find and pull on his boxers, and headed down the hall.

The sight that greeted him when he reached the living room was heartbreaking. Kyle was still on the sofa, where Mulder and Scully had left him the night before - but he was no longer sleeping peacefully. His limbs were thrashing violently as he continued to scream incoherently, and as Mulder hurried closer he saw tears mixing with sweat on the boy's face.

"Hey, pal," he said, crouching down next to the child. Kyle's head jerked around as Mulder laid a hand on his shoulder. His eyes were wide, his pupils so fully dilated that there was almost no color left. And the screaming continued.

Mulder hesitated, not sure what to do. He had some idea of what the boy was going through; he'd had his share of nightmares through the years. But as far as he could recall, he always just came out of it on his own, and he had no clue of how to help someone else with the problem. He'd had one class in child psychology at Oxford, but that was nearly twenty years ago, and he hadn't paid much attention, because it hadn't been his main area of interest.

"Let me."

Mulder looked around, and saw Scully kneeling down next to him, wearing a robe. Her hair was tousled, her face was soft with sleep, and her expression - Mulder shook his head in amazement. Her expression was more tender and loving than he could ever remember having seen it.

"He's not really awake," Scully explained over her shoulder, as she gently stroked the terrified child's forehead. "And there isn't really much we can do, other than be here and keep him safe until it goes away." She turned her attention back to the boy. "It's okay, Kyle," she murmured, still caressing his face. "You're safe. Everything's fine."

"How long will that take?" Mulder asked uncertainly. Had Kyle's screams begun to diminish in volume, just a bit? He wasn't sure.

"Probably only a few minutes," Scully said, still focusing her attention on the child. "These sorts of episodes don't usually last very long." She glanced again over her shoulder. "Why don't you go get him a glass of water. Sometimes it helps."

Mulder nodded, and did as he was told. By the time he got back from the kitchen, only a minute or so later, Kyle had calmed considerably, to the point where he was now only whimpering, with an occasional broken sob for punctuation. The thrashing around had almost completely stopped, his body now only shuddering slightly, intermittently, as he cried.

"There you go," Scully was saying, stroking the boy's cheek and running her fingers through his hair. "See? Everything's okay." She took the glass of water from Mulder, and helped Kyle sit up enough to sip from it. Mulder watched in disbelief as the child took two swallows, then closed his eyes and settled back down on the sofa. In a matter of seconds, his breathing had evened out, and he was sleeping peacefully once again.

"Scully," he said softly, as his partner rose from her knees at last. "Scully, that was amazing. How did you do it?"

She looked at him oddly for a minute, then shook her head. "I ... I didn't do anything," she replied. It seemed to him that she was choosing her words very carefully. "I was just ... there for him, as long as he needed me. That's all you really can do when that happens."

"How did you know?" he asked. His curiosity was piqued, both by this rare glimpse at his partner's softer side, and at her obvious discomfort with the entire subject. "From taking care of your nephews?"

"No," she said. She bit her lower lip, then turned away.

"Scully?" He took two steps forward, until he was standing next to her, and put an arm around her shoulders. "Scully, what's the matter?"

She sighed and turned to face him, laying one hand on his chest as she did so. She did not try to push him away, though; she apparently just wanted the contact. For a moment, she seemed to search his face. Finally: "I guess you really don't remember. The books said you wouldn't, but I was never sure."

"Don't remember what?" Mulder's response was automatic, but a fraction of a second later he realized what she was talking about. "Scully? You mean that *I* ...." His voice trailed off, as he found himself unable to complete the sentence.

"Yes," she answered, nodding. She reached up and touched his cheek, the same gentle, loving gesture she'd used with Kyle.

"H - how long? And how often?"

"As long as I've known you," she said. "And as for how often ... a couple of nights a week. At least, when we were in the field." She smiled shyly. "I didn't have much opportunity to ... to observe you at home, until the past two weeks."

"That's ...." Again, he couldn't complete the thought. He wasn't sure how he felt. Vulnerable, certainly, but he was also nearly overwhelmed by the implications of what she'd just told him. No one had ever cared for him that way, that much. And she'd just said, or at least implied, that she'd been doing it for years --

"Mulder, I'm sorry." His eyes widened at the tone of contrition in her voice, but before he could respond, she continued, speaking very rapidly, "I never meant to intrude, to violate your privacy. It's just, the first time it happened I didn't know what was going on; I thought it was just a nightmare. But then it happened again, and soon I realized there was a pattern, and so I did some research-"

"Night terrors, right?" he interrupted. Some of that child psych class was coming back to him now.

"Yeah," she agreed. "Nobody really knows what causes them, although sometimes they seem to be linked to childhood trauma."

"Which makes sense for both me and Kyle," Mulder noted quietly.

Scully nodded. "They don't usually appear in adults." She gestured at the child, still sleeping soundly a few feet away. "But he's just the right age."

"So I guess I'm one of the elect," Mulder said with a little smile. He drew her into his arms and hugged her tightly. "Thank you, Scully." He hesitated, suddenly realizing what it was that he really wanted to say. He'd said it once before, but she'd turned him aside, apparently in the belief that it was the drugs talking. Maybe now, the time was finally right. "I love you."

FBI Headquarters
6:18 a.m.

"Agent Mulder, where's Agent Scully?"

"She's making arrangements for Kyle," Mulder said calmly. "I'm supposed to call her when you've given us our assignment."

Skinner glared at him for a moment, then shook his head. The A.D. was wearing the same clothes as he'd had on the night before, and Mulder had noticed a pillow and a rolled up blanket on the sofa in the outer office.

"Agent Mulder," Skinner barked, "my recollection is that I ordered you both to be here at 6:15." Mulder didn't say anything; there was no point in getting into a fight with Skinner, and for once he knew it, and was able to restrain himself. He also didn't want to disclose where Scully had gone. Neither of them had much experience taking care of children, so it hadn't occurred to them until this morning that they needed to find someone to watch Kyle. Scully had solved the problem by offering to drop him off with Frohike and Langly; while she was there, she could get an update from the guys.

Mulder had resisted the urge to make a wisecrack about two geeks and a baby, and agreed. He hadn't been at all happy with the idea of splitting up, even for a short time, but there really wasn't any other solution, and if anyone could talk Frohike into playing babysitter, Scully could. So Mulder had made his way alone to the Hoover Building, arriving just in time to keep their appointment with the A.D.

"Very well, Agent Mulder," Skinner said abruptly, turning his attention back to the papers on his desk. "I guess it really doesn't matter." He shuffled papers for a moment, then looked up at Mulder again. "I had intended to assign you and Agent Scully to the interagency threat team, because of your expertise." Mulder nodded his understanding; a threat team was a group of officers whose job it was to estimate what damage a potential enemy could do.

"Unfortunately," the other man went on, "the situation has changed since last night. Drastically, and for the worse." He rose from his desk, turned and walked over to the window.

Outside it was now full daylight, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue. It didn't look at all like the end of the world, Mulder thought irrelevantly.

"The military zone I described to you last night has been compromised," the A.D. said at last. "There is no longer a defensible perimeter, and reported infestations have become so numerous that it is now more accurate to speak of isolated pockets of military occupation, rather than of a defined zone." He turned back to face Mulder again. "In short, barring a major miracle in the next few hours, the war is over. We've lost."

Mulder nodded, while he tried to control the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. "So what's our assignment?" he asked, feeling faintly ridiculous for asking. What duties were to be performed during Armageddon? And would they count towards civil service retirement?

"Washington is no longer secure," Skinner stated flatly, returning to stand behind his desk. "In addition, we've had no communication from Mt. Thunder for more than six hours. Nevertheless, FEMA continues to generate contingency plans."

The A.D. suddenly looked uneasy, and Mulder felt his hackles rising. Something wasn't right, but what? And then Skinner added, "Operation Cautery was authorized at 0200."

"I don't like the sound of that," Mulder offered, trying desperately to keep the grimness from his voice. He wasn't sure he wanted to hear this, but it didn't look as if he had any choice.

"Nor should you," the other man grated. "Operation Cautery is ...." His voice trailed off and he shook his head. "It's insane," he said flatly. "It's a plan originally devised in the 1960s, by a top secret commission established by President Johnson to study the problem of defending the country against biological warfare. It calls for the use of nuclear weapons as a last ditch means of sterilizing -- cauterizing - infected areas."


"Of course," Skinner went on, acid in his voice, "this plan presupposes that outbreaks of infection are local and containable. Neither of which are true in this instance."

"But that's not going to stop them," Mulder replied. It wasn't a question.

"It *hasn't* stopped them, Agent Mulder," his supervisor answered, shaking his head. "Six cities have already been destroyed." He ticked them off on his fingers as he spoke. "Boston. Pittsburgh. Cleveland. Atlanta. Charleston. Savannah."

Mulder stared at his boss in silence for a moment. The world was not just coming to an end - it was going crazy. An old aphorism floated in and out of his head: Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad. Well, humanity certainly seemed to be demonstrating *that* one to be true.

"As for your assignment-"

Skinner was interrupted by the sound of gunfire.

Automatically, Mulder hurled himself from his chair, landing on his hands and knees and twisting around so that he was facing the door. Somehow his weapon was in his hand -- Scully's spare service weapon, that she''d given him this morning in exchange for her lower caliber holdout that he'd been carrying ever since they left Minot. Immediately, he started crawling towards the door.

Skinner beat him to it. With an agility and quickness Mulder wouldn't have believed the older man had in him, the A.D. charged around the desk, the assault rifle that had been leaning against the wall already in his hands. He reached the door to the outer office in three giant strides, kicked it open and crouched down next to the jamb, peering cautiously into the next room. An instant later he glanced back towards Mulder, nodded sharply, and turned and disappeared through the doorway. Mulder scrambled to his feet and followed.

There was nothing in the outer office, and nothing in the hall. The gunfire had not been repeated, and Mulder stood back to back with his boss, scanning the hallway, weapon at the ready, looking for any sign of a threat.

Suddenly there were more shots, followed by a series of blood curdling screams, coming from behind him. Mulder spun around, just as Skinner shouted, "This way!" and took off down the hall. And again, Mulder found himself running to catch up, even as the screams increased in volume and more shots were fired.

The A.D. halted just before reaching the agents' bullpen, and flattened himself against the wall. He glanced briefly back at Mulder, gestured for him to take the opposite side, then turned once more to peer around the corner into the common area. Mulder quickly followed suit - and for the second time in as many days, he found himself looking one of his nightmares square in the face.

There were not one but two aliens in the room, black and sinewy and ugly, and the nearer of the two held a woman in its grasp. Agent Pamela Stone, Mulder realized - and his curse of a memory informed him that she'd had a baby only a few months earlier. The monster's claws were slicing through her flak vest as if it were so much tissue paper, and her torso was covered with blood. The only saving grace was that from the way her head lolled as the creature tore at her, she must already have been unconscious or dead.

The other alien was at the far end of the bullpen, a body -- Mulder couldn't tell whether it was male or female - lying at its feet. Another man, Danny Grimes, from Research, was just beyond it, having been backed into a corner and now with no means of escape. The creature lunged at him, and Danny's face was suddenly twisted in a grimace of agony.

"Motherfucker!" That was Skinner, and Mulder felt his own features contorting with rage. His finger caressed the trigger on his weapon, even as he heard Skinner's assault rifle begin to chatter. A quiet corner of his mind was telling him that this was futile, that there was no hope, but the man who was Fox Mulder could not turn away from people he had known and worked with for more than a decade, and simply leave them to their fates.

And indeed, it was doing no good at all. Mulder's shots were striking home, and so were Skinner's - Mulder could *see* the monster that was attacking Danny stagger repeatedly under their impact, and green blood foamed in the wounds. But the creature was neither diverted nor deterred, and now it held the man firmly in its claws, methodically tearing the flesh from his body.

Mulder swore as the hammer of his gun fell on an empty chamber. He hurriedly ejected the clip and fumbled in his pocket for another, aware out of the corner of his eye that Skinner was doing the same. Danny was no longer screaming, and Mulder felt an almost surreal calm as he rammed the new ammunition supply into his weapon. He was going to die, and there was nothing to be done about it. His only regret was that he wouldn't have a chance to say goodbye to Scully --

And suddenly Skinner was no longer standing beside him. Mulder whirled around in surprise, his eyes widening in shock as he saw a third monster lifting the A.D. off the ground. Skinner's own expression was a study of surprise and anger - but no fear, the analytical part of Mulder's mind noted. No fear at all.

Mulder stood there, frozen in shock, as the other man's face abruptly contorted in pain. The alien was ripping into him, doing unspeakable things to his soft, vulnerable flesh. Blood was everywhere, and Mulder was close enough this time that he could even hear the bones as they cracked --

"Mulder ...."

Mulder shook himself, forcing himself out of his daze, stunned that Skinner had somehow found the breath to speak, let alone the presence of mind to form words. The man was in excruciating pain by now; Mulder could see it in his eyes. But even as Mulder surged forward, determined to throw himself at the creature in a desperate, hopeless attempt to pull it off his boss, the A.D. spoke again.

"Get out!" he said. His voice was weak, so very weak, but still it carried the snap of command that Mulder had become accustomed to obeying over the years. "Get ... out!" There was desperation in Skinner's eyes now, and his voice took on a note of pleading. "Save ... yourself," he gasped. "Save ... Scully ...." One last gulp of air. "Please ...."

That did it. On hearing his partner's name, Mulder suddenly felt new energy coursing through his body. Scully. Skinner was right; he had to save Scully. Nothing else mattered but her, and he was staggered at the awesome idiocy that had allowed him to lose sight of that, even for a moment --

In that instant, he heard a horrible, wet, tearing sound coming from the bullpen. He glanced over his shoulder, and saw that the closer of the aliens had now torn Pamela Stone's body completely in two. There was nothing left here, Mulder realized. Stone and Danny were dead, and Skinner would be in a matter of minutes. The only thing left was to try to save himself, and hope against hope that he would somehow be reunited with Scully.

He turned back to the front, to see Skinner's eyes now staring at him sightlessly, his glasses spattered with blood and hanging uselessly from one ear. The monster was continuing to rip at the A.D.'s body, but seemed to be taking no notice of Mulder's presence, at least for the moment.

Mulder whispered a brief prayer for Walter Skinner's soul, to a God that he had not recognized since the night Samantha was taken, then stepped around and past the alien and headed down the hall at a dead run.


Chapter Nine

Office of the Lone Gunmen
Washington, DC
Thursday, June 1, 2000
6:22 a.m.

Kyle had fallen asleep again on the short drive to the Gunmen's place. He'd been sleeping a lot since being rescued from the Rebel laboratory on Monday night. Scully knew enough about trauma and depression to realize that this was his mind's way of coping with the things he'd seen and the things that had been done to him; under the circumstances, it was probably the best adjustment he could make. But she still worried, and wished she and Mulder could find some way to help the child.

Scully frowned as she pulled up to the curb. The door to the Gunmen's office was standing wide open, almost as if she were expected. But neither Langly nor Frohike was anywhere to be seen. This would be a bad sign in the best of times; now, it seemed little short of ominous.

Scully glanced briefly down at Kyle, trying to decide whether to take him with her or leave him in the car. Mulder had insisted that she take the Mercedes, while he drove her car, which meant that there was really no way to lock the boy in while she was gone. On the other hand, taking him with her might very well place him in immediate danger - not to mention handicapping her as she dealt with whatever she found inside.

She shook her head in frustration. There was no good decision; she was just going to have to choose, and pray that everything worked out for the best. She quickly leaned over and kissed Kyle gently on the forehead, whispering, "I'll be back in a minute, honey." Then, not giving herself time for second thoughts, she drew her weapon, climbed from the car and walked briskly towards the doorway.

It was dark inside, and Scully hesitated at the threshold. A narrow flight of stairs led up to the Gunmen's second story office. She'd climbed them countless times in the past; they were a familiar, almost comforting part of the world she'd come to inhabit. But now they were cast in dark, menacing shadows. She glanced up at the ceiling, and saw the red light still burning over the security camera; somehow, that made her feel a little better.

The door at the top of the stairs suddenly opened, and she heard footsteps rapidly descending. Automatically, she took a couple of steps back, so that she was standing on the sidewalk. She held her weapon at the ready, not aiming it at the doorway, but ready to bring it into play if that should be necessary. It was just one of the guys, she told herself. It's just one of the guys --

Tennis shoes appeared, then ragged blue jeans, and Scully breathed a sigh of relief. Langly.

He stopped abruptly, jerkily, as he reached the entryway, and blinked in apparent surprise. "Jesus, Scully," he said after a second. "You scared the living shit out of me."

"Sorry," she replied. She shifted her weight uncomfortably, then realized that she was still pointing her SIG in his general direction, and put it away. "Sorry," she repeated.

Langly hesitated, then shook his head, muttering, "It doesn't matter anymore." He stepped out of the doorway, turned and strode briskly up the block, away from Scully and the Mercedes - and she noticed that he was carrying a pair of large gasoline cans, that sloshed audibly as he walked.

"Langly?" He continued on, as if he hadn't heard, and she hurried after him. "Langly!"

He kept walking.

She caught up with him just before he reached the corner, as he stepped into a small parking lot that served the abandoned storefront next to the building that housed the Gunmen's office. She was about to reach out and grab his elbow - when she saw Melvin Frohike, lying face up on the pavement in the middle of the open area, his hands folded neatly across his belly.

He was not moving.

For a moment, Scully stood perfectly still, staring at the scene before her, trying to force it to make sense. This couldn't be; it just couldn't. It was hard enough to see this happen to strangers, and harder still to know that it had probably happened to her mother and her brothers. But to see it with her own eyes, in someone she knew and cared for as a friend - it was too much. Far, far too much.

She realized that Langly was now standing over Frohike and unscrewing the cap on one of the cans of gasoline. Her eyes widened, and she hurried forward, wedging herself between Langly and Frohike just before Langly was about to start pouring.

"What the hell are you doing?" She hated the quaver in her voice, but she couldn't stop it. A part of her wanted to break down and bawl; wanted simply to sink down to the ground, curl up and wait for the end to come. But she couldn't let that happen; Mulder needed her, and so did Kyle. And besides, she still had to be Dana Scully. And so she took a deep breath and swallowed, and in a calmer tone of voice, she added, "Tell me what you're doing, Langly. Tell me what's going on."

The man stared at her, his face expressionless, and for a moment she wasn't sure he was going to answer. Finally: "They got him," he explained, his voice a monotone. "Stupid little shit got careless, and they got him. So now I've got to do what I promised I'd do. What we all promised each other we'd do."

"What ... what do you mean?"

"We agreed," Langly replied, his voice still flat and dead. "None of us wanted to die like this. So we made a pact."

Scully nodded. She could understand that, and accept it. She vividly remembered the Peattie case, only a few months before. She'd told Mulder then that as a physician she recognized that sometimes ending the pain was the only realistic alternative. That on occasion the maxim "do no harm" meant giving surcease, rather than hope. She had never done it, herself, but she knew that sometimes it had to be done - and that someday she might have to do it.

But not like this.

"It has to be this way," Langly grated, as if he'd read her mind. "We were monitoring the 'net, while it lasted. They tried euthanasia, but it doesn't work. The motherfucker chews its way out, anyway." He hefted the gas can, and it sloshed ominously. "This is the only way, Scully. You destroy the host, and you destroy what's inside."

Scully stared at Langly for a long minute, trying to put her thoughts in order. Intellectually, if she accepted the facts he presented, she reached the same conclusion. And it did fit what little she knew about the aliens. They were tough and hardy, and had no doubt been engineered to survive in an uncertain, hostile environment. Those who designed these creatures would have foreseen that humans would try to abort the process. So Langly's course of action was sound and logical.

But this was Frohike.

"It has to be this way," the man repeated. Throughout the conversation, his voice had remained level and devoid of emotion, and this continued to be true, as he went on, "And there isn't much time. I already gave him a shot of morphine, so he wouldn't feel it as much, but I had to guess at the dosage. If I gave him too much ...." His voice trailed off, but Scully understood. If the dose had been too high, that might trigger the birth reflex, and all Langly's plans and promises would be for naught.

"Okay," she said, her heart breaking as she heard herself give consent. "Just ... just give me a minute with him, okay?"

"All right," Langly responded. "Don't touch him."

"I won't."

She turned and knelt down next to Frohike, and for a few seconds she just crouched there, remembering. There'd been so many times the little man had been there, for her and for Mulder, his caring and concern almost always concealed by a veneer of jokes and innuendo. But there had been moments -- moments that she would cherish in memory all the rest of her life.

At last she stood up again, and stepped back to a safe distance as Langly methodically doused his friend's body with gasoline, then pulled an emergency flare from his hip pocket. Of course, she thought. The fire would need to be hot - hotter than any match or lighter could make it. She continued to watch levelly, without blinking, determined to witness it all. Frohike deserved that much, at least.

Moments later, the flames leapt up towards the sky, rapidly and completely engulfing the body of the man who lay on the ground. Black smoke roiled heavenward, oily and ugly, defacing the perfect blue of the early morning sky. Frohike's limbs jerked spasmodically, and Scully flinched, her own muscles knotting in sympathy. An autonomic reflex, she told herself; that was all it was. Only a reflex. And all the while Langly stood next to her, calm and apparently unperturbed, watching the fire.

Finally, she turned to him, and for a moment she studied his face. He stood there motionless, expressionless, the reflected flames dancing in his eyes, illuminating the hurt that clearly penetrated all the way to his soul. Of all the Gunmen, Scully had always understood Langly the least. She had therefore moved cautiously in his presence, never sure what was going on inside his head. And now she had no idea what to do or say.

"I ... I'll be in the car," she said at last. "Whenever you're ready." Ready for what? she wondered. What was left for this man? At least she still had Mulder, but what did Langly have? Frohike was dead, and Byers was gone. But he simply nodded, without speaking, and without taking his eyes off the pyre that had been his friend. And after just another moment, she turned and walked away.

A few minutes later, as she sat behind the wheel of the Mercedes, she heard the sound of a single gunshot.

Dana Scully closed her eyes and let her head fall forward, until her forehead rested against the top of the steering wheel. But she did not cry.

7:23 a.m.

Mulder found his partner sitting quietly in the Mercedes, outside the Gunmen's office. Her head was leaning back against the headrest, her eyes closed, while Kyle slept in the seat next to her. As he approached she she opened her eyes and turned her head to look at him.

"Skinner's dead," he said flatly, without preamble. His hand came to rest on her shoulder, and his fingers lightly stroked the base of her neck, their tenderness belying the deadness he felt in his soul. They would need to be able to reach out to each other, he thought, if they were to have any chance of survival. Only together would they be able to stand against what still lay ahead.

"So are Langly and Frohike," she replied with a nod, after a brief pause. Her voice was a ghost of its usual self - but still, deep inside, he heard a whisper of the woman he loved. And he felt the ice around his heart begin to crack, just a little bit.

"We should get out of the city," he decided, taking the strength she'd offered him and using it to force some life and animation into his voice. "There's nothing left here, and it's dangerous." He thought about telling her of Operation Cautery, but it didn't seem to matter. Danger was danger; death was death.

"Yes, we should." She glanced at Kyle, still curled up in the passenger seat, then looked back at Mulder. "Do you mind driving? I don't feel up to it at the moment." Pause.

"I just need to ... to think about some things."


They rearranged the seating, Scully moving over into the passenger seat and taking Kyle into her lap. The boy stirred slightly at being disturbed, but didn't really awaken, then settled down again as she cuddled him close against her, one hand gently stroking his hair. Neither of them mentioned the possibility of taking Scully's car rather than the Mercedes. It would make sense to do so; it would give them more trunk space, and more room in the passenger compartment. But somehow the silver sports car had come to stand as a symbol, at least in Mulder's mind, of what the two of them shared. Apparently Scully felt the same way.

"I do love you, you know."

He glanced at his partner in surprise, and saw that she was watching him intently, unshed tears in her bright, blue eyes. The ice around his heart cracked some more, and fell away, and he reached over and pressed his palm against her cheek.

"I love you, too, Scully," he said levelly. "And I promise -- somehow, we'll be okay."

"'The survivors will envy the dead,'" she murmured. "Do you remember? Protesters against the arms race used to say that, back when I was in college."

"They said it at Oxford, too," he agreed. "But I never believed it. Did you?"

"No." She sighed. "But now ... I can't help but wonder."

Mulder hesitated, then leaned over and pressed his lips against hers, a kiss of comfort. "We *are* going to make it, Scully," he whispered fiercely. "I swear to God, we're going to make it. And someday, we'll even laugh again."

Her lips actually twitched, and she closed her eyes and pressed her forehead against his. "If anyone can make me laugh, Mulder, after all of this, it's you." Another pause.

Then, in a whisper: "Please try."

He nodded, then started the engine and threw the car into gear and pulled away from the curb. The sun was well up by now, the sky a bright, robin's egg blue. It seemed almost like a normal spring morning - except, of course, for the total lack of traffic and pedestrians. Even the military checkpoints that they'd passed the night before were now abandoned.

It was not the shortest route he could have taken, but Mulder shortly found himself driving west on Constitution Avenue. They needed to say goodbye to the city, he thought, even though it would take a little longer, and thereby increase the risk. For they would not be back.

And so they drove slowly past the Mall, easily evading the barricades that had been erected years ago against the threat of terrorism. They drove past the Capitol and the Smithsonian, past the Ellipse and the Washington Monument, past the dark, brooding edifice that stood in solemn memory of those who'd died in Vietnam. In another world, Mulder realized, Skinner's name might be on that wall, so that at least he and his sacrifice would be remembered by the ages. But now there was nothing - nothing to mark the A.D.'s passing.

He slowed still further as they drove past the Reflecting Pool, remembering a day long ago when he and Scully had shared a bench there. They'd been so young and fresh, then, so innocent of the horrors that lay ahead, waiting for them in the shadows. He wondered what they would have done that day, if they had known. Would they have moved forward into the darkness anyway, heedless of the danger? Or would they have shied away in fear, seeking refuge elsewhere? And if the latter, would they still have been together?

He remembered his words to Scully, two weeks earlier, as they sat on the sofa in his living room sipping tea together. She'd been telling him of her encounter with Daniel Waterston, and what it had meant to her - and what it hadn't.

//I don't think you can know,// Mulder remembered saying at last. //I mean, how many different lives would we be leading if we made different choices? We... we don't know. And all the choices would then lead to this very moment. One wrong turn, and we wouldn't be sitting here together.//

One wrong turn ....

Mulder shook his head in disbelief. Could it really be that simple and straightforward? Was this truly the only version of his world that had Dana Scully in it? And should he feel guilty for his own defiant certainty that in the end, for him, it had all been worth it?

He felt her fingertips brush the back of his hand, and glanced briefly over at her. She was allowing her tears to fall now, at last, slowly and silently - and as he watched, she actually smiled, just a little.

Then Mulder turned his attention back to the road, and soon they were crossing the Potomac River and turning northwest onto the George Washington Parkway. A short while later they reached the Beltway, and left the city behind.

the End

To be concluded in All Which It Inherit 3: Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On

Thanks and Credits: Paulette for the uberbeta; Narida and Trixie for helping me tweak a few key scenes. And of course April, for the occasional kick in the ass.

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