Title: Shield and Sword
Authors: Maraschino and Anna Otto
Disclaimer: all characters you recognize belong not to us, but to Chris Carter, FOX, and 1013 Productions. No monetary profit is made, and no copyright infringement is intended. All other characters are ours (poor them!) and we reserve the right to torture them accordingly :-)
Classification: XA Rating: R Archive: Anywhere, but let us know, please!
Spoilers: All seasons, all episodes, up to and including Redux II Warning: This story contains some disturbing scenes, but they are not explicit or sexual in nature.

Summary: Upon his mother's death, Mulder and Scully discover a curious document that eventually leads them to make a desperate choice. With Mulder in the Consortium, will the truth finally be revealed? Or will the webs of deception destroy both partners? A nightmare version of season 5, not leading up to the movie.

Author's Notes are at the very end!! Hope you stick around long enough.

"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." 'Mother Night' Kurt Vonnegut

He was dreaming of bees and clones and of little girls with pigtails when a trembling vise grasped his hand, causing his head to snap up.


A painful wheeze emanated from within the figure masked in tubes and wires, and Mulder shook his head quickly.

"Don't try to speak... You're in a hospital," there was a pause before he could continue, resigned. "You've had another stroke."

A frustrated growl came from the woman, and a masked man in green soon stepped into the room -- his beady-eyed attention solely on EEG printouts and lines.


"Mom," Mulder interrupted tiredly, trying to sound the reminder gently, even though his nerves were frayed. "Don't try to speak."

"Sec... sec... ond.... doe... or..."

The doctor leaned over to shine a light in a dilated eye, and the hand grasped Mulder's fingers tighter.

Requests for silence went unheeded by the patient, and he soon leaned his ear closer to her mouth. "I don't understand, mom. What's the second door?"

There was a worried grunt from the man in green when the machines starting protesting faster, the beeps of EEG and EKG monitors jarring and escalating.

"Sec-ond... draw-er."

Mulder leaned in closer, the eyebrows over his bloodshot eyes furrowing. "What's in the second drawer, mom?"

She threw her head back into the pillow and a resounding mechanical scream filled the air. The vise became loose, and eventually fell away. Doctors soon surrounded the place, pushing Mulder away.

He stood dumbly, unable to speak, only moving when the men in green pushed him to do so.

She wouldn't get a chance to answer as the faceless doctors took her away.

Scully escaped the noisy crowd inside her mother's house by coming out onto the front porch. With a melodramatic sigh into the smoggy Baltimore air, she wondered when the moment had come that Thanksgiving dinners with her family had become a heavy obligation instead of the celebratory times that she had once looked forward to. Was it after Dad had died and his absence at the table had become almost palpable? Was it after Melissa was killed that the sharp tang of guilt soon became a dish she tasted along with the turkey and stuffing? Or was it after her victory over cancer that she realized her way of life and that of her family's were as different as black and white.

And that fire and water couldn't coexist -- no matter how hard they tried.

Scully looked through the living room window to see a very pregnant Mrs. Bill Scully batting away Charlie's exploratory hand. The federal agent sighed again, absently rubbing her ring-less fourth finger. She looked longingly towards her rental car, wanting nothing more than to go back to Washington.

But there were still two more days to be spent here, with food, Bill, Charlie, their wives, and her mother -- and there was no excuse good enough to flee the area. She looked around at the picturesque yard with helpless longing and tried to hide from the chill inside her long coat.

"Dana, what are you doing here?"

Startled, Scully turned around.

"I was just getting some fresh air," she innocently replied to the worried expression of her brother. Did it sound as false to his ears as it did to hers?

"If I didn't know better, I'd say you were avoiding us," Bill continued. After her miraculous recovery, he honestly wanted to spend more time with his sister. But apparently, she wanted to achieve just the opposite, and the thought nagged at him more than he cared to admit.

"Don't be silly," Scully smiled, as still-too-thin skin pulled against cheek bones. "I'll be inside shortly."

Was Bill to consider this conversation over? "They just served dessert." In case his younger sibling had forgotten, he added an afterthought, "It's your favorite, apple cobbler." After some hesitation, and an audible sigh, he eventually stepped inside.

"Just what I've always wanted," whispered Scully to no one in particular. She slowly turned around to meet the beckoning glow of the house head on.


Lively conversation was interrupted by a phone call that Dana answered. She turned her back on everyone for fear of revealing the relief she felt from hearing her partner's voice. Lately, he seemed to save her from family gatherings all too often.

"Scully, I'm sorry to disturb you during the holidays, but..."

"It's all right," she hastened to reassure him. "What's going on?"

There was a pause and Scully could hear Mulder's breaths through the receiver. "My mom... Scully. She just had another stroke."

"Mulder..." Scully shook her head -- she was lost as to what to say. "I am so sorry."

Mulder nodded into the phone and closed his hands tighter around the receiver. "She's in surgery now... and I don't, Scully... I don't understand what the doctor is saying to me..." there was a pause on the other end of the line, as if he was trying to think of what to say next, as if trying to find a way to subtly ask his partner to leave her family and come help him, yet again.

"I'll have to look through her things later tonight... and I know you're with your family but would you... could you come here. Please?" an expulsion of air and an apologetic flood of words followed the tentative request. "It doesn't look good, and I was hoping that..."

Scully shook her head. "I'll be there," she turned when there was an annoyed intake of breath behind her. Ignoring Bill's glare, she turned her attention back to her partner. "What hospital are you at?"

She gravely absorbed her partner's directions to the hospital before gently resting the phone receiver in the cradle with closed, tired eyes. Minutes later, she was packed and heading out the front door. The smiles were fake, and the Happy Thanksgiving's seemed forced.

She had a perfect excuse to get away now, but it didn't make her feel better.

Scully cursed the unfortunate timing and every holiday tradition as she fought traffic on the way to the airport, in the line to get tickets, and in the airplane as it was stuck behind twenty plus other jets waiting to get on the runway.

She stared out the window as children cried, a couple bickered, and as harried people tried to move through too-narrow aisles. Except for Christmas, Thanksgiving was the worst time to travel -- maybe it was the guised happiness that came with forcing twelve people to sit at a table designed for four that brought out the worst in everyone. At any other time, she would have taken two Tylenols and laughed at the situation, but now her heart was heavy and her mind was filled with apprehension.

Her anxiety reached a new level when she finally made it to the hospital and a nurse informed her dispassionately that Mrs. Mulder passed away "just two hours ago". The nurses were at a loss as to where the tall, lanky, brownhaired man had gone, and Scully futilely double-checked the ICU. Exhausted, defeated, and with her patience wearing thin, Scully grimly stepped into her rental car, on her way to Greenwich and Mulder's mother's house. Disgusted when she passed a Christmas tree lot, Scully gripped the steering wheel tighter, pushing her foot harder on the gas pedal.

It was turning out to be the worst holiday yet.

Mulder met her in the doorway and listened absent-mindedly to her condolences. Scully looked him over worriedly, noticing the disheveled hair and the Oxford sweatshirt hanging limply on his frame. She wondered how long it has been since he changed clothes or had something to eat. Dark eyes never quite focused on her, and her words seemed to miss their destination.

He cut to the chase, skipping the greetings and pleasantries, speaking in a voice that was hollow and distracted. "I'm looking for something my mother said is here... something I'm guessing she or my father left for me," he aborted his speech suddenly, looking past the door frame and suspiciously out into the yard. He pulled his partner into the house, hastily slamming the door. Scully followed quickly. "What is it, Mulder?"

"She didn't say." He paused, taking a couple seconds to compose himself. "Her entire left side was paralyzed, and she had difficulty talking, so she just mentioned something about the second drawer."

"Second drawer where?"

He turned around, exasperated. His glowering eyes relayed the message clearly: Would I be asking if I knew? He took a breath in an attempt to control the emotions brewing inside, and scratched at his neck absently. "I don't know. So I'm checking everything out. You could start with the kitchen on the first floor, while I continue working on the second one through the bedrooms," with the string of words sounded more as a command than a request, he was already running up the stairs.

"Mulder, are you all right?" Scully shouted behind him, but her question went unheeded.

She shrugged off her coat and looked around, noticing the acute contrast between this lonely place and her family's busy and noisy house in Baltimore. A woman who used to live here was gone, but her sadness and secrets lingered behind, loath to depart.

Careful not to disturb them, she began to search through the drawers.

"Mulder, are you sure she said second drawer? Maybe, we should look through the other ones, too," Scully looked helplessly at her partner whose drawn face and obsessive behavior were worrying her more with each passing minute. They had just looked over every second drawer in the house, but had found absolutely nothing important.

"I am not sure she even said drawer. I told you, it was difficult for her to speak, and even more so for me to understand her," annoyance born from sheer frustration was clear in Mulder's voice.

"Let's look through every drawer again," suggested Scully.

"And what if we don't find it in any of them?"

"Then we will search again over everything, and we will find it," Scully looked at the wrinkled shirt, and at the haggard man drowning in it. "But not before you get some sleep, Mulder."

He snorted, and without any further comments, headed back towards the bedrooms. Scully turned again to the kitchen, passionately wishing that she knew what to look for. She wondered what secrets were buried in the Mulder family's furniture, and she prayed for some answers -- because this cloak and dagger routine was getting too damned old.

Mulder finally collapsed on the couch in the living room after hours of futile searching, while Scully looked over the contents of second drawers seemingly for the hundredth time -- in blind hope that they had overlooked something important.

Methodically, she went over the little things: clothes, batteries, a few books, pens, letters, nails, knives, handkerchiefs... Her restless mind flipped back to the letters -- a big cardboard box full of yellowed papers that she had hesitated to look through when she had originally discovered it.

Now, she set the box at the kitchen table and started patiently going over each and every envelope. Except for letters from people whose names she had never heard of, there were those from Mulder to his mother, sent while he was in England, and some children's scribbles that she stopped to read over. She swallowed hard when she understood that they were Christmas lists from little Fox and Samantha, dated the year she was abducted. She hastily closed the dog-eared covers and shoved them deep inside the box.

She was too tired to rejoice when one of the old envelopes stated:

"To my son, Fox Mulder. To be opened in case of my death. Bill Mulder."

The next morning, after much-needed rest, Scully discovered Mulder at the kitchen table, staring at the still-unopened letter she had left there.

"You know, Scully, I never even told mom that Sam was alive," he said, hiding his face in his hands.

"Mulder, I'm sure she knew that always," that hadn't come out right, and she hastened to correct herself. "Not where she was, but that she was all right..."

Her partner waved a hand dismissively, understanding her message. His face grew more grim and Scully studied the table, knowing he was still brooding over his encounter in the diner. She was afraid to ask, to press the issue -- as far as she knew, there were still no calls or letters from Samantha. He spoke of the encounter in passing, abbreviating the painful details, hiding behind a shy smile as he took her home after the cancer went into remission. But Scully could still remember the regret and chagrin that flickered on her partner's face while recounting the story.

Mulder shook his head. "How could I tell her? That her daughter was just fine, but didn't want to come see her?" he stated the question absently, not really looking for an answer, but checking just one more time to make sure that he had done the right thing.

"Mulder, I am very sorry," Scully whispered brokenly.

"She was the only family I had left, Scully." He opened his mouth to add more, but quickly shook his head. With a visible effort, he tried to change the subject, suddenly turning his gaze towards the letter. "Why do you think she never mentioned this before?"

"I don't know. Maybe she thought that there was some information here she didn't want you to know?" Scully suggested hesitantly.

"Maybe. Or perhaps it was useless to pretend that our family was a well-functioning unit of American society," Mulder laughed mirthlessly, eventually holding up the letter and waggling an eyebrow. "And now, for some family dirt," dramatically, he ruptured open the envelope. Inside, there was another envelope that stated:

"Fox, you may only open this after you reach 25 years of age. Your father."

"Well, I'd say that this is long overdue, wouldn't you?" Without any pause, Mulder pulled the stack of papers from inside. He read them quickly, in silence, while his partner politely turned away. "Scully..." his voice came out haltingly. "I think you may want to read this."

The somberness of Mulder's voice compelled her to look at his face that held an odd expression of wonder overlapped with sadness. Slowly, she reached for the papers and began to read.

Fox, I entrust this letter to the care of your mother, knowing that she will give it to you when I die. I write it days after your fifteenth birthday, but you should not receive it until you are at least twenty-five. Regardless of the profession you choose for yourself, and the course your life takes, I hope that the information contained herein will prove to be useful for you.

Don't grieve for me when the end comes, for I have not lived a selfless and honorable life. But know that I always wished I could have been here longer, to see my grandchildren, and their children. Apparently, it was never meant to be, and I wish I had recognized that a long time ago, before I joined the group who was to destroy my family and me.

I presumed myself to be above the law and beyond the judgement of common people; but the most frightening verdict for the crimes I committed came from my own conscience. Guilt and shame that consume me from within, day after day, are a penalty harsher than jail sentence or death. As much as I have tried to rectify what I had done, nothing will ever be enough.

Not all is what it appears to be. When you look at the night sky, you may see the stars and the moon, but I see the source of disaster that awaits human race. The project I have worked for is still underway, and the deep conspiracy surrounding it now spans many countries and governments. You must stop them, and below, I provide you with enough material to bring these people to justice, before it's too late. There are locations of the secret labs where frightening experiments on human subjects are being conducted right now and the names of everyone I know who ever authorized them.

I had been one of them.

You are a good boy, Fox, and you have always had compassion. I can never repair the consequences of mistakes I made so long ago and that you have to live with, but I have always loved you and your sister, and I pray you will remember that.

I beg your forgiveness, and I leave a gift for your children, a book called "The Eleventh Hour."

Your father

Animal Diseases Research Center
Makon, GA

Flu Research Institute Reading PA ECCO Labs Irvine, CA

James Hedges Scott Edwards Stanley Jakobsen Dennis McInnis Carl Rolstow Damien Martinoff"

Scully took a deep breath before looking up to Mulder with a raised eyebrow.

Mulder looked at the letter and then back to his partner. "Well?"

Scully regarded her partner's dancing fingers and expectant gaze. She saw a teenager still eager to please his father -- his quest for the truth once again refueled. She looked at the scrawlings on the letter, and saw the words of a guilt-stricken man, a desperate attempt to make amends with the guilt-laden boy that would grow to be the guilt-driven federal agent.

"Mulder, I'm not sure of this."

Her partner reached over to grab the letter from her hands, and waved the potential evidence in front of her face.

"Scully, it's all here. Evidence," he stressed the last word before looking around, confused, disoriented -- eventually finding the phone posted on the far wall. He started walking resolutely towards it, mumbling his plans to make plane reservations.

"Mulder," Scully repeated more forcefully. "I'm not sure about this."

He roughly hung the receiver back onto the cradle and started to pace the room with the letter firmly gripped in his left hand. "What are you talking about? It's all here. We have to go."

Scully shook her head. "Mulder, this letter was written by your father twenty years ago. Who knows if these places still exist? Or if these people are even alive?" she paused and took a breath, hoping to distract him. "What about this book your father talked about?"

He looked around distractedly, pulling the thin book from a pile of miscellaneous things that came from the drawers -- the colors of the cover splashing in a sharp contrast to the drab Mulder kitchen. Scully gingerly opened it, her fingers soon tracing the first few lines of the story, the animal caricatures, the crisp condition of the pages. She gently closed the covers again, tempted to smile at the innocence behind a simple children's book.

Bill Mulder and Innocence. It seemed like an oxymoron engineered by the faceless shadows that had eventually killed him. Judging by what little Mulder told her about his father, and so much he never said, Scully did not think of William Mulder as the sentimental type. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Mulder shake his head. "I never knew my father to be the sentimental kind, Scully."

Scully smiled at the response to her silent comment and watched the play of emotions on Mulder's face. "Why did he leave you this book?" she asked curiously, suspiciously.

Mulder shrugged, his vision clouding for a second. "It's a book of puzzles. I used to love them when I was little, Dad and I solved them together."

Scully touched the book gingerly, wondering if Mulder could envision giving it to his kids. She sighed resignedly and asked the question the answer to which she dreaded: "Where do you want to go?"

"Reading, Pennsylvania," he answered resolutely.

There it was, and she groaned inwardly, pushing her chair away from the table to stand up. "Mulder, you can't rush headlong into something your father wrote twenty years ago."

Mulder's pacing stopped, and he drew his arms protectively over his chest. "Why not? Scully, I realize that the information is old, but it can still be valid."

"Because. Because, Mulder, you've said yourself that your father worked with the Cancerman."

"Trying to deceive me through a letter that he wrote when I was fifteen years old?"

Scully shrugged. "It sounds suspicious."

"You don't trust my father," Mulder stated matter-of-factly -- his voice ominous and suspicious.

Scully gaped at her partner, hearing overtones reminiscent of drugged water and DAT tapes. "And do you, Mulder?" she shook her head firmly. "Don't hold that against me. We both were at that mine, and we both saw those files."

Mulder winced at the reminder. "Scully, my father was too guilt-stricken to do anything malevolent after Sam was taken." He kept his voice calm as his eidetic memory flashed through drinking binges and sobs emanating from the closed door of a bedroom. When his voice continued, it's volume and intensity had decreased. "I think of my father, Scully, and I've seen what guilt can do to a man."

Scully looked at her partner, and the letter that was gripped tightly in his hands. The irony of Mulder's words was only too obvious, and she nodded with understanding. "So do I."

Warm sunlight was abruptly turned to a dusky gray as it filtered through the windows of the office high rise. A congregation of men sat in plush, leather seats and their expensive suits blended well with the oak walls and hardwood floors.

A decanter sat on a table, and through shots of bourbon, secrets were being formed, and conspiracies were being manufactured.

The Well Manicured Man sat beside a more rotund figure, and their faces lacked emotion, were not hidden anymore behind a smoke screen.

"Mrs. Mulder is dead. How should we proceed?"

"Mulder is going through the Greenwich house right now."

"Is he going to find something?"

No one spoke, for no one knew the answer. Mr. Mulder had been as paranoid as his son. Behind the innocent facade of the summer house and the two Mulder houses, lay potential photographs and documents.

"Is there a possibility of a deathbed confession?"

"Mulder and his partner seem to be looking for something specific."

The Well Manicured Man nodded once before rising. "Mulder has no more relatives which we could use to keep him in line. He's dangerous. Perhaps desperate. And those are the men we most need to fear."


"The Lone Gunmen."

"Turn off the tape, Langly."

"It's off."

"You still don't trust me?"

Mulder finally heard the click he had been waiting for, before Langly started grumbling.

"Okay... it's really off this time. What do you need, G-man?"

Mulder paused from the far corner of his mother's kitchen to look at Scully and met her steady disapproving gaze. "What do you know about the Flu Research Institute in Reading, Pennsylvania?"

"That they study the flu?" Langly responded dryly.

Mulder rolled his eyes. "Seriously."

"All right, all right..." he could hear fingers clicking over the keys on the keyboard, and he chanced a glance at Scully once again -- she failed to look impressed.

"They look pretty clean, Mulder -- that is, if you were looking for some dirt in the first place. Whoa... wait a minute..." the clicking on the other end of the line grew more frenzied, followed by a lengthy pause as the Gunman studied the figures playing across his monitor. "Mulder, I don't know how you find these places, but these guys are getting major funding from some division of government named Rousch. Make that major, *private* -- as in *silent* -- funding."

Mulder smiled into the phone. "Thanks, Langly. I owe you one."

He hung up the phone and looked at Scully expectantly. She stood from her chair and sighed. "The weather in Pennsylvania better be nice, Mulder. I didn't pack anything thicker than my trench coat."

Mulder opened his mouth, wanting to sound the numerous innuendoes dancing through his head. Instead, he picked up the phone once again to book two tickets to Reading, Pennsylvania.

Minutes later, they were driving to the airport. And it was only when he was already buckled up in the airplane seat, while flying over the state of Connecticut, that Mulder realized that in their haste and excitement, he forgot the letter and left it carelessly on the kitchen table near the puzzle book.

The realization was jolting enough to cause his knee to hit the tray in front of him, the pain and the paranoia of the documents being taken almost enough to send him into a panic attack. Scully was quick to offer words of reason, pointing out that prior to forty eight hours ago, only two people had knowledge of the letter. Mulder absently nodded, hanging onto his partner's words.

He gratefully accepted a glass of water from a stewardess, quickly finishing it, immediately asking for another -- trying to drown the unease in his stomach.

"They've gone to Reading, Pennsylvania."

The Well Manicured Man raised an eyebrow while holding the cellular phone closer to his ear. "Pardon me?"

The man in black grunted as he shrugged his falling M-16 over his shoulder. The phone was awkwardly being held between his shoulder and neck, as his other hand held up the letter towards the light. "Apparently, Bill Mulder left a letter for his son with a list of laboratories. Supposedly, it states in the letter, these places have evidence of what Mulder is looking for."

The Well Manicured Man's lips grew into a tight line.

"Sir, these locations are fake. Bill Mulder gave his son the wrong information."

The Englishman processed the information quickly, his pulse quickening in suspicion of some trick. "Have you found anything else?"

The leader looked around to his black clothed companions who were stalking stealthily through the Mulder house. Upstairs a dresser crashed to the ground, while beside him, floorboards were being ripped open. "Nothing yet."

"Bring the letter, and whatever else looks... out of place," the Englishman commanded succinctly, before disconnecting.

The members looked at him expectantly, and the Well Manicured Man set the phone down gently. "Retrieval has been uneventful as of yet. Mulder and Scully are off to the Reading facility."

Some eyebrows were raised at the last statement, and the more rotund figure sitting to the left of the Englishman cleared his throat. "I believe that their 'find' should be rewarded with a little media attention."

The youngest Consortium member moved towards the phone, smirking, dialing a familiar number.

Away from his companions' studious glances, the Well Manicured Man absently traced circles on the top of his bourbon glass -- his mind racing. The situation was more unsettling than he would admit to the others. A letter sheathed in innocence... a guilt-stricken father.

The factors were begging a question that nagged at the back of mind, like the tar-laced smoke had done at the back of his throat months ago -- would Bill Mulder's greatest legacy be yet to come?

Patrick Ewing was destroying the Chicago Bulls and mindless sportscasters were reviewing last season's shooting percentages as Mulder mulled over the bland manila folders on the table.

Cancerman's bloodwork lay in front of him, as well as the photographs of his blood-painted apartment. The report of the first officer on the scene was in his hands, and Mulder's eyes were closed to try and keep the pounding headache at bay.

Every detail had long since been memorized, each shadow in the photographs had been engrained into the fissures of his dura matter. Mulder had even visited the crime site.

The Cigarette Smoking Man lived his life shrouded by secrets, and apparently he chose to die that very same way. Mulder's eyes passed over the report, a finger traced the numbers, looking for something -- anything -- alarming.

Mulder was tempted to show this report to his partner, but things had always gotten in the way. Scully's recovery. Her return to work. Her newly developed reticence to become involved in cases like these.

Mulder sighed, dropping the papers to stretch his arms. As evidence, adding further insult to injury, a photo of the photo of Samantha and her older brother had been taken, and was now staring at him. His heart burned with the knowledge that he had been this close to his sister -- had held her hand, touched her fingers, feeling red, human blood coursing through them. How her hair was still long...

... and how he could still make her cry.

There was a knock on the door, and the spell was broken. Scully and Chinese food were waiting impatiently on the other side of the wooden panel, and Mulder roughly gathered all the papers and photos into a haphazard mass, shoving them decisively under the bed.

Opening the door to a casually dressed Scully and the smell of garlic, Mulder smiled. "I think that the only reason why you agreed to come to Pennsylvania was to have an excuse to order some Kung Pao Chicken, Scully."

The female agent offered a sarcastic "har har" before setting the bag onto the dresser. "What were you doing?

Mulder nodded towards the TV. "Watching my Knicks destroy Chicago."

Scully rolled her eyes, muttering something about men and testosterone. She handed a carton with chopsticks and a plastic fork to Mulder, while settling on a chair in the far corner with her own. To the doctor in her, the noodles smelled sinful -- chockfull of cholesterol and salt and God knew what else. To the just recovered cancer patient in her, the noodles were close to manna from heaven, mouth watering, and her chopsticks soon made a repetitive journey from the box to her appreciative tongue.

She knew Mulder was watching her -- he had been doing a lot more of it lately. His hand was a little bit more anxious to touch the small of her back. There were a lot more "how are you's" when she came to the office in the morning.

She caught his eye and smiled with a mouthful of food.

Mulder returned the gesture, although the corners of his mouth creased slightly. He felt guilty for not showing her the papers under the bed, but his mind quickly pointed out that she wouldn't have flashed him that smile if she had known.

He toyed with his chopsticks, not hungry all of a sudden, anxious to go to Reading and see if his father would get the absolution it appeared he so desperately wanted.

Scully and Mulder stared at the vial silently.

The Gunmen had helped them hack credentials, and both agents were wary to avoid the video cameras that littered the facility -- as well as the security guards with 9mm pistols at their hips.

Scully looked at Mulder, her breaths coming out faster than normal. The room was ice cold, and she looked around nervously once again. Her partner held the vial up gingerly to the light, scared of the liquid contents inside.

Purity control, the label screamed in boldfaced, courier font.

Mulder set the vial down, while Scully quickly scanned the counters, noting the liquid nitrogen coolers. Flashing back to the alien fetus and Deep Throat's death, Scully's gloved hand hovered around the lid.

Her partner's panicked whisper that someone was coming stilled her movements momentarily, then had her at the doorway to join him. Mulder started to look around jerkily, his eyes eventually coming to a computer terminal. Pressing the eject button, he quickly pocketed the floppy disk before motioning to Scully to leave.

"Freeze! Drop what's in your hand on the floor, then raise your arms in the air where I can see them."

Mulder closed his eyes when the baritone voice came from behind him. He turned around slowly and pointed to the ID on his lapel, glancing at Scully. "We're authorized to be here."

"You are trespassing on government property, Agents Mulder and Scully. Now I suggest you start walking before I have to use terminal force."

Scully followed Mulder's sagging shoulders to the front entrance which was beckoning them. The glass shone, almost blinding them, and both federal agents were roughly helped out by the gun almost touching their backs.

The sun was so bright, it seemed like there were six of them, scattered around in a circle. Bees were buzzing overhead, beside them, and soon, the cameras whirred, and the reporters chattered as Mulder and Scully were surrounded.

Faceless, colorful blazers reeking of strong perfume and aftershave flung questions in their direction.

"Is it true that you're FBI agents?"

"We received a tip that you're investigation aliens?"

"Agent Scully, is it true that you were abducted?"

"Agent Mulder, is it true that you're known as Spooky?"

Mulder shielded his eyes as a large, foam-covered microphone was shoved at him. His brain was screaming, flashing a neon sign that blinked "SET UP! SET UP!" in big bold letters, and inside, he was burning -- seething with the knowledge of who the anonymous tipster was. He watched Scully try to bat at a camera that had been pushed in her face, and he tried to pull her to their rental car.

"What is the FBI's business in a place like this?"

"The FBI has absolutely no jurisdiction in this facility."

All heads turned as Colonel Henderson walked to the crowd, activating his car alarm with a flair. The shine of his briefcase matched the shine of his shoes, and his chiseled face soon bore perfect teeth in a perfect diplomatic smile.

"Still chasing imaginary UFO's, Agent Mulder?"

Mulder spun around to face the Colonel. "Yes, I am," he sneered back. "But for some reason, all evidence gets... sanitized. I wonder why."

Henderson laughed and all of a sudden, his hand snaked into Mulder's pocket, grabbing the disk. "I believe this is ours... and you have just committed theft." He turned back to the reporters. "I'm afraid Agent Mulder is a little deluded. I think his professional record speaks for itself."

Mulder turned to a camera. "Ask him about Purity Control."

Expectant lenses turned to the uniformed officer. "Purity Control simply refers to the measures we take in securing our medical facility. We are dealing with the flu, ladies and gentlemen. Some 'purity' must be retained for the health of all our employees."

Mulder squinted his eyes and started to see red, but Scully's hand was on his arm, trying to pull him away.

"Ask him about Max Fenig, or the plane crash!" Scully's nails started to dig harder.

The Colonel chortled behind him, as the cameras followed Mulder's and Scully's retreating figures. "I'll look to the stars and see if I can find your sister, Mulder."

In the car, Mulder let out a flood of expletives and punched the roof with his hand. And as Scully helplessly tried to shield them, the cameras kept rolling. The noise in the cramped vehicle was deafening, and Scully finally -- mercifully -- started the engine, watching the reporters scatter, driving away from the disaster.

On the way towards their motel in Reading, far from any trailing cars, Mulder shifted his eyes to Scully, who stared back. They dropped their gazes at the same time -- the message understood.

The hammering of nails into the X-Files' coffin had never been more audible.

The trip to the Mulder home in Connecticut had been accomplished in frosty silence.

Mulder chanced a glance from the road to Scully's arms across the chest posture. She caught him staring at her, and fired a glare in return. He clenched his teeth, and gripped the steering wheel tighter. Her message was loud and clear: I told you so -- now get the hell away from me.

Mulder sighed, still cringing at her white knuckles, and the clothes that were still slightly big for her tiny figure.

He had promised. He had promised himself to take it easy, to get away from the conspiracies. To not push, and goad whoever it was that was pulling the strings into doing something as manipulative and evil as Scully's cancer again. He no longer wanted to jump headlong into some vague reports...

... or long-lost letters from his ancestors.

Mulder resisted the urge to pound the car roof once again -- this was only the second month, and he had already broken the promise he had so solemnly sworn the night Scully's cancer had gone into remission. And he knew that the stifling silence in the car was only a prologue to the brewing storm.

"Scully... I'm sorry," Mulder looked quickly to his partner, and she refused to bat an eye.

"You were..." The admission was difficult to make. "...right. I shouldn't have jumped into this. I shouldn't have forced you to come."

Scully shifted in her seat, and inhaled sharply, signaling that he had said something wrong. "You don't have to apologize for forcing me to come, Mulder. I'm your partner. So, don't apologize for that."

Mulder winced at her succinct reply and cautiously nodded, not knowing what Scully meant by her last sentence. He was grateful when they finally pulled onto the familiar side street and reached his mother's house.

Their feet across the pavement was the only sound as they approached the house, and Mulder pulled Scully back when he saw the door was ajar. Pulling their guns out of their holsters simultaneously, the agents entered the house together.

Any strife between them disappeared momentarily as they moved in tandem, communicating silently through hand gestures and eye signals.

Mulder felt his legs wobble when he saw the couch upturned, the cushions ripped, the walls torn through. Silently, he took in the broken china, the smashed lamps, the upended cupboards and drawers -- their contents spilling onto the floor.

Mulder reholstered his gun while Scully moved past him, mumbling that she was going to check the other rooms. He moved a hand to cover his eyes, to hide the tears that were burning at the back of his throat. A strangled grunt came through his mouth before he was able to clamp down on the hurt of seeing his mother's house ruined. He took a breath and reopened his eyes -- prepared to look through the house with practiced detachment.

Scully came back, breathless, her eyes wide with adrenaline. "I can't find the letter in the other rooms. Is it here?"

Mulder looked at her confused. "Letter?"

Scully nodded. "Yeah, the letter, Mulder, remember?"

His partner's voice was echoing though his ears, and a gust of wind through the open door caused him to shiver. Scully immediately adopted a look of a doctor examining a seriously ill patient, one that Mulder had the privilege of seeing numerous times, and he pulled the trench coat around him tighter, uncomfortable under her gentle scrutiny. He shook his head, synapses finally firing. "Oh yes... the letter. It's..." he looked haphazardly around the room. "It's not here."

Scully sighed and nodded sympathetically. "Mulder... come here." She turned one of the chairs over and led him to it, sitting her partner roughly, before shuttling over to close the door.

It seemed like an epiphany, and Mulder sat further upright. "Scully, if this letter was a decoy, they must have known it. Why would they take it?" Mentally, he cursed himself for leaving it here, for making a mistake characteristic of rookies straight out of the Academy.

Scully walked over and put a hand on her partner's forehead -- familiar ministrations. "Maybe they didn't and it's still here. We'll find it," she stated confidently. She offered a smile, patting the top of his head softly. "Or you can recite it from memory, right?" she teased gently.

"But," Mulder pushed Scully's hand away, struggling to get out of the chair. "The book is over there, Scully. The letter is nowhere near it."

Scully shushed him, and Mulder could feel her tense at his agitated words. "Let's not think about it now. We'll report the break-in to the police," she ignored a disbelieving chuckle from Mulder at that and continued firmly. "Then, we will check into a motel and get some sleep, and head for D.C. in the morning."

Mulder nodded, inspecting the chaos in the house once again.

He wondered when the madness would end.

"Agent Mulder, do you know what personal leave means?"

"Yes, sir."

"Does personal leave include traipsing off to Pennsylvania under the guise of official FBI business, Agent Scully?"

"No, sir."

Mulder chanced a glance at his superior and knew that with each newspaper headline, each segment on the six o'clock news, his head had moved closer and closer to the proverbial hangman's noose. The media had mocked the FBI, having a field day with the rumors regarding Spooky Mulder in particular. But most of all, to Mulder's chagrin, they had mocked Scully -- using her medical credentials to label her the mad doctor.

The TV reporters were still camera happy with the story, and Mulder was still doing a slow burn as to where the tip had come from. Scully had semi-believed him; Skinner had outright shot the theory down.

"Mulder, we've been in this position before. You are suspended. Again. Without pay." There was a pause. "Yet another mark on your professional record."

Mulder rolled his eyes.

"And Agent Scully's."

"With all due respect, sir..."

Mulder looked at Scully, but her face was expressionless. Her legs were tightly crossed, and her fingers were interlaced tightly in her lap.

"Sir, this was my idea. I coerced Agent Scully into going."

Skinner shook his head. "Agent Mulder, I know your division has certain... abnormalities. But FBI procedure is very strict, and my job is to enforce it. Scully is part of this disciplinary action."

Mulder sagged in his chair when he turned to Scully once again and she said nothing in her own defense. God, it was so easy to just not care anymore. Skinner was yelping in the corner. His father left him a stupid letter, which he had fallen for, hook, line, and sinker. His meager reputation was shot. His deceased mother's house was broken into and trashed. Funeral homes were leaving somber messages and estimates on his machine. Scully still refused to discuss their current dilemma.

Mulder suddenly felt weary and old, and he closed his eyes momentarily.

"Mulder, according to the FBI Rules and..."

"Sir... with all due respect, please state the disciplinary action taken against myself and Agent Scully."

His rough interruption caused Scully's head to snap and Skinner's face to turn more red.

The Assistant Director composed himself and sat at his desk. "Indefinite suspension... at least until this matter with the media gets resolved. No pay for the first two weeks, and a notation in your records."

Mulder nodded resignedly, while Scully stood up to offer a brief bob of her head. He began to follow the prim walk of his partner when a beefy hand grabbed his arm.

"Agent Mulder," Skinner paused, making sure Scully had left the office. You and I both have been part of some events these past few months."

Mulder nodded in agreement.

"You gained some credibility when you pinned Blevins, but you threw it all away with this latest charade."

Mulder started to pull himself away, and opened his mouth to protest, but strong fingers refused to let him go.

"All I'm saying, Agent Mulder, is don't get swallowed out there. And don't take risks at the expense of Agent Scully or the Bureau. If you're going to take a risk, make sure it's worth it."

Mulder finally succeeded at pulling his arm away, and Skinner straightened his shirt, making his way back to the desk chair. "You're dismissed, Agent Mulder."

Walking out, rubbing his arm, Mulder noted that Skinner's iron clad grip had disappeared, but his words had not.

Her partner was going insane. That was the only answer.

She thought that she understood his desperation and grief, but they did not justify his insistence on going after half-decent leads. Their subsequent fallouts were going to drive him over the edge.

And her too, if she wasn't careful.

Chasing morphs to the bowels of the Arctic, jumping onto train cars, getting holes drilled into heads -- those gut-churning events were occurring at a greater frequency. And the resulting sullen silences of Mulder, his set face that screamed his insistence that he was right, and the whole god damned world was wrong -- those periods were lasting longer and longer, taking a toll on her, causing the quality of X-File investigations to suffer.

First, there were the zone-outs like the one he'd had in Connecticut. Then, like during the flight back to Washington, he would talk her ear off, throw in the occasional lewd comment -- his us-versus-them mentality momentarily put on the backburner.

She had hoped that the mood would last. But, she could hardly recognize the hard-edged man who sat in Skinner's office today as her partner.

Walking slowly towards the office, she recounted how their names had been splashed on the pages of the newspapers. How they had called her and her partner crazy -- too wrapped up in the hype of hundred-million-dollar movies. She read all the articles, memorizing each word, and then studied an interview with the flabbergasted, indignant director of the Flu Research Institute. According to him, his employees were really just... researching the flu.

Mulder could be so... blind sometimes, and he had a unique ability to compound the ill consequences. If only he hadn't opened his mouth, if he said nothing to the reporters, it wouldn't have blown up as much as it did. And Mulder's mother's house had been trashed -- he still hadn't made funeral plans. Scully tried to breathe deep and get a grip on the stifling anger inside her.

The letter still hadn't been found, and Scully had watched, fascinated, as her partner rewrote it from memory in the office, prior to their appointment with Skinner.

She inwardly growled when she started to clear her desk. Her partner still had no clue why she was upset.

And she was still so tired -- the cancer still looming over her.

His next quest... she wasn't sure if she could participate in it.

The contented gurgle of the fish tank above his head only made Mulder more antsy.

He tried to lay down on the couch, but his thoughts were too jumbled, the lights streaming through the blinds too annoying to be ignored.

The phone rang, and Mulder debated whether to let the machine take it. Perhaps it was Scully... Skinner... the Gunmen... Arlinsky... Deep Throat come back from the dead. He didn't know anyone, except for Scully, who thought that the ring of the phone sounded more ominous than friendly.


"Hi, Mulder, it's Danny. I've finished with the phone records that you sent me."

Mulder was immediately alert, hugging the phone close to his ear. "Yeah, and?"

"You were right, most of the numbers from the dead guy's apartment were to office high rises with no registered users. But there was one residential house that was called quite regularly, and it's in the D.C. area."


Mulder hastily wrote down the address of the house, while hearing his heart thud in his chest. Perhaps the Cigarette Smoking Man had left one secret after all. "Danny, is there a name to the house?"

"Yeah..." there was a pause as paper rustled. "It's Samantha O'Connor." **

The drive was a blur, his left hand steering as the thumb on his right hand nervously rubbed the fingers' knuckles.

He turned the key abruptly, and the motor died, leaving birds to sing in the background. Mulder sat in his car, staring at the neat yellow house with cherry bushes growing in the front yard. A neighbor clipping his hedges was looking at the unfamiliar Taurus with suspicion. Sighing deeply, Mulder opened the car door.

He was nervous; his skin felt prickly, and his hands were cold. His pulse was racing, and he tried to swallow a lump in his throat. He barely felt his knuckles hit the door, but the knock echoed thunderously through his ears.

Somewhere someone stopped clipping, and Mulder knocked again, trying to remind himself that this might be nothing, and that Samantha O'Connor did not have long, brown wavy hair with eyes that matched her brother's.

"She's not home."

Mulder spun around to meet a heavy set, lumber-jacket wearing man.

"What do you mean?" His voice remained steady, but inside his every nerve trembled.

"She's moved away."

Mulder's heart stopped and his mouth momentarily gaped open. "Do you know where to?"

He shook his head no. "I dunno, the whole family packed up and left in a hurry."

The word 'family' pained him, and Mulder numbly pulled out his badge. "Can I ask you some questions about Samantha O'Connor?"

The neighbor nodded. "Shoot."

To each question that Mulder fired -- whether about Samantha O'Connor's personal whereabouts, the presence of mysterious visitors, or her mental state -- the neighbor cheerfully stated he didn't know, or that things appeared as normal as American apple pie.

Mulder rubbed his temple while saying thanks, and walked up the wooden stairs to the doorway. The screen door was unlocked, as was the heavier wooden panel, and he braced himself for what he would see... or who he wouldn't see.

Air pushed through his lungs and roughly through his mouth when he absorbed the bare hardwood floors and the unused moving boxes still piled in the middle. A play of emotions went across his face -- from the shiny eyes of heartbreak, to the grim set mouth of frustration. His shoulders sagged in flagging determination.

Mulder felt himself tense as his right foot lashed out and kicked the wall. A black heel mark remained imprinted, and he doubled over, seething with an unexpressionable rage. He leaned against the wall trying to control the errant breathing, and the hot stinging tears that threatened to spill.

His foot was throbbing, and he relished the pain -- so much better than the anguish he felt deep inside his chest.

When a minute passed, when the air shifted, Mulder stood up, inhaled deeply, and let the air out slowly. He walked out of the house, latching the lock as he went -- hoping to trap the emptiness and desolation inside.

Scully walked wearily down the stairs to the X-Files office, cursing herself for forgetting the papers she had wanted to take home.

The sight of her partner at his desk, with his sleeves rolled up surprised her, and she automatically turned her head to the left, expecting to see the slide projector set up.

It wasn't.

And Mulder was sitting back in his chair with one foot propped up on the desk, a pencil to his teeth -- brooding for some time now, by the looks of the bags under his eyes.

Scully set her things carefully on her desk and approached her partner. "Mulder? What's wrong? We're suspended, remember?"

He shook his head, and then got up from his chair, limping to the door, peering out, and then checking the lock as he made his way back.

"And what happened to your foot?"

Mulder grunted. "I kicked a wall."

Scully raised her eyebrows, startled at his terseness. Watching him settle back in his chair, Scully could see how badly his shoulders were tensed, how many styrofoam coffee cups were scattered around his desk.

He looked exhausted, and the wrinkles in his dress shirt were indicative of how many hours he spent here.

It was yet another reminder of the downward spiral of her partner, and Scully managed to contain her sigh of exasperation.

"Mulder... what's happening?"

"Nothing. I'm fine."

Scully flinched imperceptibly when Mulder leaned over to push a note towards her. His eyes narrowed at her reaction, and he stepped clear of her path, limping back towards the door. He grabbed his coat quickly, shutting the door behind him quietly, leaving without any parting comments.

Scully stared at the note -- scared, terrified, nervous, angry, annoyed at its ambiguity -- at her partner who had just walked out and expected her to follow. She pocketed the note, the words already engraved in her mind:


With deliberately unhurried movements Scully gathered the forgotten papers, put on a coat, and collected her bags. Before stepping out, she swept the office mentally, scolding herself for being paranoid. Finally, she started walking up the stairs, trying to clamp down on the urge to run after her partner.

As she expected, Mulder was waiting beside the car, silently motioning for her to get inside. The nonchalant stature failed to hide his fatigue, and his lips refused to shape into a smile. Sensing that it was best to follow, Scully got inside and waited for some explanation. But except for a soft murmur of "Shall we go for lunch?", the man behind the wheel remained silent, and her pulse quickened in anticipation.

Whatever he had in mind while writing the note could not have been good.

They walked inside a little diner, and Mulder looked around, searching for familiar faces, finding none. He picked this place with more care than a chess player calculates each step, making sure that their FBI colleagues did not frequent it. Not surprisingly, the busy atmosphere and crowds of people inside could not distract him from the upcoming conversation with his partner.

She would not take it well.

And that was an understatement.

Scully frowned, seeing her partner lean against the wall favoring his right foot, his eyes dark, his expression grim. A sense of dread settled in her stomach, and the smell of food was making her sick. At the moment, all she wanted was to be far away from him, from this noisy room, and from D.C. Her mother had called last night, not too subtly inviting her to spend some time in Baltimore till "things blew over." And while the young woman had inwardly shuddered, imagining her family's reaction to the media hoop-la around their name, she suddenly longed for the house where she spent her childhood, safe from insanity and conspiracies.

The same house she couldn't get away from fast enough only days ago over Thanksgiving dinner.

The hostess had to ask them to follow her twice before either agent responded. Mulder's hand suddenly rested on her upper arm, and the uniformed teenager abruptly shoved two dog-eared menus into their hands, hastily walking to a nearby table.

"Mulder, please tell me what's going on."

Her curt voice did not conceal the pleading undertones, and Scully hated herself for them.

Mulder, who until then was researching the condensation on the glass of water and waiting for the drops to fall down, slowly raised his eyes to the woman in front of him. The clarity in his voice betrayed the cacophony of thoughts and conflicting emotions that had plagued him during the past couple of days. He reached for Scully's hand, as if searching for a point of balance on a wildly rotating carousel, and felt her fingers momentarily tense in surprise. The din of the diner suddenly dissipated, and Scully watched Mulder's lips move, the words registering seemingly hours later. "I want to join the Consortium."

Hearing that statement and snatching her fingers away quickly, Scully felt weeks of stress and madness explode inside her, leaving only bleak emptiness and the tortured face of her partner. The diner suddenly came alive again -- dishes were rattling, and patrons were engaged in animated conversation. She was momentarily stunned by the fact that everything around her still remained the same.

And that the Earth was still rotating around the Sun.

Mulder offered an uneasy, sad smile. "Say something, Scully."

"Why are you telling me this?" she whispered, envisioning the empty basement office, knowing that if the one constant she could believe in disappeared -- understanding that if his statement became real, she would be working against him. And he would be working with the forces he so vehemently opposed.

Even though she comprehended the degree of his frustration, she could not forgive him for making this choice -- or for leaving her behind. She tried frantically to contain the desire to cry, to scream, to break the nervous fingers which were now playing again with the condensation of the glass. There was no possibility of her making a scene here, and she congratulated him mentally on choosing a public place to break the news.

And her heart.

"Because you are my partner, and I need your help," Mulder watched Scully's face thoughtfully, cautiously. He knew exactly what she was thinking, and the knowledge burned him like the flames of hell.

Scully could not believe his audacity. "You are asking me to help you while you work for those sons-of-bitches?"

"Scully, I need you." He injected each word with as much persuasion as he could master, because there was nothing as important to him at the moment as making sure that the partnership forged over the years through fires and heartaches was not destroyed by one sentence. "I have never needed you and your trust more than now. I would never -- do you understand? -- never become one of them. This is a proposition to you, and I will only follow through on it after you accept. I would only pretend to join their ranks, to get at the truth we both so desperately want. I hope you want it as much as I do," he aborted the speech suddenly as he watched a tear finally spill out of Scully's clouded eyes.

Five years, thought Scully. Five years, and it could not have come to this -- and no truth could be worth sacrificing the honesty of this man. A desperate decision, it would only lead him further into their web, and she was sure she would plummet to the bottom with him.


The steel in her voice galvanized him like a shot of electricity.

"Mulder, if you are giving me a chance to stop you, let me do it now."

"Scully, I know that lately my credibility has approached the zero levels, and the truth I keep preaching about seems as elusive as the mechanism of perpetual motion. But I am begging you," Mulder shook his head, looking for words. "Do you remember that morning in the hospital, when I told you I was offered a deal?"

She bowed her head, still shivering at the memories of the white room, the detestable weakness, and the feeling of helplessness against the disease. The meaning of her partner's words finally sank in to her, nauseating her, freezing her blood. But even more frightening was the thought that he was ready to accept the deal. "Someone made an offer to you to join the Consortium."

"Yes. And I said no. Because I thought that there were other ways to find the truth. And when I nailed Blevins, and when your cancer had gone into remission, I knew -- I was certain that we would win. But then..." he cringed at the thought of public humiliation, Samantha's disappearance, the threat of the X-Files department being closed down. "And now, I remember that offer, and it makes more sense to me than ever before." Encouraged by Scully's silence, he continued. "It would take us years to understand what the Project is, to get the evidence, and to make people listen to us, especially after the fiasco in Reading. But if they thought me on their side, I would have access to all kinds of information, and we would finally be able to do something."

"So, you want to destroy them from within," Scully nodded.

"Absolutely," Mulder searched her face for a sign of acceptance that would not come easily.

Getting a grip on thoughts and emotions that whirred in a mad kaleidoscope inside her, Scully evaluated the situation coldly. He had made up his mind, and she would not be able to talk him out of it.

"Do you realize the potential consequences of your decision? You will lose your integrity, and you may well lose your life in the process." The fire in her eyes abated, and the tone of her voice suddenly softened. "Damn you, I could not bear that."

Mulder's heart cinched at his partner's admission, but he forged ahead ignoring the painful sentiment. "I know, Scully -- and I agree on all counts." He leaned forward, whispering, seeing Scully's eyes were only inches from his own. "But there is no gain without the risk. Just think of how much potential lies in this prospect," he hoped that his tone and words were enticing enough.

Scully contemplated the offer silently, her own desperation warring with rationality. The arrangement he proposed was, of course, utterly insane. There were so many things that could go wrong with it. But at the same time, it made perverse sense, and she thought it more appealing than another microphone shoved into her face. They would have access to the actual evidence instead of the pathetic scraps thrown at them occasionally, the ambiguous ramblings of shadowy informants, or the false leads from dead people.

"I accept your decision." The words were out before she had a chance to swallow them. She simply could not allow this man to go alone into the snake pit. And if he wanted to mingle with the poisonous creatures, she wanted to be there to pull him out.

And if, as a result, their quest was finally fulfilled, the reward would be immeasurable.

She could not -- would not -- think about the potential fallout should they fail.

Mulder exhaled, feeling gratitude and amazement sweep through him. Leaning close to her ear and smiling widely, he whispered: "You know, Scully, I always wanted to be a spy."

Scully's slight smile did not reach her eyes. She could not help but feel as if they had just released a boomerang that could only come back to haunt them.

Mulder watched her, relieved. And for the first time since his mother's death, he allowed himself to relax, let the nervous tension drain away. At the moment, he was happy to ignore the nagging doubts, the dangers that awaited them both, and the possibility of failure.

Because together, they stood a chance of winning this long and arduous war.

Andrew Winters took off his jacket, rolled his sleeves, and focused on the papers in front of him, oblivious to the chatter in the other cubicles, the repetitive sound of coffee being poured, and the constant ringing of the phones. It was the first case he was in charge of, and he was determined to complete it successfully.

He finished the FBI Academy, fourth in his class, after graduating from the University of Wisconsin, and since then, worked in the Violent Crimes Unit. With each day, he became more and more convinced that he had chosen the right occupation. Without being overtly modest, Andrew considered himself an asset to the department. And while his colleagues at first laughed at Andrew's youth and boyish good looks, they soon began to respect him for his sharp intellect, profiling skills, and an innate curiosity.

Winters did not remain unnoticed by his superiors, as well, and more and more often, he participated in the high-profile cases. The manila folder in his hand did not fit into such category, but it was intriguing and disturbing. He also did not exactly understand why it was in the care of the VCU, for the crimes were non-violent. Not that he was about to question its validity.

Four women in Richmond, Virginia were reported missing over the past few months. Each one was returned seemingly unharmed, with no recollections of the few weeks lost, days that their families spent by the phones, trembling and expecting the worst. Now, another one -- just a girl -- was missing, and if nothing else, Andrew honestly hoped to expedite her return.

He inspected the picture of fifteen-year old Lina Fremont; the girl was as average-looking and all-American as kids came. Blue eyes dominated her round face, blond hair was fashionably cut, a huge smile revealed a set of beautiful white teeth, and the navy school uniform complemented her features. Winters searched his desk quickly for a pin and fastened the photo to the wall in front of him, right above the tiny model of a red Porsche -- the one thing about which his fellow agents still teased him mercilessly.

Still studying her portrait, Andrew reached for the other case profiles, preparing to call all the families once again, hoping for a lead, knowing that he would settle for any scrap at the moment.

One of the women had to remember something.

Mulder stirred his iced tea absently, scanning the crowd inside the upscale bar of the downtown Hilton. When the familiar figure of Marita Covarrubias appeared in the doorway, he stood up -- not too eagerly, he reminded himself -- and went over to greet her.

"Agent Mulder, why did you need to see me?" Marita questioned, as they were seated at the table. "You are on suspension; there are no cases to investigate."

Mulder grinned, detecting her curiosity and not in the least bothered by her evident displeasure. "Actually, this is a personal matter. I wanted to get to know you better." He looked into her eyes, suppressing a laugh. "We just never seem to really talk, do we?"

Marita stared at him with little comprehension, her large, pale eyes wide open. "I am afraid to ask what you mean, Agent Mulder."

"I will start." Now, he was really enjoying this meeting. "I work in the X-Files division of the FBI. What do you do?"

The blonde shifted uncomfortably under his humorous gaze. "I'm sure you know."

"I'm sure I don't. But I'd love to find out," Mulder sipped his tea contentedly. "Our working relationship has been so pleasant, I'm thinking that I'd like us to become colleagues."

Mulder watched Marita retreat slightly, her eyes marking her confusion. "You want to work for the UN?"

"Oh, it would seem like a great job -- wouldn't it?" Mulder mused aloud. "But it pays so little -- and the perks are so limited. No, I'd like to work for your other bosses, Marita."

She made a small movement, as if wishing to get up -- then sat back down again. Well, this was certainly. . . unexpected. How could she be so careless?

Seeing the play of emotions on her smooth face, Mulder felt something akin to pity. "It wasn't so difficult to figure out -- I was only going on the fact that you knew just a little too much, even for someone who works at the SRSG office."

Marita reached a decision quickly. "I didn't know you were that unsatisfied with your present occupation. Otherwise, I would have offered my help. . . a long time ago."

So she admitted it -- that is, to a degree that Marita Covarrubias ever admitted anything. "Why were you so forthcoming with sensitive information, may I ask?" Mulder questioned curiously.

"Part of my job description," Marita answered -- and for the first time, Mulder felt that she spoke the truth. "Obviously, I will be concentrating on the other areas from now on."

"Pity," Mulder offered calmly.

A sarcastic smile settled on her lips as she contemplated something. "There is a weekly meeting in Manhattan next Tuesday," she spoke softly. "Would you like to attend?"

"I will never say no to more frequent flyer miles," Mulder replied evenly.

Presuming that the conversation was over, Marita stood up, glancing at the federal agent cautiously. "Please do not discount my words as another misleading nugget of information. But you should be more discriminating in choosing who you work for."

Mulder smirked, watching her depart, his smile faltering when she disappeared in the sea of faces.

One certainly could not believe the words of a liar.


The Well-Manicured Man studied the large even handwriting of Bill Mulder once again, still puzzled by the blasted letter. The names and places listed at the bottom were so obviously wrong that they begged further investigation, and every word was so unlike the cold, stern man he remembered.

If Mulder senior was indeed the author, he should have been pitied. Unless he was still waiting behind the curtains for a last laugh.

"So far, this letter has been a blessing in disguise," a heavy figure to his left pronounced, sarcasm dripping from each word.

"Indeed," the Well-Manicured Man muttered under his breath. "Though it seems to me that Special Agent Fox Mulder should learn to apply his superior intellect and place more faith in his father."

"William Mulder died a pitiful old man," his companion answered calmly. "Guilt and grief are powerful enemies."

The thin old man played staccato on the heavy cherry-wood table, lost deep in thought. He was remembering a devastating fire in one of the Consortium's prized facilities that occurred decades ago, and the underlying fear in the eyes of the man who oversaw the experiments inside it. Bill Mulder's insistence on the accidental nature of the disaster.

His subsequent resignation.

Several surreptitious searches of his house had been made, each without results.

"There is a chance that Mulder senior kept some information about the project," the Well-Manicured Man stated, leaning back in the leather armchair. "And I would certainly like to see it."

The rotund body on his left shifted. "And you think that the location of these magical documents are in this letter?" a slight disbelief was apparent in the thick voice.

"It's a possibility. And something tells me that the young Mulder is the one man who can decipher this curious little riddle," thin lips shaped into a smile.

"In that case, the federal agent should take a few therapy sessions and work on his trust issues, don't you think?"

A low laughter echoed throughout the darkened room, when a younger man entered. "There is a phone call for you, sir."

The Well-Manicured Man pushed a speaker button.

"This is Marita Covarrubias," a steady female voice spoke. "You will never believe who will attend your next meeting."

Andrew Winters read the chart of the woman sleeping on the bed beside him and frowned. She had been admitted to the hospital after fainting at work and causing a minor panic. According to the doctors, the reason behind Nancy Ivar's ill health was internal bleeding.

But what the young agent was mostly interested in was a discovery and subsequent extraction of a small metal object near her navel. He wrote down the doctor's name, planning to contact him, and placed the chart back in its place.

Andrew felt like a hunting dog that just smelled a wily fox. He didn't expect much after calling Nancy's house and listening to the hysterical explanation of the husband, but he drove to the Richmond Medical Center nonetheless.

He hoped that his intuition was correct, once again.

The doctor was only too happy to be rid of the little object once Andrew flashed his badge. In D.C., he sent the metal chip straight to the lab. An hour later, one of the technicians called him back, asking him to come downstairs.

"Brian?" the agent shook hands with a small plump man. "Andrew Winters." He nodded towards the vial on the counter. "So what is that thing?"

The technician seemed excited about the article in question, his right foot bouncing, as the man seemingly could not bring himself to sit still. "I believe that it is a sophisticated computer chip. Very high-tech. And I have only seen it once before in twenty years I've worked here."

Andrew tensed, waiting for Brian to continue.

"Agent Scully -- she works with Agent Mulder in the X-Files department -- brought it to us some time ago," he stopped, contemplating that fact. "She would probably be able to tell you more about it."

"Thank you," the young man pocketed a vial with the chip gingerly and almost ran to the door.

"You're welcome," Brian shrugged. "Hey, you won't be able to talk to them. I heard they are both on suspension."

Andrew stopped dead in his tracks. "Why?"

"Don't you read the newspapers?" The small man smirked in disbelief. "They made quite a scandal just a couple of weeks ago in Pennsylvania. Seems they were looking for aliens in the wrong places," he lowered his voice to a mock whisper. "And the FBI does frown on that kind of publicity."

His eyebrows furrowed in confusion and Andrew blindly reached for the door. "Thanks anyway." More disconcerted and perplexed than ever before, the young agent returned to his floor.

Mulder studied the address scrawled on the piece of paper, even though the numbers and street names were long since learned by heart -- 1342 West 46th Street. Arrangements had been surprisingly easy to make, and he chose to interpret it as a good omen. His contact with Marita proved to be useful, after all.

Mulder walked briskly, having no patience to fight the afternoon Manhattan traffic even in a taxi, using physical exertion to calm his jagged nerves. He saw the tall building from afar, and incongruously remembered the adventure books he read as a boy, imagining himself a character who came face to face with the castle of the evil magician. Chuckling lightly, he picked up the pace.

This was not the time to pull out the sword.

But it would come soon.

The young man who greeted the federal agent was taken aback by his friendly facial expression, but composed his features into a reciprocating polite mask. "Follow me," he turned on his heel smoothly and went ahead, expecting the visitor to follow.

The door was opened, and Mulder entered a spacious room, appreciating its exquisite interior. Several pairs of eyes studied him openly, while the perfectly groomed man, obviously in charge of the situation, leaned forward with recognition.

"We have been expecting you, Mr. Mulder," a cultured voice had undertones of excitement. "Please, sit down."

Mulder took an offered chair, choosing to remain silent.

"My deepest condolences on the passing away of your mother," the Well-Manicured Man continued. "I regret that I was unable to attend the funeral."

Mulder bared his teeth in a resemblance of a smile, and tried to contain a sarcastic remark burning his tongue. "Let us skip with the formalities, shall we?" he replied tersely, receiving an amicable nod in return. "First of all, I believe you have something that belongs to me."

"Oh, you mean the letter of your father?" the heavy-set man entered the conversation. "But by all means, keep it."

The yellow piece of paper was pushed in Mulder's direction, and he took it knowing full well that all the necessary copies of it have already been manufactured, that it has been read and reread numerous times. "I believe I could bring you up on charges of mail fraud," he commented non-threateningly.

"If I were in your place, Mr. Mulder, I would think twice about value of this particular piece of mail," the thin man answered evenly. "It may not be worth the trouble. Let me give you a piece of advice: there is nothing going on in either Makon or Irvine. Don't tell me that it was the reason for our gathering?"

Instantly, Mulder felt as an applicant to the restricted institution, about to take a difficult entrance exam. Time to put the cards on the table.

"I have reached a difficult decision," he started quietly. "Some time ago, a certain member of your organization offered me a deal which I was not prepared to make at the moment. Since I cannot contact this person any longer," Mulder congratulated himself mentally on his choice of words, "I have had to arrange for this meeting."

The Well-Manicured Man exchanged glances with the rotund figure on his side. Neither had to question the identity of the mysterious member.

"He proposed that I come to work for him. And in his absence, I would like to offer my services to you now," he concluded, scanning the room and trying to read the inscrutable faces around him.

"Why such a change of heart?"

Mulder bit his lip. "I have come to a point where I have little chance of finding the truth on my own. I am on the indefinite suspension from my status as a federal agent, and the X-Files department faces a threat of being shut down, once again. Without access to the necessary information, I cannot continue my job."

"And you feel you have no choice but to become one of us," the Well-Manicured Man finished for him. "May I remind you, Agent Mulder, that your work so far has been quite disruptive to us? How are we to trust you?"

"If I were not of some value to you, I would have been destroyed a long time ago," the agent replied with certainty. "All this time, my purpose has been to find the truth, and you can give it to me."

The only sound in the hushed room was the crackling of logs in the fireplace.

"Let me prove my worth to you."

The thin man settled back in his chair. "We must confer on this matter, as you understand," he directed his gaze to the young man standing at the door. "Please see Mr. Mulder out."

The agent got up and retraced his steps to the exit but the inquisitive question stopped him in mid-tracks. "Have you given thought to the situation with your partner? What should you do if she finds out your intentions?"

The realization that this was the true test of the interview hit him, and he turned around to face the curious eyes of his opponent. The tormented expression was easy to produce when he remembered the anxiety that took up residence in Scully's eyes recently, the fear that she tried to hide unsuccessfully, and his own reluctance at plunging her into this lunacy.

"She will not find out," the message of his words was clear, and the Well-Manicured Man bent his head, satisfied.

When the elevator doors closed, Mulder leaned against the wall, delighted but exhausted.

He reminded himself that this was a mere preview of the days and weeks that were to come -- and he wondered wearily how he would get the strength to walk through the inferno that he voluntarily chose.

Scully researched the newspapers and magazines methodically, looking for a continuation of the "newest adventures of the FBI." Lately, she had developed a curious detachment while reading them, as if the people deconstructed within each article were not herself and her partner. She found none today and, for a few moments, felt relieved that there were other issues of more importance to report.

Unless someone had made sure that the current media campaign against the FBI would stop.

And if that were the case, Mulder's negotiations had been completed successfully. Scully took off her glasses and closed her eyes, still uncertain about his decision -- or about her resolution to support him. She questioned the means through which he contacted the Consortium, considering the fact that Cancerman was gone, and Skinner was enjoying a nicotine-free environment. Mulder had discarded her queries with a wave of his hand and a joke, switching the topic smoothly. She knew that he had connections, and respected the secrecy he afforded them, but this was not the right time to be private.

The phone rang and she picked it up tentatively, hoping that it was not her partner, because any meaningful discussion between them was banned until further notice. And any small talk would be senseless. They were both afraid of bugs, and Scully combed through her apartment with a renewed vigor, her failure to find them only deepening her disquiet.

"Agent Scully? Assistant Director Skinner."

Scully tensed, fearing another unpleasant discussion. "Yes, sir."

"I just spoke to Agent Mulder. Both of you may come back to work tomorrow." His voice was cold, official, and Scully wondered how long it would take to restore the uneasy trust between him and the X-Files department.

Although given the current situation, her mind dryly amended, the Assistant Director had no reason to trust them at all.

"Thank you, sir. We will be there," she replied, allowing the gratitude enter her voice,

"Have a good day, Agent Scully." He hung up before she had a chance to say goodbye. Sighing, Scully put the phone back into its cradle.

The games were about to begin.

Mulder entered the basement office early in the morning, seeing Scully already at her desk and engrossed in the paperwork. "When did you come in today?"

"Oh, about seven. We have a lot to catch up on," she replied without lifting her head.

He nodded and slowly made way to his desk. "Did Skinner mention to you any new cases that we could take on?"

"No," Scully chanced a glance in his direction, an unspoken question in her eyes.

Mulder shrugged imperceptibly, the message understood, but the answer still unclear. The fateful meeting transpired a couple of days ago, and since then, he had heard nothing. I hope I didn't forget to put my phone number on the application, he mused sarcastically. However, the abruptly terminated media campaign and the invitation to come back to work were good signs. Or bad -- depending on how he chose to interpret them.

There was a knock on the door, and both agents flinched, glancing at each other uneasily. In the little office, visitors were rare -- and most often unwelcome. In this respect, they were paranoid in sync. Scully recuperated first and went to open the door to an impeccably dressed, broad-shouldered young man. "May I help you?"

He flashed her a wide smile and extended a hand to shake. "Agent Scully? Agent Winters. I hope I am not interrupting anything?"

Mulder got up from his desk, coming closer to meet him. "Agent Mulder. No, you are not interrupting."

Scully smiled politely. "It is a pleasure to meet you. Why were you looking for us?"

"Actually, I was looking for you, Agent Scully. Unless you could also shed some light on my current investigation," Andrew turned to Mulder.

"I will try," Mulder pointed to a chair, inviting him to sit down, sensing reluctance in the fellow agent. "What is it you are working on?"

"I am investigating several disappearances in Richmond, Virginia," Andrew started. "Actually, all of the missing women have already been returned, even the last one." He shook his head in frustration. "I am certainly happy that she is back, and everything is fine, but I never had a chance to help them... her," he sighed. "I really want to find the man, or men, who did this, but the only lead I have is this," he took a vial with the chip out of his pocket, handing it over to Scully. "It was extracted from the navel of one young woman, and the guys in the lab said that you could tell me what it is."

Scully stared at the chip, the exact copy of the one implanted in her neck, and tried to slow down her pounding heart. She cautiously raised her eyes to Mulder who schooled his features into a mask of indifference. The silence stretched interminably, and Andrew was the first to nervously break it.

"I am glad that you are back from suspension, by the way," he offered timidly, sensing the tension in the room and wondering about its causes. "I hope everything has been resolved."

"I am afraid we don't know what this is," said Scully, disregarding his last comments. She reorganized the neat pile of reports on her desk to keep her trembling fingers busy -- ignoring Agent Winter's questioning gaze. "I did see it before, in a similar kind of case that still has not been solved," she finished, trying to sound appropriately apologetic.

Andrew, visibly disappointed, pocketed the chip. "Oh. I am sorry... I only wanted to find out what was going on, you understand. It was my first case," he concluded with obvious regret.

Mulder eyed him sympathetically. "May I ask -- how long have you been working for the VCU?"

"About four months. I was recruited right after I finished my Masters in Psychology. My other passion besides the race-car driving," he shared with a smile.

Mulder laughed politely, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. God, he wondered if he had been this green when he came out of Quantico. The phone rang, and his smile faltered. He excused himself to answer it, suddenly wary of the sensitive ears in the office at the moment. Scully followed him with her eyes, then reluctantly turned her attention back to the young agent. "I apologize that we're unable to help. Weren't there any witnesses to the disappearances? Do the women remember anything?" she already suspected the answers to both questions, but felt obligated to ask them nonetheless.

"No," Andrew got up, preparing to leave. Near the door, he suddenly stopped and turned back to Mulder, who had just finished the phone conversation. "Agent Mulder, if I may be so forward, I still hear legends about you in the VCU. And the way you handled the matter with Blevins..." he stopped, unable to find words to express his admiration. Over the last few days, he had meticulously studied all the materials he could find pertaining to the two agents, and what little he learned instilled him with awe. Despite the dog-eats-dog media frenzy, and the recent face washing Agents Mulder and Scully endured, there was no doubt that both of them added credibility to a division that could have easily been lost to the tabloids. "I just wanted to let you know how much I respect your work."

Mulder busied himself with the papers on his table, inwardly smiling. The kid was green, green, and more green. He had to hand it to Winters, he had the art of brown nosing down to a capital T. "I assume you've missed the latest news. We're the crazy agents."

Scully flashed him an annoyed look, then smiled at the young agent. "Thank you. I wish you luck with your next case."

"I am still looking for the answers to this one," Andrew replied resolutely. He stepped out of the office. What a strange couple, he thought on the way upstairs. He was impressed with these remarkable people who seemed to communicate without words. But silent communication had its limits, and Andrew was ready to bet his entire paycheck that both knew more about the chip than they let on.

Mulder went over to Scully, who had not changed her position since Winters had left. "How are you doing?" he asked tentatively.

"I'm fine, Mulder," she replied offhandedly, unable to deal with the concern in his eyes. How many times would the damn metal chip come back to haunt her? "He seems like a good agent. Too young for the VCU."

Mulder's eyes darkened, and Scully stopped abruptly, remembering how young and inexperienced her partner was when he started to work for the same department.

"I have to go," he said softly. "I'll see you later."

Once again, she was left alone in the office, a small note in her palm. It read:


"See you there," Scully whispered, memorizing the name of the newsgroup. She looked back towards the now silent office phone on Mulder's desk, sitting innocently, but privy to secrets she didn't know.

She did not have to wonder from where the phone call came.


Mulder settled in the plush armchair, a bit exhausted after fighting traffic and catching a forty-five minute flight from D.C. to JFK. He hoped that he wouldn't have to travel to Manhattan every day, the insanity of this city did not attract him in the least.

"Welcome back, Agent Mulder," the Well-Manicured Man looked pleased to see him. "I hope you went back to work today?"

"Yes. I have also noticed some interesting changes in the news topics," he replied, fully realizing the underlying meaning of the question.

"All things pass. I doubt anyone will remember your indiscretions for long," the thin man mused. "We believe you may be an asset to our organization. Personally, I wonder what took you so long," he smiled suddenly, openly delighted. "And I am glad you reevaluated your position. By the way, I don't think we have been properly introduced. James Milton."

Mulder could not hide his surprise, knowing that at least this piece of information would not be forthcoming unless he was truly accepted by the organization. "It is nice to meet you," he mumbled, already scolding himself for the stupidity of the answer. "I assume you have some directives for me."

"You are correct," Milton nodded approvingly. "And we need you to continue working in the X-Files department with Agent Scully. But do make sure to inform us of each sensitive case that comes to your attention. We could give you some valuable advice on how to proceed with it."

Sarcastically, he assumed that they would want to keep the evidence, too, and accepted the assignment with a succinct nod. "Is that all?"

"Well, there is another small matter," the old man echoed thoughtfully. "The other members of the Consortium are doubtful of your loyalty, Agent Mulder. And frankly, I need some assurance from you -- a token of good will, so to speak, as a proof of your commitment."

Mulder listened with a sinking heart, his every instinct alerting him that this might not pass quite so easily. "What would it be?"

"You are an Oxford-educated psychologist, if I am not mistaken?"

Mulder concurred, uncertain of where this line of questioning was going.

"We could use your training, then. You would talk to some young women and try to erase their memories of the time they have spent in our facilities." The Well-Manicured Man watched the face of the young man for signs of distaste and hatred, finding none and complimenting him mentally. "It is only for their own good, you understand."

His suggestion was met by grave silence, and he continued shortly. "It would take very little of your time, if that's what you are concerned about."

Mulder tried desperately to collect his thoughts and wished that time were the least of his concerns. What they required of him, the little token of his good will, was unimaginable. However, there was no choice but to acquiesce. "I agree."

"Well, that's settled, then," Milton paused for a second. "I do not doubt your abilities, but I imagine you will need some assistance in the beginning, and we will acquaint you with an older doctor who has similar responsibilities."

"Fine. May I go?" Mulder was suddenly seized by the desire to get away from this darkened room, his lungs spasming claustrophobically. He could never tell Scully about this part of his new job responsibilities.

"But of course. We have a meeting here every Tuesday, I expect you will want to attend," the old man watched as the newest member of their organization exited quickly. He did not fail to notice the haunted look in his eyes, or the unconsciously clenched fists. The second request bothered him, as was expected.

"Make a deal with the devil..." he whispered softly, still not discounting the possibility of foul play from Fox Mulder, wondering if the proud young man would obey his orders.

And he would be watched carefully, every step of the way.


Walter Skinner flipped on a flashlight and looked around a drab room of Motel 6. Dirty towels on the floor, blankets of an indescribable brown-gray shade, and a small TV bolted to the table fit in surprisingly well with yellow police tape and a chalk outline on the ground. He noticed some traces on the floor and knelt down to sweep them away.

This exercise was getting old.

The Assistant Director stopped for a second, pondering his present situation. He was on the scene of yet another bee-induced death -- yet another unfortunate accident, this time in Upperville, Virginia. This cloak and dagger assignment was getting uncomfortably routine, and his woolen black sweater was scratching mercilessly against his chest, the ball cap threatening to slide against his bare scalp.

The memories of the previous incident were still too vivid in Skinner's mind, and this room was a continuation of a nightmare that began months ago. The walls of a dank bathroom weeping with honey. Scarred, feverish children in the Payson Community Hospital. The stern, frustratingly ambiguous reprimands of Marita Covarrubias.

Mulder pointing a gun at his head, mistrust and grief in every word and movement.

There was no one who gained from the deal he had made with Cancerman but the nameless, faceless people who still managed to hound him, even now.

And he was rapidly becoming tired of cleaning up after their indiscretions.

When Skinner did find what he was searching for -- any pieces of evidence that the police may have overlooked -- he almost laughed. A couple of dead bees were lying under the ventilation hole, leading to the neighboring room. Lifting them gingerly with gloved fingers, he placed them in the cellophane bag and pocketed it. This type of evidence would be just the kind of thing that Mulder would sell his soul for. The type of evidence that informants died for, that Mulder would blindly defend at the expense of all reason.

The Assistant Director shook his head, thinking back on the events of past few weeks. He was exasperated and frustrated with the rogue agents of the X-Files department, especially Mulder, who apparently thought of himself as the next James Bond. And Scully was no better, never stopping him in his explorations. As their superior, he had to follow the procedure and reprimand them accordingly for the disaster in Pennsylvania. However, he felt an uncalled-for sympathy for them as they left his office on suspension, conquered for the time being.

He recalled his relief from the tumultuous time when Scully's cancer went into remission and marveled at how the X-Files department changed since then. How Scully had reported to work shortly after her hospital stay, despite the way the suits still hung on her. How Mulder continued quietly, mechanically -- but even Skinner could see the former profiler lagging, his eyes showing their true age and weariness.

He could feel the cellophane bag shifting as he once again surveyed the crime scene. With a sigh, Skinner thought that the X-Files department could use a break right now.

The plan that was born in the next moment felt like a revelation. Skinner shook the dead insects out of the bag on the floor, in the same place where he'd found them. Stepping around the strewn towels, he returned to the door and softly stepped out, exhilaration flowing through his veins.

The next morning, back in the sun-lit office of the FBI building, he called his secretary and told her to invite Agents Mulder and Scully for a meeting.

There was a murder investigation to be done.

Mulder tapped his fingers on the table impatiently, waiting for his partner's reply to appear on the screen. Despite the gravity of their present situation, he had to admit that he was enjoying some aspects of it, like this cryptic conversation that they conducted on the Internet.

"It's about time you found the names for the monkeys, Scorpio," a message appeared on the screen, and Mulder's lips curved into a smile.

"Oh, I found one name already," he typed quickly. "For a polite old monkey. Tell you later!"

"This new case study from the bald orangutan should be interesting," another message floated on the screen and Mulder appreciated Scully's discretion in not pursuing the question of the names, as well as her inventiveness in the choice of titles.

Skinner as the bald orangutan.

Mulder would just love to see the expression on his boss' face if he heard the comparison.

"Agreed. Just remember that from now on, I will have to follow new guidelines on the cases in our department."

"I know, Scorpio. Just remember to be careful. It would be terrible if the monkeys became violent."

Mulder imagined Scully's concerned face and started typing again, trying to think of words to dispel the sudden seriousness of their conversation. "Skylark, I know how to handle my animals. And the monkeys were peaceful yesterday."

"Do you think that our department will enjoy an influx of work?" her reply quickly followed.

Mulder nodded, as if she could see him. "Absolutely. We will just hold off on making the results of experiment public, until such time as the study is complete," he smiled at the forced jargon he adopted and wondered how this discussion looked in comparison to the other ones conducted in the same community.

But one thing he knew for certain: it would take an inhuman detective ability to find them communicating here.

And for now, it had to be enough.

"Upperville is such a tiny town," Scully thought aloud, flipping through the case file. "More people stay at the hotel than live there."

"You know, I find it peculiar that we will be sleeping in the same place where the investigation will be conducted," Mulder quipped, smiling at the woman in the passenger seat. Lately, the uncomfortable silences between them diminished, and they reverted to the easy-going camaraderie of the old times. Whether it was the monkey-behavior discussions and the humorous outlook that they inadvertently provided, or the natural adjustment to the current situation, he was certainly enjoying it.

"Well, Motel 6 is actually an improvement on your usual lodging fare," Scully returned the gesture. "There is little information here," she closed the folder. "It is good to be back to work, though. I was thinking of hugging Skinner when he gave us the case."

Mulder smirked. "Decided to make his dreams come true, huh?" he bolted off to the side to avoid a shove from his partner. "Hey, I wanted to hug him myself, Scully. It is great to be back."

In the parking lot of Motel 6, a middle-aged, tired-looking man stopped them. "Are you the FBI agents?" he extended a hand to them. "I'm Detective Michaels, I'm investigating this case."

"Were you waiting for us?" Mulder asked after introductions.

"Yes, someone from the FBI called to inform us that we should not disturb the crime scene until you look at it," the detective shrugged, leading them upstairs. "I don't know what you'll find here that we haven't already. But you're welcome to look. To tell you the truth, we could use some help with this one. Oh, I don't think we sent you the pictures of the body -- here. They are the reason we opened the case."

Mulder stiffened, contemplating them. The photos of the corpse were reminiscent of the one he saw in the postal-worker death case, and the recollections of that time came rushing back. Suddenly, it was clear to him why Skinner gave them the case.

His jaw clenched, and he wondered if the gesture was merely the AD's attempt to atone for his own sins -- his subtle way of apologizing for the suspension.

Among other things.

"May I ask to look at the body itself?" Scully questioned the officer as Mulder moved to open the draperies and let the sun in the room.

"Of course, our forensic lab is nearby -- I can take you there if you like?"

Once they both left, Mulder looked around, searching for something, fully certain that he would find little if nothing. When he discovered the bodies of the bees, he was speechless.

The first thought that came into his mind as he snapped on the gloves and placed the insects in the plastic bag, was that he was incredibly lucky. The next thought was that someone did a poor job cleaning up the incriminating evidence, and it sent him crashing back to earth. Now, it would be his responsibility to hide this evidence, and he was suddenly thankful that Scully was not in the room at this moment to see it -- or to watch him as he participated in the obfuscation and criminal conspiracy.

Lifting his head, the agent saw a ventilation hole and wondered if the bees could have come from there. It was worth checking out, and he went to the front desk to ask who was in the next room on the night when the death occurred, when his phone rang.

"Mulder, it's me. I am afraid we are missing the body," Scully sounded completely unsurprised. "Detective Michaels is trying to figure out what happened to it."

At least that is no surprise, thought Mulder, saying aloud: "Was there any forensic work done already?"

"Yes, I have some bloodwork," the female agent answered, leafing through the papers. "I think this person died of small-pox, Mulder," there was a note of concern in her voice. "The pathologist requested that blood be checked for variola virus."

So she already knew that there was something wrong here. That made it so much easier. "I will be there to speak with the detective," Mulder ended the conversation, got the information from the clerk, and drove to the Upperville police department.

"I can't understand how this happened," Detective Michaels rubbed his temples in frustration. "Bodies do not just disappear."

"Is your morgue guarded?" Mulder questioned cautiously.

"No, there is no need for it -- it is not even locked. She is saying that this death was caused by small-pox," the officer jabbed a finger at Scully. She glanced at Mulder surreptitiously, flashing him an apology with her eyes. "Isn't it supposed to have been eradicated? And what am I to do with the case now?"

"Well, frankly, I don't think that there is a case. Neither you nor I found anything suspicious in the hotel, and I see no indication of a crime here," Mulder turned away, unsure if he would be able to keep a straight face while uttering an obvious lie. The dead bee corpses were burning a hole in his pocket, and Mulder wondered if the sound of cellophane shifting was as loud to Scully's ears as it was to his. "At least, I am sure that our involvement is not necessary."

"Are you positive? And what about the body?"

"Get a lock on the door, detective. And yes, I am positive."

"Well, thanks for coming out here... I guess," the detective watched with his mouth open as both agents left hurriedly.

Scully squeezed Mulder's hand as they were walking to the car.

"These new guidelines are a bitch, Scully," he said, trying to keep his voice level. "You know... what just happened here, don't you."

She thought that she had never seen such a guilty expression on his face before. She quickly suppressed any concern for what would happen when the cases started getting bigger, when the evidence became more difficult to hide. "Oh, Mulder. Look at it this way," she smiled encouragingly. "Now, we don't have to stay at Motel 6."

Skinner pulled up to Mulder's apartment building and stepped inside, absorbing the dull lobby walls and dark trim. Even when lit by fluorescent, cancer-inducing lamps, the shadows in the corners of 2490 Hegal Place refused to be dispelled. In his hand was the three-page thick report that Mulder had unemotionally handed to him this morning, and at the reminder of what he had read with incredulous eyes, Skinner's hand gripped the manila folder tighter, threatening to crumble it.

Skinner had always had respect for Mulder's investigative skills. It was one of the things that kept the X-Files division from dying into obscurity, giving credibility to all things strange and unbelievable. Mulder's VCS history as a profiler extraordinaire was a testament to his ability to observe fine details, and apply them to the bigger picture.

So what the hell happened at the motel to make Mulder's report sound something more like the bland Scientific American than "Spooky" Mulder? The disjointed leaps of logic, the labyrinth of a hidden conspiracies were noticeably missing; prose had been replaced with regulation paragraphs.

And only Mulder would warrant a job description that included making house calls, Skinner grimly mused. His knuckles rapped harshly over the wooden panel, the bronze forty two staring back at him impassively.

With a crack of the deadbolt, Mulder opened the door, squinting at the light from the hallway. Skinner watched the agent's eyes travel from his face, to the report, then innocently back to his face. He made no motion to invite his boss inside.

"What are you doing, Mulder?"


Skinner processed the reply, then looked around the hallway suspiciously. His voice seemed unnaturally loud, and he wondered if anyone on Mulder's floor had heard it. He looked back towards the younger man, his impatience overriding his nervousness. "Can I come inside?" Mulder's eyes drifted towards the folder once again before he expelled a sigh and opened the door fully.

Skinner's eyes did a quick inspection of the room in front of him, noting the psychology textbooks lying haphazardly on the coffee table.

"A little late to cram for the finals, isn't it, Mulder?"

Mulder licked his lips, arms nervously moving from his sides to cross his chest. "I take it this isn't a social call." Skinner shook his head in agreement before raising the manila folder towards Mulder.

He refused to take the bait, his eyebrow rising.

"You really think, Agent Mulder, that this case did not warrant more than three hours of investigating?"

Mulder's eyes suddenly flashed, and Skinner immediately felt something gnaw at him -- a hint of apprehension about things to come.

"No, sir. I believe that it was an open and shut case. Frankly, I don't know why it was handed to us, instead of VCS. It's their jurisdiction."

Skinner ignored the condescending tone, watching Mulder carefully. "You don't think that this case was reminiscent of another?" He asked innocently, hedging his bait further.

"No, sir. Not reminiscent of any X-File anyway."

The AD paced the tiny apartment as the agent stood still, studiously watching his superior's movements. "I was sure the reporting officer said something about finding incriminating evidence -- about suspecting foul play."

Skinner watched Mulder's jaw clench, almost feeling the teeth grind as his cheekbones reflected the gesture.

"No evidence was found to suspect foul play."

The Assistant Director squinted his eyes and looked at the federal agent standing in front of him. Something was wrong -- something that smelled of smoke and the bastards on West Forty Six.

He liked to think that after four years he and Mulder had gained a certain... rapport. A professional camaraderie. But this apartment felt cold, and its darkness only served to make him feel more off center in the presence of the maverick agent.

Skinner suddenly stepped closer to Mulder, watching for any flinch. When it didn't come, he consciously swept the darkened corners of the room for dead informants or bugs, once again feeling off kilter when he saw the half a dozen psychology texts. "These," he gestured to the folder in his hands, "are your thoughts?"

"Yes, sir."

Skinner watched for any hints that Mulder meant the contrary, but there were none. Whatever nervousness Mulder had failed to hide earlier had long since disappeared -- his eyes betrayed nothing as he leaned casually against the wall.

The Assistant Director suddenly felt foolish, overly paranoid. But as Mulder saw him to the door, his mind screamed that the air in the apartment had changed. It had become darker, more oppressive -- as if secrets were weighing the oxygen atoms down.

He took one last look at Mulder before the door was respectfully closed. The sound of the dead bolt being turned jarred him, made him abruptly swallow the flutterings growing inside him. Skinner stepped into his car, finding comfort in the lull of the engine. Something was going on, and he was suddenly haunted by his warning spoken a week previously -- that if Mulder was going to take a risk, he better damn well be sure that it was worth it.

A truck rambled past the sedan, causing Skinner's car to shudder, causing the comfortable lull to disappear.

Change was hanging ominously in the air.

And Walter Skinner could take no comfort in the sudden dim light that was illuminating the window of apartment forty two.

The hallway was painfully white, painfully sterile, and two pairs of wingtips were echoing off the cinder block walls.

"Now, Fox, you're lucky. Your voice has a nice cadence to it already, so it shouldn't be too hard to get the patients under."

Mulder nodded, still recovering from the on-the-job training he had received thirty minutes previously. Doctor Anthony Miller was painfully good in his area of expertise, and the sixty-year old had taken great pains in showing his student all the ropes.

The session had had eerie overtones of Robert Modell, and Mulder had watched, detachedly fascinated, as Dr. Miller effectively erased the memory of a helpless young woman. His eidetic memory had absorbed it all, and in the span of three hours, three women had been lead like chattel -- had the part of their brains that coded for memory re-programmed.

A key card was produced in the elder's hand and a protesting door opened with a hollow, metallic sound.

A viewing window welcomed Mulder, and he absorbed the frail woman sitting on the couch in the next room. Her fingers were trembling, her legs were bone thin. She turned away abruptly, and an angry red scar screamed at him from the base of her neck, the stitches still visible.

In the quick once over, Mulder's eyes flashed accusingly at his companion.

"Relax, Fox," Miller placated. "We just need to make sure you can handle any circumstance." He stared hard at Mulder, issuing the unsaid threat. "Should the circumstance arise."

Mulder's nostrils flared, and he once again stared at the woman who bore a striking resemblance to his partner. Miller placed a hand on his shoulder, and Mulder shied away, stepping closer towards the window. He silently reminded himself that Miller was his mentor -- but the inflections in the elder's voice were too similar to yet another Mulder. The coincidence was beyond disturbing, and he felt himself withdrawing from the elderly man beside him -- fighting flashbacks of Chilmark and West Tisbury.

"You ready?"

The agent looked at the Consortium member, mentally steeling himself.


"Now, remember, I'll be here watching you from the two-way mirror. So if you have any trouble, just signal." The elder's eyebrows furrowed and his face grew grim. "It's important to get everything right. There are unimaginable consequences should one detail be forgotten." Mulder nodded silently, not yet trusting himself to speak.

Another door opened, and the faux-Scully and the "sanitizing" room were beckoning him. The room lacked the sterile conditions of the outside hallways. A couch was used by the patients, an office chair by the doctors. The walls had painted with soft colors, decorated by matching trim, while the carpet was plush. There were still life, pastel-colored paintings adorning the walls. Even through his uneducated eyes, Mulder knew that the entire room had been esthetically designed to provide comfort and ease to the distressed.

Stepping in, Mulder immediately knew that he had opened the door to his own private hell on Earth.

The Well-Manicured Man watched with amusement as a very nervous Fox Mulder stepped into the sanitizing room. The feed off the video camera was crystal clear -- even the beads of sweat forming on the top of the agent's hairline were discernible.

The wheezy voice of his heavy set companion disturbed him from his thoughts. "Mr. Mulder has turned into quite a valuable acquisition. We needed a worthy replacement for Miller's upcoming retirement."

The Englishman nodded absently at the Consortium member's observation, still disturbed by Mulder's reluctant recollections of the bees found at the motel. There was no such thing as coincidence, and Walter Skinner was not a careless man. History dictated that a conscience was a dangerous thing. And after Bill Mulder, such petty hindrances were abhorred by the Consortium.

"It seems one of our other FBI assets, however, is losing value."

The men were silent momentarily, knowing who the FBI employee in question was. "Is he dispensable?"

The Well-Manicured Man looked to the TV screen, watching Mulder sit professionally, although somewhat awkwardly, in a leather backed chair. Walter Skinner, Assistant Director of the FBI dispensable? He looked to the gentlemen congregated around him and felt his lips curl upward in a cruel semblance of a smile. "Definitely."

Anthony Miller had perfected the art of hypnotism to a science, and Mulder could feel the doctor's eyes boring towards him through the two way mirror. Somewhere overhead, the second hand of a clock was beating a steady drum, marking the tormented seconds as the silence lagged on.

Hypnosis was supposed to be a controlled form of relaxation for the person being hypnotized, yet Mulder could feel all his motor neurons firing -- could feel the knots forming in all his major muscle groups.

The hairs on the back of his head prickled as he felt expectant, ravenous eyes on him. The camera had been hidden, but not cleverly enough, and Mulder had to fight the urge to squirm under the gaze of the electronic eye.

Mulder took a deep breath, hiding it underneath a yawn. He called upon the teachings of Bill Patterson to allow Fox Mulder to temporarily disappear, to allow a more insidious presence to enter his mind. He looked up to the patient with different eyes -- he saw her as a chattel, a thing, a crime scene photo that could be looked at with indifferent eyes -- filed or thrown away when its meaning was lost. The woman turned into a pitiful object, and Mulder coldly looked at the chart before speaking brusquely.

"Sheila Freeman?"

At the affirmative nod Mulder flipped through the papers, not really absorbing the words -- having memorized them long ago. "The doctors say you've been under a lot of stress. That you've been having difficulty with your situation."

The words flowed too easily through his lips, and Mulder watched his patient nod miserably. Something pushed his empathy down, hid all feeling behind medical jargon and professional babble. She was pitiful. Stupid. His mind taunted the woman silently, tried to give the doctor some reason not to care.

The woman licked her lips when her lower lip started to tremble, her fingers starting to wring frantically. "I don't... I don't..." a tear ran down her cheek and her face twisted. "I don't understand what you want from me." Her forehead wrinkled, and her face morphed once again, snarling. Her voice rose in intensity, and she stood up, stomping her bare foot onto plush carpet. "I want to go home. I want to go home, you bastards!" The woman ran to the two way mirror and started to pound on the glass, the noise reverberating senselessly in Mulder's ears.

A door slammed open and Mulder tried to remain impassive, indifferent to the half pleading, half furious screams of the woman cursing at him.

Stupid, pitiful.


He watched detachedly as the syringe was produced, as someone screamed, and as someone pulled his arm, talking senseless words to him. His head dully turned, and Miller was telling him that in one minute his patient would be more receptive to his voice.


The doctor in him nodded curtly, watching the patient's gown ride up to show a pair of simple white, cotton panties as the guards roughly sat her on the couch. Mulder blinked at the color of innocence, at the betrayal that hung in the air -- around his neck.

Wary of the eyes in the ceiling above, Mulder leaned forward, suddenly mesmerized by the blueness of the woman's eyes. Like Scully's, they grew more sharp as they filled with tears. He looked at the papers in front of him once again, to gather himself, to remember that this was his plan. His ploy.

That he was the greatest actor in this play of life-like proportions.

The woman was no longer fighting, the sweat around her neck causing her hair to curl, any resemblance to Scully diminishing. Her voice came out hollow, tired, and she slumped against Mulder's shoulder.

"Please... I just want to go home. I need to... I want the pain to go."

Mulder stared at the wall, swallowing, feeling his innards churn as a voice that was not his replied. "I can make you feel better. Then you can go home. I promise." His reassuring smile bared all his teeth, made his face twist into a gargoyle-like mask.

And the doctor felt the woman's stare on his face soften at the change of cadence in his voice. Her shoulders slumped in submission, and the angry scar on her neck was now bleeding red onto the white hospital gown. Her fingers were moving languidly, as if she were trying to write on the air in front of her. The angry needle tracks on her left arm betrayed the innocence of her movements, and Mulder could see the expectant glint in her eyes -- anxious orbs waiting for the forgetting to begin.

Baby killers and rapists were howling in the darkness that was his mind, and a pitiful creature was bleeding in front of him. Mulder's eyes changed color and he methodically began to speak.

It was time to put the creature out of its misery.

James Milton watched the black and white image of Fox Mulder effectively erase the memory of a black and white Sheila Freeman. The federal agent's voice was devoid of inflection, his posture remained casual. In fact, nothing about the man on the TV screen resembled the impulsive agent that they used to deal with.

"We have another assignment for you to give to Mulder."

Miller turned to accept the offered envelope, gazing at it curiously. "What is it?"

"The means to Walter Skinner's demise."

Miller shook his head. "Mulder won't kill him, despite anything you say."

The Englishman raised an eyebrow before settling into a more comfortable position in his chair. "Who said we were going to kill him?"

Miller accepted the reply silently, and thought about the newest addition to their staff. "Mulder still hasn't talked about the letter."

Milton waved a hand dismissively. "Give it time."

The doctor felt his annoyance grow. "What if there's nothing in the letter?"

"There's something." The Well-Manicured Man replied confidently. He flashed back to stories of Mulder Sr. and his tumblers of scotch and guilt. "A father's greatest weakness is his son," he stated cryptically, passing a knowing glance in Miller's direction.

Memories of a cancer ridden sick boy lying on Gumby bed sheets suddenly filled the doctor's conscience. His sacrifice had not come in time to find a cure, but his son unknowingly gave him an opportunity to do something on a much grander scale.

Miller nodded, the message received. "I'll see Mulder gets this right away."

His harsh breathing was echoing off the porcelain throne, rebounding off the steel walls, and reverberating between the tiled floor and ceiling. The dry heaves refused to abate, and Mulder noticed too late that seeing the liquefied and emulsified remains of his lunch only served to perpetuate the gag reflex.

He had listened to Sheila Freeman talk about tests and needles and probes with chilling detachment. Mindful of the hidden electronic eyes, he was able to push thoughts of Samantha and Scully away. But as the one-sided conversation continued -- as there was talk of implants and incisions and brain numbing body scans, Mulder's throat started to convulse. Images of Scully's prone body and Samantha's shriek started to threaten. There was talk of electroshock therapy -- firing all the alpha motor neurons in temporal succession so that all the muscles in the body twitched and convulsed; the way an undisturbed uterus had been probed cruelly for signs of life -- all the while stealing the potential to bear one; how lasers had drilled minute holes in flawless teeth, in the skull, through the membranous eyes, and the delicate nose -- rattling the brain, causing the nostrils to quiver in response to the smell. And how, more for his sake than for his patient's, he had told her to lock up the story in a safe in the back corner of her frontal lobe and to never speak of it again.

Her beautiful blue eyes spoke of the horror she had experienced. And something he had hastily buried deep inside two hours ago felt an unseen rage, a tangible desperation when it thought of a similar red-headed woman, and the three months that she was missing.

The doctor dissolved completely when the patient hugged him and smiled shyly when the session was over. Two personalities -- Jeckyl and Hyde -- and Mulder didn't know how he would be able to control either one.

A door creaked open and he bolted upright, flushing the toilet while wiping his mouth and drying his tears. He ignored his Consortium acquaintance and washed his hands, dispensing a liberal amount of soap.

"It will become better, Fox."

He met the reassurance with a non-committal grunt.

The mentor rolled his eyes at his newest student's sensitivity. They were doctors in every sense of the word. And Mulder would soon need to learn to view his patients as minds needing repair, rather than reincarnations of his sister's and partner's abductions.

If not out of instinct, the young man would need to do it out of survival.

"We have another assignment for you."

Miller watched Mulder suddenly brace himself against the sink. "What now? I'm already your stalking horse and brain washer de jour," a dry voice hoarsely replied.

The envelope was held out to him, and Mulder hastily dried his hands on his suit to receive the sealed document. "My understanding is that VCS is working on the case right now. Stonewalled, from what I hear." Mulder turned the sealed envelope with his hands, listening, but unable to fully absorb the words. "Maybe Agent Winters could use a break. Cast suspicion away from the source of evidence and give him something else to do with his time."

Mulder felt papers shifting inside, surprised at its weight.

"What is it?"

The colleague offered a cryptic phrase before leaving Mulder in the bathroom with a fading echo. "The key to your promotion."

Scully went through her e-mail, feeling the insistent gaze of her partner that turned in her direction whenever he thought she wasn't looking. Finally deciding that she had had enough of it, she raised her eyes, catching him off-guard.

"What's going on, Mulder?"

"Nothing," he winked at her, putting a light expression on his face immediately. "Just missed you."

Scully rolled her eyes, all the while wondering why the remark that was obviously designed to appear suggestive, the usual fare of Mulder's one-liners, instead sounded sad and wistful.

"It has only been one day, Mulder. I would think you needed a break from me," she flashed him a quick smile.

Actually, one day and a couple of hours in hell make for an eternity, thought Mulder, not allowing himself to voice the sentiment aloud. He flashed back to the pained blue eyes of Sheila Freeman, the blood seeping from the scar on her neck, and the strangely sympathetic voice of Miller. The vaguely familiar voice that seemed to insinuate itself deeply in his mind, a nightmare that refused to be silenced.

How could he possibly articulate to his partner these visceral, sickening visions when she was so much a part of them? How could he explain the need to see her healthy face and clear bright eyes after diminishing the light in the orbs so similar? He shivered visibly as if a gust of cold air penetrated the room -- then turned away abruptly, leafing through the folders and trying to distract himself from the revolting images.

He severely doubted that it would get easier with time.

"Are you all right?" Scully was studying him with undisguised concern.

"Fine, Scully. Fine," Mulder mumbled, returning immediately to the papers in front of him. "I have to take care of these reports for Skinner."

Recognizing that she would not be able to get him to talk, she returned back to her e-mail, unsettled. Whether or not this problem was connected to the Consortium, the new policy of silence was really getting to be a problem. They never seemed to get past the "how are you's" these days. Scully wished nostalgically for the old times when Mulder swept the basement weekly, as a routine, remarking sarcastically that it provided for a good exercise. She thought that if he found a bug now, he would probably leave it in place, careful not to disturb the delicate instrument.

She would not mind this exercise herself were it not such a transparent deviation from the established pattern.

"I have to assist with a few autopsies today, call me if something comes up," Scully gathered her things, suddenly feeling helpless and inconsequential. It seemed that Mulder was taking most of the brunt of this battle, while she stood by impotently, a mere watcher of the war in which she could not participate. "I would like to help," she said softly, trying to convey the hidden meaning of her words to her partner.

Mulder nodded, watching her step out of the office. You are helping, Scully, more than you know, he thought grimly.

Helping me keep my sanity.

Andrew turned off the engine of the brand-new Taurus, and gathered the papers scattered on the front seat. What a way to spend Friday evening, he mused sarcastically, by going over the case notes and composing profiles for the killers, alone in the tiny apartment that he chose only for its proximity to the FBI headquarters. It was a beautiful night, the lights of downtown tempted him, and he longed suddenly to be out somewhere, with a few friends or a date.

Full of restless energy, Andrew slammed the car door and ran up the steps of his apartment building. He could wish for dates all he wanted, but unless he took the time to distract himself from work long enough to look around, and maybe accept a few non-too-subtle offers for company from women at work, all these wishes would remain unfulfilled.

Only twenty-six, and already a workaholic, he thought ruefully as he walked to his door. At this rate, he would probably have to go back to Milwaukee for Christmas to avoid spending it in solitude. Not that his parents wouldn't be happy to see him -- but the prospect of spending an entire evening with Aunt Beth, who still had not lost her cheek pinching fetish, was enough to deter Winters from seriously entertaining such thoughts.

Sighing profoundly, Andrew tried to shake himself out of the self-deprecating mood and plucked the keys out of his pocket. Pushing the door open, he almost tripped over a sizable package sitting just beyond the door frame. He cursed half-heartedly, but picked it up with interest and looked through its contents hastily. After a brief examination, he slowly stepped inside, forgetting to lock the door behind him or to take off his jacket.

There were photographs. Black and white surveillance pictures, extraordinary in quality. He put aside a few audiotapes that lacked labels or any other identifying marks. They would have to wait while he tried to gather some air into his lungs, to wipe clammy shaking hands on his pants. He recognized both of the men portrayed in the pictures.

One of them apparently had no name and was most probably dead at the moment, judging by the amount of blood found at the crime scene. The case was still in the jurisdiction of the VCS, unresolved and on hold for the moment. Andrew remembered listening to the frustrated discussion of the other agents who cursed the day when this murder without a body fell into their care. He understood their attitude: without knowing who the victim was, it would have been very difficult -- practically impossible -- to find the guilty party.

The second man was Walter Skinner, Assistant Director of the FBI. Speaking to the man in question. Standing on the steps leading to the building of the victim. Entering his apartment.

Poised over a body with a gun drawn.

Andrew swallowed nervously, feeling his back muscles gather into a tight knot. He had to be mistaken. He had never communicated directly with the Assistant Director, but many of his colleagues spoke of Skinner with respect, appeared to highly regard him. This man couldn't possibly be a killer.

The last picture in the pile was a shot of a grave on the Arlington cemetery. Unadorned headstone that proclaimed: Henry Davidson, 1928-1997. No epithets and no flowers, simplicity and austerity itself.

He had the name and the body of the victim, and he was almost certain that he had the identity of the killer. Andrew collected the tapes and papers with shaking hands, deciding numbly that he would turn the entire package over to his boss, Dean Douglas, because evidence like this could not be ignored, no matter how dirty the source of it obviously was.

But the seeds of doubt were already coloring the righteousness of his actions, and the nagging question in the back of his mind asked insistently: "Why me?"

Mulder trained the binoculars on the windows of Andrew Winters' apartment and watched anxiously, as the younger agent looked slowly through the package, then collected its contents accurately. For a few moments, he hoped that the entire parcel would end up in the garbage basket, almost chanted the words, wishing for some telepathic ability to transmit the fervent prayer. Understanding with despair that it wasn't heard, he slumped against the seat of the car and closed his eyes with a sweeping feeling of exhaustion and despondency.

Mulder was still giddy from seeing the photos and listening to the tapes that contained a screaming, well-executed accusation against Walter Skinner. His first impulse was to burn each piece of evidence, one vile picture after another, as he understood the meaning behind Miller's words for the first time. He did not want a promotion at the price of his boss' demise.

Mulder did not care whether Skinner truly committed the crime or not, he could understand perfectly the driving force that pulled the trigger, could remember only too well the time when he barely restrained himself from doing the same. The agent cursed the day when he reiterated the details of the case in Upperville, Virginia to the Consortium members. The speed with which the operation was orchestrated was indicative of the reason why Skinner was no longer a man whose services were desired.

The true perpetrators were those who hid the body, who cleverly concealed the evidence until now, who arranged for the burial at the cemetery that was never intended for people like Cancerman. Reading the name on the headstone, the federal agent felt a visceral rage, a fierce hatred for the man who stole his life, who lied to his sister, who expertly manipulated the strings of his character for so many years, and was instrumental in eventually making him a double agent. Mulder could taste the clouds of smoke in the air around him, could almost see them as vividly as during their first meeting in Skinner's office -- or the last meeting when the conspirator offered a bargain, when he still had the strength to refuse.

At the beginning, it had been nearly incomprehensible as to why the Consortium would choose Agent Winters as the recipient for the nefarious package. Mulder's photographic memory quickly provided a response, offering the image of a young man who came to seek advice from Scully some time before. Though Andrew Winters was a kid barely out of college, he was already an excellent agent, still too new to have been corrupted by power games, but already experienced enough to make informed decisions. The sense of righteousness and justice that all green agents shared would ensure Skinner's demise. There would be no question that he was to become involved in the ongoing investigation of Henry Davidson's death after he brought in this kind of evidence -- and his unclouded judgment would be enough to influence the outcome of this round of the game.

The snowflakes falling on the front window obscured his view of the small, softly lit apartment, and he didn't make a movement to turn on the wipers. After a moment, Mulder put his hands on the wheel and took several deep breaths, trying to quell the sudden panicky feeling in his chest. Not all was lost yet -- and Walter Skinner was still the Assistant Director of the FBI. And as much as it was still in his power, he would make sure that the status quo remained unchanged, because he owed the elder man as much. Because Skinner had saved his ass after numerous disasters.

Because given the chance, he had prevented Mulder from selling his soul.

Turning the key in ignition, the agent turned the car around. On the way home, he noticed a dark sedan trailing him brazenly. Slowing down to a stop and letting it pass, he waved a hand and grinned wickedly at the passengers, catching their surprised looks for a brief moment.

At the very least, the Consortium could always be counted upon to provide the best entertainment in town.

Skinner rubbed his temples in an effort to fend off the rising headache and the strange sensation of an impending catastrophe. He could not explain the source of his disquiet -- but he couldn't shake it off.

He was starting to believe in premonitions. It was a damn X-File.

"Sir, Dean Douglas and Andrew Winters are here to see you," Kim's unerringly official voice sounded through the speakerphone.

"Send them in," he replied immediately, slightly relieved at the distraction that the conversation with the head of the Violent Crimes Section would provide. Besides, he liked the man -- while less brilliant than Bill Patterson, Dean Douglas was honest, humane, and decidedly lacked the psychotic tendencies of his predecessor.

"Assistant Director Skinner, good to see you," the visitor offered a hand, then pointed to the young man standing beside him. "This is Agent Andrew Winters, the newest and brightest member of our unit", he watched with hidden enjoyment as the agent took a couple unconscious steps back, clearly uncomfortable with the praise and with being in this room.

"It's nice to meet you," Skinner offered indifferently, failing to inject the sincerity in his words and wondering what the purpose of this strange visit was.

"Mr. Skinner, Agent Winters has come into the possession of some documents which may help us in closing one of the outstanding cases. I believe you took an interest in this case previously?"

"Which case are you talking about?"

"The murder of Henry Davidson," seeing that Skinner's expression remained blank, Douglas handed the shot of a grave to him. "And considering that we did not know the name of the victim until today, here is the picture to go along with it."

Skinner felt the blood throb at a dangerous speed against his skull. He could not recall meeting the cigarette-wielding bastard near his apartment building; it was usually not necessary to go looking for him that far. And he certainly could not remember shaking hands with him -- now how was that for a grotesque distortion of his everyday life?

"Where did you get this?" his voice was hoarse and he hardly recognized it.

"I found a package near my apartment," Andrew replied emotionlessly, trying to sustain the penetrating gaze of the Assistant Director who was looking at him with as much affinity as one viewed a cockroach. "I also found these," he handed him the rest of the pictures.

Skinner leafed through the photos, studying his own face -- his own hand that held the gun that apparently shot Henry Davidson. He realized dully that the worst thing about this situation was his sudden irrational fear that the pictures really portrayed him, even if he never remembered pulling the trigger.

That's what you get when you surrender to the dark forces, he thought. Not even your memory is safe.

And now he was starting to sound like Mulder.

"We will, of course, try to confirm the validity of these pictures -- rather, I should say, we will try to confirm that they are fabricated," Dean Douglas' voice cut through his musings, and Skinner looked at him wearily.

"Is Agent Winters leading this investigation?"

"He is a part of it, but I will be in charge of this case from now on. If these pictures are indeed real, we will have to involve the office of Internal Affairs, and take appropriate measures." The head of the VCS studied the AD with sympathy and not a small measure of respect. He was certain that if Skinner were indeed a killer, he must have had a damn good reason for dispensing with Henry Davidson, or whoever this man was. "However... is there anything you want to tell me? What do you know about the murder?"

"Are you asking me if I have an alibi?" Skinner questioned directly.

Dean Douglas seemed lost in thought for a moment. "You will notice... that I have decided to inform you of what's happening before going through with the common procedure. I still hope that this is a misunderstanding -- and I am sure you do, as well. But... that is the only special favor I can allow in this case."

The Assistant Director processed the reply, evaluating his position once again, guessing that the pictures were most likely not fabricated, that he would be dragged in for questioning soon enough, and Douglas was merely warning him for the moment, offering him a reprieve that wouldn't last long.

"I appreciate your trust," he paused for a moment. "Please inform me of what you find."

Dean Douglas nodded curtly, realizing once again the actual devastating potential of the pictures he held in his hands, wishing that he was free to destroy them and let the sleeping dogs lie, but knowing that his integrity would undoubtedly prevent such action.

When he was leaving the office, he turned to look back at Skinner, who appeared lost in the grip of some nightmare. And for once, the comparison rang painfully true.

The partners sat across the table from Skinner, and Mulder was answering his questions about the old case files, diligently but impatiently. Scully studied Skinner carefully, noticing the rumpled white shirt and the tired lines under his eyes, and wondering why their usually prim boss appeared so disheveled and troubled. It seemed he was simply going through the habitual mechanics of questioning Mulder's theories, but that for once, his heart wasn't quite in it.

During an unusually long and convoluted explanation of why the pair of Italian shoes appeared on the expense report, Skinner got up absently and turned to the window, loosening his tie.

Mulder halted. "Well, I could just go and buy new shoes. . ."

"Forget it, Mulder," suddenly, Skinner sounded completely indifferent to the fate of shoes that drowned in the lake, or to his agent's stubbornness in wanting to stick the Bureau with paying for them. "Just... forget it. You can leave them in the report if you like."

Scully's eyes grew large as she looked at her boss, then at Mulder who shrugged for lack of explanation. "Sir, is anything wrong?"

You bet, Skinner almost screamed at her, then bit his lip and spoke calmly. "Yes, Agent Scully. But it's none of your concern."

Mulder took in a shuddering breath, realizing that the pictures must have already reached the proper hands and Skinner already saw them. So many times he had tried to convince himself that the catastrophe he'd put in motion might be avoided, but any such illusions had now been effectively shattered.

He wished there were proper words to apologize for arguing about the Italian shoes while his boss' freedom and future hung in the mid-air.

"Sir, is there anything we can do? We don't have any cases on our hands right now."

Skinner sighed heavily, turning back to face his agents. "You might as well know. There was some evidence found in the murder of Henry Davidson that links me to the scene of the crime."

Scully did a double take, too shocked to understand the implications fully. "Who is Henry Davidson?"

Skinner was silent for a second. "The Cigarette Smoking Man."

"Oh my God. I didn't know that," she spoke slowly, while turning to look at Mulder, uncertain whether she could make the same statement for he partner.

"What evidence could they possibly possess?" Mulder questioned, trying to contain his anxiety and finding it almost impossible to play the role of an ignorant. "I thought that the investigation was on hold."

"It was. They obviously had a murder, but no body and no name. And no suspects," Skinner replied, wondering again for a brief moment how he came to be in this situation. The sensation was similar to standing at the precipice of a black hole, waiting to be sucked in. He paced by the side of the desk, needing to feel the solid ground underneath him. "And now they have all three. And as I mentioned previously, I'm the primary suspect."

"Oh my God," Scully breathed.

"That seems like an awful lot of information to come by," Mulder made a gigantic effort to keep his voice level, feeling like the lowest scum in the pond.

"There are pictures of me shaking hands with him at the steps of his apartment building, and of me holding a gun that killed him," Skinner replied grimly. "And if it is confirmed that the pictures are real... well, you know what happens then."

"Sir, I must ask -- whatever evidence they have -- what possible motive would you have for this murder?" Scully didn't want this conversation to end so abruptly, realizing intuitively that she lacked some essential pieces of data in this mind-boggling puzzle.

"Actually, I did have a motive, though I assure you both that I was not the one who killed him," Skinner eyed Mulder uneasily, deciding that there was no way they could keep this information under wraps any longer. "I made a deal with Cancerman several months ago, and he... misused my services."

"A deal? What kind of a deal?" Scully pushed for more.

"A deal that was supposed to buy a cure for your cancer."

Scully felt as if her heartbeat was the only sound in the room as she contemplated Mulder and Skinner who looked like a pair of kids admitting to some naughty trick. Only the FBI building was a far cry from the playground -- and she could not believe that her partner knew about this too. "And is this deal the reason why I am alive today?" she whispered, her horror undisguised.

"Scully, I don't think we will ever know," Mulder hurried to reply, cursing Skinner mentally for disclosing the information, knowing that he had to undo the damage. "Cancerman pointed me in the direction of the chip. Maybe it was his way of handing us the cure. But Scully, you know that there were other factors at work."

Scully felt her eyes sting. It was so comfortable believing that her cure had not come from the dirty hands. It was so reassuring and so na´ve to believe in miracles. "So what did he ask you to do for him, sir? I need to know," she asked, suddenly seized by the desire to understand the measure of this sacrifice.

"Just some clean-up jobs, nothing too big," Skinner ignored the images of children dying from small pox. It would have happened regardless of his involvement, he told himself, but the notion did not ease the ache in his chest. "And I would overlook certain things, just close my eyes at times."

Mulder was still trying to gather his thoughts, to choose the lesser of the two evils when Skinner's voice jolted him.

"Agent Mulder, you were interested in this case, weren't you?"


"Well, since you have no cases currently, you might as well look into this," Skinner suggested calmly.

Mulder cringed inwardly but managed to nod politely, realizing that Skinner was essentially asking them for help, as indirectly as was possible in this situation. "Yes, absolutely."

"Dean Douglas is in charge, and Agent Andrew Winters is working on it currently. And," Assistant Director turned to study their concerned faces, "thank you both."

"It is me who should be saying thank you," Scully smiled slightly. "We will speak to Dean Douglas and see what we can do."

"Sir, let me just say that I believe in your innocence," Mulder offered helplessly, quite certain that this was probably the last time he was speaking to Skinner while he was still an Assistant Director. "I presume you don't have an alibi?"

Skinner shrugged. "Even if I had one, I don't think it would help against the kind of evidence you are about to see."

Watching as his agents left the room, the Assistant Director felt slightly uneasy, sensing again the presence of some secrets that he was ignorant of. Something was terribly wrong, though he couldn't quite put his finger on it.

He would just have to trust his agents to do the best they could against the incredible odds -- one more time.

Outside Skinner's office, Scully pinned Mulder down with a glare. "You knew about the deal. You knew and you never told me."

He threw up his hands in the air as she turned on her heel sharply and started walking toward the elevator. "Scully! This was hardly my secret to be shared. I found about it by accident, and I wish to this day that I didn't know about it either."

"Why not?" People gave them way as they marched down the hallway. "Do you also prefer to live in denial?"

"No," he stopped in his tracks, too tired of explanations on the run. "But I can't help thinking that it should have been me instead of Skinner. It should have been me, Scully. And now he is the one who is paying through his nose."

She tugged his hand, trying to get them away from the curious glances of other agents. "Mulder, these sacrificial gestures are having too much of an adverse effect. And as egotistical as it sounds at the moment, I'm very happy you didn't make that kind of deal."

Mulder fell silent, contemplating once again the reasons why the Consortium seemed to accept him now, wondering if his current situation was any better than the one he'd almost gotten into a few months before. But the answers kept eluding him.

Before stepping in the elevator, he threw her a quick sideways glance. "Scully, this will sound melodramatic... but did I ever mention how happy I am that you are alive? And moreover, I don't care what means were used to ensure your survival."

The doors opened with a chime, and she guided him lightly to the entrance.

"You never had to, Mulder."

"I haven't asked you for a promotion," Mulder didn't bother to hide his animosity. "This was completely uncalled for."

The obese man threw a disgusted look at his British companion. "Agent Mulder, I don't think you are in a position to question our motives. And what are you doing here today, the meeting is not until tomorrow."

"The meeting is too long to wait for," Mulder's expression did not change. "Walter Skinner's life is at stake, and I know you have no reason to care, but I do."

Milton was unperturbed. "Walter Skinner aside, I thought you would be grateful," he replied with a smirk. "How old are you? Forty or so?"

The agent tried to clamp down on his anger. "As interested as you have always been in my personal life, I am sure you remember my birthday."

"Actually, Henry Davidson had always shown much more propensity toward remembering such mundane dates. Personally, I couldn't care less," Milton's eyes grew cold. "But you should give more thought to your career in your age, Agent Mulder. Other, less talented colleagues of yours have already made ASAC or more."

Mulder shook his head, deciding to appeal to their logic instead. "After the recent media disaster, it would be extremely suspicious if I suddenly became Assistant Director," he smirked. "I can just imagine the headline: The Legacy of Insanity Continues: Paranoid FBI Agent Promoted. Or even better: Dilbert Principle in Action: How To Get Rid of Crazy FBI Agents Working in The Field. Why, let's advance them to managerial positions!"

"Now you are talking sensibly," the heavy-set man was looking at him with a bit more respect at the same time as Milton chuckled appreciatively in his coffee. "We could arrange for press to change their minds quite easily."

Mulder clenched his fists, wondering what new disaster he set into motion. "I am afraid to ask," he mumbled. "What are you talking about?"

"We will inform you of arrangements when they are made," Milton replied quietly, having calmed down a bit. "By the way, Dr. Miller speaks of you very highly. He thinks you are doing an extraordinary job."

Mulder rubbed his forehead, willing the sudden headache to subside. "I'm honored," he remarked sarcastically. "Dr. Miller is a wonderful mentor."

"Undoubtedly. He is a good man who has known too much tragedy in his life." The Well-Manicured Man seemed lost in thought for a moment. "Regardless, I presume you are involved in the Davidson's murder investigation."

"As of today, yes, and may I add that I had no choice in the matter? I am the one who submitted the incriminating evidence on him!" Mulder shook his head, feigning frustration. It was one thing to admit that he didn't want a promotion, but it would have been way too dangerous to say that he actually wanted to help Skinner.

"Well, you won't be involved in the investigation for much longer, I hope," Milton glanced meaningfully at his companion. "I am sure Agents Scully and Winters will handle it with competence."

Mulder fell silent, brooding on the possible implications of this statement. "Let us just not forget that you have still not upheld your part of the bargain -- whereas I have fulfilled all of your requests," he stated abruptly, suddenly impatient with them.

The heavy-set man laughed for the first time as if it was the cleverest witticism. "You have access to an abundance of information in our facilities, Agent Mulder. Help yourself." He watched as the younger man flew out of his chair and slammed the door in anger, not bothering with proper good-byes. "Our newest colleague should really watch his temper."

"Oh, I am sure that his new position will be rather beneficial in that respect," Milton spoke quietly. "But I must say, Northam, that this is the kind of passion our organization can only profit from."

Mulder felt the stare of the lab technicians as his normally drab charcoal suit clashed with the painful sterility of the cinder walls of the testing facility. His key card sat in his jacket pocket, the cameras mounted to the ceiling whined as they tracked his movements.

Perhaps more unsettling than the ease at which he had been allowed to enter, was the protection, or lack of it, between him and the organisms the scrubbed men and women were covertly examining under their compound microscopes. The technicians around him were disguised behind rubber gloves, cloth masks, and the glare of fluorescent lights hitting plastic goggles. They moved in deliberately languid movements, and Mulder momentarily wondered if it were the researchers, instead of the specimens, who were extra-terrestrial in nature. The federal agent shoved his hands resolutely in his pockets, content to keep a comfortable distance between himself and the test tubes, vials, and agar plates.

His footsteps echoed noisily amid the hum of nuclear magnetic resonance machines, and Mulder slowly processed the incoming stimuli. There was no alien blood, no clones, no black, Tunguskan worms. Instead, his eyes tracked over invisible cells in between clear cover slips and slides, over droning centrifuges as they contentedly spun a pus-like fluid. Mulder felt his jaw clench at the picture of normalcy -- unable to fathom why he had worked so hard, for so long, suffering so many losses.

For it to culminate with this.

Something deep inside him was shouting, jumping up and down, proclaiming that he had found the truth. But the rest of him felt strangely detached -- clinically separated. The lab was anti-climactic, and as he progressed deeper into the laboratory he wondered how much the Consortium was still hiding from him.

Mulder picked up a vial and stared at the milky substance, failing to feel impressed. Throwing any previous feelings of caution out the window, he trailed a finger as he passed microscope-bearing counters, suppressing a feeling of... tedium. Familiarity.

It was as if something in the building turned what made Fox Mulder "Spooky" click off. As if there was a certain virus in the air that made him into the cold-hearted bastard who could effectively wipe away women's memories. It kept his hands still, instead of reaching for the trigger and blowing away the congregation of heads that conspired and laughed at other people's misfortunes.

Of course, the psychologist in Fox Mulder knew that he was rationalizing.

That there, indeed, was nothing in the air, and that he was a sick sonofabitch who was willing to go to any proportions, hurt an obscene number of people, to get this far.

Far from progressing, Mulder wondered for how much longer he would remain at a standstill, without seeing the whole truth.

A set of sliding doors somewhere in the distance beeped, then whined as they slid open. Mulder inwardly cringed, half expecting Deep Throat to cut him off at the pass, or for green berets to force him to flee. He once again glanced furtively at the cameras mounted overhead, his peripheral vision unconsciously absorbing the large computers, even larger processors, and vats of material that would most likely be unidentifiable to Quantico's computers.

There were warnings attached to the UV irradiators, stickers proclaiming toluene's carcinogenic effects. There was a first aid kit buried in the corner, a fire blanket and an extinguisher mounted to the wall.

Mulder was tempted to laugh.

As if the Consortium cared for the health of the people who worked for them.

He walked towards the back, passing purple bacteria colonies growing on agar media, a proliferation of particles in test tube solution.

And stopped, eyes widening at the rows of alien fetuses.

Mulder crouched so that he was at eye level with the organisms. A spot on greenish-gray flesh pulsated in time to the beat of alien's heart. Pale eyelids covered the eyes, and Mulder stared back with a forced detachment, silently begging it questions -- wondering why it was so valuable that a government would be willing to kill for it.

Mulder gasped as the eyelids suddenly opened. Eyes like shards of blue ice pierced the translucent green solution. He rose rapidly, his knees cracking in protest. He could feel his fašade of indifference threaten to abandon him as he forced his legs to walk calmly across the room.

The beeps soon surrounded him. The glow of tanks engulfed him. The aquarium-like containers were filled with indiscernible flesh-colored shapes. Mulder bit his lip, suffering through an onslaught of memories -- of his mother's fading heartbeat at the hospital, of Scully comatose and dying, of Deep Throat cruelly murdered, of Michael Kritschgau and the blend of lies and truths he uttered.

The agent leaned in closer, noticing the protruding belly of the buoyant figure in front of him, the criss-crossing veins and arteries which transported a fluid to a developing fetus that Mulder doubted was blood.

Monitors, buttons, and a keyboard marred the one side of the tank, and Mulder stared at it, mesmerized by the noises and charts, the peaks and the valleys -- all indications of brain activity, even if the subject's lack of movements dictated otherwise.

A door slammed, a shadow loomed in front of him, and Mulder effectively clamped down on his sudden reflex to flee, his left hand drifting down to his pocket and key card as reminder of his authorization to be here. He watched warily as a technician and an armed security guard approached -- all too familiar with the play that would enfold.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?"

Mulder flashed his key card. "I'm authorized to be here."

The man squared up to Mulder's figure before shaking his head. "This is a control group; you threaten to contaminate it by coming in here unprotected. Get out."

Mulder's jaw flexed. "Not until you tell me what this is."

The lab technician rolled his eyes, and was about to speak when another figure cut him off at the pass.

"Enough, Brian. Mr. Mulder is right. He is authorized to be anywhere he chooses."

Mulder stared at the mustached man who had just recently entered. His brain absorbed the slight belly of success, the balding head, the light brown crown of hair which was quickly turning white. His synapses suddenly fired, the man's voice triggering a memory -- a recognition that almost floored him. His stomach fell -- he felt as if he wanted to throw up.

He tried to convince himself that he would wake from this nightmare soon, that he had not given incriminating evidence to Agent Winters, and was not gawking at the man currently standing directly in front of him in one of the Consortium's laboratories.

Mulder tilted his head slightly, closed his eyes momentarily, trying to contain his breathing. He looked up at the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation coolly. "Director Robinson... good afternoon."

The elder man smiled with yellowed teeth, the grin turning him into a garish gargoyle underneath the harsh fluorescent lights. "Agent Mulder, I haven't had yet the opportunity to relay my joy in hearing that you've joined us."

Mulder nodded with a tight-lipped smile as the pieces fell into place. Skinner would effectively be history within the next week, the Director of the FBI was an influential member of the Consortium, and the section head of the X-Files was about to get a promotion. He felt his head start to hurt with the force he was clenching his teeth. There were no more proponents to the truth, only actors who dealt with lies and confabulations, himself included.

Parasites infested the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

And he was the lowest rung on the evolutionary ladder.

Robinson was pumping his hand, still revealing ugly yellowed teeth. "Brian and the other technicians will assist you in any way possible. Right, Brian?"

Mulder watched the lab technician shy away from the Director's presence, backing up a few steps. "Sure. No problem."

The Director nodded, satisfied with the results, and walked away, taking the lab employee and the security guard with him.

Mulder stared at the aquariums once again, passing a hand over his burning eyes. After he had pinned Blevins, he had felt like such hot shit. On top of the world with the Smoking Man dead, with Skinner clearly drawing his lines, with Scully being cured.

And he was made to be the fool yet again.

By this time tomorrow, Skinner would no longer be his boss. His one time ally would be occupied by more pressing matters.

He was between the proverbial rock and a hard place, and Mulder tried to convince himself that when this war was all over, he would fix everything.

He walked out of the room with guilt weighted steps.

Everything in Walter Skinner's house was silent. And the Assistant Director stared at the chicken in front of him, listlessly poking at the dead animal muscle with his fork.

His paranoia was running rampant; he attributed it to too many years trying to pull back on Mulder's reins. Something weighed his stomach down, made him want to expel the bile that was churning in his stomach, made each swallow of thick saliva painfully slow.

The air around him was charged; major changes were afoot. The Consortium had been reeling him in for favors less often. The office downstairs had been quiet. The two agents in the X-Files division were suspiciously out of trouble.

A door knocked, and Skinner jumped, a hand trailing by his unholstered hip. Instincts carved from the army and the FBI were rearing their ugly head. He unconsciously took the plate to the garbage, scraping the breast and vegetables away. Methodically, he placed the plate and fork in the sink.

He wiped his hands on his pants and pushed his glasses up, inhaling deeply, wondering for what he was mustering up courage.

Somber black uniforms greeted him, and Skinner noted Douglas' grim expression. "Walter," he nodded in greeting. "We need you to come to the station and answer a couple of questions."

Skinner hesitated, then finally nodded. The VCU chief's friendliness of a couple days ago disappeared as if by magic. "Just wait... " He looked around, suddenly feeling lost in his own apartment. "I have to get my coat."

Douglas grabbed the arm of the retreating figure, pointing a finger to a spot just behind Skinner. "It's right behind you."

The Assistant Director looked at the railing, seeing the tan material draped innocently over the oak pole. "Oh..." He grabbed harshly for it, wishing it had been somewhere else -- an excuse so that he could walk through his apartment one more time.

He suddenly had an attachment to the TV he barely watched, to the couch and coffee table in the living room that he hardly used. The thought of abandoning them suddenly made his heart beat faster, his breaths come out harsher.

Guilt, his mind chanted. You know you're guilty.

But for what, the other part of his mind insisted. He hadn't killed the Cancerman. His hatred for tar and nicotine had never been so severe to warrant executing a man in cold blood. Despite what the photos showed, he had not met with the Cancerman on the night of his death. And most importantly, the bullet hadn't come from his gun.

The rebuttal came quickly: memories of nameless, suffering children dying of small pox were testament to his guilt -- visions of Ajax bottles and sponges were indicative of the hole he had willingly dug himself in.

Skinner was suddenly lost, thinking, flashing to a multitude of confusing scenes. Mulder might have been a stupid, rash, self-centered agent with nothing better to do than stick his nose up the asses of the FBI's brass. But Skinner had witnessed too much, had seen the evidence pass right before his eyes, and understood that Mulder's paranoia was justified. The agent was brilliant, devoted -- and when combined with the strength of his partner, he held the awesome potential to turn lies into truths.

A tug on his arm and Skinner was brought back to reality. Douglas' grip was gentle, but firm, and the Assistant Director hastily pulled his arm away, suddenly needing the independence.

Other uniforms showed him the warrant to search through his apartment, and he winced at the sound of drawers being upended, of his garbage can being knocked over. Skinner looked up, just before Douglas offered him a look that he could only characterize as pity. Another uniformed officer was reciting Miranda rights, and Skinner stole a last look at his apartment as the uniforms silently lead him towards the elevator.

The drive to the police station would take about forty minutes as Douglas was saying, trying to make small talk. Skinner nodded grimly. The past half hour had seemed like a bad dream. In forty minutes, the true nightmare would begin.

Mulder stared as the white styrofoam cup paled in comparison to the brownish-black liquid it contained. He was almost tempted to laugh at the fleeting familiarity. But instead of the Bureau's cafeteria, he was sitting at the research facility's canteen. And instead of conversing with Special Agent Doctor Scully, James Milton's thin figure was sitting across from him.

It must be a conspiracy, Mulder's mind mused. The coffee here was as bad as the Bureau's.

"How is your assignment progressing, Fox?"

"Fine," Mulder answered quickly. "I've... adjusted to it." He nodded his head to affirm the statement. He stared at the liquid in his cup again, knowing his eyes would betray him and reveal the words to be a blatant lie. Turning personalities on and off was taxing, and it was giving him migraines to swerve from one temperament extreme to another. The fear that he would lose himself in the process was all too real, and it nagged continuously for attention at the back of his mind.

"I uh..." he cleared his throat experimentally, "ran into Director Robinson."

Milton smiled. "Nice man... a very valuable acquisition to the group."

Mulder nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

The elder member stared at the federal agent, attempting to analyze the slumped posture, the fingers that danced nervously on the table. Mulder was quiet. Sullen. And Milton wondered what thoughts were circulating through the young man's gifted head. "He knew your father really well."

He watched in admiration as Mulder's head jerked up -- the eagerness quickly hidden as his eyes clouded over and his face grew impassive. "Director Robinson knew my father?"

Milton guffawed, the sound echoing through the empty room. "Who didn't know your father, Fox, is what you should be asking."

The federal agent nodded grimly and went back to staring at the coffee. Not for the first time, he wondered when the Englishman started calling him by the first name, but suppressed the need to correct him. It fit only too well with the surrealism of his surroundings. When Mulder spoke again, his voice was low, tumultuous, despite the lack of volume.

"You knew my father, too."

Milton nodded slowly and watched as Mulder's finger started to play with the styrofoam mug.

"Did he ever say anything about my sister?"

The Well-Manicured Man grew pensive and his forehead creased. "No..." He looked to the ceiling as if trying to grab a memory, but then shook his head resolutely. "No. I never heard any mention of your sister... It was Samantha, right?"

Mulder nodded once, staring at the man in front of him. Milton's inflections had changed. He was a good liar. He had almost gone through the former profiler's finely-tuned radar undetected. Almost. Mulder continued to stare at the coffee, filing away the statement for future reference.

"Perhaps Dr. Miller may know something. He and your father were close. Or perhaps..." the Consortium member paused as if an idea was just forming. "Perhaps there's a mention of it in the letter your father sent you."

Mulder raised his head, meeting Milton's eyes. The elder member regarded him innocently, and Mulder's suspicions grew again. It was the second time the Consortium had brought up the subject of the letter, even though he had been quick to disregard it. He made no attempt to hide the annoyance in his voice. "There's nothing in it. You should know. You've read it already."

Milton smiled professionally. "Your father always spoke in tongues, Fox. Sometimes the answers to the secrets we wish to know are closer than we think."

Mulder narrowed his eyes. The Consortium's interest in the letter was... unsettling. Underneath Milton's scrutiny, the gears in his mind were silently churning. He was prompted to wonder if his own quick dismissal of the letter had been premature -- perhaps he had missed something in his quick perusal.

The old man looked to his wrist and then back to Mulder. "One o'clock, Fox. If I'm not mistaken, you have an appointment."

Mulder withheld the grimace that was threatening and rose slowly, feigning a sudden need to stretch.

"Yet another canvas to erase and paint," Milton joked, enjoying his own symbolism.

The agent felt his teeth bare in a likeness of a smile.

"Dust off those women's synapses, Fox. Clean the cobwebs in their fissures. Makeover those lobes and revitalize their neurotransmitters." Milton guffawed once again, and Mulder forced air through his lungs, hearing himself emit a noise that was supposed to be a cruel resemblance of a chuckle.

He walked quickly out of the room, still hearing his lungs choke as he laughed. His breath hitched, his forced mirth echoed off the empty corridors -- even as his eyes filled with helpless tears.


Scully stared at the computer monitor in front of her, the bleak light of it illuminating the room, much to the protest of her tired eyes.

Her pupils tracked the letters as Scorpio13 typed methodically. She closed her hands around the coffee mug, attempting to absorb some of its warmth. But the coffee was cold, and Scully was quick to draw the parallels to her apartment, where it was both freezing and dark. She nonsensically wondered if Nescafe could also get lonely.

Conversing with her partner by means of secretive nick names, metaphors, and symbols was making her weary. Conversations around the office were contrived -- almost farcical. Everything uttered in the X-Files office was a lie -- all the words were cloaked in the air of mundane normalcy, wary of whatever bugs may be listening. And it was only behind the anonymity of a newsgroup where her name was encoded, where they spoke in tongues, could she actually converse "normally" with her partner.

The cursor was suddenly blinking, waiting for her reply, and Scully felt her lips part in surprise at the message.


The agent stared at the monitor, feeling her shoulders tense at the sudden onslaught of helplessness. So tired of all the lies, of running around in circles. She wondered exactly how many moles actually worked in the FBI.

Scully's fingers hovered over the keyboard, temporarily unsure of what to write. She bit her lip, squinted as she typed with the right hand, drew her robe tighter around her body with her left.


The affirmative reply came quickly and even as Scully's eyes were barely surviving the war to stay open, her fingers danced on their own.


Scully watched UNSTABLE float across her monitor, and she nodded to herself, hardly surprised. Mulder went on, stating in no uncertain terms that he had a big day of research tomorrow and how he was dreading it. She narrowed her eyes. Her partner still refused to disclose his exact duties with the Consortium, and she watched as the blinking cursor moved to the right as she typed.


There was a long pause before the reply came, and Scully rolled her eyes in exasperation at Mulder's general reticence to talk, and his admirable ability to skirt the issue.


Scully stared at the letters, surprised by how much she didn't want her partner to leave. She thought of something to say -- tried to think of something witty, some smart-ass comment about the dark and porno videos. But her fingers moved of their own volition, and she watched in surprise, in horror, as she saw her own comment stare back at her from the Dell monitor.


The pause was longer -- stretching for all eternity. There was no reply. There was no dialogue box to say that Scorpio13 had logged out, and there was no indication to say that he had received the message. She clenched her mug tighter, scolding herself for being so stupid, for saying such things over an open newsgroup where someone could be listening. Watching.

She wondered if she had scared Mulder away. Maybe angered him by her lack of caution. She was about to unhappily close the connection when his reply came back.

Scully smiled, and logged out happily, turning off her computer with a flourish. She went to bed, still seeing the black letters imprinted on a white background.


"Are you telling me, Mr. Skinner, that on May seventeenth, you never engaged in a conversation with this man, even though there is a photograph -- undoctored according to your labs -- of you conversing with the victim."

Skinner nodded his head, his jaw clenching. It seemed he was answering the same question over and over -- just rephrased differently each time. "Yes."

"Did you know the victim?"

Skinner sighed. "Yes."

"What was the nature of your relationship."

"He frequented my office occasionally." The Assistant Director contemplated his next sentence. "Although he visited less often over recent months."

"And what business did you have with the deceased?"

"He was a federal employee. We discussed matters of... protocol."

The detective sighed, throwing a doubtful look in the Assistant Director's direction.

"Mr. Skinner... how much does a man in a profession such as yours make?"

Skinner shook his head, not following the line of questioning. "What?"

"How much do you make in a month?"

Skinner opened his mouth to protest, clamped on the sudden urge to bolt. He felt his stomach turn over as awareness dawned. He knew the curve ball that was going to be thrown, and had no doubt as to which group of men had planted the evidence.

"I make about six thousand dollars a month."

The detective nodded his head. "And yet, your bank records show that two days after the murder of the deceased you made a deposit for one hundred thousand dollars. That's far from chump change."

Skinner didn't say anything, scolding himself for not checking his bank records more often. And it was so easy -- the Consortium could implicate and obfuscate with ease. Skinner studied the table, avoiding the detective's stare -- there was nothing he could say to defend himself. The silence was incriminating -- but it was rapidly becoming the only defense he had.

"Nothing to say, Mr. Skinner?"

The Assistant Director remained silent, and he felt a hand touch his arm. His lawyer's voice echoed through the interrogation room.

"My client refuses to speak any longer. I suggest that this questioning be brought to an end."

The detective sneered, and with an expletive-filled mutter, stormed out.

Skinner was tempted to stand up and voice his situation. He wanted to tell the detective that he was a pawn in a game. That the evidence was rigged and he was being framed. That most likely the man in the photograph was a clone. And that the dead man knew secrets about the country, and worked for a faction that did not abide by any rules.

But it would sound like a plot out of a B-grade police melodrama, and he would be laughed at. Mocked.

Skinner now knew where Mulder's cocky facade came from. Knew from whence Scully's steely glare had developed. He put a hand over his mouth, unconsciously blocking any involuntary movements from his mouth and vocal chords.

The door slammed and Skinner turned to his lawyer, wary of the two-way mirror in front of him. He noted the desperation in his voice, fully cognizant of the evidence that was rapidly piling against him. "Have you heard anything from Agents Mulder and Scully yet?"

The lawyer shook her head. "I haven't heard anything at all from them."

The Assistant Director nodded wearily. He studied the cinder walls around him, and wondered if he would be able to do a lifetime sentence within the confines of steel bars and cement walls.

He shook his head to dispel the thought. Mulder and Scully would come to his defense, just as they had before. They knew what was going on out there. Any minute now, his mind tried to convince itself. He kept his eyes on the door, watching for their arrival.


The phone ringing jarred him out of a blackness that was not reality, but not the unconsciousness that came with dreaming. As if reciprocating his predicament, he had been floating in a netherworld between fact and fiction -- his pseudo-sleep marked with tones of gray and charcoal.

No rest for the weary, indeed.

He shoved papers out of the way in reaching for the phone, hearing the soft swish as his father's letter landed on the floor. Studying his cursive strokes had made his migraine worse, and trying to decode tangible words had only compounded his fatigue.

His hand made contact with the receiver, and he reached for the light beside him, squinting when the yellow-white beam assaulted his eyes.

"Yeah... Mulder."

"Agent Mulder, this is Special Agent in Charge Peterson from the Baltimore Division."

"Yeah," his voice came out smoggy, slurred as his brain was slowly processing each statement and formulating a coherent reply.

"We have a problem here that could warrant your... services. We have a hostage situation. An elementary school here is held hostage by a male with a package of sarin attached to his chest."

Mulder shook his head. "I don't understand how I..."

Peterson was quick to interrupt. Even though the SAC's voice was grim, Mulder could swear he heard a smirk coming from the other end.

"He believes he was abducted by aliens."

Mulder pursed his lips, muttering an "I see." He rubbed a hand harshly over his eyes, watching colors dance over his eye lids. Was it another test by his newest employers? Or was it a real red ball with a madman and innocent people?

The federal agent closed his eyes, reliving his previous hostage negotiating experiences. He rolled his shoulders, as he thought of John Barnett. Feeling the muscles in his neck protest louder, he once again cursed FBI rules and regulations. God, protocol had been such a bitch -- Mulder went to bed with her once, and in the morning after, had to attend Steve Wallenberg's funeral.

His body fully aware as to where his thoughts were leading too, Mulder's hands automatically clenched, his blood pressure began to rise, as his thoughts turned to Duane Barry. Rolling his neck again, Mulder sighed audibly into the phone. If there had been any reluctance on his part to go to Baltimore, he realized it was already long gone. There was no way he could defy the Consortium with the power that they had. With the depths that they could sink.

Scully was a testament to that fact.

And there was no way he could defy lending his services to the Baltimore division, at the risk of leaving innocent children to the whims of a mad man.

"Mulder... are you still there?"

The agent shook his head, inhaling sharply. "Just let me get some things prepared. I'll be right there."

Andrew Winters walked cautiously into the interrogation room, wary of his superior officer sitting in handcuffs across from him. He watched a head rise slowly and was assaulted by the intense glare of his Assistant Director.

Winters sat down across from him, not saying anything, trusting that Skinner had the most to lose by keeping his mouth closed.

The silence dragged on. Winters could feel the second hand of his watch beat against his wrist, while Skinner was content to stare at a spot on the wall just behind the young agent's head.

Andrew looked up when he heard Skinner clear his throat. The Assistant Director opened his mouth, closed it again, appearing contemplative, then spoke slowly. Hoarsely. As if his voice was not used to speaking. "No matter what you found, I didn't do it, Agent Winters."

The younger man nodded courteously. He had seen the pictures and the evidence that was rapidly being compiled against his superior officer. A conviction of treason and first degree murder would be most likely.

Offenses punishable by death.

But something in Winters' mind protested. Something that made him feel at unease seeing his boss in handcuffs. It was the same queasiness he had felt when he found the metallic implants in the missing women. The same stomach grinding feeling that pointed out that the Assistant Director had been awfully careless and painfully obvious in killing a man.

He watched as Skinner regarded the two-way mirror warily, and then lowered his head in his direction. Winters reciprocated the gesture, hearing the Assistant Director's harsh whisper assault his auditory canal.

"What I'm about to say... may seem incredible," Skinner paused. He swallowed, unsure if what he was about to say was really the right thing to do. If this was really the right person to disclose everything he so desperately wanted to say.

"You have to believe me. Just listen to me when I say that the man who was murdered... The... the *group* that he works with is involved with the secrets that Section Chief Blevins was accused of."

Skinner watched the younger agent's eyebrows crease. "Rousch."

The Assistant Director nodded in confirmation. "I used to... I used to work with them as well." Skinner watched the younger agent instinctually sit back -- an attempt to distance himself from the accused. He drew his lips into a tight line, refusing to reveal his relief at knowing Winters believed the story, if not completely, at least partially. "When I threatened to... defect, this is... well, you see the result of that threat."

The young agent's neutral expression didn't falter, and he nodded, inwardly processing the story's validity.

Skinner leaned in desperately. The close quarters were making him claustrophobic, and he spoke too harshly, too quickly to convince anyone of his innocence. "You have to believe me. Agents Mulder and Scully can vouch for the existence of this group. You have to talk to them."

Winters nodded.

Skinner shifted in his chair uneasily, uncomfortable with having to request the simplest things. It was beyond embarrassing -- beyond humiliating -- to fall into subordination, having to request washroom breaks and pleading to make a phone call. "Please tell them I need to speak with them as soon as possible."

Winters nodded again. "I'll see what I can do, sir."

Skinner flinched at the title of respect, surprised, and yet slightly reassured. Winters got up slowly from the chair, and the Assistant Director watched the retreating figure, startled when the metal door slammed shut.

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, exhaling slowly. Skinner looked to the clock, and realized it had been twenty four hours since he had last talked to Mulder and Scully. He rubbed a hand over his face.

Perhaps Scully would be a little more doubtful of his innocence -- she had clearly shown her ambiguity during the last time he had been charged with murder. But the knowledge that Mulder knew about everything relieved him. The section head of the X-Files division could vouch for the existence of Rousch and the duplicity of Section Chief Blevins. The Special Agent had first-hand knowledge of the conspiracy that was out there, and would be able to get the charges dropped.

If Scully couldn't do it, Mulder certainly would.


The makeshift control center, made hastily from a real estate office, was a flurry of barely controlled FBI and state police activity. The elementary school across the street was under the watchful eyes of a chopper flying overhead, and three dozen cruisers around the building. Yellow tape surrounded the growing crowd of buzzing onlookers, their faces shining underneath the glare of news lights. Men, masked in black, and armed with semi-automatics clashed with the serenity of monkey bars and picture-adorned windows.

Mulder walked in, feeling detached, hearing warped voices talk over the whine of modems, fax machines, and cellular phones. Someone approached him, pumped his hand roughly and introduced himself as the Baltimore SAC.

He recognized the smell of caffeine and adrenaline, blindly absorbed the hastily written names on the green chalkboard ten feet in front of him. Mulder suppressed a shiver, attempting to push the feelings of deja vu away.

The federal agent blinked, and suddenly the sounds turned normal, Peterson's concerned face floated into view. The two federal employees walked the length of the building, the SAC's voice inflecting in time to his steps.

"Perp's name is Vernon John Fulsom. Went to elementary school here. Has a history of petty robbery, drug charges, and had an on again, off again relationship with a militia group. Nothing big. He's holed himself in one of the corner classrooms with twenty- four children and a teacher. His back is loaded with sarin."

Mulder nodded, understanding the conundrum. The SWAT team wouldn't be able to shoot, for fear of breaking one of the vials. Any methods of violence were immediately put on the back burner for threat of unleashing the nerve gas. The only option, other than killing twenty five innocent children would be for the perp in question to surrender completely.

"What does he want?"

Peterson cleared his throat. "He claims that aliens have probed his body and have left implants in... various orifices."

Mulder nodded. "Do we know anything about his abduction experiences?"

Peterson shook his head, his lips maintaining a grim line. Mulder had to applaud the man for not openly scoffing the story as the ramblings of a mad man. It was obvious the SAC wanted a peaceful resolution -- even if it meant putting aside personal prejudices and opinions. "Look, Mulder, I don't care if the guy says he's Clinton's new lover. I just want this red ball to be over -- we've had enough children dying in schools already, wouldn't you say?"

Mulder nodded his acknowledgement. "What's the plan so far?"

"Talk to him. He knows about you. You're the only one he's agreed to speak to."

Mulder nodded grimly as Peterson steered him towards a headset.

"I know you had a situation like this a few years ago. So, just remember, don't perpetuate the fantasy, remind the perp that he has twenty-five innocent people in there."

He sat down gingerly, hearing static enter his ears. The lights overhead flickered off for a millisecond, then reluctantly started glowing again, much to the chagrin of the agents circulating around him. Mulder felt his jaw clench, needing to remind himself that Vernon John Fulsom was not Duane Barry, despite the eerie similarities. A SWAT officer asked silently if he was ready, and Mulder numbly nodded yes.

He wanted to ask if they could slow things down... if he could have time to pause and breathe and think. The lies and fictions that he was telling were blending themselves into real life. Blending themselves so well that he couldn't distinguish between the two any longer.

An electronics technician pointed at him, indicating that the show had begun, and that he would get no respite. Suddenly, there was a dialtone, a phone ringing, and a rough voice.


Mulder cleared his throat. "Vernon?"

The man laughed harshly. "VJ will do, Mr. FBI. This is Agent Mulder, right?"

"Yes, this is Agent Mulder. How can I help you, VJ?"

"I want to talk to you."


"In person. Face to face."

Mulder balked, then nodded. "Okay... okay." He rubbed a hand absently over his forehead, when he caught Peterson mouthing "hostages" to him. "I'll talk to you, VJ, but we're going to need some sort of sign of faith. Can you release some of the children?"


"Whatever you want, VJ... the police here will be more willing to get it for you if you can show some good faith."

There was a hesitant pause, and the gruff voice muttered. "Fine. Two children. One's looking sickly and the other one's... been messed up."

Mulder closed his eyes, rubbing his forehead, feeling himself drowning in a situation that was moving too fast. "Do they need medical attention?"

There was another pause before there was an affirmative reply.

The agent took a deep breath before asking. "I can't treat those children myself, VJ. Any medical treatment will have to be administered by a professional. Will you allow a paramedic to come with me?"

The positive reply took an agonizingly long time to come. When the sullen "yes" came over the head set, Mulder let out a sigh of relief. "I'll call right before we arrive."

The connection went dead and he heard people being dispatched to retrieve bulletproof vests, mikes, and ear pieces. Another man was introducing himself, as someone was pulling kevlar over his head. The entire set up was screaming Duane Barry. Agent Collins was pumping his hand, saying something about being an FBI agent with medical knowledge. He was wearing a blue uniform, and someone was shoving an identical shirt into his arms.

So Duane Barry.

As eager hands pushed him towards the technician with the ear pieces and glue, Mulder absently wondered if the fall-out would be of the same magnitude.

"Oh, Agent Winters, the DA called and said they want a statement from you regarding AD Skinner's case."

Andrew turned around to try and locate the source of the voice when another figure stepped towards him. "Winters, here's the paperwork from the Omaha case that accounting wants from upstairs. They say they need it by Tuesday."

Winters opened his mouth to protest but five manila folders were thrust into his hands and he only caught the retreating figure of the Bureau assistant.

"Oh, Winters!!" A voice boomed. "Agent Scully called and said that she got your message."

Andrew yelled blindly across the room. "Did she say if she was going to come here and talk to me?"

"How the hell should I know, man. I'm just the messenger."

The young agent swore under breath as he walked to his desk, suddenly noticing the woman waiting nervously beside it.

Winters smiled as recognition struck. "Sheila... what are you doing here?"

The woman didn't return the smile, seemingly shrinking further into her chair. Her timid voice was a soft exhalation as if the words had a difficult time passing though barely moving lips. "Have you found anything?"

Andrew shook his head.

"What about... what they found in me."

He shook his head again.

The woman continued shaking, her hands wringing. Andrew noticed tears forming at the corner of her eyes. "Other women have been found with it? The same man did all of that?"

Andrew nodded. "Yes, there have been women who were abducted before you who have been found with metal implants in them." The federal agent tried to convey his reassurances to the woman who had just been released from the hospital all of twenty four hours ago.

Yet another disappearance. Another return.

And yet another woman with no memory of what had happened.

His phone suddenly shook off its cradle and Andrew hastily balanced on one foot, shifting the folders to one hand, grabbing for the speaker phone.


"Agent Winters? This is Agent Mulder. I got a message saying you needed to talk to me urgently. That it was an emergency. Did something happen to Agent Scully?"

Andrew wrinkled his eyebrows at the breathless words and hum coming from the other line. "I uh..." he stuttered, trying to gather his thoughts, "needed some information regarding Assistant Director Skinner's charges. He said I should talk to you."

Winters heard a lengthy pause before the voice on the other line swore, offering a terse reply. "That's your emergency? I'm on the case, Winters, and I'm dealing with a hostage situation. Unless your emergency is more severe than the emergency in Baltimore, talk to Agent Scully."

Andrew balked at the terse reply. "But I thought..."

"Winters, I need to go. I can't deal with your crap right now." Someone in the background called Mulder's name, and the background buzz increased in volume. "Look," he heard Mulder breathe. "I'll get back toyou later, okay?"

The agent stared at the phone as the line went dead. He slammed the manila folders onto his desk, jabbing at the speaker phone to end the connection.

He turned to apologize to the woman who had been speaking when he noticed she had disappeared. He walked to the front of desk, gasping at the woman who was writhing on the floor.


The woman was muttering, whimpering, rocking as fluttering fingers passed over the back of her neck. Andrew kneeled on his haunches, attempting to comfort her by placing a reassuring hand on her leg.

The woman jumped as if burnt, and snapped out of her trance with a gasp. Startling blue eyes tracked Andrew's movements suspiciously, and the federal agent extended his hand, helping the woman stand when she hesitantly accepted the offer.

"Should I call a doctor?"

The woman shook her head frantically, her red hair falling into her face. She seemed unable to form words, her voice coming out in gasps. She finally licked her lips and pointed to the phone. "That's the voice of the man who took me."

"Where's Mulder?"

Scully stepped carefully into the seat across from Skinner, noticing how her superior's eyes darted from her to the door. She wondered where the urgency in his voice came from -- wondered why his eyes gazed at her distrustfully.

"He was requested in Baltimore by Dean Douglas and SAC Peterson. A hostage situation."

Skinner closed his eyes, trying to remain calm. "Is there any indication that the situation will be resolved soon?"

Scully shrugged her shoulders. "I'm not sure. Mulder didn't say much. At the time of the call, I don't think he was yet made aware of what his duties would entail."

She tried to appear casual, tried to add nonchalant inflections into her speech. It was true that Mulder had barely said anything in his terse, early morning phone call. When she found out her partner had been *requested* by the brass upstairs, her worry had grown exponentially.

He reassured her that he would call as soon as possible, still dubious as to whether the Baltimore PD and FBI really needed his services. She assumed that they did, if her silent cellphone and answering machine were any indication.

"Agent Scully, I need to ask a favor."

The female federal agent nodded cautiously. "Sure."

Skinner took a deep breath before proceeding slowly, as if deciding what he wanted to say was a laborious task. "Can you go over the murder scene one more time? More specifically, can you look at the forensic evidence -- the blood, toxicology. It's your specialty -- and I would like to hear the evidence directly from someone I trust."

Scully nodded, warming at Skinner's disclosure of the value he placed into her investigative skills. "Sure."

The Assistant Director offered a thankful smile, forcing his lips to curl upward. "Thank you."

Scully reciprocated the forced smile, suddenly feeling the walls closing in. She made a show of getting ready to leave, wondering if her jerky movements would betray her sudden need to escape. She hastily belted her coat around her waist, nervously pushing her hair away from her face. "I'll get on your request right away."

"Tell Agent Mulder that I need to speak to him."

Scully covered her mouth, emitting a hoarse cough. She was unable to offer a reply.

The school was empty, and the agents' footsteps resonated dully off the parquet floor. The unnatural silence gnawed on Mulder's already jagged nerves, and he slanted a look at his morose companion, seeking some distraction. "Have you ever been in a hostage situation before?"

Collins did not seem eager to provide the conversation. "Once."

"How did it work out?" Mulder was mildly interested, regretting the question in the next second as he watched Collins' narrowed eyes and a tense face.

"It didn't," followed a terse reply. "There were two men and three women, and the bastard killed them one by one. Blew his head off after." Collins' voice softened. "We didn't even know for a while there was no one alive left." There was a lengthy pause, before his next words came out as a mutter. "Damn silencer."

Mulder felt hot sympathy engulf him as he listened to his account, guessing that the lack of emotion was inversely proportional to the depth of the scar. "What did the SOB want?"

"Money," Collins shrugged his shoulders. "Justice. Power over the universe. That's all they ever want, isn't it? And they usually never get it."

Five lives for green paper, Mulder mused as they approached the classroom with children. For the lives of twenty something kids, with all the media attention that this negotiation was already receiving, there would be no problem gathering a significant amount of dollars. But somehow he doubted that monetary profit was what VJ was looking for, if his own presence here were any indication. Feeling the kevlar scratch underneath his armpits, Mulder suddenly wished for such simplicity.

They knocked on the door, and soon heard the footsteps followed by the sounds of the lock being unbolted. A haggard-looking, deathly pale man greeted them with a contemptuous sneer, watching the agents move inside the brightly colored room.

"Why, Agent Mulder, you brought a friend," VJ spoke in mocking intonations, a definite flicker of recognition in his eyes that remained, otherwise, as murky as waters of a swamp. "Welcome to our humble abode."

"VJ, I am a medical doctor. Where are the kids who need my attention?" Collins sounded about as human as a robot as he looked through the terrorist to the bunch of children huddled up in the corner. Their teacher, a young woman not older than twenty-five, obviously on the verge of tears and barely keeping it together, held the hand of one small girl who appeared to have a bad case of hiccups, undoubtedly caused by fear. She used the other hand to obsessively smooth the light brown hair of a boy whose arm appeared to have been bent at an unnatural angle. Tears had dried on his face and Mulder inhaled sharply, recognizing the tell-tale signs of shock.

"There they are," VJ pointed to the boy and to another girl who sat a few steps away from the group, holding her belly. "She threw up a few times, and he kind of broke his arm. . ." VJ stopped, and Mulder silently wondered how exactly the *accident* happened, firmly deciding that he should not ask -- at least not now.

Collins moved to the children, a smile unexpectedly lighting his face, while Mulder forced himself to finally look at the thin man who nervously fingered the vial on his chest. "Real sarin, man. . . do you know what that stuff does to you?"

The agent nodded calmly. "I have an idea. Really messes up your stomach and your head," he spoke lightly, dismissively, as if he didn't realize that the seizures alone would cause irreparable damage to the brain -- or that if medical help was not received shortly after exposure, death was inevitable. The incident in Tokyo subway was enough of a showcase. "No one will do anything to make you use it. We want to work together with you -- the police outside will do anything in their power to get this resolved."

"Oh yeah, I've already heard this chant from them today, Agent Mulder," VJ sneered. "Tell me something new."

"Then tell me what you want, VJ," Mulder remembered all his psychological skills, improved recently by the lessons of Miller as well as repeated practice. Inject the words with an almost magical kindness. Gain his trust. Let him say what's on his mind. Make him believe you. "You wanted to talk to me, here I am. Talk."

The man shivered slightly, cockiness disappearing for the time being, his eyes flickering from the FBI agent to the children, then to some unidentifiable point in the blue sky barely visible through the drawn curtains. "I am tired, man. I am so tired -- and these things. . . they just won't leave me alone."

"What things? Aliens?"

VJ raised the gun to his face, looked at it curiously, as if researching its inner mechanism. "I am dying."

Mulder did a double take, stunned. It was everything that he was unprepared to hear. "Are you sick?"

"After as many times as I have been a guinea pig, Agent Mulder, why should that surprise you?" the man sounded exhausted, and not at all sane. "They want to know what that poison did to me, so they take me once, then twice, and again, and again, and they put things inside me, and do you have any idea what that's like?"

The agent nodded, remembering Duane Barry and his "it's like living with a gun to your head." This went beyond deja vu. This was twilight zone. "What poison?" he inquired, still not understanding what VJ was raving about.

"Oh, don't tell me you don't know," VJ bared his teeth in an ugly resemblance of a smile. "The Gulf War Syndrome? That weapon they tested on all of us -- didn't think we would live long enough to testify?"

Mulder felt cold anger rise inside him, an almost murderous rage directed at Peterson and all the others who didn't do enough research -- again -- or just never bothered to inform him of his subject's history. The other agent was suddenly standing in front of him, and he snapped back to the situation at hand.

"I want to take the children outside. I hope you let me come again if something else happens," Collins spoke to VJ with a forced politeness.

"Just go before I change my mind," the terrorist snarled at him, and Collins gathered both children in his arms, signing a thumbs-up to the remaining agent and exiting quickly.

"I didn't know you were in the Gulf."

"Everyone forgets about wars so easily, especially if they ended in a victory," VJ philosophized sadly. "It's only us, veterans, who know anything about it. A lot of my buddies died there, and now I am next."

"I am sorry, VJ," Mulder was busy trying to superimpose what he knew of the Gulf War Syndrome symptoms with the man's unhealthy appearance. Definitely anxiety and fatigue -- but there was no way to verify anything else.

"Bet you are. I think we are all getting sick from that weapon they tested out there, guess they wanted to kill the enemy but didn't know its strength and ended up killing their own people."

Mulder felt a migraine rising. "Who are they?"

VJ looked at him as if he were insane. "The government, who else?"

"VJ, I'm getting confused," Mulder wasn't lying. This story had so many holes, raised so many questions, and he simply failed to understand what perverse logic could possibly lay behind it. "I thought the aliens were the ones who experimented on you?" In his ear piece, he heard a worried voice of Peterson telling him not to anger the subject, and ignored it pointedly.

"Don't you get it?" VJ waved his gun in the air, exasperated. "They are all working together. That weapon was obviously created with some extraterrestrial help -- and our precious government, the United States of America, my ass, helped them try it out," he stopped for a moment, disgusted. "I thought you, of all people, would believe me!"

One of the children started crying suddenly, and VJ grimaced as if in pain, moving too fast for Mulder to realize what was happening. In the next second, the terrorist was shaking the scared kid, and the agent was beside him, imploring him to stop, trying to contain his own horror. "VJ, please. This is just a small boy -- remember what happened the last time -- you broke that boy's arm -- I am listening! I believe you, VJ!"

The teacher grabbed the small form, hugging it close as the man left the child momentarily. "I just hate it when they cry," he whispered hoarsely, a comment obviously not directed at anyone in the room.

"I trust you," Mulder edged away from the children gradually, trying to get VJ to follow him. "You have to trust me, too. I am working for you. You were telling me that the weapon that our government used in the Persian War was of extraterrestrial nature. Do you mean to say that the aliens experimented on you later on to find out the effects of the said weapon on your physiology?"

"Now, was that so hard?" VJ flashed an angry look at the agent. "And I bet that the people who made this weapon, they probably know how to cure this disease. And I don't want to die yet, my man. No, I don't, no matter how much I might miss my buddies."

Mulder looked at the sarin pointedly. "You know, I am not certain if the Gulf War Syndrome is fatal, but that thing will kill you for sure. It's your life too, VJ, remember that."

A strange smile crossed the emaciated face momentarily. "Sorry to disappoint you, my man, but I am not planning to die today."

The agent rubbed his temples, not sure what to make of this. "Let's get this straight, VJ. You are asking for the cure for your disease, is that all?"

"And something else, too," VJ continued smiling. "I want the truth about Gulf War Syndrome out. And about all the little cohorts of our government with the aliens. And I know, Agent Mulder," threatening notes entered his voice, "I know you can do it for me. Some people informed me of the nature of your work."

Mulder suppressed a shiver. "I will have to go and speak to the police and other FBI agents of your demands." As Peterson continued to whisper in his ear about hostages, he asked softly: "Would you care to part with a few children? You don't need them all, and you know that they are way too much trouble."

"You are not asking me to be partial and choose between them, are you? Or do you want to do that for me?" VJ produced some sound which Mulder interpreted as a laugh. "Go, do whatever it is you have to do -- but I want a revolution to happen today."

Scully tried to concentrate on the papers in front of her, but the numbers and letters danced and blurred together, refused to produce meaning to her tired senses. It was already three in the afternoon, and there was still no word from Mulder. Unless he absolutely couldn't get to the phone, he would have already called and let her know what was going on, would have asked her for help if he needed it. She didn't let herself guess what reasons could possibly prevent him from doing so.

Mulder's empty desk stared at her from across the room and a sensation of foreboding swept over her momentarily, a strange certainty that it would remain empty for a long time to come. But of course, there was no reason. . . she was just being silly, and she dropped her eyes quickly, ashamed of her weakness. The first line in the bloodwork report, Subject Name: Unidentified, swam into her line of vision. How fitting, she thought fleetingly. Despite the fact that the Smoking Man supposedly had a name now, he would always remain the unidentified shadow, a face disappearing in a cloud of gray smoke. Scully supposed that if they had ever asked him what his name was, he would have told them -- wouldn't bother to keep it a secret -- but it was always so much easier to call him Cancerman.

So much simpler to classify the enemy.

All the values in the report were decidedly normal. She found it bizarre that there wasn't nicotine rather than blood coursing through the veins of that man. He was not poisoned. There were no drugs or alcohol in his system. Even the red and white cell counts were perfectly standard, no cancer. Rarely a deviation from the norm, no indication of genetic diseases -- everything as ordinary and boring as a glass of water.

There just had to be something here that could help Skinner, and Scully desperately wanted to find it. Even if he was a murderer, which she found hard to believe, he was also a man who sold his soul in the hope of giving her life. Even if she resented the obligation that weighed heavily on her shoulders.

Her eyes fell on the blood group, AB, and for a moment she thought there was something strange about that. . . a subconscious feeling that was gone quickly.

"Agent Scully, may I speak to you?"

The agent suddenly realized that she was not alone in the room, and she turned in annoyance to look at Andrew Winters.

"I am sorry, I tried knocking but you didn't answer," he apologized quickly. "What are you working on?"

Scully took a deep breath, trying to calm down. Reminded herself that this young man was not to blame for her problems. "I'm going over Henry Davidson's bloodwork."


"No," she replied resolutely, closing the folder. "I received your message regarding Assistant Director Skinner, but I haven't had a chance yet to come and talk to you in person."

"It's all right. I spoke to him yesterday and he claims that he has been framed and that the organization responsible works with a company called Rousch. Do you know anything about it? Is it possible that these photographs may have been faked? After all, the lab guys are absolutely certain that the pictures are real. . ." Andrew trailed off, suddenly unsure of why his mouth was running off, why he was doubting such irrefutable evidence.

Scully sighed, reviewing what little information she could safely share with him. "After Blevins, I tried to find some information about them on the Internet -- but there is absolutely nothing. Sometimes, it seems they don't exist," she said truthfully. "But I do know Skinner. And I find it very hard to believe that he would be responsible for murder," she finished softly, guilt washing over her once again.

Andrew leaned back in a chair, immensely tired of everyone speaking in half-truths. "Wasn't there a suspicion that they were responsible for engineering your cancer?" Silence ensued, and he went on, undaunted. "Wouldn't it be natural to conclude that they may deal with biological or chemical research?"

Scully glanced at him sharply. "These are guesses, Agent Winters."

The agent contemplated the small woman in front of him, suddenly noticing an almost eerie likeness between her and Sheila Freeman as the memory of this morning's incident sprang to his mind. The incident which he dismissed as the ranting of a woman mad -- or at least, severely traumatized. He forced it out of his head. "You know, I feel like I am hitting a wall every time I talk about this case. And I'm carrying such a huge load already, and would you believe it, I didn't even notice that Christmas had come and gone," he added under his breath, not sure why he was sharing personal information with Scully, who was practically a stranger.

Scully's face softened, a fleeting smile playing on the corners of her lips. "Yes, the Bureau does seem to exert an odd effect on holiday traditions. This Thanksgiving was an blast especially -- Mulder's mother died on Friday, and then I had to fly to Greenwich. . ."

A heavy pause ensued as she returned back to that surreal day, wondered what would have happened if she hadn't found that damn letter in a box. The answer was easy: her partner would be here, neither of them would have anything to hide, and they would probably be safely investigating some evil spores from another planet. She should have burned it and scattered the ashes at sea.

Wishful thinking, no less.

"Did you speak with Agent Mulder today? He was in such a hurry, sounded as if he was in some sort of a hostage negotiation. . ." Andrew asked curiously and noted that her cool mask dropped for a second.

"Yes, in Baltimore," her voice felt scratchy in her throat.

"I think I saw it on the news. The guy claims to have been abducted by aliens, he has sarin attached to himself and twenty-four kids holed up in a classroom. You know, if it wasn't so sad, it would be funny," Andrew smiled, realizing too late what effect this news had on Scully. She jumped to look for a remote, gripped her desk tightly as the room appeared to spin for a moment. Attempted to steady herself as her thumb hastily tried to find the power button.

Alarmed, Andrew watched her search for CNN. "Agent Scully, I'm sure he's all right."

Her lips pressed in a thin line, she listened to the news report, concentrating her attention on it fully. Understanding that his presence in the room was no longer desired -- or even noticed, for that matter, Andrew excused himself.

For some reason that he still couldn't quite pin down, the entire situation with Sheila was now more disquieting than ever. He could not imagine Fox Mulder involved in anyone's kidnapping.

And still, he had the nasty feeling that maybe Sheila was not mistaken.

On the way back to the classroom, Mulder hurriedly read over the newspaper headline and an article he wrote about an hour ago and that was hastily printed by one of the newspapers whose reporters were standing outside. For once, he was happy to have media nearby, though as they read his story about the government's alliance with aliens and experimentation on human subjects, they must have thought him insane. Peterson only shook his head, resigned. Mulder couldn't care less.

The "antidote" was the easiest part, just a mixture of some strong sleeping pills and food colorings to make it look exotic. The agent raised the vial to the light, chuckled at the greenish swirls in the thick fluid.

Now, he only had to keep VJ from crashing the packages with sarin once he hit the ground, stone-cold.

If only he could trust himself to do it.

Taking a deep breath, Mulder knocked on the door once again. VJ regarded him coolly, took the offered vial and the newspaper in silence and started reading under the dim illumination provided by the streetlight.

"Are you satisfied, VJ?" the agent asked quietly. "The whole country has just been taken by storm. I am sorry that we don't have a TV in here or you would see some interesting news."

The terrorist continued to read. "So you believe me."

"Of course I do. I have been investigating these shadowy dealings for a long time, and I should probably thank you for providing me such a great opportunity to sink my teeth into those bastards," Mulder replied with enthusiasm, getting into the role, hearing Peterson's happy, excited whisper in the ear piece. "I wasn't sure it would work when I left here, but. . . Doesn't it make you proud that you live in the country where children's lives still mean more than the cover-up of lies?"

VJ stared at the vial. "I am going to live if I drink that?"

Mulder nodded, smiling. "I was assured of that. I do want to ask you, though -- how did you know about me?"

VJ dug into his jeans pocket, produced a picture and handed it to the agent. "That you, right? One friend of mine told me you could help me, man. That you would believe me and I could get my life back."

Mulder shuddered visibly at the touch of reverence in his voice, wondering who led this madman to him and how exactly he got such peculiar reputation. Glanced at the unnaturally silent hostages huddled close together. "Drink it, VJ. Let's see some magic."

"All right. But. . ." the thin man staggered in the direction of the kids. "I want one of them to drink it first, you know? I trust you, man, but I want to try it on someone else, first."

Mulder quickly evaluated his options, watching as VJ lifted up one of the girls who immediately started squirming. The worst that could happen was she would fall asleep -- but VJ would still drink it, unsuspecting the foul play. "All right. Let me hold her," Mulder heard the words tumble out of his mouth, and for a split second wondered what part of him made the decision. Took the child in his hands automatically.

He almost fell over from the scream he heard in his ear in the next moment. Someone, not Peterson, but another voice, someone he didn't know was telling him not to let the child drink the medicine, that it was poison, and that VJ was supposed to die. Mulder released the screaming girl and grabbed for the vial, registering the look of betrayal on the other man's face. The shards of glass, covered with the thick fluid, lay everywhere on the floor.

VJ reached into his pocket again and produced a small gray pill, swallowing it with the speed of a magician, but his other hand did not quite complete the way to opening the package with sarin. The agent caught the convulsing body half-way to the floor, shielding the poison gas, comprehension of today's events dawning slowly.

He didn't want to believe that he has been manipulated so well. Once again, he had served as a mere pawn in the carefully orchestrated operation.

In several minutes, an EMT was prying the dead man out of Mulder's hands, and the children were crying in the background. Their teacher, alternating between laughter and tears, was trying to hug him and he responded weakly, shaking Peterson's hand at the same time. Red and blue whites washed over everything as he numbly crossed the street from the school. Reporters yelled at him from far away, and in the distance, the body of Vernon John Fulsom was being taken to the Baltimore city morgue.

It was all over.

But how could he begin to explain that he was the only person to blame for this incident?

The X-Files office was still locked at eleven in the morning, and Scully reached in her bag for the keys, exhaustion overwhelming her for a moment. Watching the coverage from Baltimore on TV, alone in the cramped basement, was too unnerving, the recollections of Duane Barry were too fresh, and since she was unable to reach either the negotiations center or Mulder's cellular, she decided to stop torturing herself and simply drove there.

Scully arrived just in time to see the children being dispatched to their parents, situation apparently resolved. Adding to the general atmosphere of tumult and celebration was a crowd of reporters, TV cameras, and flashing lights that seemed to grow exponentially. The live wall that they created was nearly impossible to get through, but soon she realized that she didn't have to, because the only person the media seemed to be focused on was the one she was desperately searching for. Mulder.

He didn't see her, and Scully stepped back immediately, searching for a quiet place to wait them out, too aware of the desire to touch her partner and make sure he was alive. Leaning against the wall, she watched the police and FBI agents slowly disperse. The lights of ambulances, TV cameras and headlights of the passing cars washed the beige school building in grotesque colors. A bad place, thought Scully, come on in and smell the nerve gas.

She watched casually as a well-dressed older gentleman spoke with another man. He turned momentarily, revealing his profile, and Scully's hands grew cold as she put the name, James Milton, with the face of a man who warned her of impending danger when Mulder was missing. On the way to a limousine, after saying good-byes, the other man threw a brief look at Scully, recognition but no light in the pale eyes. And she could only gaze at the departing car, wondering why a complete stranger recognized her while she could not recall ever meeting him.

Before James Milton noticed her, Scully went back to her car and put the keys in ignition. This hostage negotiation was somehow connected to the Consortium, she had absolutely no doubt about it now, and the realization chilled her to the bone, made her teeth chatter as she pulled the coat around her tighter, turned on the heat in the car with shaking fingers. Did Mulder know about it? During his early morning phone call, was he aware that twenty-four children were placed in danger simply on someone's whim?

The answers eluded her, and much as she wanted to believe in her partner's ignorance, the doubt weighed massively on her heart. Her shivers gradually subsided as the colorful crowd of reporters melted. From afar, Mulder looked bone-weary and yet he produced a pleasant smile while walking up to the Englishman and shaking his hand briefly. And though his eyes tracked over the remaining people, as if searching for someone else, Scully knew that she could not risk walking up to him at this moment. And even if she could, she wasn't sure if she had the strength to face him right now.

She knew that she would not be able to close her eyes later in the night as her unwilling hands moved to start the engine. And she knew that the cellular phone would remain frustratingly silent all night long, because he wouldn't call, and she would be too proud to dial the familiar number.

Now, after a sleepless night, she was late for work, where the empty desk greeted her again. And Scully was very grateful that there was no one who saw her face in that moment, when she could literally feel the walls close in on her.

On the desk, she found a note asking her to run the analysis on some gray pills stuffed in a cellophane bag. For some reason, that little thing, the impersonal request hastily scribbled on a piece of paper, was the final drop that broke the dam, and Scully sat down heavily, all her anguish and loneliness pouring out in a flood of tears. This is how Mulder must have felt when he met Samantha, she realized with a start. It must have killed him that she was alive, healthy, but as unreachable as the stars in the sky.

Hating herself for being melodramatic, she wiped the tears off angrily. There was no reason to get so worked up over this, she told herself sternly as she grabbed the pills on the way to the lab.

But suddenly, Scully knew exactly why the findings on Cancerman's blood group surprised her. Samantha's group was 00. She remembered it perfectly as one of the few pieces of information they had gotten on her during the Roche case. Just another atrocity embedded in her dreams, digging through the dirt with her bare hands and watching her partner rapidly disintegrate before her very eyes, one shred of his heart after another.

Cancerman had lied. Samantha was not his daughter.

The VCS department was alive with chatter and gossip today, and Andrew did not have to guess the topic of the conversation. A tired face of Fox Mulder smiled at him from the morning newspaper, the headline above it proclaimed: "FBI AGENT SAVES LIVES." Andrew stared at the picture for a long time, searching the familiar face, imagining that there was pain and resignation hidden behind the courteous smile. Mulder was an enigma that only seemed to grow more puzzling with time.

And Winters was still very interested in Sheila Freeman's reaction to his voice.

Someone placed a hand on his shoulder, and the young agent turned around, startled.

"Agent Winters, may I speak with you for a moment?" Dean Douglas greeted him warmly.

"Sure," Andrew tried to gather the manila folders and books off the extra chair in his cubicle, but gave up when he understood that he had nowhere else to put them. "What's going on?"

"I just spoke with the newly appointed Assistant Director," Douglas said slowly, as if doubting that the conversation actually took place. Since he had seen the pictures of Walter Skinner holding a gun that shot Henry Davidson, the changes at work just kept on coming, and few of them were for the best. "He would like to request your services in another department."

"A transfer?" the young man echoed softly, dismay reflecting on his face when his boss confirmed. "Where?"

"Actually, you might find this new assignment interesting -- though a bit peculiar," Douglas replied, his own disappointment at losing one of the best agents in the department apparent. "Have you heard of the X-Files?"

Andrew just stared, shocked. "But. . . Agent Mulder. . ."

"Is the new Assistant Director. Most of it is good publicity, I think, and Director Robinson was quite in favor of his candidature," Douglas shrugged and exited the small cubicle, leaving his agent open-mouthed.

Scully sat in the large fifth-floor office and gazed outside at the impressive view of Washington D.C. downtown. Across the table sat her partner -- ex-partner, her mind corrected mechanically -- and she has just realized that addressing him by the simple name of Mulder was improper conduct.

"I was trying to find you last night," she finally said, deciding to avoid names or titles for now.

"So was I," he replied colorlessly, still hurt by her absence even as he realized the lack of rationalism in that feeling. Because after walking out of that stuffy classroom, the only person he wanted to see was Scully. And the only one he didn't want to see was Milton.

"I was there," she mouthed softly and turned away, realizing that this conversation would probably be as pointless as every other conversation that didn't transpire on the newsgroup. It made her throat constrict with the unshed tears, and she struggled to maintain her composure.

Mulder's eyes darkened as he watched her upset face, suddenly understanding the reasons why he didn't see her last night. "Oh, screw this," he muttered under breath and pulled his chair from behind the desk, putting it next to Scully's. At least physically, they were now on the same level. "Did you find out what the pills were?"

"Cyanide," she replied, seemingly unimpressed with his gesture. "Where did they come from?"

"VJ swallowed one yesterday. I am pretty sure he didn't know what it was. They were always in his pocket -- he was planning on using them in case he decided to dispense with the kids."

"He thought it was an antidote to sarin, didn't he?" Scully instantly regretted the question, watching as Mulder stiffened and chewed his lower lip. "May I perform the autopsy?"

"Military is handling it," he replied quickly, if gently, signaling that this conversation was over. Whoever staged this hostage charade at the Consortium certainly liked drama, he thought sarcastically -- even VJ's death had to resemble Duane Barry's. A sick man who blabbered a little too much about the Gulf War and aliens had been cruelly manipulated to commit suicide. Twenty four children and a young woman had been put in danger, two children still in hospital -- all of them fighting night terrors. While he, Scully, and hundreds of other law enforcement officials had to go through the adrenaline-fed hell that came with a hostage negotiation.

All to gain some publicity and have an opportunity to promote him.

On the other hand, Mulder already guessed who staged this charade. He just had to confirm it.

"I was worried about you yesterday," Scully's voice broke and she was finally embarrassingly aware of the wetness in her eyes. It seemed as if every little hitch today had suddenly gained the ability to make her cry. "I was watching CNN coverage from Baltimore. . . and I could not reach you."

Mulder shaded his face with his hands. "I'm so sorry, Scully. I never had an opportunity to call you and let you know what was going on."

"I understand. You are a busy man these days, aren't you?" her voice held no trace of sarcasm but he flinched as if burnt.

Scully scolded herself mentally. She was behaving like a child. There was no reason to start fighting now. She had to maintain the belief that everything could still get back to normal.

The onerous silence was disrupted by Andrew Winters who addressed Mulder deferentially and nodded to Scully politely. In turn, she smiled slightly and threw a puzzled look at the newly appointed Assistant Director.

"Agent Winters, due to my changed position," Mulder shrugged self-consciously, "I was hoping you wouldn't mind working as Agent Scully's partner from now on. You are already working with her on Davidson's murder, after all." And I know that you are honest and I can trust you, he added silently. Acknowledging that he had to prove that he was happy with his present position at the Consortium, but that he was worried about Scully, Winters' assignment was the best compromise Mulder could think of on the fly. He gazed knowingly at Scully as he spoke. "The cases that come to the X-Files department may be bizarre at times, but even a skeptic like her could not resist their appeal."

Scully had to smile at that, much as her heart ached at the notion of working with someone else. Mulder was watching her with a plea in his eyes, and she nodded back slightly, accepting his decision. She put on her most gracious expression and smiled at Winters. "Well, I can promise you will enjoy the mind-bending surprises of working with ghosts and mutants."

"I would be honored," Winters said simply to Scully, pretending not to notice the strain in her voice. "Though I regret leaving Violent Crimes."

That was only partly true, the young agent amended silently. The job of profiling was often too much to bear, and the new assignment was seductive. However, he still hoped that it was not... permanent.

Mulder looked at him, trying to hide his surprise, remembering his own joy when he left the department. "Well, perhaps, you will have a chance to return there," he replied. Along those wishful lines, Mulder wondered if Skinner would ever return to the chair he was sitting in now. If Mulder would ever get possession of the X-Files again. And if, when he could finally gather enough courage to apologize, Scully would forgive him for everything he had done since that fateful day at the corner diner.

Scully rose to her feet reluctantly. "Agent Winters, if you come with me, I will try to welcome you. . . to our basement."

The young man accepted the offer with a gracious smile, appreciating his new partner's humor.

"Are there any new developments in Davidson's case?" Mulder interjected quickly, cursing himself for the emotional inflection in his voice. The first court hearing was scheduled for tomorrow, and he shuddered imagining himself in Skinner's situation. Because from where he stood, there were only a few steps to where Skinner was standing right now.

"No, but... Cancerman's blood was AB. What was Samantha's?" Scully watched as her ex-partner's eyes widened in shock, while Andrew was busy trying to comprehend the meaning behind the cryptic message.

"Thank you," he said dully. "Please tell me if you find something else."

Scully swallowed the automatic formal reply before it had a chance to leave her lips and suddenly at a loss for other words, produced a shaky smile instead.

Mulder got up and opened the door for them silently.

And the way from the Assistant Director's office to downstairs had never seemed quite as long.

Miller was playing chess alone when Mulder stepped into his office. He often started a game in between sessions with his patients, and many years of practice made him an expert in this ancient art. Now, if he moved a Queen to B-6, whites would have a chance at taking a few more pieces. . .

"If you move a Queen there, the whites will lose."

"Fox, I didn't even see you come in here," Miller extended a hand to him. "I am just indulging myself with my little hobby."

"I can finish this game for blacks, if you like," Mulder offered and the doctor almost clapped his hands in delight.

"Be my guest! It has been awhile since I've had a chess partner," Miller reviewed his position carefully and moved a Queen to a different place. "You were right."

Mulder shrugged and moved a pawn. "It was your idea to use VJ for publicity, wasn't it?" The question sounded more like a statement. It took all of his powers of concentration not to scream at the man in front of him, not to unleash all the fury within his heart.

The doctor threw an admiring look at his opponent. "Yes. Based on the information we had in his file, he fit the criteria, and he served his purpose nicely, wouldn't you say?"

"Why didn't you inform me of this?"

Miller shook his head, reviewing the chess board. "Oh, but I knew you would be against it from the start. You just do not know how to use people. No, that's not it. . ." he wrinkled his forehead, searching for proper words. "You don't realize that some people only serve as a means to an end. I knew you would behave in a certain way, and I knew he would behave in a certain way. I was not the one who took care of the rest of the details, such as supplying him with sarin, pills, and. . . a few ideas on how to utilize them. And we do have other people in the FBI and police who can be counted upon to lend us a hand."

"It was almost perfect."

"Well, some things we can't predict. But either way it worked out fine," Miller smiled with satisfaction, oblivious to Mulder's deceptively soft voice.

For a moment, the agent was torn -- one part of him shuddering at the cold dismissal of a human life, another applauding the man whose psychological expertise was the key to a successful staging of Baltimore drama. "Was he really dying?"

"Who knows? The effects of this weapon are still largely unknown. Personally, I am not aware of the lethal cases of the Gulf War Syndrome. . . it is all in a dosage, I suppose."

Another piece of a puzzle fell into place. Biological weapons of extraterrestrial nature would certainly be considered a worthy benefit from Rousch's experimentation -- all in the name of democracy and safety of the American public, no doubt. He wondered what other parts there were to the project that he wasn't aware of.

"Eventually, you will understand the large picture, Fox," Miller answered his silent question. "But you have not been long enough with this organization yet for us to trust you implicitly. To this end, I must commend the fact that you have immediately paired Agent Scully with someone else. What's in the past. . ."

Mulder laughed uneasily. "I would be a fool to pretend that it didn't kill me inside, Miller," he moved another piece lazily and looked at his opponent perceptively. "If you know me that well, you must also know how much she means to me."

"I do. We all have our weaknesses, and Agent Scully is yours," the old doctor sounded oddly sympathetic. "I used to have a son. He was my weakness. His mother abandoned me when he was very small, and he and I, having no one else, were as close as two human beings can be, until he became ill. Leukemia," Miller pronounced the word with a touch of fear. "I would have done anything to make him better, and at the time Rousch was working on a cure for it. I think it was a side product of something else, but no matter. That is when your father asked me to join the organization."

"My father?" Mulder echoed, his pulse accelerating immediately. "Did you know him well?" before firing off another question, he stopped himself with an apology. "Forgive me for interrupting."

"It's all right," Miller waved a hand. "We used to work together, but we were never friends. I am grateful to him even though my son died before we had medicine that could heal him. Time, Fox, is merciless. And you never have enough," he finished in a whisper.

Mulder watched the sadness and longing in the older man's face and felt his anger drain away slowly, only to be replaced with sympathy. He could identify -- oh, so well -- with everything that Miller related, remembering his own despair when Scully became ill. And if the only way to cure his son was to start working for the Consortium, then it was the only way and he had to take it.

Because there, indeed, was never enough time.

Getting a handle on his strangely changed feelings toward the doctor, Mulder cornered the white King with a black Knight. "You lose, and I have an appointment. Later," he spoke lightly and stepped out of the room.

Miller smiled excitedly, looking at the board. What a beautifully executed victory, he thought. It was hardly surprising, however, that the bright boy he used to know had become a brilliant man.

He only wished that this brilliance was enough to decipher whatever message it was that Bill Mulder left in a letter to his son.

Mulder leaned against the white wall and stared at the blinding light overhead until he felt tears burn in his eyes. The game was easy. The conversation extracted an unimaginable toll. He wished that this building, these people he worked with now could just disappear, that he could just shrug them off like a nightmare that disintegrates in the sunlight of the morning, leaving no recollection of its events. Perhaps, he could get Miller to erase his memory of the time he spent here, he thought with mounting hysteria. Then, if Scully asked him where he spent all this time away from the office, and ask she would, and soon, he could just tell her that he did not remember.

It would be so perfect.

At the sound of approaching footsteps, Mulder slowly regained his focus, reminding himself that seriously entertaining such thoughts were a one way ticket to a straight jacket and padded walls. So the Consortium kept files on the people they were interested in. Probably on everyone who has ever been taken or experimented upon. He didn't know why it should have surprised him so, or why he didn't think to look for them previously. It would only be natural to look for them now.

To look for a folder labeled Samantha Mulder.

And even though she didn't want to know him, even if she had no desire to learn the truth about herself -- he still wanted to know the truth about what happened to her.

Even if he never saw her again.

Assistant Director.

Walter Skinner ran the title over his tongue, feeling his body parts becoming numb against the lumpy cot in his jail cell. He closed his eyes, trying to recall what exactly was in the job description when the Director and FBI brass had offered him the job. For some reason, however, his mind remained frustratingly blank -- he could not recall any of the terms he had so patriotically agreed to when he signed his contract.

His job had metamorphosed over the years. Most of the changes had stemmed from a certain division in the basement of the J. Edgar Hoover Building. The stability of tedium had been replaced by the Excedrin-yielding spontaneity of two federal agents. Paperwork -- the staple of bureaucratic monotony -- had been transformed to pseudo-prosaic confabulations about the paranormal. And admittedly, Skinner had felt something for his agents, had admired their relentless pursuit for the truth, and their refusal to stoop to the Consortium's levels.

And now Mulder was Assistant Director.

And Skinner could swear he could still smell the salty tang of blood, from where he had been stabbed in the back. Forget about Krycek the Rat, Mulder had become the new weasel on the block, and the squeaky mattress underneath Skinner groaned as his body weight abruptly shifted -- as his blood pressure rose, and his face grew red with thoughts of betrayal.

Mulder was too brash; he clashed with the pot-bellied, hair-thinning FBI brass. Skinner smiled -- Mulder would never survive as the Assistant Director, and he morbidly anticipated the younger agent to fail, and soon. Mulder knew next to nothing about dealing with authorities, about playing paper-laden ring around the rosy with the upper brass.

But, his mind countered, Mulder's past had been pot-marked by contacts, by government officials... by the legacy of his father. He had been with VCS -- had been a part of the panhandling, paper work, and media frenzy that had continued past Bill Patterson's tenure into insanity.

Skinner was drumming his fingers against the cot, trying to make some semblance of the puzzle pieces in front of him.

The Consortium had planted evidence to implicate him for murder.

And Mulder was promoted in his place.

So, either the young agent had suddenly developed a bout of ignorance, or he had finally succumbed to bastards on West 46th.

Skinner shuddered, closing his eyes, knowing that it was the greater of the two evils that Mulder had fallen to. He wondered if Scully was unaware of her partner's betrayal or if she was involved as well and couldn't decide. As dependent as the two agents were on each other, it was highly plausible. . . and if she were involved, it would certainly explain her unwillingness to help him.

He panicked -- wondering if Mulder had joined the Consortium willingly and if he felt any guilt. Did he even give a second thought about putting his Assistant Director in jail? Why would he have felt the need to...

Skinner was tempted to laugh hysterically. He was too aware of the suspicion Mulder still held towards him. More importantly, he wondered where the sudden need to know in what esteem Mulder held him in came from.

The agent's hesitance during their meeting at his apartment, his jerky, nervous behavior when he had requested that they look into his murder charge -- it was so goddamned clear now. So much for his Assistant Director skills and his ability to read people.

Because Walter Skinner had been blind to it all.

In the end, the blood of Benjamin de Hecht -- Captain of the NYPD -- had splattered into a familiar blossom, reminiscent of the blood-stained window that John Lee Roche left behind. The bullet from the silenced PP7 had charged the surrounding air, hiding everything behind a smokescreen that smelled like the salt of blood and the bitterness of burnt carbon.

The head had been decimated -- sulci and dura matter had been flung in a circle with a constant radius. Mulder stared numbly as blood pulsated out of the remaining eye socket in time to an increasingly faltering heartbeat.

The assassin -- whom Mulder remembered as the man in black who perforated holes in the glass doors at Lombard -- was still busy at work, wiping the pistol clear of prints and placing it in the hands of the deceased. A bag of crack cocaine was produced and shoved in the Captain's pockets.

There was some wet, gray matter in the assassin's hair, and Mulder felt as if he were floating in a dream, as if cameras were rolling as he moved through this surreal scene. Quentin Tarantino could make a film where Samuel Jackson could get brain guts in his hair, and pretty-faced John Travolta could brush it off with a straight-faced crack. Put on a T-shirt, complement it with a ratty bathrobe, and things would be so freaking funny.

Mulder rubbed a gloved hand over his eyes, the smell of death momentarily overpowering him.

It sure as hell wasn't funny now.

The trench-coated figure made a signal for them to leave, and Mulder felt his legs move of their own volition. They left the federal safe house under the guise of night, and the newest Consortium member watched as the assassin drove casually through the gates.

And Mulder heard nothing but the sickening click of his seatbelt as the uniformed guard at the gate waved goodbye as their Olds passed through.

He stared out the window as lights played on the surface of glass. The ninety-minute ride to the airport was accomplished in silence. No names had been passed, personal agendas were hidden, and there was no need for pleasantries.

The assassin was here to do a job -- a task that had been accomplished successfully many times before, and Mulder was here to...

He swallowed, feeling his innards grind as the car ran over a pothole on the highway. He was here to learn a lesson.

Benjamin de Hecht had been the celebrated Captain of New York's men in blue. He was amiable and easy on the camera. He had reduced the inner city crime, and he could get the job done expediently when needed.

He had also been a Consortium gopher from 1985, up until three weeks ago, when his child had been found in a ditch. He had noted the abduction scar in her neck, and the pale blue face that spoke of an all-too-human monster. He had abruptly resigned and silently turned State's Evidence.

The muted PP7 was sitting beside him, the gun barrel still smelling of burning lead. The message to Mulder was far from subtle, and he understood completely what the Consortium was stressing. Double crossing and betrayal were not to be permitted.

There was a pain in his stomach, and his nausea radiated in waves as the police cruiser wailed, speeding in the opposite direction. Mulder clenched his fingers together, closing his eyes, trying to convince himself that he had not killed the man. He had not pulled the trigger.

But the reel in his eidetic memory kept playing -- showing de Hecht's surprised green eyes and tense body. The bearded man had opened his mouth, issuing a surprised croak, flaying his hands for a weapon when his head exploded. There was the sound of tissue falling, hitting the floor messily before the torso collapsed.

And Mulder had watched as the silent spectator, his head growing leaden, the albatross around his neck becoming heavier.

He remembered lecturing to Academy students once at Quantico -- describing visionary killers as those who maimed and tortured because they thought they were ridding the world of pestilence. They were the kind of killings that were justified because black people were incompetent, or the Aryan people were superior.

And that even though the road to hell was paved with good intentions, it was still a road to hell.

Did his dreams of Scully and Sam mean that he was visionary? Could he justify the deaths of those nameless informants and human obstacles, in the name of those he saw in restless dreams, night after night? And there were so many others who suffered by the invisible hand of the Consortium, whose lives were destroyed and whose sanity was threatened.

The gaudy neon lights that cast a red hue to the interior of the car provided no answer, and Mulder bit his lip, once again eyeing the silenced PP7.

If this, indeed, was his road to hell, Mulder mused, it *was* paved with good intentions.

He looked to the assassin beside him and pressed his lips into a grim line. As he watched an oncoming car briefly illuminate the vehicle interior with white light, his heart grew warm with certainty.

There, indeed, was too much pestilence in the world.

And he would get rid of it.

Scully and Andrew stood silently in the X-Files office, their arms crossed over their chests. She watched his eyes roam over the poster-adorned walls and buried her irritation, catching his growing smirk.

"I take it this poster is Mulder's."

Scully stared at the "I Want To Believe" poster, a smile growing behind her still lips. "Yes, it is." She stared at it a second longer than necessary, absorbing what little it seemed her and her ex-partner had in common. She watched Andrew with suspicious eyes -- not liking the way he was fingering Mulder's desk, or how he was rearranging the controlled chaos of files, notes, and folders.

She wondered when she had gotten so possessive as she tightened her arms around the chest, dug her fingernails roughly into her side. He opened up the file cabinet, played with the slide projector, grabbed a sharpened pencil, and began to play with it in his fingers.

Scully's annoyance grew exponentially. Was he purposely doing this? Was he trying to antagonize her? She pinched the skin underneath her rib cage so hard that she knew it would be raw tomorrow.

She bit her lip, knowing the answer already. Even without the psych Ph.D., she knew deep inside that Andrew was doing nothing wrong. It was her. And Mulder. It was the stupid situation that she had more stupidly agreed to, that was causing her skin to crawl. She watched the ex-VCS agent walk around Mulder's desk and heard the chair being pulled out.

Scully failed to prevent the horrified sound that came from her mouth, and Andrew stopped his body's progression from sitting down, staring startled at her.

Her arms quickly came from her sides to place themselves protectively at Mulder's desk. "Why don't you... uh... why don't you take my desk, Agent Winters," Scully hated how breathless her voice sounded. "I'll take Mulder's since I know where everything is."

Andrew rose up slowly, hearing the hesitation, regarding her suspiciously. "Sure."

Scully breathed a sigh of relief, her heartbeat calming down, her vision returning to normal. It was just a visual example of her dependence on Mulder, and it made her hands shake as she took up his chair. It was what she had grappled with during her cancer, during the horrible inquisition when she had to convince her superiors that he was dead.

And the dependence was mutual, despite Mulder's constant forays into danger without her. It was true that they were each other's weakness. While she became alternatively depressed and protective, Mulder would become combative and dour.

A lovely pair of bookends, as Missy would often say.

And it was becoming increasingly difficult to convince herself that her mood swings were in no way indicative of the increasing strain in her and Mulder's current long-distance relationship.

"Were you surprised at Mulder's promotion?"

Scully shook herself out of her reverie, her arms unconsciously going around her sides once again. "What do you mean?"

Andrew shrugged his shoulders. "I mean, don't you think it was a bit uh... premature?"

"Are you asking me if I doubt my partner's credentials?"

Andrew shook his head quickly, the incorrect use of the word "partner" not escaping him. "No... no..." he saw Scully waiting for an explanation. "I mean, Mulder really hasn't endeared himself to the brass, and come on," he smirked, "the X-Files isn't really the stuff Assistant Directors are made of."

Scully ignored the joke, watching her vision threaten red once again. She marveled suddenly at how different this day was from the first time the young agent visited the X-Files department. There was little left of his obvious, and somewhat flattering, fascination with Mulder and her. It seemed any respect he afforded them was slowly disappearing, as well. "Why are you antagonizing me, Agent Winters?"

Andrew stood back, wary of the daggers her eyes were shooting. "Why are you being so protective?"

"I just... I have a lot of respect for Mulder's abilities," she crossed her legs, and sat back into her ex-partner's chair. "I think after five years of being partnered with him I would be more able to make such a judgement than some young agent who has undoubtedly heard far too many Spooky stories at the Academy." Andrew watched his new partner's lips curve up into a smile, heard the voice inflect higher as she tried to pass off the statement as a joke. But her blue eyes had smoldered holes into his suit, and her hands had turned white as her fingers balled into fists.

The silent message to back off was heard loud and clear.

Samantha had visited him in his dreams again last night.

And she was no longer the waif eight-year-old with brown rope for hair. She had turned into a woman, with children who hung like parasites on her leg, with a husband who grew like an ugly protrusion out of her side. Yet she flashed him a blinding smile. . .

She had disappeared, once again, and he could do nothing but stand still as she faded away into the ether of night.

And even though the stars had shone brightly, the night had remained black. The darkness engulfed her, and the ring around her finger glowed cruelly as the only source of illumination.

Sam had not screamed, and she had not floated away. The feet of her children had shuffled in time to the mocking laugh of her husband, and Foxy had not reached for the gun -- had only listened to her wishes as she disappeared.

"Don't look for me..."

"Don't think about me..."

"When I'm ready..."

"Let me go..."

Mulder attempted to shake off the clinging gossamers of last night's illusion. He let out a hoarse cough, rubbing a hand behind his neck, feeling it slide against lubricating sweat. He watched his shadow move stiffly along the corridor wall, and his jaw began to ache with the pressure he was gritting his teeth with.

When his feet finally stopped, when the door stood resolutely in front of him, Mulder's previous boldness had disappeared. His heartbeat fluttered, his breath came out in nervous gasps -- and his hands were unable to muster enough courage to open the steel panel in front of them.

"Don't look..."

The door hinges squeaked, moaning their disuse, and Mulder once again wiped his sweaty hands on already-damp pants. His mouth formed a tight circle as he inhaled sharply.

The file cabinets surrounded him. Neatly labeled with numbers and letters, they stood silently, stoically, keeping their secrets hidden inside.

He stood in the doorway, finding his bearings, hearing air particles collide. He numbly forced his feet to walk, the steel cabinets rebounding their echo infinitely. His fingers traced the labels as he made his way through the Western alphabet. His eyes were transfixed, and his heart stopped once again when the drawer labeled Mo-Mz beckoned him.

"Don't think..."

He stared at the cabinet longer, fingers twitching at his sides, the sweat leaving his hands cold as it evaporated into cold, musty air. As if spurned by an unknown source, his fingers harshly pulled the cabinet open -- flaying as they passed through the multitude of buff-colored folders. As if fueled by a catalyst, his fingers moved faster, his eyes mirroring the dizzying movements desperately.


And he stopped when he read his sister's name on the folder, and only debated for nanoseconds of time whether the past should remain buried. He pulled it out hastily, flipping through the contents, not really absorbing the information, dilated pupils tracking over random figures and comments.

"Let me go..."

The cabinet was slammed shut, and Mulder paced the tiny corridor. Why couldn't he let go? Why couldn't he have a white picket fence with a wife who was normal? Why couldn't he have a normal job, with blessedly normal co-workers? Why did everything around him have to remain so frustratingly *abnormal*? The questions remained unanswered as Mulder smiled ruthlessly and pocketed the file.

Maybe Scully could decipher it.

Scully could...

Mulder's eyebrows furrowed with suspicion as he walked further into the steel-laden corridor. His eyes tracked intently over the labels till he saw what he was looking for: Sa-Sn.

"Don't look..."

This file was heavier than Samantha's. Thicker. And the label on the folder was more faded, as if Dana Katherine Scully's folder had been passed through numerous, curious hands.

"Don't think..."

Mulder's eyes blazed as he flipped through the chart. The letters on the page momentarily turned red as he read through the detached, impersonal analyses of her skin, her eyes, her....

He could not swallow past the bile in his throat, violated, as visions of seeing Scully comatose came unbidden into his mind.

"Let it go..."

He shook his head resolutely. His soul had already been sold. Scruples had long since been thrown away. The folders rested so comfortably in his hand; they could be slipped out of the Consortium's watch so easily...

Watching the double crosses, seeing the dealings of morally ambiguous shadows, Mulder smiled. Like the chess game with Miller, like the hypnosis he was taught to perform, nothing was beyond his reach. Five years of pursuing, running, and dealing had allowed him to sharpen his skills of deception. He would get the bastards. He would get the bastards no matter what had to be done.

Mulder smiled grimly when he imagined Milton's neck twisting like taffy in his hands.

Taking a breath, looking nervously towards the door, Mulder released the ironclad grip he held on the two folders. If not for the numerous Duane Barry's and VJ's in the cabinets, he would do it for Sam. And if not for Sam, he would most certainly do it for Scully.

And the thought made his heart fall to the pit of his stomach once again.

Because he was spooky and his life would never involve a Lucy-esque wife, or friends who would drink trendy coffee and make funny faces.

Deep Throat had been right: the shark dies once it's stopped swimming.

And with the prey an arm's length away, Mulder offered a silent rebuttal to Samantha's plea. Because he had to look. Had to think.

And this time, he would not let go.

Andrew came with a tangible apology five hours after their first fight. He placed a file on her desk, the red and white border, and the black, stenciled "X" boldly proclaiming it to be an X-File.

He perched on her desk, waiting for her to read it.

"I thought this would be a good place to start," she gave him a questioning glance, and he smiled. "A good foray into the X-Files world, so to speak, at least for me."

The accompanying photograph was the first thing to catch her eyes. Hair as red as molten metal, eyes as blue as the clearest water, and a blank expression that spoke of the trauma she had been through. Scully started to grow uneasy as the 4' by 6' photo of an abduction scar failed to pass her gaze unnoticed. And the familiar refrain of missing time made her want to groan, hide in her apartment underneath the safety of her duvet.

In Sheila Freeman's case, three weeks worth of time hadn't been accounted for. The report had gaps of nothing, where police and eyewitness accounts failed to turn up anything. In other paragraphs, the accounts of onlookers and police conflicted. Where one saw an airplane light, the other saw a hovering UFO. Where one heard Sheila Freeman scream, the other heard nothing, save for the chirping of crickets.

Scully closed the report and placed it on her desk carefully. "Have you met with her?"

Andrew nodded. "Yeah, actually, the case was originally VCS's because we thought a human perp was doing all of this."

Scully silently nodded, muttering to herself. "Human perp indeed."

"By the way, you will notice that she also had a chip extracted out of her neck," Andrew continued softly, "the one you could tell me nothing about."

She glanced at him in annoyance, and he returned the stare, his teeth tentatively biting his lip.


Andrew shrugged, offering the suggestion quietly. "I don't mean to bring this up, but do you think that this could be related to you?"

Scully's eyes blazed at the intrusion. "How do you know?"

Andrew stood his ground in front of his partner's desk, having expected the defensive response. "Your disappearance involved many FBI agents," he studied the floor, shrugging his shoulders. "They've all seen the reports... and uh... heard Agent Mulder's theories. I wasn't here when it happened, but I read all of it later." Scully remained silent, unable to offer a response. The rational side of her knew that everyone in the Bureau had heard of her abduction -- had sidestepped it with polite conversation and frustratingly impersonal pleasantries. It had been a preview to the hushed whispers that would come once she was diagnosed with cancer. The female federal agent took a deep breath, trying to keep her temper under control. "Okay, Andrew," she said, regretting the condescending tone of her voice. "Then what makes this case fall under our jurisdiction rather than VCS's?"

Andrew smiled grimly, and Scully wished she could slap his flair for the melodramatic out of him. "Here's the kicker -- Freeman heard Mulder's voice during her abduction."

Scully dialed the number reluctantly, never fully prepared to deal with the paranoid threesome who were The Lone Gunmen. But she very much doubted that anyone else would be able to help her in the current dilemma.

"Lone Gunmen."

"Byers, this is Agent Scully."

"Oh, hey, we caught all this coverage on Baltimore hostage negotiation," he answered happily. "Mulder seems to be a popular man these days."

And they had no idea just how popular, Scully thought sarcastically. "Listen, I need to ask you for a favor. . ."

"Sure thing," now it was Langly on the phone. "Want us to hack into a computer or do you need some passes to a flu institute?"

Scully rolled her eyes, though she couldn't help but smile at his jocular, slightly teasing tone. "Nothing that dangerous. Could I come by later on today?"

She heard some noises in the background, and Langly answered momentarily: "Frohike wants me to tell you that he can't wait. You still remember where we are?"

"I remember," Scully hung up, shaking her head ruefully. She scribbled a quick note for Andrew, feeling guilty for not including him. The Lone Gunmen's reaction to her bringing a new partner could be too much to deal with at the moment -- especially considering the nature of her request.

She drove quickly, punishing her car with sudden stops and jerky turns, and tried not to think about the bizarre case that Andrew brought in to the X-Files. There was, almost certainly, a way to clear up this confusion - this misunderstanding - and then they could all move on with their lives.

Byers answered the door, ceremoniously inviting her inside. Scully felt surreal here without Mulder - they were his friends, this was his territory. And she would be asking them to help her in. . . To help her in clearing his name, she answered her own question firmly.

"Agent Scully, you look lovely as always," Frohike was already taking her coat and asking her to sit down on the spot he has just cleared off numerous papers, diskettes, and weird-looking things she dared not ask about.

"Thank you," she settled down carefully, unsure how to start, biding her time. "I see you got a new toy?" she pointed to a huge scanner whose wires were already a part of the breathing computer system.

"State-of-the-art," Langly announced proudly. "Five thousand dpi resolution, keeps colors alive. . ."

Byers glanced at him with impatience, then turned to Scully curiously. "Where is the man of the hour - Mulder?"

"Yeah, we haven't seen him in a while," Frohike reprised. "Not since you two got suspended."

Scully shifted uncomfortably under three pairs of expectant eyes. "Uh. . . he was promoted to Assistant Director," she uttered finally. They seemed numbed by the news, and she added hastily: "Baltimore was high-publicity case, and the position needed to be filled."

"Well, that is a. . . shocker," Frohike offered finally. "And what about the X-Files?"

She was suddenly angry. The department was not just Mulder's prerogative, she could do quite well without him. And it was the biggest lie she had ever tried to believe. "I manage them now - with Agent Andrew Winters, my new partner."

The looks on their faces were priceless, and Scully wished that she had a camera to commemorate them. Byers and Langly and Frohike stared at her, then at each other for an interminable time. "I need your help with something."

"Yes," Langly echoed. "Sorry. What is it?"

"I was hoping you had some recordings of Mulder's voice," she looked away momentarily. "I need them."

This request seemed to confuse them even more. "Why would you need that?" Langly eyed her suspiciously while Byers concentrated on coughing in his hand.

"To remember what he sounds like, I don't hear from him for days," the joke fell flat. "Actually, for identification purposes," Scully amended truthfully, promising herself that she wouldn't lie to them if she could help it.

"Does Mulder know about this?" Byers asked softly.

"No," Scully tried not to sound defensive. "Not yet."

"Is this supposed to help him - or someone else?" Frohike played with a computer mouse absently.

She didn't dignify that with an answer.

He looked down, embarrassed. "We have something, don't we, boys?"

Langly threw a tape in her direction. "This might not be very clear, but it is the best we have."

"Bugging his apartment, aren't you?" Scully couldn't help returning the jab. "How does this help him?" Now, it was her turn to be ashamed. "Thank you though -- it helps us all," she got up and retraced her steps to the exit through the labyrinth of their office.

They haven't said goodbye, and didn't see her out. When she closed the door, the three men looked at each other, baffled and concerned.

"This smells bad, boys," Frohike finally uttered. "To tell you the truth, it stinks."

The courtroom buzzed with the incessant hum of nervous chatter from the eager media and eagle-eyed gawkers who had managed to find a seat in the crowded courtroom. Skinner took a breath, steeling himself, before looking over his shoulder for a familiar face. His eyes quickly scanned the rows, no pangs of recognition occurring. His eyes stopped tracking momentarily when the stiff form of Agent Winters' came into view. He noticed Winters' brow suddenly furrowing, as the agent looked up from his papers. Skinner turned his gaze away quickly, with no desire to make eye contact, and began concentrating on the water glass in front of him.

Mulder and Scully hadn't been among the murmuring crowd in the federal courtroom.

And the ex-AD wondered if the hole in his stomach was due to relief or worry.

His lawyer was clucking beside him, preening the collars of her navy blue suit, rifling through a torrent of papers, going through an endless cycle of placing folders in her briefcase, only to replace it with a similar blue folder.

This lawyer differed from his divorce lawyer. The law, then, had been distant and attractive --some prosaic words on a piece of paper that he merely had to sign. Annulment. Irreconcilable differences. The words tried to say so much, but in actuality said so little. They spoke of the need for him and Sharon to separate, but said nothing of the love he had still felt for her. Behind the annulment and the morose judges in black robes was his inability to express his deepest fears -- his inability to express what he felt for his wife, for himself, for the future he had wanted them to have.

And in this boring courtroom that was surrounded by worn cedar and cheap leather, the law was repellent. Spiteful. Ignorant of the American flag that limply stood in the corner gathering dust. It played into the hands of the corrupt and the malicious, became a catalyst to those who would silence the testimony of innocents, while taking their freedom away.

Skinner chanced another glance behind him and was surprised to see Sharon offer a nervous smile of reassurance in his direction. The gesture made his chest hurt, and he had to stare at the opposite wall to get his breathing under control.

The judge came, his black robe trailing, his white beard giving him a prophet-like aura that immediately prompted everyone to stand silent, keen eyes watching his progress, expectant for the words he was about to speak.

The pre-trial hearing would be short -- consisting only of a plea of guilty or not guilty. But at the thought of professing such words, Skinner could not fathom why his hands were starting to sweat, why his heart was threatening to palpitate out of control.

Despite his years in law enforcement, the voices of the magistrate seemed to be coming from far away, seemed to be speaking language he no longer understood. The words dripped with impassioned disdain, an oxymoron in terms. Even though it was the mouth of the robed creature that was moving, not its arms, Skinner could hear the incriminating gravel pound loudly in his ears.

Murder in the first degree. Conspiracy to murder.

And somewhere in those hateful words, his name had been spoken.

Eyes were peering expectantly at him, the stenographer had stopped typing and was watching him with bored, mascara-lidded eyes. The judge cleared his throat and shifted in his chair. "Your plea?"

Skinner opened his mouth, hearing the words come out haltingly. "Not guilty," a nervous pathway fired, past law enforcement training rearing its ugly head. A breathless "your honor" was interjected, and the ex-Assistant Director suddenly wondered why his throat was so dry.

He wondered if he was imagining the look of doubt playing across the judge's face. His hands grasped onto the edge of the table, something within him yelling directions to stand up and protest his innocence. But a familiar mental film of children suffering, of headbutting with Mulder after refusing his desperate 302's started playing a familiar loop in his mind. His legs were suddenly shaking, and he could no longer stand. His arms supported his body as he weakly settled in his chair.

Any desire to protest had disappeared all too quickly.

The house had been beautiful, once, but now was decaying. Limp, dead flowers that had once been painstakingly planted in the windowsills and front garden were now being decimated by the cold winter wind. Brown, dirt-spotted lawn crawled over the sidewalk, made dense underbrush that was decorated by equally dead dandelions.

Scully knocked on the door, pulling her trench coat tighter around her body, hearing the knocker squeak as its hinge protested. A woman with dull red hair, dressed in an old sweater and worn leggings, answered the door.

"Sheila Freeman?"

The woman nodded.

Scully smiled, trying to ignore the tired bags underneath the woman's eyes, needing to comfort her. "I'm Agent Scully. I'm with the Bureau," she turned to Andrew. "And you remember Agent Winters, I take it?"

The woman nodded again and stood motionless by the door.

Andrew approached her and smiled warmly, placing two fingers gently on her arm. "Can we come in to talk?"

The woman nodded a silent affirmation once again and stepped inside. Scully looked at Andrew, her eyebrows raised. He merely shrugged his shoulders in response.

Scully inspected the house quickly, grimly noticing that the interior was in worse condition than the exterior. A coat of dust covered the mantelpieces, and crumbs cracked as they died underneath walking feet.

Sheila led them to a set of couches, and the agents sat down gingerly.

"S-sorry about the mess," she shifted uncomfortably under their gazes. "Cleaning hasn't been one of my priorities."

Scully nodded understandingly, watching the woman wring her fingers in her lap.

Andrew cleared his throat and gazed at Sheila pointedly. "We came to ask you some questions about the voice you thought you recognized."

Her head came up suddenly, suspicion mirrored in her expectant eyes. "You told me that I must have imagined it?"

Andrew shared a glance with Scully and shook his head. The admission to come was difficult. "I want to make sure, Sheila. . . Maybe, I was wrong. So we brought a tape with several voices recorded and we just want to see if you recognize one or more."

The young woman nodded hesitantly, pointing to the tape player on the bookshelf that was gathering dust along with the books. Andrew popped in an audiotape and pushed play, returning to his seat. Scully smiled inwardly, recognizing some agents from VCS. She surrendered the tape from The Lone Gunmen to Andrew, and he perused it quickly, creating a collection of numerous voices on another tape. The sixth voice was Mulder's and she struggled to keep her expression neutral, concentrating on Sheila's reaction.

She paled even further and seemingly fought for breath, digging her nails into the couch. "That's it. . . turn it off," her voice was a mere whisper, and Winters could hardly understand her. "Please, turn it off. I can't. . ."

He jumped across the room, bringing his finger down on the stop button.

Scully watched numbly, immobilized by the sudden, overwhelming terror. There had to be a rational explanation for this recognition. Maybe this woman met Mulder a long time ago and now she simply remembered. . . what? Leaning forward, she reflexively pushed back the hair that had fallen into her face. "Do you remember anything else? What he looked like? What exactly had he said?"

Sheila shook her head. "I've tried... I've tried so hard ever since then."

Andrew watched Scully's eyes momentarily dart in recognition and he swallowed, feeling a lump form in his throat.

Scully smiled reassuringly, trying to momentarily dispel the oppressing atmosphere of the house and her own discomfort. "Try one more time."

The federal agents watched as Sheila closed her eyes, and Scully empathized with her feelings of helplessness. She, herself, had often sat alone on her couch in her empty apartment, willing herself to remember... anything. The knowledge that there was a wrinkle of time in her memory, a space in her hippocampus that was unaware of her time in space so many years ago, had often forced tears to her eyes. And after each session of trying so hard, of squinting and looking into the darkness, she would hear only colored static, muted noises -- something that was fingertips away from her grasp. With a fleeting sense of familiarity, Scully fought for composure as she watched Sheila's fingers turn white with the strain of pushing them into her palm.

Sheila licked her lips, took a deep breath, and closed her eyes tighter, shaking her head. "It's a voice... I can't..." she shook her head again, biting her lip in concentration. Andrew watched her intently, a hand against his mouth. "It's a man's voice... and it's... his voice is..." she shook her head again -- gossamers of memory fluttering in front of her fingers. "It's... tense... upset," she paused and her head tilted, as if she was trying to hear the voice better. "He sounds so sad..." she opened her eyes and offered an apologetic shrug to Andrew's and Scully's look of doubt. "I can't remember what he says."

He leaned forward. "Anything else? Physical description?"

Sheila shook her head. "No," she added as an afterthought. "Not yet."

Scully tried to stretch her lips into a smile. "We'll see what we can do."

Sheila nodded, her eyes turning downcast. "I'm sorry I can't provide more," her glance shifted to the tape player. "Can I. . . can I keep the tape? It might be helpful."

Andrew nodded slowly, and Scully waited for the question that seemed inevitable, waited for her to ask them where they got the tape and if they knew the man whose voice she'd recognized. The question never came, and she was released from explanations and lies, but she felt no relief. The truth of the situation was that both she and Andrew were dishonest with Sheila.

She had always cared about a victim, and now she was lying to one, denying the need of someone who was in trouble. Someone who needed their help.

But Sheila was wrong and it didn't matter. . .

The woman led them towards the door, her feet shuffling reluctantly -- bones creaking as if not used to moving. Sheila offered another apology, and Scully nodded sympathetically if distractedly, still dizzy from the conflicting emotions assaulting her. A small smile was shared between the two women, before the door closed, and the cold wind hit them in full force. Andrew had witnessed the exchange, and as he searched for the keys, he wondered as to what extent Sheila's abduction mirrored his own partner's tragic circumstances.

Two pairs of shoes clicked rhythmically down the sidewalk, and Scully bit the inside of her lips, hearing the familiar jerk of a car door being opened. She caught herself thinking that it would have probably been a right thing to do if they brought Sheila some pictures and saw if she could identify Mulder visually, as well. She aborted the treacherous train of thought decisively.

"So, what do you think?"

Scully waited impatiently for her door to unlock, pulling it open harshly before fiddling with the seat belt. "I don't know... I really..." she shook her head to convey the loss of words.

Andrew nodded, silent momentarily. "What do you think about her claims regarding Agent Mulder?"

Scully quickly turned her torso within the confines of the seatbelt, her eyes seeking confrontation with her partner's. "You seriously don't think that Mulder was behind this?"

Andrew remained silent and Scully rolled her eyes. "I don't believe this. Are you suggesting that Mulder abducted her?"

"I'm not saying anything. I'm just not ruling anything out. You saw her listen to his voice and. . ."

She shook her head, trying to block out her partner's words. "You don't think that she just recognized his voice from all the recent media coverage about the Baltimore hostage situation? I don't even know why I am arguing with you though."

"First of all, she recognized it before the Baltimore incident. Second, I severely doubt that Sheila Freeman watched any TV news in the last week," Andrew's voice faltered. "Or did anything else for that matter." At Scully's persistent glare, Andrew raised his hands. "Okay, okay... it's very implausible. But... I just have a feeling," he frowned, trying to spell out his thoughts. "Directly, or indirectly, I just can't shake..."

Scully wouldn't allow him to finish, sitting back in the car seat with an audible, annoyed grunt. The car engine started, dispelling the uncomfortable silence that settled quickly, and when she caught Andrew staring at her, Scully turned away, suddenly interested in the goings-on outside the passenger window.

She tried not to think of Mulder, and his alibis, and his whereabouts during the past few weeks, attempting to push the thoughts down as stupid.

But the seeds of doubt had already been effectively planted.

Mulder sat in the chair and tried to hunch his shoulders together. His back was killing him, his head was pounding, and the agent in the chair across from him was whining about wiretap duty.

He shifted in the chair again, noting that it was way too big. Mulder ignored the belittling voice in his head stating the obvious: that he was in way over his head, and that the chair really belonged to the ass of Assistant Director Skinner.

Mulder dispelled the thoughts, trying to look interested, attempting to focus his eyes, as his mind failed to register any of the words spewing from the mouth of Agent Boulton.

He raised his hand, failing to withhold an audible sigh of displeasure. "Look, Agent Boulton, we need you on the Dhalia case," he tried a different approach, using Patterson's tactic of pandering to the person's ego. "Your reports so far have been excellent, and we really need your experience. It's a crappy job, but someone has to do these embezzlement cases."

Boulton opened his mouth to protest, but Mulder persisted raising a hand. "Do wiretap here in DC, or do it in Alaska. I don't care... take your pick."

Boulton swallowed and nodded. "That's all," he looked at Mulder with animosity brewing in his eyes, and added a terse, "sir".

Mulder nodded and smiled inwardly. "Good. Thank you," he remembered just how effective Patterson's threats had always been in controlling his fellow agents. Worked like a charm, every time, because his former boss never bluffed.

He waited until Boulton's receding figure was out of sight before immediately sagging in his chair. He closed his eyes, the yellow and green spots caused by headache appearing in front of his eyelids.

There was a rapping on the door, and he sat upright, his brain protesting against the onslaught of light. The lithe figure of his secretary stood in front of his desk, settling a stack of files to the right of his nameplate.

"You were away yesterday and today, so here's the paperwork you need to catch up on, sir."

Mulder accepted it, seeing the unspoken question in Kim's eyes. The secretary displayed no emotion when he had shown up during his first day of work, but she had briefly panicked when Skinner's personal belongings had been carted away. The hesitance in her eyes was disappearing, but Mulder had yet to build a comfortable rapport, knowing that uneasiness was mutual.

"Thank you."

He flipped through the piles of finished paperwork and 302's. With a growing smirk, his hand stopped when it came across the 302 originating from the X-Files office. He opened it up curiously, and his eyes eventually widened in surprise, then horror, as they tracked through the typewritten request.

His coffee mug shook as he slammed his hand on his desk, letting out a string of expletives.

His heart raced faster as he read the report, closed his eyes, tried to calm his breathing.

Sheila fucking Freeman.

He put a hand over his mouth and forced himself to sit down and read the file carefully. Objectively. The FBI had nothing so far; Sheila remembered nothing save for a few vague details that Andrew failed to include in the request.

Mulder stared at the papers, his eyes wide. Out of all the people who could blow his cover, the most threatening of all was an abductee in the suburbs of DC.

He picked up the phone, trying to dispel panic.

His fingers shook as they pressed the numbers.


"Winters, this is Ag... Mulder."

Andrew's eyebrows shot up, and from his peripheral vision, he noticed Scully turning her head. "Yes?"

"Where are you?"

"We're just coming back from interviewing Freeman," Andrew paused, considering his words carefully. "We've expanded a bit, and I think that we may be able to catch the guy."

Mulder ran a hand across his face, pressing the phone tighter against his ear. "I'm disallowing your 302."

Winters almost dropped the phone, his mouth gaping open at the shock. The car protested as Andrew hit the gas harder, as his fingers gripped the steering wheel tighter. "What?"

Mulder forced his voice to remain calm, pinching his leg as he could hear Winters sputter an explanation to Scully. "I said, Agent Winters, that I'm disallowing your 302 on the Freeman case."

Winters felt his face grow red with outrage. "Why?"

Mulder felt queasy, as the only explanation he could come up with was an echo of Walter Skinner's words. "Because it's a waste of Bureau resources, and the X-Files could be put to better use on another case."


Mulder shook his head, trying to dispel the feeling that things were spinning out of control. "Goodbye, Agent Winters. I expect to see your new 302 tomorrow morning."

The phone clicked and Winters threw the phone onto the cheap upholstery of the car seat. "God dammit! The bastard!!"

Scully watched her new partner in numbing confusion. Despite Andrew's cursing, the motor of the car was all she could hear. Her uneasiness grew -- a gut churning, ulcer forming sense of dread. It overpowered her, making her nauseous.

Her migraine extrapolated in direct proportion to her ill suspicion towards Mulder -- her ex-partner and her friend.

The apartment was dark, as the blinds muted the bright D.C. sunlight, and Mulder stared at the file, his eyes tearing as the words started to blur.

He stared at the papers in front of his eyes again, blinking when the letters started to move of their own volition. He licked his lips, staring intently, *knowing* that he was missing something, feeling it in his bones.

He looked at Samantha's file once again, flipping absently through the photos, and the vague genetic and medical descriptions which swirled in his brain nonsensically. He tapped the paper methodically, staring blankly at the wall, hearing the gears in his mind start to churn.

The logic his mind dictated caught him off guard, but working and living through VCS for so long had taught him to follow its winding path. He leaned over, hearing his back groan with the stress of having sat in an office chair all day, and picked up his father's letter. He compared the two papers, hearing his inner mind chant louder, his cerebral cortex beginning to eagerly churn faster in anticipation.

The letter his father had written was dated 10/25/75, and Mulder stared, squinting, knowing something had happened that day... something was important about that particular date. He attempted to cross reference the date to those stored in his brain, finding a match unsuccessful. He hastily re-opened Sam's file, examining all the recorded dates -- again failing to find a match.

When the realization struck, Mulder stared dumbfounded at the pair of identical numbers. Sam's case number was the same as the date of the letter. Coincidence? Mulder shook his head to the silent question -- there was no such thing where his father was concerned.

And if the past five years had been any indication, everything to do with Sam had long before been intricately planned.

His eyes passed over the Sam's folder once again, darting back to the letter. His brain was roaring, the gears and cogs working furiously as the new stimuli were processed. The letter made many references to numbers, and Mulder put a hand over his mouth, the epiphany earth shattering.

The papers sprawled haphazardly onto the floor as he stood upright suddenly, knowing that there was something important that he had been quick to dismiss. He rummaged through the closet hastily, pulling out the book, "The Eleventh Hour." He recovered the letter and Sam's file, laying his three new puzzle pieces delicately in front of him. His eyes darted between the three, making comparisons -- and Mulder marveled at his father's ingenuity.

He sobered momentarily, looking towards the ceiling to take a deep breath. In all his cases with Deep Throat, X, and Marita -- with all the secret information they passed onto him - Mulder's heart always beat with anticipation. His breath hitched slightly with the possibility of finding yet another tangent that could lead him to the truth.

Staring at the letter, Mulder realized that his heart was ready to burst with excitement. The letter was a brilliant disguise.

For something far more important.

He paused, trying to maintain some semblance of control, as sweat rolled down his back. He regarded the letter once again, and offered it a sad smile, of gratitude and regret.

He cursed his blindness that obliterated so many obvious clues that the letter offered.

He hoped that it wasn't too late as he whispered a silent thanks to his best and least appreciated informant.

His father.

Scully watched J. Edgar Hoover's cement facade come into view as Andrew drove at a barely acceptable high speed through streets and into the entranceway of the Bureau parking lot. He stopped in front of the parking pedway and waited patiently as Scully started to gather her things.

"Aren't you coming in?"

Andrew shook his head, cryptically adding: "No, there's something that I want to clear up."

Scully looked at him, confusion marking her features. "Okay. Will you be back later?"

Winters nodded. "Yeah, I'll come and help you do some of the paperwork later, and we can file a new 302," at Scully's quizzical glance he stopped. "What?"

She smiled. "Having a partner that offers to help with the paperwork seems foreign to me," she pulled her briefcase in front of her knees. "I don't think Mulder has ever voluntarily subjected himself to paperwork in the five years that I've known him."

At the mention of Mulder's name, Winters' mouth grew into a grim line. "Yeah well... Mulder is his own man."

Scully nodded, not really comprehending Andrew's words. She decided to let the comment go when she took in the tense fingers around the steering wheel, his stiff posture in the Taurus car seat. She unfastened her seatbelt and stepped out, offering a small wave. "I'll see you later then."

Winters reciprocated the wave, smiling, and proceeded to put the car into gear. "Later."

Scully watched the car speed away, all of a sudden feeling lonely. Her steps felt naked as she walked a familiar path to the X-Files office. Mulder was no longer her partner, would no longer be in the office at obscene hours. Conversely, Andrew was too by the book. Too much like her -- and Scully was suffocating in the newly claustrophobic working environment.

The X-Files office was still the same, and she suppressed a sigh when she opened the door -- its trademark "Fox Mulder, Special Agent" having been torn off eagerly by Andrew during his first official day in the section. She sat down at her ex-partner's desk, and her fingers began to play lazily with a pen.

Mulder's behavior was beyond odd. It was distant -- scarily so. It went beyond professional detachment, and was too sly to be deemed paranoia. Something was not right about his revoking of the 302, something that she was well aware had to do with his precarious position in the Bureau.

She didn't want to push; she didn't want to prevent him from doing his job, but she was beginning to become annoyed. It was interfering with *her* job. And although she had momentarily kept her doubts regarding Mulder's involvement in the Sheila Freeman case at bay, she was finding it increasingly hard to pretend she was ignorant when Winters was always pushing for answers.

She looked at the "maybe" pile of folders in front of her and started perusing them slowly. She sighed, staring at a set of Sears-quality photos of a blond-haired girl. Demonic possession. Scully tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. What the hell... it was a case that involved no aliens or smoke, and Andrew would finally find out what the X-Files were really about. She closed the file, setting it aside with one hand, grabbing for the desk phone with the other.

"Yeah, hi Gary, this is Agent Scully. I need a rental car."

The guy was unusually pensive, and after a seemingly long period of time Scully wondered if he had hung up.

"Is this for a case?"

She raised her eyebrows at the question. "Yes... isn't it always?"

The guy hummed and hawed for a second before reluctantly replying. "Uh... we had orders from the AD not to let you acquisition vehicles until you got the 302 okayed by him."

Scully's cheeks flushed with outrage. "What? Mulder said that?"

She could almost feel the guy cringe, and forced herself to breathe and regain control. "Never mind, Gary," she ground out between her teeth. "I'll find out myself," she gritted out an automatic thank you before slamming the phone back on the cradle.

"I need to speak with a prisoner of yours?"

"It's seven o'clock and past..."

Winters thrust out his badge impatiently, trying to growl his way past the prison guard. "I don't care. I'm a Federal Agent and I want to see Walter Skinner now."

The guard got up slowly, rolling his eyes, taking an agonizingly long time to gather his keys. "The visiting room is..."

Winters shook his head. "Take me to his cell," at the guard's dubious look, his face softened. "It won't take long, I promise."

The guard looked at him suspiciously, then headed in the opposite direction, indicating for Andrew to follow him.

The ex-Assistant Director was sitting on his cot reading the paper. Winters was tempted to remark at the normality -- except the prisoner's bright orange overalls marred any potential for a Norman Rockwell-esque scene.

Skinner rose to his feet when he heard footsteps approaching.

Winters stared hard into his eyes, cutting to the chase. "What do you know about Mulder?"

Skinner balked at the question, gently setting the newspaper beside him. "Pardon me?"

Winters tapped his feet impatiently. "I mean, I get a 302 disallowed today from *AD* Mulder. Coincidentally, or not coincidentally, it's the case involving abductions where one of the abductees believes she had heard Mulder's voice."

Skinner stepped back unconsciously, his mind processing the news. It seemed similarities abounded between the old and new Assistant Director. Hadn't he done the very same thing to Mulder in the past?


Ex-AD shook his head. "Mulder is his own man. He has his own scruples."

Winters stepped closer to the bars, breathing hard. "Every time I've talked to Mulder and Scully I've been hitting walls; they've been talking in codes. I see that they get it from you."

Skinner shook his head, started to pace the cell to give his legs something to do while his mind churned. "I don't know what you want to know."

The young agent bunched his hands into fists. "I'm so sick of this!! You answer questions with questions. You talk in little signs and eye gestures," Andrew took a breath before nailing Skinner with a glare. "All I want to know is, is Mulder clean?"

Skinner looked at the floor. "None of us are innocent, Agent Winters," he approached the cell, and reciprocated the agent's glare. "*None* of us are innocent, no matter how much you try to rationalize."

The air deflated out of Andrew, as he watched the man across from him settle back onto the cot and pick up the paper once again. He tried a different tactic. "Did Mulder come at this job honestly?" he paused a beat. "In your opinion."

"Everyone has a little help."

Winters smiled his appreciation at the answer. "Is it related to your predicament?"

Skinner had to inwardly admit that Andrew was sharp -- it was sad that it would most likely get the green agent killed when he asked the wrong question from the wrong person. He was about to say, "hell, yes", but his mouth couldn't open, his eyes watered as they tried to concentrate on the paper in front of them.

Winters accepted the silence for what it was. "I can't believe this. And you let them do this?"

Skinner shook his head. "What can you do?"

Winters started pacing, shaking his head. "I'll call the Director. I'll talk to someone. The Attorney General, if I have to."

Skinner grimaced at the agent's naivetÚ. It would be no shock if the Consortium had the Attorney General wrapped around their fingers. Hell, it seemed, they had the entire Bureau, including Mulder, kissing their asses.

And no pounding, begging, or tale-telling would change anything.

Winters tapped a cell bar with his fingers, offering a tightlipped smile that Skinner recognized as pity. "Thank you."

He left as quickly as he came, and Skinner suddenly felt tired -- unable to complete the simple task of finishing the article he had started earlier. He settled into his cot, hearing the drip of faulty plumbing, the complaining of other inmates.

Oblivious to the mechanical eye watching his movements, and those of the Federal Agent who was leaving the penitentiary.

For the first time in three years, Scully felt nervous as she pulled out her key ring, glancing over her shoulder as she shook the rest of the keys away from the one that she wanted. She had knocked, the fluttering in her stomach increasing exponentially when there was no answer. Anger had quickly squelched any nervousness, and she opened the door more roughly than was necessary when the latch finally gave way.

She watched what little sunlight there was float though Mulder's curtains, play lazily with the dust in the air. The atmosphere was heavy. Old. She found it harder to breathe as she waded though papers and books, and she called his name once more, lest he think that she was an intruder.

She would wait, she decided, the keys biting her palm. Her annoyance grew, as she thought of Mulder's absence. She chastised herself for worrying about her ex-partner's welfare while he was paying unwarranted attention to her division. With a resigned sigh, Scully threw herself down on Mulder's couch, trying to ignore the papers that were on his table. Curiosity eventually won, and she bent forward, orienteering herself with the letters and numbers in front of her. Various scraps of loose paper were scrawled upon. She recognized them as Mulder's messy cursive strokes. A string of letters would be written, only to be crossed out, then start again on the next line.

Scully picked up the first paper, immediately recognizing it as the letter Mulder's father wrote to his son. She quickly tossed it aside, noticing the children's book was also opened. And very much perused. She frowned, remembering her partner dismissing its importance seemingly years ago. As she picked up the book, multitudes of torn paper fell out from in between the pages. Realizing her error, she bent down on her knees, scrambling to pick up the papers that had more of Mulder's nonsensical scrawls.

The frown on Scully's face deepened, as the words on Mulder's papers made little or no sense. Strings and strings of letters and numbers. Sometimes the letters and numbers were mixed; other letters were written sideways, or upside down. Scully's dread grew -- a queasiness that was akin to how she felt when Patterson had revisited, or those awful hours where she had sat in her apartment, unable to get past her pride and call a desolate partner that she had blamed for her cancer.

She was about to rise, when a folder caught her eye. Having been in so many hospitals, and having seen so many similar folders, Scully felt her heart skip when she saw the familiar buff color, the same strategic placement of white label. She pulled it out cautiously, feeling its bulk, reluctantly turning her eyes down so that she could see the name.

Samantha Ann Mulder.

And something in her chest dropped. Her stomach felt heavy at the mere thought. She sometimes forgot what it was that still drove Mulder -- the name that still fueled his quest. It drove her crazy sometimes, to see him rush headlong into things because of it. She felt a multitude of emotions -- her anger weighed down by other depressing feelings. She sighed, resolutely deciding that she would wait.

Scully awkwardly made her way back to the couch, trying to restore the files to their original order -- deciding that worn leather was a more comfortable spot to wallow than the floor of Mulder's apartment.

The Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation matched the glare of the subordinate agent sitting across from him. "Do I make myself clear?"

The younger agent slowly shook his head, wrinkles forming at the corners of his lips -- the only outward sign of his distaste. "Yes, sir."

Robinson smiled -- his ability to make the knees of younger agents quake was still in topnotch form. "I will look into your claims, but I can't guarantee anything," the Director paused, searching for the right words, meeting the agent's eyes. "I hope I can trust your discretion. I would like this to be a private matter between us until an internal investigation can be completed."

The agent's eyes twinkled; he sensed victory. "Yes, sir. I understand."

The Director smiled a Cheshire-like grin, knowing the trap had been effectively laid -- the agent's silence had been ensured.

Andrew Winters stood up, offering his hand for a handshake. "Thank you, sir. I wasn't sure who to turn to."

Robinson smiled again. "Anything for my fellow agents."

Winters nodded, disconcerted -- like nothing had been gained, despite the reassuring words.

"Oh, Agent Winters," Andrew turned around quickly. "You haven't told anyone, have you?"

Andrew shook his head slowly, furrowing his eyebrows. "No... sir," he replied after hesitating slightly. The Director nodded, pleased, and Andrew numbly walked out of the office, not quite comprehending what the last exchange meant. He had thought that after blowing Mulder out of the water, he would have had some sense of closure... perhaps some semblance of victory over getting the bad guys. But leaving the Director Robinson's office, Winters felt strangely at unease. Perhaps it wasn't the bad take-out that was causing his stomach to cramp up... maybe something much worse?

He shook his head, pushing the elevator button. He made a promise to pay more attention to the activities outside the Assistant Director's office from tomorrow on. He could even contact his friend Rich from Internal Affairs upstairs for the lowdown.

As the elevator arrived, Winters rubbed his eyes, deciding that he needed a drink -- a good stiff drink to wash away the stiffness from his neck, to take away the cramp in his stomach, to melt away the sense of foreboding that was plaguing him so.

Director Robinson watched the receding torso eventually disappear, before picking up his cellular phone and dialing a familiar number. He recognized the voice of the gopher immediately, and after seconds of professional conversation, he was smoothly switched to Milton.

"James... We have a problem."

Milton's voice was happily curious. Robinson couldn't recall many times where the English gentlemen was grim. "Oh?"

"One of the agents is being nosy. He's a threat to our newest employee perhaps."

There was a silence before Milton asked, "How dangerous?"

"He's in a position to know things, and his suspicions are dangerous enough."

Again there was a silence, and Robinson glanced towards the door, lest eager ears be listening. There was only empty, white light filtering through, and the Director tuned his attention back to the phone, waiting for a response.

"Name," Milton requested briskly.

"Andrew Winters."

"I'll take care of it."

Robinson hung up the phone swiftly, smiling at the accomplishments coming from a hard day's work.

Eight miles had been done easily, but when he looked at the hallway between the elevator and his door, Mulder sagged, wondering if crossing the Sahara would be easier.

"Too much coffee and doughnuts in the office make Fox Mulder a fat ass," he whispered under breath, pulling his key from the shoelace of his Reeboks.

The sight of his partner, her blue eyes blazing as soon as he entered made him take a step back, startled.

"Mulder," her voice was slightly shaking. "I haven't seen you in so long."

He nodded numbly at the forced joviality. "I know, Scully."

Her whole body was tense. Mulder recognized the tell-tale signs: the paler than normal face, the way she hid her clenched fists in the trench coat pockets. "Do you want to get a drink? You can tell me what's keeping you so busy, bossman."

The words had been spat out; her laugh contained no humor. Mulder watched as her control slightly wavered, as she took her hands out of her pockets to cross them in front of her chest.

"Sure, let me change, Scully," he cautiously walked around her, occasionally looking over his shoulder, seeing that she still hadn't moved from her original position. In the bedroom, he hastily changed into a pair of jeans lying on the floor, grabbing for the first sweater hanging in his closet. He quickly made his way to the living room, pulling the sweater over his head -- hearing his footsteps fall heavily onto the floor in the tense silence of his apartment. He gathered the files and papers that had been on his coffee table silently, even though he knew that they had been disturbed. He knew whose fault it was, and he kept his anger pushed down, stomping louder on the floor as he worked his way around the coffee table.

Scully's eyebrows rose, and Mulder scowled, shaking his head. He forced his voice to sound somewhat happy, appropriate for a night out on the town. "Shall we go?"

The female federal agent nodded, her body still tense. Mulder followed the loud steps of her high heels through the hallways, locking his door. His partner was waiting impatiently at the other end of the hall, and Mulder looked at the distance between them.

It seemed like miles had passed before he was finally able to join her for a car ride that would ultimately be driven in silence.

Impossibly long legs approached Winters with a swagger that had a decidedly feminine stilt to it. He warily regarded her, nursing the bottle of Budweiser in front of him. She offered him a pouty smile and took the unoffered seat across the federal agent, the bangles on her wrist clashing noisily against each other.

"Dumped ya, huh?" she spoke through a mouthful of gum.

Winters smiled. As if. He hadn't even had anything remotely like a relationship since he moved to D.C. The beer was warm in his belly, and he heard himself reply. "Why. Interested?"

The woman smacked her heavily painted lips together, emitting a small moan, crossing her legs in such a way that the already high skirt rode further up her legs. "So, I noticed you have a fast car."

Andrew emitted a non-committal grunt, finishing off his bottle of beer in a dramatic final swig.

The woman pouted, finally sighing and getting up to leave. She grabbed his left hand, slipping a napkin into his palm. Rolling his eyes, he opened the folded fabric, seeing seven numbers that he would probably throw away once he got home. When her footsteps threatened to disappear, Andrew finally turned to watch the receding figure -- finally allowed himself to drink in her curves. He shook his head as she approached another solitary man at an equally solitary table, when something caught his eye. Her hair contrasted with the dull surroundings of the bar, and Andrew stared at his partner, as she walked alongside Mulder. He sat up straighter, pushing the empty beer bottle away, liquid courage coursing through his blood.

He watched as the two federal agents got a table and sat stiffly, eyeing each other warily. Andrew leaned forward, momentarily losing his balance, feeling the alcohol trying to pull his face closer to the floor.

Their words, however, penetrated cruelly through the fog in his brain.

Scully's posture was tense as she watched Mulder intently. He gingerly placed the papers in front of him, going through the ritual of smoothing them, putting them in a straight pile.

She was about to open her mouth when Mulder put up his hand, calling the waiter with a forced calmness.

"Drink, Scully?"

She shook her head, scowling at him. The waiter approached and after some hesitation, Mulder ordered an iced tea. The waiter left, grumbling, and Mulder twisted in his seat, gazing at Scully, "So?"

She sat tightlipped, unsure of where to begin, how to say everything she wanted to say. She opened her mouth, and no words came out. Mulder's expression was increasingly miserable as he played with the files in front of him. "What are those?"

Mulder looked to the files, shifting uncomfortably. "I need to ask your medical opinion on something."

Scully watched her ex-partner flip through some of the folders, pulling out his father's perused letter. "I figured out my father's letter," he proceeded cautiously. At her nod, he continued. "Okay, there are some connections between this and the book my father also gave me," he pulled out the book, flipping to a page that was already slightly wrinkled -- showing the wear it had endured over the last 24 hours. "See this? The 'I write this days after your fifteenth birthday?' If you turn to page fifteen in the book, you see that the border has a whole bunch of letters in it, right?" Scully nodded. "From the first glance, it looks like it's a part of the book -- as this is a puzzle book. But if you look closely, you can see that it's been doctored slightly to look like..."

"... Like a base pair sequence." Scully finished, noting Mulder's relieved smile.

"Right. That's what I thought - -there's only four DNA base pairs, right? So, I was thinking that maybe this is a genetic code for something. Or... I don't know. But I need to know," he turned to her with expectant eyes. "Do you?"

Scully sat back. "I don't know what you want them to say, Mulder. I'm not a geneticist. The human genome hasn't even been completely mapped out yet," she caught his disappointed expression and gave up, pulling the book closer to her. "Let me look."

She examined the border, trying to note the genetic sequence. It raised a red flag, something she had read... but she couldn't quite place it. She emitted a hmmmm, and Mulder sat more forward in his seat. She pointed to the border, pulling some hair behind her ear. "You see this repeated sequence?" he nodded, looking at the repeated CTGG in the border. "It's what's called a mutational hot spot. Which means this area gets more frameshift mutations than say, any other normal spot in a gene."

Scully noticed him nodding, his mouth turning into a frown. "Why?"

Mulder shrugged his shoulders. "Just wondering."

She shook her head. "No really, Mulder. Why?"

He sipped at his iced tea to give himself something to do. "Really... it's nothing."

Scully's temper grew so that her fingernails bit into her palms. "It's always nothing, Mulder. Isn't it?" her voice was deceptively calm. "I haven't heard from you in over three days. I don't know what you're doing. You still haven't told me what you do for..." she jabbed her finger angrily in the air, unable to find words, "...them," she leaned forward, her blue eyes shining, despite the dull light of the restaurant. "I have a partner who suspects you of kidnapping, Mulder." Scully gauged his reaction, and noticed him flinch. She drew back as if burned, feeling her innards drop to the floor, soak up the smoke and whisky that was floating in the air. "You know," she said it matter-of-factly. "You know about Sheila Freeman. You're in on it."

She waited for his answer, and he refused to meet her gaze. "Mulder, answer me, damn it. Are you in on it? Do you know her?"

At last he nodded, and she closed her eyes, feeling her world spin out of control -- as if the ground underneath her had fallen away. "What did you do?"

"Scully, please," his voice came out broken.

"No. I want to know."

Mulder shook his head. "It's not important."

"Not important?" a few heads turned, and she lowered her voice. "Not important, Mulder? This woman has no memory, except for hearing your voice. You take me off a case, you try to regulate all my activities," she lowered her voice, taking the dispute out of it. "I thought we were in this together, Mulder. But you are keeping me in the dark. You're here, but yet, you're still ditching me, in a way."

Mulder nodded miserably, his finger picking at the papers on the table. "Scully, I'll tell you later," she opened her mouth to protest, but he held up a hand. "Later, Scully. I promise."

He pushed the book over to her lightly. "The mutational hot spot you were talking about... could that lead to cancer?"

Scully paused, the rage leaving her slowly. "Yes, Mulder," she replied wearily.

He nodded, pensive. "What about this sequence? What does it mean?"

Scully breathed in impatiently, her temper rising again. "Why Mulder? Why is what you need to know more important than what I need to know? Is this about the file of Sam you have under your coffee table, Mulder? Is this another tidbit of info you've come across in her file?"

She regretted her outburst, knowing that the words themselves hadn't hurt him, but the disdain with which she had mocked his quest had. He lowered his head, pulling the book towards him, protectively, closing it slowly, even though his fingers were shaking.

"No," he croaked. "I found it in yours."

Andrew watched with smug satisfaction as his partner got into an argument with the Assistant Director. After a heated discussion, they stopped talking suddenly, each of them lost in their own world. Mulder was staring at the table, running his finger over the edge of the glass, while Scully stared blankly into space, occasionally glancing at him. At each turn of her head, he would nod gently.

Finally, the two got up, and he watched, his anger growing as the two embraced awkwardly, but with casualness that indicated familiarity. Afterwards they looked around nervously, like teenagers on their first date.

He stood slowly, feeling the whisky bolden his spirits, noting with satisfaction as Scully's eyebrows drew up in a surprised arch.

"Good evening, *partner*."

"Andrew, I can explain."

Andrew waved his hand dismissively. "Oh no, you don't need to explain anything to me, you double crossing spy," out of his peripheral vision, Andrew noticed Mulder trying to come in between them. He shook his head. "Oh, Assistant Director Mulder, I know about you. Although Scully probably already told you. What she doesn't know is that you're up for an internal investigation by he director."

Mulder blanched, and Andrew grinned smugly, hearing him whisper, "Director Robinson?"

"None other."

Mulder pulled Scully out of the way meeting Andrew face to face. Christ, if the kid told Robinson his suspicions.... "Look, Winters. You may have no reason to trust me, but don't go home tonight. Don't drive home. Take a taxi. Stay at a motel or something."

Andrew rolled his eyes. "Threats don't work."

Scully noted Mulder's panic, and she put a hand on Andrew's shoulder, only to have him throw it off impatiently. "Andrew, please, maybe Mulder is right."

Mulder nodded. "Don't do anything routine tonight. Something... something might happen."

Scully understood, feeling his dread infect her, settling heavily in her stomach.

Andrew waved them off. "I'm not so drunk that I can't drive home, and I'm not going to listen to a corrupt AD and his little... bitch spy tell me what to do."

Scully stepped back instinctually, too hurt to respond, too numb to prevent his departure. Winters brushed roughly past Mulder's shoulder and left the bar.

There was nothing on the radio.

Andrew pushed the car into a high gear, flipping through the radio stations, hearing snaps of Puccini, Jewel, and Shania Twain complain through his speakers. His cheeks were flushed, he was hot, he was....

So god damned pissed off at his naivete.

He worked his tie off roughly, throwing it into the passenger seat, pushing down on the gas pedal harder, hearing the motor whine contently.

So easy to believe, so easy to trust his new partner. His AD. His mind chanted expletives as he swore that tomorrow he would no longer look at the world through the rose-colored glasses. He flipped through the radio stations again, swearing at it, swearing at the car, swearing at Mulder and Scully, swearing at himself.

When it started to rain, he swore at the sky, as big fat goblets of water fell down, pounded loudly on the windshield. The rain and the wipers were enough to drown out the radio, and he hiked the volume up, finally satisfied with the Rolling Stones.

The rain grew heavier, and with a resigned sigh, and several swerves later, Andrew lifted his foot slightly off the gas pedal, his slightly muddled brain realizing he would be no good to the internal affairs if he was dead.

Somewhere, something was ringing, and Andrew realized it was his coat pocket. Scully? He decided to ignore it, but the phone kept ringing, kept going over Mick Jagger's voice, despite the stereo going as full blast. Andrew found his feet gunning against the pedal once again, as he gripped his fingers tighter around the steering wheel in anger.

He reached for the phone, jabbing at the on button with one angry motion with his finger. "What, you spy?"

Her heard her silence, and then a soft voice, calm and controlled. "Andrew, please don't go home tonight."

"Why should I listen to you?"

He heard her sigh, and then Mulder's voice coming over the line. "You could be in danger."

Andrew shook his head angrily. "Your opinion means nothing to me."

"Andrew, please."

Winters held the phone away from his ear, too upset to listen. His finger hovered over the end button, ready to jab it, when an oncoming light blinded him. He looked at the rearview mirror, at the high beam lights, and they left circles of blue and green behind his eyelids.

He must have said something because Scully and Mulder were jabbering incoherently, occasionally calling his name.

Something hit him, caused his neck to snap backwards, like it did sometimes when he was a kid, riding the wild horses on the farm. Soon he was falling, seeing the darkness of a deep ditch rapidly approaching. His forehead hit something. The seatbelt was where he had left it, when he couldn't be bothered in his haste, in his anger, to get away from the bar. His head was thrown forward, and there was an annoying sound of a horn somewhere. Then something enormously heavy pushed into his back, crushing his ribs and spine, pushing all air out of his lungs. His eyes bulged, the force of the steering wheel against his chest enough to crush his heart, turning the green circles behind his eyes to red, then white.

Then disappearing into nothing.

It's not too late, Scully thought stubbornly as she clutched the cellular closer to her ear, as she struggled to hear something except for the jarring beep. Line noise seemed louder than the sickening crash seconds earlier.

Her legs were numb, unable to respond to her simple command to move, as if the force of gravity had increased exponentially in the last minute. And then, she and Mulder were running towards the car, and she suddenly realized that she was chanting a prayer in her mind, and the last time she had prayed was months and months ago.

"He couldn't have driven that far," Mulder pushed the gas to the limit before she had a chance to close the door. The wheels screamed in response, the car almost flew into the opposite lane of traffic, and Mulder barely avoided hitting a pedestrian in his haste.

"Do you know where he lives?" Scully's hands shook while she was dialing 911. Oh please, she inwardly pleaded. Please allow her to keep speaking of her partner in the present tense.

"I am going in that direction. Just keep them on the line until we find..." Mulder couldn't finish the phrase, hitting the gas harder. He took a deep breath and tried to concentrate on the road in front of him. There was no time to engage in self-recrimination.

After this evening was over, he would have the rest of his life to do just that.

Scully was giving her badge number and name to the 911 operator, and Mulder could detect the slight waver in her attempt to speak with a calm, professional voice.

They heard the screaming of sirens before they saw the lights of police cars and ambulances, the crowd of on-lookers that gathered around the scene of the accident. "I am sorry, but the help is already here," Scully spoke in the phone with a trace of resignation. "Someone must have called before me. Sorry," she pushed the end button, not waiting for the response.

"Oh God, Scully..." Mulder moaned in agony as they watched the EMTs work on extracting Winters' body out of the upended vehicle. There was little left of the new Taurus that Scully remembered riding in. And the man who drove it...

She stepped out of the car and approached hesitantly, flipping her badge automatically. The people let her through, and she could finally see the light hair matted in blood, the neck that was bent at a slightly unnatural angle, and the broken frame of her partner.

She studied the tar lines marring the road, trying to shrink, to ignore the sounds and smells that were overwhelming her. Oh, why did she have to lie to him...?

The regret was a burning knife in her heart. "Andrew," Scully whispered brokenly and reached out a hand to touch his face, while one of the policemen tried to wave her away. "FBI, I am his partner," she turned to the resisting man and struggled to keep her anger and grief in check. "What happened?"

"He was forced off the road. We are still trying to find witnesses," the policeman looked apologetic.

Scully didn't finish listening, focusing her attention on the still form in front of her. Oh, but these bastards were fast and efficient. One of the paramedics threw her a sympathetic glance, putting a hand on her shoulder firmly. She wondered if she looked as terrible as she felt.

"He is dead." He spoke the words softly, but with a certainty that was final. Inescapable.

"I know," Scully replied inaudibly and straightened up slowly, trying to focus through the red haze that obscured her vision momentarily, through the deafening pulse in her ears. Mulder's face across from her was gray even washed in the lights of police cars and ambulances.

As he gradually turned to meet her gaze, she winced at the inhuman pain in his eyes. His breath hitched, and he moved his hand to cover his mouth.

And Scully knew that nothing, nothing would ever be the same.

Mulder stared at the glowing amber of the fireplace and wondered why he could not get warm. His teeth would start chattering if he didn't make a conscious effort to prevent it. Didn't the Consortium have enough funds for decent heating, for heaven's sake?

Of course, he admitted to himself, that the atmosphere in this room was superficially most pleasant. Here, subtle comforts were always taken care of; slightest needs were always tended to promptly. It must have been the ice running through his veins, and the cold heart that was pulsing inside his chest. And he knew that he would not get warm under the hottest sun of tropics.

"Are you happy with my work?" he asked calmly, careful not to betray his discomfort.

Beautiful hands with prudently manicured nails settled on the expensive material of the gray designer suit. "But of course," a measured voice answered. "You are a valuable addition to our organization."

"And you trust me?"

"Do we have a reason not to?" Milton answered with a question of his own, and Mulder correctly interpreted it as a maybe. It was quite a change from a resounding 'no' of the days past.

He wondered briefly if he should be proud.

"I did not know whether I could fill the shoes of Walter Skinner, and I am certain that I could not replace him, but I think I have been doing quite well so far," Mulder continued conversationally. "Even though bureaucratic work is not something I am fond of, I presume that the FBI business did not suffer from my involvement too much."

"Personally, I think it benefited," Milton nodded, still not quite understanding where this current exchange was heading.

"But I have failed one of my agents already, and it reflects badly on me," Mulder raised his eyes to gauge the reaction of his colleague. "I *am* the Assistant Director. You promoted me to that job. And that job involves being responsible, first and foremost, to my agents." Mulder paused, feeling his bones shake as emotions threatened to overwhelm him. "And *I* was responsible to Special Agent Andrew Winters."

"You cannot answer for every freak out on the roads, Fox," Milton shrugged sympathetically. "Some people just don't know how to drive."

"And some people drive so well that they can execute a perfect homicide using a steering wheel and a pair of high beams," Mulder's voice raised a notch, and he noticed some heads in the room turning in their direction. There had been no traces left -- the pouring rain had effectively washed any such possibilities away, and any potential witnesses were either hiding or silent. The D.C. police ran around the city in circles, before raising a white flag in resignation.

Mulder tried to pin Milton with a glare. "It's quite flattering to see that I am valuable enough to kill someone in the sake of my safety, but..."

Milton's smile was ill and condescending. "Your safety means safety of the Consortium. Do not ever forget that."

"Winters was my agent. He served my purposes, and he was doing a great job, as far as I was concerned," Mulder's voice cracked slightly, as he remembered the young man's passion and honesty. He underestimated Andrew's intelligence. Or maybe, he overestimated his own ability to live double lives without raising suspicion.

"And what job was that exactly? Keeping the X-Files department open in your absence?"

"Among other things, yes. And if he did cause trouble, I would have taken care of it." By now, all eyes in the room were focused on them, and he made sure that everyone heard his next words. "I am closing the X-Files department as of tomorrow."

"You are the Assistant Director," Milton's voice held no trace of emotion. "It is your decision."

Mulder closed his eyes for a moment, exhausted and heartsick. This decision cost him a couple of sleepless nights, but he could not risk taking chances with other people's lives any longer.

"It is ironic, isn't it?" Northam offered, stopping by momentarily. "We have tried several times to close them down, and nothing worked. Director Robinson is a coward, and he preferred to avoid all these annoying arguments. AD Skinner had quite a conviction when it came to keeping your precious department open."

Mulder's hands grew cold, and his vision clouded.

"And now, you are the one closing them down. All I can say is," Northam stopped his tirade to shake his head in feigned display of amazement, "thank you."

The two elder members shared a small smile, congratulating themselves on the job well done, on short-term goals accomplished, and on the long-term strategy reinforced.

"Why didn't you just tell me to close them down sooner?" Mulder asked, too tired to play the guessing game anymore.

"We prefer not to interfere with things important to you," Milton replied softly. "You are one of us. We would be nothing as an organization if we did not take care of our own." There was a cruel smile playing on Milton's lips, and there were quiet chuckles coming from the back of the room.

Mulder was unable to offer a suitable response, feeling his body become wooden. With every passing day, with every Bureau case he made sure was not investigated, with every session of hypnosis in a building with bright overhead lights, the humanity drained out of him steadily.

And every minute, he realized anew that he was becoming one of them.

The light in the basement office was on, and Scully hesitated before opening the door. But she wanted nothing more than to finish walking this particular circle of hell and she turned the knob resolutely.

Mulder sat in his old chair, feet propped up on the table, reading the case files. The sight was painfully familiar, infinitely dear, and for a split second, Scully tried to imagine that these were the old times. In a moment, he would raise his head, throw her a lopsided smile, and ask whether she had a bag packed in her car because they were leaving today, right now, to investigate bright lights in the sky of Nevada or some other similarly wonderful nonsense.

He turned to look at her slowly, his eyes lacking the usual glint of excitement, and the illusion was effectively shattered. "I came to pack up," she said haltingly, as if the carton box in her hands was not indicative of her intent.

Mulder nodded hesitantly, not certain whether she wanted him to stay or to leave. In the days since Andrew's death, the common bond of guilt seemed to drive them even further apart. Director Robinson persuaded his AD to eulogize the recently deceased Special Agent Winters, and during the entire funeral, Mulder was afraid to meet Scully's eyes, afraid to see the reflection of his own guilt in them. Such a tragic death. Such a young man. The lies dripped off his tongue, and the suppressed screams burned his throat. Such a tragic accident. Tsk tsk, nothing could be done.

Rumor had it that the investigation into the death of Winters was closed down when the tox lab upstairs discovered that the agent had a blood alcohol level of 0.9. Not exceedingly high, but enough to tarnish the funeral and to cause an elderly couple who were his parents to alternately yell and sob at the casket as it was laid to rest.

Mulder had been the only brass to arrive at the funeral. After the eulogy, realizing that the Director and Section Chief had failed to attend, he felt the chilly stares of his subordinate agents. And he quickly left the graveyard after the solemn ceremony, knowing that he was taking a coward's way out - lest any red-haired, blue-eyed women wanted to talk to him.

They haven't spoken about anything but business since then, and Mulder stopped short every time his fingers began dialing the familiar number. And today, he decided to just leave her alone and continued to read over the cases that he would probably never get a chance to investigate.

"Mulder, how I wish that you had done this earlier," she spoke suddenly, and his eyes watered at the regret in her voice. She couldn't have been more transparent while pointing an accusatory finger. "No," Scully continued softly, as if reading his thoughts. "You don't understand. I hope that one day, this department is reopened. And maybe there will be more than two agents working on these cases. And maybe it won't be located in the basement anymore."

"Suffering from the delusions of grandeur, Scully?" Mulder quipped sarcastically.

Scully smiled at the remark, stopping the frenzied search through the drawers and papers. "You don't have to answer if you don't know what to say, partner," she replied, refusing to take the bait. "This is not the right time for the X-Files. But I believe it will come again."

Mulder listened to the inspirational speech sullenly, knowing that he should have been the one providing encouragement, that the death of Winters hit her harder than him, that she desperately needed some sign, some realistic indication that they were doing the right thing.

And except for the wavering faith in the righteousness of his actions, he had nothing to offer.

"Scully, could you please reconsider going to the VCS? Quantico would love to have you back," he asked finally.

She shook her head negatively. "Mulder, we have been over this a thousand times before. Please don't ask me again."

He turned away, starting to drum his fingers on the table nervously. "Do you feel that you owe them something? That you are to blame for the death of Winters and that you will serve as some sort of a substitute?"

"That was a low blow," Scully's voice shook with indignation, and he raised his hand in a gesture of surrender.

"I'm sorry. I am just... worried."

The drumming continued, and she wondered if he wasn't so far from the truth, if her joining the VCS was not indicative of some deep masochistic tendencies. But going to Quantico would have been reminiscent of the last nightmarish time the X-Files were closed. And a teaching job would have meant no longer working in the field. And quite irrationally, it seemed to her that the distance between Washington D.C. and Quantico would symbolize the end, the ultimate, determining barrier between her and Mulder.

And they were still partners, damn it.

Mulder stood up decisively and took off the "I Want To Believe" poster, rolling it up tightly. "Here," he offered it to her, "I want you to have this."

The gesture spoke volumes, and Scully accepted it reverently. "Just for safekeeping, Mulder. You will have it back when you need it."

He smiled sadly and pointed to the little exquisite model of a Porsche sitting on the table. "Could I keep this?"

Scully fingered the tiny car gingerly, wondering how she could have missed it. Andrew must have dragged it down here and displayed it in the prominent place. She hardly knew him, and this Porsche... it was a part of him.

"Please," Mulder reiterated, and she nodded, a lump in her throat.

He pocketed the toy and walked out of the office quickly, leaving her alone. After the door closed, she gave herself permission to lose the brave facade for a moment; her shoulders sagged and her eyelids drooped tiredly. The situation was only getting worse, and she had to restrain herself from begging Mulder to quit while it wasn't too late. And yet, she knew that they were both too involved to quit the game now, for if they did, all the losses would have been for nothing.

Her gaze fell on the poster, and her lips curved into a small smile. Though nothing was resolved, she had to believe that there was light at the end of this tunnel. She had to have faith that they would win at the end.

She corrected her suit and picked up the box with all the useless things that accumulated in her desk over the years.

It was time to get to work.

Milton returned a tiny teacup to the saucer, sighing contentedly. Getting old was not so bad if one had money and power. The new wrinkles on the face and the protesting bones were hardly a reflection on his lifestyle, since there were always people ready to do his bidding at a moment's notice.

This weekend on the farm was a welcome vacation from the hassles of everyday work. The winter was coming to an end, it was unusually warm and dry: a perfect day for horseback riding. It was wonderful to see the children, too, for they rarely found the time to get away from the busy life in Chicago and visit.

The phone ring interrupted his reverie, and he hesitated briefly before picking it up, reluctant to spoil the calm evening with banal problems and worries.

"Milton," he answered finally, grudgingly.

"James, have you been watching CNN today?" a thick voice filled the receiver, and Milton grunted unhappily.

"My concept of rest does not include listening to the news."

"Turn on the TV," Northam interrupted. "You will want to look at this."

Milton reached for the remote and clicked on the news channel, slightly mollified by the pretty face of the female reporter that filled the screen. A frown creased her smooth forehead as she recited the latest news on the hurricane Yula, currently wrecking havoc on the shores of North Carolina.

"The path of Yula changed significantly and unexpectedly. After it visited the eastern seaboard of South Carolina, it should have gone away from the continent, in the waters of Atlantic Ocean. The meteorologists had not foreseen that the hurricane would continue in the northern direction, and the people had little or no warning to prepare for the deadly consequences of this change..."

Milton's fingers on the remote tensed as he processed the information. "Manns Harbor?"

Northam anticipated the question. "The phones are down. We don't know what's happening."

"There is no reason for panic yet," Milton tried to contain his worry. "We will have to wait until the hurricane is gone and deal with it then."

"Tell me again, James," Northam sighed loudly. "Why didn't we build the damn lab in Irvine, California?"

The Englishman smiled mirthlessly.


The children's book lay open on the twenty-fifth page, and Mulder struggled to understand the bizarre formula written beside the colorful pictures of animals frolicking on the grass. He remembered enough chemistry from school to recognize the typical elements of the organic compound: carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen, but its structure was too complex to be classified easily.

Yesterday, he tore off a piece of the letter and sent it to the FBI labs for analysis. The answer he was looking for was quick and unsurprising: the letter was written only four years ago, much too late for his fifteenth or twenty-fifth birthday.

Indeed, his father was a master of puzzles. But this one still had no solution, no easily decipherable meaning, and Mulder reached for the folder with Scully's name. Contrary to his expectations, and so unlike the discovery of the base set pairs corresponding to the fifteenth page of the book, there was no single mention of this organic formula to be found, though he saw a couple of equally strange schematics. He really should have shown this to Scully; she had a much more suitable background in this matter.

Mulder purposely bypassed the rest of the information on the hundreds of pages in the folder. He didn't want to read about the procedures administered or drugs injected, though all of them had been documented thoroughly, meticulously, with a cold and exacting professionalism. He closed his eyes on the few strange photographs and tissue samples filed along with the description of every single one of the ninety days that his partner was gone.

Every single day that he had struggled to find her... and she was still in the vicinity of Washington D.C., so unbelievably close and yet infinitely out of reach.

Earlier today, he had erased the memory of a small attractive woman with green eyes and long brown hair. The procedure was so routine by now that he had hardly paid attention to the way she looked or what she talked about.

She was a job.

She had a husband who was grieving about her forty-day disappearance and a mother who shed tears for a daughter she thought was dead.

At the whistle of the kettle, Mulder flung the folder aside and ran into the kitchen. With the stove turned off, he hugged the scorching metal with a palm of his hand, welcoming the pain, feeling the blisters form. It wouldn't do to scare the neighbors, so he used the other hand to clamp his mouth and contain the scream of agony. The heat abated slowly, and he lifted his fingers, his eyes traveling indifferently over the first- and second-degree burns. The rationalism and fear of self-destructive behavior prevailed momentarily, and he turned on the cold water, shoving the throbbing hand under the healing stream with a sensation of regret.

The pain was precious because it indicated that he could still feel.

And if he could feel, he was still a whole human being, and his emotions had not disappeared completely.

The burnt fingers were now numb, and he looked at them calmly, evaluating the damage. Not bad enough to go to the hospital, though Scully would probably have told him otherwise. Mulder bandaged them carefully, if awkwardly. Damn, he really should have planned ahead and used his left hand. Driving tomorrow was going to be hell.

Fresh coffee scalded his throat as he made his way back to the living room. He knew that to preserve what remained of his sanity and integrity, to guard Scully's cherished privacy, no one would read this folder again but her. If she ever wanted to know the truth about the months she lost, it was hers for the taking.

Though he would never ask her to take it.

His sister's file was easier to digest, and Mulder wondered if it was due to the fact that she was much more removed from his life by now. With a glance at the shimmering streetlight outside, he settled down for a thorough examination of the thinner folder, marveling at his choice of the bedtime stories.

The night was still young - and he had no time to waste.

Edward Jackson, the sheriff of Manns Harbor, North Carolina, looked sadly at the remnants of the small building that had served as the City Hall. The recent catastrophe immobilized the entire town and the nearby communities. The electricity was gone for awhile; it would be a few days before water was back; and there was little hope of restoring any means of communication in the near future. He had to stop several times while driving into town today and haul off tree trunks and other debris lying on the roads. At least, he somewhat selfishly noted, his house had not been damaged significantly.

"Good morning, sir!" a policeman greeted him happily, and Jackson glared at him, wondering how this morning could be classified as anything but horrible.

"Morning yourself, Larry. How did you make out?"

"Oh, not too bad. A tree fell on my car, so my head is touching the roof now while I am driving," the young man shared, still flashing a toothy smile. "But it could have been a whole lot worse. Why, look at the City Hall!"

The sheriff grunted and glanced at the sky suspiciously, amazed at its blue color. Such clarity seemed impossible several hours ago when the sky had been littered with dark, angry clouds -- deadly winds causing them to circulate furiously. "Get in my car," he finally said. "We should go assess the damage -- see who needs our help."

Most of the houses were deserted; what few people they met appeared busy trying to restore some semblance of order to their residencies. Larry twisted in his seat, looking around curiously. "Maybe, we should head back, sheriff? I don't think there is much out here."

"A couple more miles," Jackson answered briefly.

Larry nodded self-importantly and continued to stare out the window. "Wow, look at this place!" he exclaimed suddenly. "It will take awhile to rebuild."

The sheriff turned off the engine and stepped out of the car, struggling to remember what the building in front of him looked like before it was destroyed. Three floors, simple and modern, security at the entrance, nothing interesting in his opinion. Nothing deserving of the second glance.

The two men walked around the ruins silently, glass and brick crumbling underneath their boots. Pieces of steel frame lay here and there, bent out of shape, and once again, Jackson marveled at the strength of the violent storm that visited their shore last night. Manns Harbor must have been in the direct path of Yula.

"Sheriff," Larry called out, and for the first time this morning, his voice sounded grave and unhappy. "I think I found someone... or something?"

Jackson walked over briskly and felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up. "Jesus, Larry... What is this thing?"

The corpse could not be classified as human, for the back of its head was enlarged and out of proportion to the rest of the body. The color of skin approached gray, and the sheriff noticed with disgust a few angry red pustules and sores. And yet, its face was unmistakably human, and its open eyes retained a rather normal shade of brown.

"Sheriff... there is another one over here," an expression of revulsion and horror replaced Larry's smile, as he started walking backward to the car.

Jackson knelt down momentarily, respectfully closing the dead brown eyes. "I think we should let someone know about this, Larry. These... *people* look like they could have used some help before the hurricane."

Larry was too busy throwing up on the side of the road to reply.

There was a knock on the door, and Mulder turned around, surprised to see the upset face of Miller. The old doctor never interfered in the sessions anymore, and Mulder came to greet him hurriedly.

"Fox, please see me before you leave for today."

"Sure, as soon as I am finished here," he nodded vaguely in the direction of the woman.

"Good. Sorry to interrupt," Miller spoke to the empty air and closed the door behind him loudly.

Mulder wondered briefly what the hell this was about, then shrugged it off and resumed the session.

Half an hour later, he stood in the office of Miller who was pacing the floor in monotonous, exhausting circles.

"Fox - what happened to your hand?" he asked briskly, noticing the white bandages for the first time.

Mulder hid the right hand behind his back unconsciously. "Nothing serious. I accidentally spilled the boiling water."

Miller threw him a curious glance but seemed to accept the explanation. "With the money you are making now, you could afford paying someone to do these things for you."

"I prefer to make my own beverages, thank you," Mulder replied coldly.

"You really should have asked before taking the files," Miller stopped finally, pinning the younger man down with an unflinching gaze.

Mulder's knees buckled and he suddenly longed to sit down. God, he'd hoped this would last a little longer - that he'd be able to do some real damage before he was found out. What had he accomplished so far besides killing Andrew, convicting Skinner, and permanently scarring dozens of young women?

"I'm sorry," he squeezed through the gritted teeth.

"Yes, well," Miller pointed him to a chair. "I presume you know what happened to your sister."

Mulder nodded dully, waiting for the inevitable end to the charade.

"She was treated well, you know?" Miller continued, ignoring Mulder's deathly pallor. "Davidson made sure of that. I still wonder whether he was her father - who knows, really? - but he cared for her more than he would have even for his own children. There were no invasive procedures performed on her."

"Yes, I know that she had... privileges," Mulder said, suddenly seized by desire to clarify another point. "And he wasn't her father."

Miller shrugged. "You would know better. It's your family, after all. But I bet you didn't know that Samantha had telekinetic abilities?"

Mulder's eyebrows rose sardonically. "It was a surprise."

"Her genetic make-up was altered - we were in the middle of this series of experiments..." Miller stopped uncertainly. "Nevermind."

"Why are you telling me all this?"

"I enjoy working with you, Fox. I like you, and I think that our organization still stands to benefit from your abilities," Miller leaned forward, inputting all of his persuasive skills in the next statement. "That is why I hope that you will not quit, despite what you've learned."

Mulder stared at the old doctor, flabbergasted and slightly amused. They still had no idea... no idea as to his true intentions. By God, he sarcastically mused, the Emmy committee would have a field day with his fine performance.

"Well... I don't know," he offered finally, deciding to milk it for all it was worth. "You were the one who erased her memory. And Scully's. I saw your signature in both files."

Miller was now genuinely nervous, almost fearful. "I hope you understand, Fox. It was - it is - my job."

Mulder nodded weakly, remembering his own thoughts to that effect.

"It was never personal. In fact, I liked them both. And in the case of your partner, there were hardly any memories to begin with," Miller explained, as if that excused everything.

Mulder raised a hand, stopping the flood of explanations. He truly didn't want to hear this. "I will have to think about it. I admit that I had thoughts about resigning."

Miller looked away, accepting the statement. "While you're thinking... there is something you may want to consider."


"Your sister's children are of some interest to us. She is one of the very few abductees who are fertile. And her husband served in the Persian Gulf War. Freaky coincidence, wouldn't you say? But it's quite a potent combination. And we would like to see what special abilities the offspring of such a union might possess," Miller concluded apologetically.

Mulder's hands balled into fists. The bandaged fingers ached mercilessly, and he used the pain as a counter-balance against the turmoil in his head. "Why weren't they taken before?"

"Not while Davidson was alive and a member of the Consortium," Miller replied dryly. "You might not realize this, but by coming to work for us, you have literally saved them."

He could hardly breathe as his world shrank to a narrow cell of the prison he could never hope to get out of. "How old are they?"

"The boy is four, and the girl is six. They are lovely."

Mulder opened his mouth, wanting to ask more questions, but then fell silent.

"I think your decision has just been made."

The man could combine sympathy with a threat in the same sentence. It was a talent. Mulder got up and went to the door, the gift of speech returning to him. "Thank you for the information."

"No problem," Miller was already busy writing something in his journal. "And the matter of stolen files will remain between us. Everyone else is too concerned with that North Carolina disaster, anyway."

North Carolina? Yula? Mulder questioned for a moment how the hurricane could have possibly affected the measured pace of business at the Consortium. It's not like they would have sent medical supplies to the victims.

And then, his thoughts turned back to the haunting memory of a little girl with braids, calling out for help. And to the two children whom he'd never seen, but whose life depended solely on him - and on how well he served the very force who could destroy them.

Skinner took a deep breath and tapped his foot impatiently. He had no desire to speak with Scully, preferring the uncomfortable cot in his drab cell to the excruciating silence that filled a small interrogation room.

"I am surprised that you are alone, Agent Scully," he offered coldly, eager to finally start and finish the conversation

She bit her lip and continued to stare into space. "Agent Winters is dead."

Skinner shrunk back in his seat, the news hitting him like a physical blow. "How?"

"Killed in an automobile accident," her eyes roamed over the walls nervously, searching for cameras and microphones.

"Accident?" Skinner repeated dully, and Scully shook her head negatively.

So his suspicions were correct. It was one of the very few times when Skinner would have loved to be wrong. He felt as a spectator to a grotesque drama, knowing the reasons behind each scene played out before his eyes, but powerless to affect its outcome. "And I presume that Assistant Director Mulder," he spit each word out testily, "is too busy to visit?"

Scully tilted her head and eyed him curiously, trying to figure out what, if anything, Skinner suspected. She ignored the barb, content to turn the topic of conversation to the predicament of her former boss. "I have read the forensics report and I have evaluated all evidence, sir. Nothing at the crime scene points directly at you even though your fingerprints were found in the apartment. The pictures speak against you, but there is a chance that jury may be swayed..."

So she would ignore the question. Skinner sighed, irritated. "Why are you here? Not to tell me what I already know, I hope?"

"I am sorry, sir," Scully lost her wind momentarily. "I have tried, but there is so little that I can do..."

"Oh really? Who are you working for these days, Agent Scully?"

"Violent Crimes Section - as a forensic expert," she sounded shaky, recoiling from the expression of pity and horror on Skinner's face. "The X-Files were closed a few days ago."

"By Mulder?"

"Yes," blue eyes glared at him defiantly, answering all of his questions at once.

Skinner couldn't believe that he started this journey into hell for Mulder and her, for the corrupted agent and his blinded partner. Neither one was worth the lives of people stung by the bees. Neither one was worth this jail sentence, no matter how much he may have deserved it.

He should have warned Andrew to stay away.

"I think you should go, Agent Scully."

She flinched and got up abruptly, her chair scraping the floor with a metallic screech. What was she doing here? It was obvious what Skinner thought of her and Mulder. She never could fool him. In a half-hearted attempt to fix the unfixable, she spoke urgently. "I came here to say that I believe you. That I believe in you, and that no matter what possible motive... or motives... you might have had to kill Cancerman, I know you wouldn't have done it. And so does Agent Mulder."

Skinner shook his head tiredly. "That is very sweet. However, I need something more than faith to get me out of this predicament."

"The trial is in a few weeks," Scully felt like she was about to choke on the next platitude. "And I have faith that something might happen in the meantime."

She left in a hurry, and the guards stepped back in the room, ready to escort him back to his cell. He was accustomed to the click of handcuffs, and the way to his cell was familiar and everyday. His whisper didn't carry far in the stale air.

"I don't."

Outside, Scully leaned against the car door, her knees shaking. With an increasing frequency, she was forced to lie and cover for Mulder, while innocent people she respected and cared about were either killed or convicted of crimes they didn't commit. And at this moment, she hated herself, and him, and their misguided plans.

She felt as if she were betraying not only her ex-boss, but also herself, and the very foundations of her beliefs. Apparently, the way to the truth was neither black nor white, but gray and shadowy.

The list of the victims was growing.

And time was running out.

Kim entered the office carrying a load of folders in her hands. With a sigh of relief, she set them down on Mulder's desk and offered her boss a polite smile.

"What are those?" he was curious.

"X-Files, sir. Now that the department is closed, I don't know where to direct them. And they are still being labeled as X - maybe, we should speak to the administration about it?"

Mulder regarded the folders with a mixture of longing and fear, and she stopped, eyeing him sympathetically.

"Sir, if you want me to drop them at the office downstairs..."

That would have been a wise decision, all things considered. "No," he interrupted her on impulse. "Let me look through them first and see if they can be directed to the other departments."

"Absolutely. I'll bring you more coffee," Kim hesitated before leaving, and Mulder smiled ruefully, watching her depart. He must have been rather unlike her previous boss; the poor thing just didn't know how to handle him.

He opened the first folder and touched the pages tenderly. A haunted house. Poltergeist. Mulder's lips curved upward and he closed the file gently. Not unless he could find a brigade of Ghostbusters. The second file spoke of a numb man who suddenly began talking and professing the end of the world, and claiming to have been touched by God.

What a bunch of crap.

The third folder had him mesmerized. Two strange bodies, "half-human and weird," in description of Sheriff Jackson, were discovered after hurricane Yula in Manns Harbor, North Carolina. The building where the bodies were found was destroyed completely, and no one claimed ownership of it - or the bodies - yet. The remnants of strange apparatuses were found in the ruins, as well. The police of North Carolina had their hands full dealing with the consequences of the hurricane, and someone apparently heard enough of the X-Files department of the FBI to direct the case there.

Mulder's heartbeat intensified. Could this have been the "disaster" that had the entire Consortium on the verge of hysteria? Was this the location of one of their labs? If it worried them so greatly, there had to be evidence that could blow the entire operation out of the water. He had no freedom to go to Manns Harbor and investigate any longer, but he could ask Scully...

Kim came in carrying a fresh cup of coffee, and she had to touch him on the shoulder to gain his attention. "Sir, Dean Douglas is here to see you. Should I tell him to come back again?"

"Oh? No..." Mulder accepted the cup gratefully. "Let him in."

Dean Douglas strode into the office and settled down in the offered chair, obviously uncomfortable.

"So, what brings you here?" Mulder broke the silence impatiently, glancing at the open folder that still beckoned him.

Douglas wiped sweaty hands on the pants nervously. Generally a fearless man, he always felt apprehensive around the new Assistant Director, and he would be hard-pressed to explain the reasons. Perhaps it was the ease with which Mulder ascended the career ladder. Perhaps it was the cold fire in his eyes. "I came here to talk about a rather disturbing trend I've noticed in my division."

"Oh? Which is?"

"High turn-around rate of my agents," the words were out, and Douglas appeared relieved. "Personally, I am glad to have Agent Scully working for us. She helped us out tremendously with autopsies and her excellent forensic expertise."

Mulder watched him coldly. "But?"

"But I question the reasons behind her transfer. Look at the facts. First, you ask for Agent Winters to work as her partner. He is killed in a few days by an unidentified vehicle. And that vehicle did exist, regardless of alcohol level in his blood. You quickly close the department and ask if the Violent Crimes Section could accommodate Agent Scully, though she clearly has no profiling experience. Going back further, Walter Skinner, a man whom I respect, is convicted for murder of the person whose name he didn't even know. And you're promoted in his place after a rather bizarre though triumphant resolution of the hostage situation."

Mulder listened bleakly to the recitation, praying for the Chief of the VCS to stop. If he began asking questions, there would be yet another tombstone in the Arlington cemetery and yet another death on his shoulders. "What is your point, Douglas?"

"My point is," he looked at the Assistant Director squarely, "that I ask you not to use my agents so freely to fulfill your purposes whatever they may be. And that includes Agent Scully."

So Scully was now "his agent." Mulder smirked contemptuously. "Let me remind you that your department is still answerable to me. If I feel the need to utilize its resources, I certainly will."

Douglas seemed to ignore the rude tone of his voice, focusing on the tiny Porsche standing in the far corner of the table. "Mulder, I'm only saying this because I'm concerned. And I still hope that we will have a long and productive working relationship," his manner was soft, reconciliatory. "But I don't want to add more unsolved cases to this pile," he nodded to the load of X-Files, "or to our own. My agents are not disposable."

Mulder stared downward with the unseeing eyes, gritting his teeth and wishing that his tearducts were less allergic to the dust in the air. "Certainly not."

His point articulated, Douglas exited. Enthusiasm wavering, Mulder smoothed the papers in the folder with bandaged fingers. There were so many reasons to bury this case. Douglas' unhappiness. His concern for Scully. His own perilous position. Miller's precautions. And there were only a few unimportant incentives to give it a green light.

Time was running out like sand through his fingers, while the danger of becoming someone he'd never wanted to be was becoming all too real.

The screen glowed with a soft blue light, and Scully touched the smooth glass tentatively, feeling the cool crackle of electricity. They rarely spoke anymore using the monkey tongue, because Mulder was always too busy, and their schedules rarely coincided. But she was glad for this interlude, desperate to talk to him.

"Skylark, you must see the formula I've found in my textbook."

Oh, more news about the letter. It seemed to be the only thing Mulder was interested in these days.

"Can you type it here?"

The formula appeared on the screen as if by magic, and she stared at it without recognition. Her stomach cramped painfully as she typed the next question. "Did you see it in my lecture notes, as well?"

The answer was quick and unsettling. "No. But there are a couple of similar compounds mentioned."

"I do not recognize this. I need more time to research it."

The next words cut through her like a knife, and she barely suppressed her anger.

"I have to fly out tonight. Let's talk about this later."

"Where are you going?"

"A weekly meeting. Gotta go."

Scully bit her lip in frustration. So he got everything he wanted out of this conversation, and now he was running away. And the fact that he spoke of these meetings with such ease - such informality - worried her.

"Wait! The presentation of the bald monkey is soon. We are not ready."

Mulder's answer seemed impatient. "I know."

"And you still haven't told me what kind of research you do."

The words sounded as if he was stuttering. "Ddo yo really want to kknow."

She envisioned his tired face, heard his resigned voice while another sentence floated on the screen.

"Sorry. Hard to ttype with burnt fingers."

The twinge of concern was almost an involuntary reflex, and Scully closed her eyes, fearing the rising headache and her obvious co-dependence on her ex-partner, but most of all whatever he was about to tell her.

"How did you burn them? Is it serious?"

"Spilled boiling water. An accident. Don't worry."

Scully sensed that there was more to the story, but didn't push him further. "Do you want me to study my... lecture notes?" she typed finally, praying for a negative answer.

His reply screamed at her angrily. "NO!!" Then, in a softer tone, he followed with, "Too difficult for you or for me."

She swallowed hard, erasing the treacherous thoughts from her mind, fear uncoiling like a poisonous snake in her heart. "This cannot go on much longer."

The pause lasted minutes.

"I need you to do something for me. For us," he corrected himself quickly. "Research a case - meet me tomorrow."

Confused but slightly reassured, she typed an affirmation. And then she thought about Sheila and Andrew. And about Skinner, who readily admitted what he had done for the Consortium. And about Mulder, who somehow managed to convince the Consortium that he was on their side.

It must have been something that he could somehow live with. But it was also something that he thought she would disapprove of - something she would despise him for.



"I don't want to know," Scully typed quickly, fully aware of her weakness, eyes wide open to her deliberate blindness.

Before she turned off the computer decisively, his answer flashed as if chasing her.

"But you will."

Scully drank in the fresh air of North Carolina, appreciating the smell of early spring flowers mixed with the salt of the ocean. She realized with surprise that she was falling in love with the little town of Manns Harbor, rattled by the hurricane, but still unique and charming. And for the first time in so many days, she was delighted to be working.

Even without Mulder by her side, it felt right to be investigating an X-File, and Scully wondered when the now-extinguished department became so much a part of her life. No, she amended, not just a part. She would never settle for anything less - and she could not wish for anything more.

"Agent Scully? Sheriff Jackson," a tall burly man introduced himself, and she smiled, shaking his hand. "So, I guess our problems reached the ears of the FBI itself."

"Yes. I don't have much time," Scully spoke with regret, wishing that she could stay longer had there been no pressing matters waiting back home. "Could you point me to the ruins of the building where you found the bodies?"

"Sure. Take this road down to Hawthorne, turn right, and you will see it on the right-hand side."

"Thank you. How is restoration coming along?"

Sheriff beamed. "We are doing very well. We should receive a large government grant, so people will have a chance to rebuild their houses."

"Glad to hear that. Do you still have the bodies?" Scully asked hopefully.

"We just shipped them to Quantico yesterday," Jackson was apologetic. "Didn't know someone would be coming all the way over here. And we don't have a place to keep them, anyway."

She nodded, relieved that they haven't disappeared - at least, not yet - and prepared to drive off when sheriff stopped her tentatively.

"Agent Scully, thank you so much for coming. And I sure hope you can find out what was happening in that place. I worked here as a police officer for twenty-seven years, and I would be upset to find out there was something going on in Manns Harbor that required my attention - and I never even knew of it."

"I will do my best, sheriff," Scully watched as he put the hat back on and swaggered to the old Wrangler.

Minutes later, she gazed at the ruins. There was little left here, and she wondered around aimlessly, picking up a few pieces of metal and glass and packing them in the evidence bags just in case. Suddenly aware of someone's eyes on her back, Scully turned around abruptly and saw a thin elderly man on the side of the road.

"Sir? Are you looking for something?"

"No, no," the man gulped and looked around, clearly wishing to escape her scrutiny. "I just stopped by to look at the damage."

"It is rather gruesome, isn't it?" she smiled, trying to put him at ease. "Do you know anything about what this place used to be?"

He turned the cane in his hands nervously. "I thought... no, I'm wrong... nevermind," he started walking away, and Scully ran after him on some sixth sense.

"Wait! I'm a Special Agent Scully, with the Bureau. If you need me for anything, here is my business card."

The old man seemed to accept it gratefully, putting it in the wallet with shaking hands. "Can't imagine why I would... no, can't imagine."

Then he limped back to the waiting car, and Scully stared after him, unsettled.

Quantico was the next step.


I apologize for the shortness of this e-mail. It is only due to lack of time.

First of all, I was amazed and very grateful to find the two rats from the destroyed laboratory still available. I have not expected such a gift, considering our terrible luck of the times past. I assume that parties interested have not been informed of their existence. Monkeys do love to eat rats, or so I've heard.

I hid them, Scorpio. A scientist can't risk losing such valuable exponents. First time for everything, I suppose.

Here is what I have found. In both rat corpses, the cerebellum, a part of the brain responsible for balance, movement, and coordination, was enlarged to almost twice the normal size. In order to accommodate this severe brain growth, the posterior parts of the skull were excised and replaced with metallic plates. Their pituitary gland's intermediate lobe was also enlarged. That is the lobe that has no known function in rat bodies.

While I am at a loss to explain the functionality of both of these changes, I may have an answer as to their possible origins. There were multiple pustules and sores on both gray bodies. I had fluid inside of them examined, and there are traces of a compound which formula is reminiscent of the one you have shown me before. The chemists I worked with are certain only that this compound is synthesized, but they could not tell me what it was.

These rats had also undergone extensive radiation, which may account for the amount of frameshift mutations discovered in their DNA. A textbook case, really.

Quite obviously, our competitors were experimenting with a structure of this unknown compound, but I could only speculate about their purposes.

I believe that I have also helped them in these experiments three years earlier. My lecture notes could be essential, to help us understand this case, as well as their larger goals. It may be painful but necessary.

The cause of death in the first case was a broken neck. In the second, multiple injuries and blood loss are to blame. However, these rats would not have survived much longer. Their immune system was destroyed, and their defenses against any otherwise harmless infection were down. In fact, their immune response would have been slower and less effective than if they had a rat equivalent of AIDS. Their stomachs and digestive tracks had also been severely damaged.

These are my findings so far. Today, I am flying out to meet a teacher who I feel may know some things about this case.

I truly hope that I will have more answers for you before long.

One last thing, Scorpio: I have lost too many colleagues already. People are burnt out quickly. I hope you are taking care of yourself. Don't work too hard.

I will see you soon,


The phone rang, and Mulder shredded the letter on the spot, scrunching the sentimental regrets at the roots. His head throbbed, and he shook off two more Excedrin pills in the palm of his hand, then sent them down his throat without water. He was already over the allowed daily limit, but who was counting. People as rats. What an allegory.

Distractedly, he picked up the phone, thinking that this letter was more disturbing than encouraging. Who was Scully meeting? Where was she? If they were still partners, he would imagine that she was executing a classic "I-just-ditched-you-Mulder-to-show-you- how-it-feels" scenario. Complete with a melodramatic e-mail. And how did she manage to hide the bodies, anyway?

He could better maintain plausible deniability if he didn't know where she was. She promised to be back soon, and Scully was always true to her word.

But it was so hard to wait...


"Fox, this is Milton. I am in Washington today - do you have some time to chat?"

Mulder glanced at the clock. 7 PM. Highly irregular. He was anxious now, and he tried to remind himself of Miller's strange reaction to his indiscretions. But Milton was far more dangerous.

"Of course," he replied smoothly, a smile in his voice. "I'd be delighted."

"Meet me in one hour at the facility," Milton cut him abruptly.

Oh, so no room for pleasantries. "See you there."

The beep was his answer, and Mulder hung up gently. There was no reason to worry.

No reason at all.


Scully ran up the creaky steps of the old wooden house and knocked on the door decisively, trying to contain her excitement. She still could not believe that the man she met at Manns Harbor called, surprising her in the middle of the autopsies. At the precise moment when she was trying to dream up a way to hide the bodies.

The same halting voice she heard on the phone asked who was at the door.

"Agent Scully - we have spoken?'

It took him several minutes to unbolt the locks, and Scully marveled at their sheer quantity.

"Good evening," the man shuffled, ushering her in awkwardly. "Please come in."

"Thank you," she stepped inside, sweeping the surroundings quickly. The darkness dwelled in the corners, the only other tenant in the old Albany, New York house. It seeped into the room from behind the old, valuable paintings on the walls, from behind the dark antique furniture. "I am sorry, I still don't know your name."

"Hans Treznor. Do sit down."

"You are German?" Scully settled down in the armchair. "You have no accent at all."

Treznor cringed with displeasure. "I have lived in this country for more than forty years. If I still had an accent, it would be surprising."

"I am sorry. But I presume you called me for a reason. What did you want to talk to me about?"

The old man's expression changed from contempt to fear as if by magic. "That place where we met in North Carolina. What do you know about it?"

Scully shrugged. "I was hoping you could tell me about it, actually. Two strange bodies were found there, but that's all I can tell you."

"I am sure you can tell me much more than that, Agent Scully," Treznor's eyes were still fearful, but the intelligence behind them was undeniable. "I did some checking-up on you, and I know that you are a forensic pathologist. I am sure you would have wanted to be the one to do the autopsies. And I would like to know what you have found."

Scully stared at him, indignation boiling inside her. "You - checked up on me? What gave you the right?"

"The only right I have these days, Agent Scully. The right to die with dignity - and the right to clear my conscience before I go."

"You don't look that frail to me," she cursed herself mentally for being short with him. "I was hoping you could give me some information. But since you seem unwilling, I will go."

"Bluffs don't work with me, Agent Scully," Treznor's cold voice stopped her as she was rising out of the chair. "This conversation will be mutually beneficial, I assure you. Now, tell me about the bodies."

She slid back down slowly, squeezing the handles of the armchair tightly. "Most of the anomalies I have found were in the brain..." she began uncertainly, enthusiasm and scientific curiosity winning her over step by step. Treznor listened attentively, nodding from time to time, the best audience to the strange forensic discoveries she had had in the longest time. "There were trace amounts of a substance in the pustules, and in the bloodstream of the bodies. And I only know that it was manufactured, but no one can tell me what it is," Scully finished.

"Draw me a scheme," Treznor pointed her to paper and pen on the table.

She scribbled a quick picture, and gave it to him. "You know what this is, don't you?"

"Yes," Hans contemplated it for a while. "Yes, I do," he drew another picture below it with unsteady fingers. "And this is the one they are looking for, I am sure."

Scully rummaged through her bag, pulling out a formula that Mulder found in his father's book. "Bingo," she whispered softly, smiling and trembling at the same time.

"You know how gene splicing works, don't you?" Treznor asked, not looking for an answer. "When two differing DNAs are being combined, they must be treated with the same enzyme that has the ability to split them in such a way that they will graft together. If it works, the result is a completely new DNA string, a new range of possibilities, a new species. This formula is the enzyme that could, in fact, combine the human and gray DNA."


He smiled, regarding her with something akin to pity. "Alien."

"But these bodies... they wouldn't have survived!" Scully remembered the destruction she had found inside them and shuddered. "This is impossible."

"What is impossible, Agent Scully? The trick is, of course, to come up with a formula that will successfully splice both DNA strings and combine them so that the risk to health will be minimal and the benefits procured immeasurable. Imagine: a body that still resembles human, but possesses new abilities. Levitation. Telekinesis. Control over thought. Control over time, even."

Her head was spinning. "Regardless... are you telling me that this other formula you just drew for me, that this is the one?"

"Yes. Why are you so surprised? You seem to have known it as well."

"I am not surprised," Scully amended. "It is the place where we found it."

"We?" Treznor seemed edgier now, the old fear coming back.

"Me and my ex-partner," she suddenly felt regret that Mulder wasn't here. That she wasn't recording this conversation so that he could listen to it. "How do you know so much?"

Hans' face fell, and an old man with nothing to live for soon replaced an eager scientist. "I was one of the few unfortunates who conducted these experiments many years ago. Sometimes, I think that the human subjects we used as lab rats were the unlucky ones - now I think that we were the true victims. William Mulder was in charge of the project when I came to work in Virginia laboratory," he stopped curiously, seeing Scully's hand going to her throat. "Something to drink, perhaps?"

"No, no. I am fine," she shook her head, trying to dispel the sudden dizziness. "Please, continue."

"He was a determined man, relentless in the pursuit of his goal. He drove us all to the brink of nervous breakdowns, but we did find a way to combine the two with minimum damage to the subjects. The subject we experimented upon had lived for three months and he was looking quite well... I was ecstatic, you understand. Finally, we had a solution to the problem."

"What happened then?"

"What happened was fire, and the person who just happened to have started it was William Mulder. Everything burned to the ground: the samples, the documents, the subjects, and the knowledge. Everyone died - except for me, and only because I was lucky enough to have stepped out for a cigarette at the moment. Sometimes, the deadly habits prove to be beneficial."

Scully frowned. "Are you sure it was him who started the fire?"

Treznor cringed. "He is the only one besides me who lived. Simply by method of exclusion."

She tried to collect her thoughts. This barrage of information was refreshing and surprising, she was so used to getting some scraps...

"I heard what happened to him after. He resigned, his daughter disappeared. They were suspicious - they thought it was him as well," Treznor concluded. "It wasn't a Sherlock Holmes type of mystery."

"How hard was this formula to come by?" Scully wondered aloud. "They couldn't find it since then?"

"We only invented it by sheer luck," Hans bared his teeth. "No method to our madness, so to speak."

"You must have been a great scientist," Scully offered, suddenly sorry for the man who obviously spent most of his life in hiding, in fear.

"But I have used my talent for the wrong things," he looked away for a moment. "At times I used to think: if I surrender this formula to them, if I share what I know, at least one part of their project will have been fulfilled. Some experimentation will stop, lives will be spared..."

"But you couldn't be sure that more people will not die as a result of this discovery," she finished softly.

"That and I was afraid for my own life. Something I truly needn't have concerned myself with." Treznor gazed at her thoughtfully. "I can guess why you know so much, Agent Scully. Your ex-partner's name is Fox Mulder, and I have seen enough to know that there are no coincidences. Old man must have kept some information about the project. I can do very little. But you have the knowledge and the means to do something. Not even they can hide from hurricanes."

Scully processed the information. "Thank you," she said finally, gratefully. "You have helped me immensely."

Hans nodded, pale eyes focusing on hers for a moment. "You seem to take this business rather personally, Agent Scully. Why?"

His words unsettled her. "I am tired of being a victim," she straightened in the chair.

Hans inhaled sharply and stared at her for a while. "You have survived. You should be happy for that."

The sun was setting behind the trees, and the darkness of the house mixed with the dusk outside. The steel returned back into her voice.

"I am."

Milton poured the wine in the glasses ceremoniously and handed one to Mulder. "How is work?"

"Which one?" Mulder replied in tone. "I seem to be fulfilling so many functions these days."

"This is your account in a Swiss bank," Milton handed him a piece of paper. "Access it on-line, change your password, start managing your assets."

Snakeskin was more pleasant to the touch than this paper with the strings of numbers. "How much?"

"Enough," Milton tasted the dark liquid, then swirled it in the light. "Enough for you to understand what the definition of your job is."

Mulder smiled pleasantly. "I do not recall discussing the terms of payment."

"You seemed more concerned with other matters at the time. Your interview skills must be rusty."

"Well, I only had one interview, so I could be forgiven. That is great news," he cheered, holding up his glass. "I can start shopping at Bloomingdales now. And you simply must give me the phone of your manicurist."

"Jokes aside, Fox," Milton replied softly. "I didn't come all this way here for a pleasure of your company, much as I always enjoy it. I am concerned... yes, I am greatly concerned with something we had happen at one of our laboratories in Manns Harbor, North Carolina."

Mulder raised his eyebrows. "What happened?"

"It was in the direct path of the hurricane, and they had no warning. And a bunch of idiots that they are, they had thrown some equipment in the truck, hauled up some subjects that were transportable, but left a couple that weren't. I suspect that they just forgot them, like one forgets spoiled vegetables at the bottom of the refrigerator. We should produce a new set of rules for our facilities. Something like: burn it to the ground if you know it will be found!"

"And it rhymes, too!" Mulder was now genuinely having a good time, congratulating himself inwardly on sending Scully to Manns Harbor before the Consortium began the official "sanitation".

Milton shot him a mischievous glance. He definitely liked this young man... finally, someone of an equal if not greater intellect to talk to, someone who could appreciate his twisted sense of humor. "Due to the nature of this disaster, we were late in addressing the potential problems. The ruins of the facility are just that: ruins, and there should be no problem with them. The two forgotten bodies have been found and shipped to Quantico. They are the only remaining piece of evidence that must be destroyed, but..." he enunciated each word. "They. Can't. Seem. To. Be. Found!"

Mulder remembered Scully's note and tried not to choke on the wine. "Perhaps, that's a good thing?"

Milton cocked his head to the side. "Fox. When something is lost, we are usually the ones responsible."

"Ah. I seem to forget. So what do you want me to do? Find them?"

"No. Make sure that if they are, in fact, found by someone other than ourselves... that nothing happens to endanger this Swiss bank account."

"I will do my best," he nodded. "Can't go around losing thousands of dollars."

Milton smirked. "More like hundreds of thousands. It pays to have education these days, don't you think?"

His smile momentarily lost, Mulder concentrated on the wine. "The money that paid for this education came from the same source. Isn't that right?"

Milton didn't reply, starting to rummage through his pockets. "Ah, here it is," he pushed another paper across the table. "Another part of our deal."

Mulder read the address in Vermont, swallowed apprehensively. "What is it?"

"That's where Samantha O'Connor lives now, with her family. Isn't that what you wanted?"

Did he want it? He doubted it now, after so many years of searching, after so many scars on his soul. He knew what happened to her, and she didn't want to be disturbed... But the numbers and letters were a magnet, a key to the addiction so powerful it was not even recognized as one anymore. This way lay madness, and he was already contemplating the straightjacket. "I... I will think about it," his answer seemed to calm him somewhat. He could make his decision later. "Maybe..."

Milton watched him carefully. "Maybe. One other thing, Fox."

Distractedly, Mulder raised his eyes. "What is it?"

"I know that Agent Scully took a plane to a North Carolina location just recently. And I hope that it was for another case," his voice dripped with poison. "How is she doing these days?"

"I don't know," Mulder answered lightly. "We don't seem to talk much anymore."

"A good answer," the conspirator took another sip, rolled it around his mouth. "Now here is a good question: why is it that the only person that seems to love you... and I mean love in the platonic sense, of course... why is it that she is not questioning your whereabouts? Why is she so unconcerned about your promotion? And why is she not brokenhearted over the fact that you don't 'talk much?'"

The worry was creeping back softly but surely. "Agent Scully is her own person regardless of whatever feelings you think she has for me."

"She was your partner, Fox. I would be worried about her if I were you. And you just seem to ignore the issue."

"What I am trying to tell you is," Mulder steeled his voice, squished his fear. "There is no issue."

Milton poured more wine, then directed his eyes to the glass. "I always have wondered. She is the only person to get rid of the cancer. How? And don't tell me this crap about the chip. What's a chip? Only a summons device, nothing more."

There was a faint noise in his ears and he wondered bleakly if there was maybe something in the wine. Something that made him feel as if he were going to lose consciousness. Maybe Excedrin didn't mix well with alcohol. "She had undergone extensive chemotherapy." Why was he explaining this? Why did he feel as if the ground was about to slip from under his feet?

"What's chemotherapy to such a pronounced disease? It would take a miracle to clean up this much poison out of her system. No, I do still wonder... it would be interesting to find out... and the repeat visit can always be arranged..."

"Are you threatening me?" He could swear that he smelled the burnt skin in the air, and black and red circles danced in front of his eyes. The hunting season was over, and his mind kept going insistently over every one of the hypnosis sessions he performed, over each page of the folder he'd found and accidentally read. Miller was good, but he didn't know how to hit where it hurt the most.

Not Scully. Not again.

"Merely a warning, Fox," Milton got up and collected some files lying on the table. "Merely a warning."


The little diner was still the same, and Scully swore to herself that when it was all over, she would never come back again. The place gave her the creeps. Moreover, meeting Mulder like this was too dangerous; it was an aberration, and they both knew it.

He sat at the table in the far corner of the diner, and she realized with a start that at a certain point in time he began to choose the shadowy places. Like Cancerman, she thought, and was immediately ashamed of the comparison.

It was a good thing that he didn't smoke.

"Mulder, you know that we can't keep meeting like this; we are lucky we haven't been caught yet," Scully began and halted uncertainly. "You look like hell."

"Gee, thanks," his lips didn't even curve into a smile. The silence stretched, and Scully reached out her hand to touch his sleeve. He shivered slightly and moved away. "Scully, do you have any Excedrin in your bag, by any chance? Or something to that effect?" his voice sounded hollow, distracted, as if he could not quite concentrate on the conversation at hand.

She was ready to pounce on him with questions and concerns, a doctor instinct kicking in immediately, but managed to refrain somehow and focused on finding the pills. "Here, Tylenol," she handed him the bottle and watched as he shook out three. "Mulder, that is more than you should be taking at one time."

He shot her an impatient glance. Oh, for heaven's sake, it's not like these were heavy drugs. "Tylenol? Give me a break."

"Mulder... what are we doing here?" she asked him finally, as all of her excitement over her discoveries drained away. "You wanted to talk in private..."

"Scully, I don't want to know where you hid the bodies. But I ask you to forget their location, as well," Mulder looked at her harshly. "Whatever you have found - do not put it into the report."

She looked around, half-convinced that he saw a familiar face and that's why he was behaving this strangely. "But... Mulder, the things I've seen..."

"Scully, this case never happened. It belongs to a non-existent department. Dean Douglas needs you to help in some on-going cases," Mulder paused, suddenly terrified of the words falling from his mouth. He didn't believe in them - but he needed Scully to believe in them, and he played the role that was almost like second skin with the unsuspected artistry.

"Mulder, you have to hear what I have found," Scully suddenly felt as if she fell into the twilight zone. The only familiar thing about this man was a glass of ice tea in his hands - still full. "I met with someone who worked with your father - who worked for him, in fact - and he told me what the Consortium are working on..."

He kept his expression carefully neutral. "I don't want to know, Scully."

Why was he being so dense? What happened in the short time while she was gone? "Mulder! Will you please listen to me? Did you bring my file here? I need to read it - there is a lot of work to be done - we need a plan..."

"Does the word 'no' mean anything to you?" Mulder began to get exasperated. "I did not bring your file, there is nothing we need to do, and I can hardly understand what plan you are talking about."

Scully struggled, trying to understand what was happening here. She hoped that they were past it, past whatever was bothering him, past not talking about their problems, past the uncomfortable silences. And now it seemed as though they took five steps back for one step forward. Trying from another angle, she questioned: "Did they find something out? Are you afraid of something - is that why you are ignoring me?"

A shadow passed over his face, and for a moment she felt certain that she hit the right note, that her guesses were correct. And yet his voice didn't waver, his eyes did not soften when he said the next words.

"No. I have to go, Scully."

Damn it, she was not leaving it like this. "Mulder, whatever you are trying to do, I do not believe in it. You are behaving like one of them," she used what she knew would hurt, and without remorse. Maybe it would crack through him. "And I know that you are still with me. Aren't you?"

Mulder looked at her smile, the eyes full of trust, and love, and faith, and closed his eyes under the sudden onslaught of heartache. Once and for all, he had to try and convince her to step away or the consequences would be deadly. "Scully, do you ever wonder why you can't remember anything from the time you were abducted?"

The smile wavered, a castle in the sand under the attack of heavy ocean waves. "I... I don't think about it..."

"Do you ever ask yourself how three months," Mulder complimented himself for not breaking down right then and there, "could just disappear from your memory?"

"You know," Scully answered after a pause. "You know that it bothers me, but it's easier not to dwell on it..." she coughed, trying to hide her discomfort. "Why?"

"It's an interesting trick, and since I have learned it, I thought I would share. You listen to the person and get their trust, find out what it is that bothers them, what it is they want to forget. Then you tell them to lock it deep in the recesses of their subconscious, so that it never, ever resurfaces again. Maybe only in their dreams that are forgotten in several minutes."

She didn't want to understand him. Her mind refused to make a connection that she knew was actually easy. "Mulder, no..."

"Yes," and now he meant it, now he didn't want her to interrupt. "That's what I have been doing for the last few months: perfecting the art of erasing memories. Something curious that I have found out, it doesn't matter whether three months or three days should be forgotten, the effort it takes is really the same."

Scully didn't know what was happening, she only knew that she wanted him to stop. But her mouth was dry, and she only raised her hand weakly in protest - then let it fall back to the table.

"The man who erased your memory, Anthony Miller, said that you didn't have that many memories to begin with. I was curious to find out why he mentioned that, and after I read your file a little more in depth, I understood that most of the time you were kept on depressants. After Valium caused a respiratory depression, it was switched to Librium. As you know, it is still a minor tranquilizer, and apparently at some point, it wasn't strong enough. Did you know that you're allergic to Thorazine? Well, regardless, they didn't, and you slipped into a coma as a result of an injection. Fortunately for them, it happened at the end of their experimentation, after they didn't need you any longer. So they simply took you off their hands, after any trace amounts of Thorazine disappeared from your system."

Mulder glanced at Scully who didn't protest any longer, simply absorbing the information. "Doctor Miller is a gifted teacher, and he taught me how to erase memories. I must have worked with... oh, sixty women so far? I've lost count. I obviously screwed up with Sheila Freeman, but she was the first. I became much better since then, I assure you."


For some reason, the question struck him as funny, but the smile he managed was unhealthy, tired. "You don't think I would disclose the location, do you?"

She wanted to cry, then, but the tears wouldn't come. They must have dried along with every positive emotion inside her heart. She couldn't speak, either, because it seemed an enormously difficult task that would drain all of her remaining energy.

This is killing me, Scully realized suddenly, and she moved uncertainly, grabbing her bag and coat. "You will have your report tomorrow," she managed to whisper as she stood up, using the nearby wall for support.

Mulder wanted to ask if she was all right to drive, offer her a ride home. Such a normal thing to do. And yet, he was quite convinced that she would faint had he uttered just one more word, so he remained silent, watching her depart. The door slammed behind her, and mission accomplished, he calmly reached for the iced tea.

The Tylenol bottle was still at the table, and he took out two more pills, wishing that Codeine was available without a prescription.

Mulder leaned against the smooth glass of the window in Miller's office and tried to tune out the doctor's voice, to get lost in a vacuum where nothing existed or spoke or moved. He felt suspended in limbo, having no means to backtrack and no courage to move forward. Not for the first time, he thought of how stupid his plan was, and how it was doomed to failure.

My choices brought me to this point of ultimate resistance, he mused tiredly. God, it sounded like a line from a bad musical.

"So I was hoping that you'd switch with me for Thursday and Friday... Fox?" Miller's voice drifted back inside his comfortable cocoon of nothingness, and Mulder started, putting his arms across the chest defensively.

"Sorry, I didn't hear what you said."

"I was just saying that I have two old friends coming over to visit next week - and I was hoping that we could rearrange our schedules. I need to take a couple of days off," Miller shrugged.

Mulder was tempted to laugh. Sometimes, he forgot that he was dealing with real people who had families and friends, and lives outside of their work - outside of this building. A conversation from a long time ago came to him: "Mulder, I'm simply dying under this workload, would you help out with this guy's profile?" Anything short of a resounding "no" always meant yes, and Mulder was always unable to reply in the nanoseconds of time before gruesomely detailed files and photographs were shoved into his arms. A rapidly receding figure would offer a thumbs up, "You're the man!"

Miller looked at Mulder expectantly, his hands pushing a pile of folders his way. They looked innocent enough, invitingly enticing, as if it was everyday someone asked if you cared to work with a few extra patients and wipe out their memories.

Mulder shrugged his shoulders before muttering, "I don't mind."

You're the man.

Miller studied Mulder's detached face, detecting a strange note of indifference in his voice. "Fox, are you all right?"

His eyes were already back on the world outside. "Why wouldn't I be?"

Miller paused, reflecting, choosing his words carefully. "You don't seem... yourself."

He shoots, he scores, Mulder commented inwardly. That's it: I've lost myself and I can't find me. Him. Whoever it was he/I used to be. Hello? Bureau of Lost and Found? Fox Mulder here -- seems the lights are on but nobody's home; the elevator ain't quite going to the top anymore.

Rubbing a hand over his face, Mulder inhaled deeply, trying to collect his rapidly scattering thoughts. "I'm fine, Miller," dryly. "It's late, we ought to be leaving."

A heavy hand lay on his shoulder, and he suppressed a shudder. A gentle voice spoke placatingly in his ears. "Why hurry? Sit down."

Why hurry indeed? There was nothing waiting at home, no pressing business to attend to, no messages or e-mails to answer, certainly not from... Scully. He winced at the mere name, forgetting that he wasn't alone. All the time in the world, now - but not a single moment allowed to dwell on the past, certainly not a minute to heal his wounds.

"Why didn't you quit then?"

Miller started, incredulous. "When?"

"After your son died," Mulder explained, suddenly not caring that this conversation was taking on dangerous overtones, strangely certain that it was safe to speak with Miller on the subject.

Miller shook his head, contemplating the question. "By asking me that, you assume that I had a choice. I assure you that I never did and never will."

"I see," Mulder said bleakly.

Miller shook his head. "I'm not sure that you do, Fox. One can't quit from the Consortium. With the things that we have seen, that we have done -- do you think that we can just let one go?"

Mulder looked at the doctor questioningly, treading more into dangerous ground. "Did you want to be let go after your son died?"

The silence dragged on; the doctor was unable to reply momentarily. Miller cleared his throat before speaking slowly. Cautiously. "I served a greater purpose by staying. I brought some value to it." His last sentence sounded as if it had been rehearsed many times. "I worked towards seeing people like my son not have to suffer."

Mulder nodded. "Did you... have you ever thought of turning..." he stopped himself before he could ask. But the doctor's eyes had flashed, and Mulder was certain that Miller knew what he had been about to ask. He nodded imperceptibly, smiling slightly. "Nothing... never mind. Not important."

Miller glanced over at Mulder, steepling his hands. He studied the younger man across from him, almost certain that he recognized the signs of depression in his weary posture and unemotional expression. Miller, hearing a silent alarm trip in his head, was keenly aware that the greatest threat to the Consortium was the conscience -- the melancholy, the depression, the despair -- that could single-handedly floor a man. No stranger to dark moods -- having witnessed the agonizingly slow deterioration of his son -- he was too familiar with the way brain worked, how loneliness made one contemplate... certain thoughts. Dangerous thoughts. "You look very tired," he spoke softly. "Maybe you should take a few days off."

Oh God, there was actually concern in Miller's eyes. Mulder blinked, wishing for it to depart, to be left alone. "I am the Assistant Director of the FBI or did you forget? And exactly what would I do with my days off?"

Miller was exasperated. "You must have dozens of vacation days available at the Bureau. I don't know, you should... have fun, get laid, maybe travel... to Vermont, perhaps? Visit your family?"

Mulder's eyes flickered with unexpected humor. "Is this a suggestion of a Consortium member - or of a psychologist?"

Miller shrugged, returning a smile. "A friend, in this case."

Mulder chuckled ruefully, wondering if this was how the spies usually felt, if the inherent instinct for survival always turned black into white; enemies into friends. "Sometimes you surprise me, Miller. Bad advice, though - first of all, I prefer work to leisure, and second... I would rather go to Bosnia than to Vermont."

"Why are you so afraid to take a chance, Fox?" Miller questioned him softly. "Maybe she will not want to reconcile - but maybe, just maybe..." he left the thought finish itself. "Think of what you're giving up."

"She doesn't even want to know I exist," coldly, Mulder continued. "According to her world, I'm only a figment of her imagination from the time before."

Miller nodded. "But don't you wonder what would be if you showed up on her doorstep? What would happen if you called? I have no one, Fox," for a moment, he sounded old and lost. "You shouldn't allow that to happen to yourself. You remember her number, don't you?"

At the affirmative nod, Miller got up and started walking to the exit. "Dial it now. I will take a walk outside."

The door clicked behind him. Mulder stared at the phone, the cream-colored plastic object that held hope and despair in its accurate little buttons. And without any thought other than a "what if" beating an incessant mesmerizing motif in his ears, he began dialing the number.

A whisper of line noise and the contented humming of measured beeps and a warm alto on the other end of the line. "Hello?"

A breath of hot, bitter air through the dry, parched lips. "Samantha?"

Silence, then the careful, incredulous: "Fox?"

Oh, but the familiarity - the sheer closeness of it could simply shatter him. All these years... all these years changed so little. "Yes." He felt oppressive silence threatening, and he grasped for anything mundane to say. "I'm sorry to disturb you."

She seemed to think a moment. "No... it's all right. But this is not a good time."

Mulder closed his eyes, absorbing the blow, knowing that it was expected. "Can I call later?"

"Fox, I..." he was sure that she would say no, but she surprised him. "I will call you soon, I promise. But I have to go - my son is ill, he's in the hospital."

Mulder cursed his unfortunate timing. "Oh God... is it serious?"

"I... don't... know..." there was a touch of despair in her voice. "No one knows what's wrong with him or how serious it is. I have to go, Fox."

Each word was like a dash of cold water against his face. "Wait, Sam," a deep breath to steady his voice. "What are the symptoms?"

"Tommy... he has a constant fever, a temperature of 103 and it won't go down. It's been two weeks and he's delirious. He can't say what hurts, and no one can figure out what's causing it. The EEG shows some strange brainwaves." Her hurried voice shook and she suddenly aborted the recitation. "I have no time for this now. Goodbye."

Before Mulder could reply, there was a click, and he stared into space, feeling the heavy weight of the receiver in his hands. Hope or despair. White or black. Win or lose. He didn't notice when Miller came in and took it from him gently. "What happened, Fox?"

"Her son is very ill. His name is Tommy," Mulder replied, wondering why on Earth he said that, guessing that Miller probably knew the name.

His nephew was called Tommy, he was four years old, and he had a strange disease.

Miller didn't speak for a long while, then reached out awkwardly across the table to touch Mulder's hand. "All the more reason to take this vacation now, don't you think?"

"Yes, maybe a day or two," Mulder echoed softly. He turned around slowly to face Miller, his eyes darkening in suspicion. "This illness wouldn't be a result of his parents' genetic heritage, would it?"

Miller pursed his lips, hearing an unspoken accusation in the question, and deciding to turn the conversation to a safer topic. "Did she want to see you?"

Mulder laughed softly. "I'm ready to bet a lot of money that she didn't." He shrugged helplessly. "But I have to try. Ten, twenty years later, I don't want to be consumed by wondering, what if." Mulder studied the floor as the words absently passed through his lips, "I've done too much of that already."

The old doctor didn't reply, perhaps lost in a world of what ifs and could have beens of his own.

The mindless actions of fictional characters.

A warped world from the box in front of her that seemed more real than the surreal events that surrounded her.

When the gunshot came, Scully jumped from the seat of her couch -- her pounding heart threatening to obliterate any sound coming from the TV.

With a harsh motion of her thumb, the rectangular prism was turned off, and Scully threw the remote to the opposite side of the couch in disgust. Pulling a stubborn lock of hair away from her face, she wondered how it came to be that she could relate more to the fiction that was presented on TV, than the true-life happenings in the world around her.

She took a deep breath, chastising herself for getting riled up over a stupid wannabe cop show.

Three cops had shot a surrendering drug lord down like a dog, and hid their illegal activities behind official paperwork and false looks. The resulting war left four innocent co-workers wounded, and the fall-out left two cops quitting in disgrace.

And one committing suicide.

Scully sat in her silent apartment trying to forget what she saw, trying to not draw parallels to her own life -- trying not to place herself, or Mulder, or Winters into any of those... those... *actors* she had seen on TV.

She stood up suddenly, needing something to do, wanting an escape from her rapidly spiraling thoughts. Walking around her cramped apartment eventually brought her to her answering machine, and she jabbed at the play button -- her fidgety fingers moving in desperation.

"Dana, it's me. Just called to say 'hi', and that it'd be nice to have you over for the weekend. Call me whenever you get home, okay? Mom."

"Hey, Day. This is Leslie. The girls and me are getting together on Thursday, want to come? Call me -- remember the phone number: 555-2476. Bye."

The answering machine went on to drone about charities and Venetian blinds and agent something-or-other issuing his condolences. The machine clicked and moaned, the tape starting then stopping for an annoyingly long period of time.

She leaned stiffly against her kitchen counter, crossing her arms tightly against her chest. She imagined that if someone were to offer her a mirror, the reflection greeting her would be biting her lips so hard as to draw blood.

And yet, the machine kept clicking -- and in the silence, it sounded like a gun reloading, firing empty casings. It had become an obsession, everything around her smelled, sounded, or looked like death. Scared for Skinner, for Mulder, for herself -- the smell of ground beef frying would soon be obliterated by the stench of corpse, ripe from decomposition, while a glass falling would become a crack of the rifle. The apartment was like a tomb -- the walls were content to echo every sound, while the maddening periods of silence were suffocating.

God, Leslie hadn't called in... a long time. To go to a nightclub and look at slabs of male meat... Scully shuddered at the prospect. Normalcy now made her nauseous -- she would always look for the hidden camera, for the ulterior motive. Her paranoia would run rampant, and her fingers would always hover by her hip, ready to reach for the weapon in her holster.

And there lay the quandary. For as much as she yearned for a normal life, for as much as she pushed such terms as "friends" and "dates" into Mulder's face, the cloak-and-dagger routine was the only life she was now able to live.

At least, the only life she could live while keeping any shred of sanity.

She sighed, needing something for her hands to do, needing to release the nervous energy in her body.


Eating seemed like a sensible thing to do. During her cancer, keeping food down was almost a privilege. And now, in the midst of Mulder's Byzantine plan, any desire to eat had been effectively squelched. She looked through the cupboards, glancing over the cans of soup, the vegetables in the crisper of the fridge, the frozen casseroles in the freezer. The freezer door remained open, foil and Tupperware threatening to fall out.

Her eyes passed over the food quickly. Blindly. Nothing to eat, her mind chanted.

The frigid air was blasting into her face, and Scully welcomed the accompanying shivers, closing her eyes, thinking of nothing but the cool relief on her flushed face.

A violent shiver caused her eyes to reluctantly open, and in disgust, Scully grabbed blindly for a package. The plastic container scraped across the ice, sounding like nails against chalkboard. Scully swore as she grabbed for a plate, the chink of glass amplified in her ears. The microwave door was slammed shut, and she felt her fingers protest as she cruelly jabbed at the buttons on the panel.

The X-Files were shut down. She no longer had a partner. The relationship with the man who shared her heart was in jeopardy.

And Scully felt adrift. Lost. She felt as if she were swimming in a kitchen that stretched into the horizon, in the same apartment that seemed cramped minutes ago.

There was no longer any purpose. All sense of direction had been lost.

Endless dead bodies floated by her gaze in her job in VCS -- and she offered cold, analytic opinions. The nightmares, the unbidden night terrors were quick to follow, and she often woke up, heart pounding, the intense images of seeing Mulder's lifeless body on a steel gurney rapidly disappearing.

The beep startled her, and Scully's stomach dropped when the smell of leftover chicken assailed her nostrils.

She left it in the microwave, suddenly wanting a shower. Needing a shower. An image of Andrew came unbidden into her mind, and Mulder's voice -- that ridiculous, clinical, detached psych voice he had, was asking her again: "Are you doing this because you feel you need to pay for Andrew's death?" It was the same voice he used when describing... She shuddered, remembering the long-ago conversation on the newsgroup, and the cryptic "getting some value out of my doctorate."

Stepping into the washroom, she stalled any thoughts about Mulder. The topic could bring her to her knees, make the emptiness inside so much worse.

She concentrated on the little things. She made sure that the shampoo and conditioner bottles were full enough. She set out a new bar of soap, disposing the shriveled remains of the last one. She double-checked to make sure she had towels -- deciding that the peach one would be for her hair, the white one for her body.

She stripped quickly, suddenly feeling self-conscious, never letting her eyes meet those of her reflection in the bathroom mirror.

She stepped into the tub gingerly, feeling water that was much too cold cause goosebumps. A counter clockwise turn of the left knob brought blessedly warmer water, and Scully let it pound onto her face, colors whirling behind closed lids.

As soon as the water was tolerable she jacked the knob more to the left so that it would turn degrees hotter. Her skin was soon rid of goosebumps, now turning a deep pink. Sweat was mingling with water, and steam was billowing over the shower curtain.

But it would be tears that would burn Scully's face.


The tiny girl opened the door to his shy knock, and Mulder stared at her for a minute before she finally extended him a hand.

"Hi. Are you here for my daddy?"

He stepped inside, closing the door hastily against the cold wind. "No... I'm here to see your mom. Is she around?"

She nodded affirmatively, light-brown ringlets of hair flying in all directions. "Yes, she's with Tommy. He's sick."

Mulder squatted before her. "I'm Fox. What's your name?"

"Meg," her brown eyes studied him with curiosity.

"How come you're the one opening the door? Where's your dad?"

"He's away on business," it seemed as if she wanted to add something, but was interrupted.

"Honey, who are you talking to?"

Mulder looked up to see Samantha on the stairs. He was suddenly afraid - once again - of rejection and anger. But her expression was one of resignation more than anything else. "Meg, why don't you come sit with your brother - read him a book."

The girl nodded, concern written all over the little face, and ran up the stairs.

"Fox, what are you doing here?"

He measured her with a glance, a trained eye noting the dark circles under the ever-changing eyes and a figure thinner than he remembered. "Sam, I..." he was lost for words. "It's good to see you. I never knew that I had such a beautiful niece."

She smiled briefly. "Fox, I was going to call you. I do feel bad about our last meeting. My father was... he didn't say it outright, but I could see that he was upset with me for leaving so soon."

Mulder processed that particular image of Cancerman with raised eyebrows, then decided it best to avoid the topic of dead fathers. "How are you doing, Sam? How's Tommy?"

"He has fever, as usual," she lowered her eyes, concentrating on the piece of cloth that covered the table. "Meg helps me take care of him."

Mulder opened his mouth to offer false platitudes, but the words became stuck in his throat. He shook his head in frustration, knowing the question had to come off his chest. "Sam, don't you ever wonder... about your past?" he prodded gently.

"No," Sam answered sincerely. "I don't."


"Because I have my present." She set her shoulders, staring at Mulder resolutely. "And I have my future."

He glanced around the dilapidated house permeated with the smell of vomit and sickness. The present was certainly not a happy one. And the future looked worse.

"How did you find me?" she asked.

"I work for FBI," he smiled. The FBI database had failed him when it came to finding Samantha O'Connor's new location, but, Mulder mused, why bother complicating matters? He waved his hand dismissively. "It's not important."

Sam regarded him suspiciously. "You know, that's what my father used to say when he didn't want to tell me the truth... that it wasn't important."

Mulder met her gaze levelly. "Really."

She sighed. "Whatever."

"Can I meet my nephew?"

She looked towards the top of the landing warily, sighing. "Go ahead."

Mulder went upstairs, measuring each step. The door was open, and he stood at the threshold for a few moments, observing the scene in front of him. A boy with dark hair, his eyes closed, shivered under several blankets. Meg sat next to him, his small hand enclosed in hers, reading a book.

She looked up at him and at this moment, he knew that his heart was lost - again - to these children whom he'd never met before. All things considered, he just didn't think that it was possible anymore. "Uncle Fox," she smiled and Mulder shuddered, realizing belatedly that she still didn't know who he was or why he was there - that all little children called all strange adults 'uncle' or 'aunt.' "I was just reading Tommy about 'James and the Giant Peach.'"

He was confused momentarily. "You aren't reading aloud."

Meg sighed in exasperation and explained, obviously not for the first time. "He knows what I'm thinking." She was back to reading the book - aloud now - and Mulder presumed that it was for his benefit. A page turned by itself - and he watched it, transfixed.

"Meg, do you know what Tommy is thinking, too?"

She didn't look at him, smoothing her brother's hair tenderly, away from the sweaty forehead. "Yeah."

"What is he thinking now?"

She waited for a moment before responding. "He thinks that he likes your voice, and..." her face wrinkled, than adopted a panicked expression as she cleared her body away from the bed, "that he wants to throw up again. Mommy!"

Samantha came running in the room and produced a pail as if on cue. Mulder watched numbly as the boy threw up, opening his green eyes for a briefest second.

"These are... remarkable children," he uttered finally. He sobered, remembering who was waiting for his report on West 46th, New York. The Consortium would have a field day investigating their abilities -- wouldn't think twice about using needles and drugs and implants. Mulder stared at the ceiling for a minute, exhaling slowly, praying that these two children would be able to slip through the Consortium's claws.

Sam sat down and cradled her head in her arms tiredly. "I can't take it anymore, Fox. You know... everything seemed to be so much easier when my father was alive. His will said that we had to move because we were in danger - from whom or why, I don't know. He also wrote that if we were ever in trouble, that we should call... you."

Mulder listened, questioning his own sanity as well as Cancerman's. What did the man have in mind, anyway? That he would just go to the Consortium and demand a cure for the boy? He laughed briefly, startling his sister. "I didn't know he had such a high opinion of me."

Samantha looked surprised. "From the few times that he spoke of you, he did so with the utmost respect. As opposed to you, might I add," there was a steely note in her voice.

Mulder tried to repress the nasty reply, but wasn't able to do so. "He never gave me the reason."

She stood up, hands crossed over her chest. "Then you didn't know him. I loved my father."

"Well, I loved my father too," he snarled back. "And your father had him killed! Besides, Davidson wasn't even your father. A simple blood test would prove it."

Tommy whimpered softly, and she ushered him outside roughly. "You're such a self-centered jerk... Did you come here to fight? "

He forced his breathing to calm down, tried to act rationally. "No, Sam. No. God," he sat down, threw up his hands in the air. "I just wanted to see you. And I was worried about my nephew."

"So was my father right, Fox? Can you do something for us?"

Mulder stood up, realizing that this meeting was becoming a disaster of cosmic proportions. It was too late to speak of blood groups. It was too late for them to reconcile. The brother and sister they used to be no longer existed, though he could still see their reflection in Tommy and Meg. Mulder felt a brief flare of anger -- the same blood-boiling, cheek-flushing emotion that came with the thought of being used -- of knowing Samantha had finally relented, only because she needed something for her son. "Maybe," he replied non-committally, turning around to leave.

"Fox, wait! Will I see you again?"

He hesitated, then nodded. "Of course, Sam." On the way down, he caught Meg in his arms, threw her up in the air. "Goodbye, doll. Say hello to Tommy for me."

She giggled happily. "Bye, Uncle Fox!"

Mulder walked out, glancing briefly at the house.

So much for the vacation in Vermont.

The Bureau parkade was silent. It was long past five o'clock, and all sensible employees with their sensible cars had left to go home to their equally sensible families.

Scully sighed, checking her watch once again, feeling the sedan behind her support all her weight. After her fifth call to the office earlier in the afternoon, Kim had patiently spelled out that Mulder had been expected at a ten thirty meeting, but had suffered through numerous delays at the airport. The federal agent had been tempted to let the matter drop -- but something inside of her kept pushing to wait.

One more try, it had persistently whispered.

One more last ditch effort to salvage what was left to be salvaged from the relationship she and Mulder used to have. And if not... Scully looked towards the unmoving parkade door, her heart starting to sink. If the effort went for naught -- then perhaps Mulder was right: teaching at Quantico, getting away from D.C., would be the next logical action.

Soft at first, but slowly increasing in volume, the steady beat of footsteps could be heard echoing off of Hoover's cement parkade walls. Scully pushed herself upright, watching Mulder's figure come into plain view. He stopped, clearly shocked upon seeing her, then set his shoulders, his mouth pressed into a grim line.

"Hi," he started warily, at first relieved - then alarmed - that she was still willing to talk to him after that memorable rendezvous in the diner.

"Hi yourself."

The silence fell shortly after, and Mulder refused to meet her eyes.

"Skinner's trial is in just a few days," she reminded him softly.

Mulder nodded.

"He..." Scully stopped at the sound of a car passing nearby. She watched his eyes narrow, his jaw clench -- the tell-tale signs of a paranoid Mulder she had learned many years ago. He became absorbed in watching the dark sedan's progress, and she shook her head. "Look, Mulder," his head turned towards her, but his body remained facing the direction in which the car exited. "I'd be stupid to think that things will be fine a week from now. I don't know what you're doing anymore, and it seems we," she paused, leaning onto what Krycek had once said to them, "it seems in destroying the destroyer's ability to destroy, we've only destroyed ourselves."

Mulder remained silent, wanting to yell. So close, Scully. We're so close. Just a bit longer.

"I don't know how long this charade can last, Mulder."

Soon, Scully, he silently implored. He stared at his feet as they shuffled awkwardly, realizing too late that she was now looking at him exasperatedly. "You haven't heard anything that I've said."

"I've had a lot on my mind," he snapped.

Her eyes flashed dangerously. "And that's my fault?"

The pair fell silent again, and Scully eventually shook her head. "Never in my wildest dreams, Mulder, have I imagined things would come to this."

"You mean that we, ourselves, would be responsible for our own undoing?"

Another car engine started, startling the two. Hesitantly, Scully grabbed onto one of his arms, inwardly alarmed at how thin his bicep had become. "Tell me, Mulder. What's next?"

He passed a glance in her direction, distracted by the movements of the other dark sedan. "What do you mean?"

"I mean are you going to remain the AD? Are you going to keep the X-Files closed?"

Mulder shook his head, trying to see behind the glare of the car window. "I don't know... I haven't thought about it."

Scully smiled sadly; there would be no recrimination in her voice. "You never do."

Mulder emitted an angry sound from his throat, finally turning towards her. "Is that why you're here? To tell me what I should do? To fight with me?"

Scully took a deep breath, startled at the change of intensity in his tone. The conversation was not going in the desirable direction, and in the one second she had met Mulder's eyes, they flashed an accusation. "No," she held up a hand beseechingly. "No, I'm not Mulder, but..."

The rest of the words were lost on him as he watched the same dark sedan drive slowly behind a row of parked cars. Catching a clear picture, in the brief second of time that the passenger wasn't obscured by the glare of the parkade lights, Mulder swore he could see Miller's face staring back at him.

Scully stopped in mid-sentence, calling Mulder's name several times before he glanced in her direction. "You didn't hear a thing I said. Again."

Mulder shook his head, trying to remain casual, trying to parlay a message to Scully through his eyes. "Agent Scully, I really need to get to the office and do some paper work."

Scully crossed her arms against her chest, watching Mulder's eyes plead with hers. Her nails dug into her palms harshly, and she was aware of the familiar tickle at the corner of her eyes which dictated she was about to cry. But she was so... sick... of... the... charade. Of the paranoia. Noises were buzzing in her ears, the white light from the fluorescent lamps above was making her nauseous. She turned away blindly, hearing her own words sink to the bottom of her stomach -- feeling their bitter taste for the first time.

"Goodbye, Mulder."

She was deaf to any response, the contact of high heel shoes hitting concrete enough to cause her teeth to collide against each other. Her numbed fingers eventually unlocked the car door, the sedan leaving the Assistant Director -- and the J. Edgar Hoover building -- in a cloud of exhaust.

His fingers were sprawled across the rough bark of an oak tree - its sharp skin piercing numbed, chapped hands. Mulder's breaths were ragged, almost out of control, and sweat fell profusely off his forehead, blinding his furiously blinking eyes.

A phone call. It was just a phone call, and it had caused him to run so hard that the cold air was now wheezing painfully through his lungs, causing billows of white to be emitted from his mouth. Forty-five minutes ago, he had dialed a painfully familiar number, knowing from the beginning that the call was already doomed to failure. He had listened to Scully say "hello" three times before she fell silent, eventually eliciting a sigh because only one person called her at one forty five in the morning. Biting his lip, feeling the words of despair start to well inside of him, he was the first to hastily hang up - throwing the offending object against the wall.

Like the snow that had fallen this morning - picked up and tossed by the sixty kilometers per hour winds - the rumors had started to come out in frenzy. Mouths covered by hands, gossiping lips cleverly hidden behind coffee mugs spoke of the Caps' chances at the Cup, Andrew Winters' drinking - the new, surly Assistant Director. But the dominating topic of the FBI's version of locker talk was Walter Skinner's predicament. There was no one within the J. Edgar Hoover building that didn't know the prosecution was going to go full bore for the death penalty. And with the defense running in circles, with the FBI labs coming up empty, the whispers and the hushed tones were growing in frequency.

Shaking his head to himself, trying to dispel such emotionally exhausting thoughts, Mulder walked through the designated trails, the run park silent, save for the occasional car horn from the distant freeway. Two thirty in the morning and all was far from good. The park was empty - the weather had even chased the panhandlers and garbage scavengers away. Illuminated only by lamps, Mulder was painfully aware that he was the only living entity trudging through the quarter inch of snow.

He'd lost so much and alienated so many people since he began working for the Consortium... and yet, he gained no new understanding, no new truth. And he wondered if maybe his tactics were faulty from the start.

Walking slowly to his apartment, feeling the muscle cramps ease and the bite of frosty air lessen, he mentally counted the days left to Skinner's trial, deciding that the date was a deadline. That on that day, something was going to break. And he knew that the game was still very much in his control, and he could still decide who won.

In this roulette of chance, the house could still win on a double zero.

Or they could lose.

A few hours later, he stood in the room in Manhattan, casually drinking coffee and waiting for someone to appear. After all these months, he still didn't know the habits or schedules of the Consortium members. Just another link in his chain of mistakes.

"Fox! You're early today. It's a beautiful morning in New York," Milton was suddenly standing beside him, and Mulder tore his gaze away from the breathtaking view on the sleepless city.

"I do love this city," he smiled in return. "Even if I'd never want to live here."

For a moment, they stood side by side in comfortable silence. "What brings you here?"

Mulder stepped away from the window, pulled a children's book from the briefcase. He steadied his hands, feeling the nerves inside of him start to shake. The game could still be won, he reminded himself, and he laid out his cards, adopting his best poker face. "You know, Milton, it's upsetting to realize that you knew my father better than I did," he leafed through the pages, scanning the colorful pictures for the hundredth time. "I believe this is what you need."

Milton accepted the book wondrously and felt his heart rate speed up as his eyes fell on the formulas. "So the letter was only a decoy."

Mulder nodded his affirmation, feeling sweat slide down his back. "What are they?"

"A way to combine human and alien DNA's," Milton explained, satisfied expression plastered all over his face. "We were successful in creating the clones - but it's an entirely different matter to take a living human being and inject them with alien DNA."

Mulder shook his head, a bit mystified. "I thought that it had been successful."

Milton laughed. "You know, Michael Kritschgau did tell you some true things. You might have seen what you thought were successful experiments - but in fact, there are always too many health risks, too many combinations of genes possible for it to be this easy. No," he patted Mulder's shoulder with familiarity. "This is priceless, and we're in your debt."

Mulder stood up and paced the room in a tight circle. He had to get the damn book back -- the Ace of spades lay within pages fifteen to twenty-five, and he knew his gamble was dangerous. "I'm glad to help, James," he spoke sincerely. "But I'd appreciate it if I could get a book back, after you're done with it. After all," he paused, offering a sardonic smile, "it is for my children."

"Sure. We'll just make photocopies," Milton replied good-naturedly. "Did you enjoy your trip to Vermont?"

"I wish I could say that, but my sister isn't exactly the girl she used to be. And my nephew is terribly ill." Mulder studied the floor, lowering his voice. Use, and be used, he chanted inwardly, hoping to get something from the Consortium, cherish a minor victory, before following through with the rest of his plan. Before completely alienating his partner. "He's had a fever for a month, it's putting a strain on his heart, he can't keep anything down..."

Milton listened to Mulder's exhausted sigh and weighed his options. "You know, Fox... I cannot possibly repair your relationship with Samantha. But as far as little Tommy goes, I'm sure something could be done."

"Milton... thank you," Mulder spoke softly, signing a mental thumbs-up. "I'm touched."

The elder waved the grateful words away impatiently. "There is still time before the colonization date," he shared thoughtfully. "Even if the resistance doesn't work, you are among the few chosen who will retain a privileged position in the new society. But for now, we should all enjoy the world as we know it."

"Are these formulas one of the ways to resistance?" Mulder asked, an empty space inside his chest growing with every minute.

"Your father must have been non-too-happy with the success of his own project," Milton smirked. "If all else fails, these formulas are the way to change people into something different. Humanity would be destroyed... but only half-way."

"If humans are aliens, there is no way to eradicate them, is that it?" Mulder summarized. "This is not a pleasant resolution."

Milton eyed him uneasily, the masks dropped for once. "We are working on alternate methods."

Mulder put down the coffee cup. "I have to go - too much work to do, and I would like to go back to Vermont the day after tomorrow."

"Fox," Milton called after him. "If you're not happy with your duties at the facility, you don't have to continue."

It was at that precise moment that Mulder knew that this round of the game was his, unbeknownst to his opponent. "No, James. I really don't mind."

"Will you be back in time for Skinner's trial?"

For the first time, Mulder's knowing, cruel smile was a reflection of Milton's.

"I wouldn't miss it for the world."

Mulder tapped on the lens of the video camera impatiently, casting the occasional glance over his shoulder to make sure there were no eager eyes watching.

"Langly? Frohike? Open the door."

Half a dozen dead bolts clicked open, and Mulder stepped in hastily, wanting to get out of the open porch of the Lone Gunmen. Something under his foot creaked, and he stopped in his tracks, seeing the boxes and Styrofoam popcorn littering the floor.

"And you wonder why people believe that bachelors are messy."

The glare off of Langly's glasses hid the Gunman's eyes as he spoke. "Geez, Mulder, you have a sixth sense when it comes to timing."

Mulder passed a quizzical glance in Langly's direction, trying to sidestep the obstacles in his path. "What do you mean?"

"This!" Frohike announced proudly, gesturing towards a blinking, metal monstrosity in the corner of the office. "It's the newest CIA masterpiece. She utilizes polarized filters, lasers, and can analyze data with something as simple as infra-red technology, to something as complex as electron microscopy."

Mulder shook his head. "And in layman's terms that means?"

Frohike smiled. "A top notch photograph analyzer. Maybe twenty years down the road from what you feebs have."

"Really?" Mulder couldn't help but challenge.

Byers cleared his throat, in an effort to remind the remaining Gunmen of the more important issues at hand. "It allows us depth perception, to a point. Extrapolation of data."

"Basically, it's the photographic equivalent of the TV analyzer we used when chickadee Scully was being zapped by those TV tubes," Frohike interjected.

Mulder stared blankly at Byers. "Okay, so why is this important to me?"

Langly picked up a photograph from the workbench in front of him and shook it in his view. "Your picture, I presume?"

Mulder passed a quick glance at the dead body of Cancerman and the halfback figure of Walter Skinner. "Geez, I forgot that I gave it to you," he muttered. At the Gunmen's silence, he waved a hand encouragingly. "Okay... yeah... I remember... go on."

"We checked for abnormalities, as you wanted. Didn't get anything off of our regular filters, but when we ran it through Big Bertha here, this baby is what we got." Frohike rummaged through some folders in front of him and produced an oddly colored piece of paper.

Mulder gazed at it carefully, absorbing the dark horizontal blob on the bottom of the paper, and the lighter vertical blob to the right. He shrugged his shoulders. "And I'm looking at...?"

Byers walked over, taking the photo from Mulder's hand, and placing it directly on top of the printout. "See, how the colored masses correspond to the placement of the bodies?"

He nodded.

"So, this horizontal mass is the dead guy, and this vertical mass is the shooter," Byers continued.


"You see the dead guy? The spot on the printout is dark. The frequency corresponds to a wavelength of 780 nanometers. This is the extrapolation and depth perception we were talking about."

Mulder nodded, acknowledging that he understood so far.

"780 nanometers corresponds to the color of red." Byers paused a beat. "Blood."

Realization dawned and Mulder pointed to the lighter vertical mass. "So then what about this one?"

Frohike wagged an eyebrow. "That, my friend, corresponds to a wavelength of approximately 550 nanometers. Which is the wavelength for--"

"--green," Mulder finished breathlessly.

The Gunmen nodded simultaneously.

"You wanted your proof, Mulder. You got it."

Mulder shook his head, a genuine smile on his lips untainted with cynicism or mockery. "I have to hand it to you, boys. You surpassed yourselves again."

The Gunmen smiled crazily at each other, unused to the compliment.

"But," Mulder continued. "I can't use it."

Frohike's face fell. "Why not?"

"When I gave you the picture, I was..." he struggled for the right words. "I was in a position to do something. But I'm not in that position anymore."

Langly pushed his glasses up. "This is about your promotion and Scully."

"It's about a political gamble gone askew," Mulder corrected testily.

"Then what do you want us to do with this stuff?"

Mulder turned towards Byers, smiling mirthlessly. "That's why I came here in the first place." He licked his lips nervously before continuing. "There's some stuff, including this photo and that printout, that I want you to forward to Scully, after I send it to you."

Frohike nodded.

"They *have* to get to Scully," Mulder re-emphasized. "Just tell her not to use them before the trial."

The three gunmen nodded while glancing at each other, disconcerted. "Why can't you give them to her yourself?" Langly finally breached the silence.

Mulder ignored the question, instead rubbing his temples with his fingers, his feet seemingly stuck to the cheaply tiled floor of the office.

"Where are you disappearing to?" Byers ventured carefully, abandoning the previous line of inquisition.

Mulder crossed his arms in front of his chest, shrugging his shoulders. "I have some matters that need to be taken care of." There was silence, as he continued to rub his temples -- as the Gunmen fidgeted with the metal gadgets closest to them.

A soft voice broke through the oppression. "Can I borrow your videotapes while you're gone?"

Mulder offered a self-deprecating smile as Frohike's attempt to lighten the mood was only partly successful. "Go ahead, whack yourself silly."

Frohike offered a chuckle, trying to maintain the camaraderie. "So, this trip, Mulder -- is it business... or pleasure?" The Gunman followed the last word with a leer.

Mulder smiled, excited about seeing both Tommy and Meg again, realizing suddenly that Samantha had become a secondary interest in the equation. He turned towards Frohike, returning the photo and the printout. "Just... family matters. I met some cute new relatives."

Frohike accepted the papers with raised eyebrows, noticing how Mulder's hand stayed in contact with his longer than was necessary, his light words not deceiving him as to the seriousness of the situation.

A hoarse bark of laughter escaped his throat as he approached the door to leave. "At the risk of sounding like a cheesy B-grade spy movie, I appreciate all the digging you've done for me. I won't be seeing much of you guys in the next few days, and I just..." Mulder let his words trail off, the testosterone in the office prohibiting any more emotional sentiments.

Frohike stepped forward, worry etched on his face. "Mulder, if we don't hear anything from you..."

Mulder shook his head. "You'll hear from me. Or about me. Whichever way, I promise," he offered cryptically, before walking out the door.

"The cause of death: knife wounds in the stomach and in the chest, which damaged several major organs, including lungs, and caused a fatal blood loss. The body was discovered approximately fifteen hours after death..." Scully stopped typing, shaking her tired fingers. It just never ends, she thought distractedly. How did they ever manage without a forensic expert in the department before?

She jumped at the phone ring, then picked it up with a sigh, imagining it to be yet another request from one of the VCS agents for on-the-spot analysis of yet another corpse.

"Agent Scully? This is Edward Jackson, remember me?"

"Of course, sheriff," she tried to match the cheerful tone, only to come to the conclusion that she should have taken drama classes in school instead of something as useless as physics. "I was going to call you."


"Oh, good. I just wanted to check how the investigation was going. Did you find something out?"

Yes, I did, Sheriff. The two bodies you've discovered were used as lab rats in the attempt to change a human into an alien. "No," her nails dug hard into her palm. "There is nothing unusual about the bodies. I'm sorry."

For a few moments, there was only shocked, mistrustful silence on the other end of the line. "That is impossible, Agent Scully. I've seen them myself, and those bodies were not... usual," Jackson's tone was careful but firm.

Too many lies. There were just too many lies, and who was she serving by perpetuating them? "Sheriff, what you saw was a result of decomposition. Now, I must apologize, but I have very little time..." Scully finished breathlessly. The Sheriff sounded disappointed. "Well, goodbye, in that case. Sorry for disturbing you."

Receiver back in the cradle, Scully looked at the screen of her laptop blankly, then slammed it down. The machine beeped jarringly in protest. She has just deceived yet another honest man. She glanced at the calendar fearfully, noting how Skinner's trial was closer by yet another day.

Resignedly, she pulled the stack of photographs and a magnifying glass out of the drawer. As many times as Andrew, Mulder, and herself had studied the pictures, the only thing that became abundantly clear was the topnotch quality of the film and the skill of the photographer. Cancerman was smiling as he shook hands with Skinner, and Scully studied the expression on his face with curiosity.

Their silhouettes reflected in the polished windows of the apartment building. Her fingers trembled suddenly and she used the other hand to steady the disobedient wrist. A car, with a license plate number, was visible in one of the windows, and she tried to imagine how this picture would look like had it been taken from the inside of it.

Scully clamped her mouth tightly to stop from laughing hysterically out loud. There was no reason to jump for joy yet. T4ZYE5, she typed hurriedly into the database. The computer hummed, finally spitting out the name of Erran Drake.

Scully looked back to the report, flipping through hastily scrawled interview statements, carbon copies of receipts, and poorly photocopied documents. Andrew had beat her to the punch, noting in big, block, capital letters that T4ZYE5 did indeed belong to Erran Drake, who, upon closer investigation, was dead. Time of death: two days after Cancerman's. That looked promising, but there was nothing - absolutely nothing else to be found about him. Her fingers fluttered nervously over the keyboard as her frustration grew in direct proportion. Finally, she slammed her fist down on the table, feeling the sharp recoil of pain. No matter how careless they might have been, there was no way to prove that Erran Drake was the one to take the picture - and even if he did, it still did not absolve Skinner from murder.

Her phone rang again, and she considered unplugging it - finally picked it up with disgust. "Scully."

"Agent Scully, I was hoping to find you." Frohike's voice was at its most charming. "We've missed you since your last visit."

"Frohike," she smiled and threw another look at the computer screen. "Just the man I need at the moment."

The little gnome sounded pleased. "Really? To what do I owe such favor?"

"I need you to check something for me. Erran Drake, car license T4ZYE5, deceased. Any information at all."

"I'm wounded. You never need us for anything but information," he sighed melodramatically. "So what are you looking for, exactly?"

"I'll know when I see it," she admitted honestly.

"Well, it just so happens that we have something interesting to give you," Frohike informed her solemnly. "We'll be waiting, and by the time you get here, Langly will dig something up about the guy." He hung up the phone before she had a chance to ask anymore questions. Scully glanced guiltily at the reports, knowing that there would be no more work accomplished today for the VCS. With a sigh, she stood up and corrected her suit, bracing herself for the perfunctory conversation with Douglas.

"Sir," she opened the door of his office after his impatient "come in" and tried to produce a smile. "I need to leave for the rest of the day."

"Why, Agent Scully? Is it another request from upstairs?" Douglas didn't raise his eyes from the papers on the table.

She bit her lip. It was nearly impossible to talk to the man after the Manns Harbor non-case. "No. It's... personal."

His expression didn't change. "Oh yes, I forgot. Assistant Director Mulder is on vacation, so he wouldn't be handing you any cases in the meantime."

The words resonated dully inside her skull, and she listened to their dying echo numbly. A vacation. Now, of all times. "May I go?" she questioned quietly, and Douglas waved her off resignedly.

The drive was a blur, and only when parked in front of The Lone Gunmen's office was Scully finally aware of the tension accumulated in her shoulders, of the tight lines around her mouth reflected in the video monitor. And yet, she found herself returning Frohike's smile. Oh, but it was good to be among... friends. Her throat constricted suddenly and she couldn't offer a greeting.

"We'll need a handsome reward for what we're about to share with you," Byers informed her, deadpan.

"We ask for your immortal soul," Langly confirmed, fighting back a grin.

"And a kiss?" Frohike ventured hopefully.

She stared at Frohike, who batted his eyes innocently. "A kiss. Right." As the Gunman continued to stare, she waved her hand, exasperated. "Okay, okay, whatever you want. Do tell. You must have found undeniable proof that JFK was abducted by aliens and it was his clone who got shot instead."

"That's a good one," Langly chuckled appreciatively.

"But here is something better," Byers gestured toward the pile of papers. "Proof that unless your ex-boss has green blood, he is not a murderer."

Scully's eyes brightened as she listened to his explanation of the photoanalysis. When he finished, she sighed in satisfaction. "This is so out there, but..."

"But it just might work." Frohike finished. "Reasonable doubt, Agent Scully, is all the jury will need. Now, about Erran Drake - and I know you will love what you hear..."

"But first, who is this guy?" Langly asked curiously.

"He may be the person who took these pictures," Scully explained impatiently. "Now, I'm all ears."

"His death was... an unfortunate accident. He fell under a train in the subway," Langly's voice suggested that he didn't believe for a single moment in the accidental classification of the occurrence. "His bank account was frozen since his death, but we were able to filter out numerous and rather generous deposits from - say it with me..."

"Rousch," the chorus of four voices completed the sentence.

The feeling of triumvirate dissipated only too soon, and Scully collected the printouts carefully. "This is wonderful, but very circumstantial."

Frohike raised a warning finger. "Never despair, Agent Scully. Here is an advice from someone who studied law. Reasonable doubt is the defense attorney's best friend. And sometimes," he lowered his voice in a mock whisper. "Sometimes the best way to win a difficult case is to turn the jury's attention onto something more interesting."

"Something larger than the case, just make sure that it's all connected," Byers confirmed. "And this just might be it," he pushed the stack of papers and folders in her direction.

Scully accepted it curiously, settling down in the quickly offered chair. "Oh my God," she whispered under her breath. "Where... where did you get this?"

"An old friend," Frohike murmured as she raised her hand to the forehead, shadowing her eyes so that he couldn't read her expression. The three Gunmen exchanged a bemused look.

"Did you read this?"

Langly shrugged uncomfortably. "We couldn't help it - most of it came by fax."

"From what little we saw, we couldn't understand what it was," Byers offered apologetically. "So consider us just as ignorant as we were before seeing it."

Small things. Meaningless if taken apart. As destructive as a nuclear bomb if taken together. An address on top of one page and a schedule of lab technicians. The list of women missing over the past several months, the dates of their abductions and returns correlated with the schedule of the "subjects" brought to the facility. Requests for supplies and technology signed and approved by the name that appeared in yet another list of several dozen names. A Manhattan address.

Finally, Scully came to the two manila envelopes and raised her eyes questioningly. "They came in the mail," Frohike explained. "We haven't opened them up. There is also this box."

Scully accepted the small carton, opening it impatiently, seeing the tissue and liquid samples, knowing she would have to spend several days in the lab with the chemists and biologists, poring over each and arguing over the results. And, she reminded herself, there were still two interesting bodies stashed in the little-known corner of the FBI morgue.

It was difficult to put this box aside, but there were still envelopes to go through. She tore the first one, pulling out a thin buff-colored folder, labeled Vernon John Fulsom. VJ. She tossed it aside in annoyance, ripping the second envelope and revealing another similar folder, only thicker. A yellow post-it was pasted over the label; "stay impersonal" typed in capital accurate letters. Fully expecting to see her own name under it, she tore off the note. Sheila Maria Freeman.

She clenched her fists. Stay impersonal, her ass.

The bastard.

Scully leafed through the pages briskly, scanning the paragraphs and photos with a wildly beating heart. There were names here as well, signatures of the doctors. And the light dimmed in the room as she read the entry on the last page, as she recognized the expansive stroke of the familiar handwriting. Darkly, she thought that she'd never wanted to believe in the truth that Mulder told her. The Gunmen jumped to pick up the papers fluttering to the ground as they spilled from the clumsy, shaking fingers. "I can't. I can't use this," Scully looked at Frohike with a plea.

He sat down near her gingerly. "I don't understand. What is it?"

It is the end, she wanted to scream. It's the means to destroying Them, but it's the means destroying Mulder at the same time. It was a choice she couldn't make. "Where is he?" she couldn't bring herself to pronounce the name out loud.

Frohike shrunk back at the bitterness and rage in her voice. "He mentioned something about cute new relatives?"

Scully stared at him without comprehension. Byers extended her the folder, and she made no move to accept it.

"I refuse to make this choice. It will destroy him," the words were spoken low, even as the raw anguish made her insides churn painfully. It figured that she would break down here, in the presence of Mulder's friends who, unknowingly, were giving her the means to his demise.

Frohike touched her hand gently, still in the dark as to the larger picture, but beginning to understand Scully's reaction. "Somehow, I know that I will regret this advice," he spoke hesitantly. "But it seems to me that if Mulder gave it to you - whatever this 'it' is, then he trusts you with it. He's freed you from making the choice by making it for you."

She closed her eyes tightly, praying for the strength that she didn't have. "But it wasn't his choice to make," she whispered hotly. "We were supposed to be in this together," she reminisced softly. "I made him promise... no more ditching..." Of course she would have no choice in the matter. He would take it from her as well.

Frohike looked at her solemnly, speaking softly. "Isn't it Mulder you should be telling this to?"

Scully had a very good hunch that she would have a hard time finding him before the trial, and her affirmative nod was reluctant. Her fingers eventually squeezed Frohike's hand gently. She suddenly leaned over, giving him a quick kiss on the cheek.

The Gunman blinked, blushing furiously, while the other two grinned like fools -- passing wide-eyed, junior high looks between each other.

"You asked for it," Scully stood up and accepted the offered folder, gripping it firmly, then collected the rest of the papers. On the way out, she stopped. "You might as well have my immortal soul," she tried to inject a smile into her voice but the words still sounded broken and emotionless.

"Agent Scully?" Frohike called uncertainly and halted.

She finished without turning around, "...because I don't think I'll be needing it any longer."

Mulder popped open the trunk of his rental car, but before he could drop the shoulder bag inside, he was suddenly entangled in two laughing children. "What are you trying to do, guys, stop me from leaving?" he encircled his arms around both of them tightly, reluctant to let go.

A flash of light blinded him momentarily, and he looked up to see Samantha with a Polaroid camera in her hands and a guilty expression on her face. "I thought you might want to have a picture."

Mulder gripped the kids harder to himself. "I'll miss you very much."

"Me or the kids?" Sam asked gently.

He didn't want to answer honestly, though several days in Vermont with Meg and a healthy Tommy took his mind off his ever persistent, and ever omniscient, demons. Not just phantoms of his imagination anymore, his mind fully registered that his nephew and niece had now taken priority over his sister.

He turned towards her, offering a smile - knowing the void that had plagued his heart since a cold, clear night in Chilmark was now diminishing. "Take care, Sam."

She frowned, detecting a strange note in his voice. "You sound as if you are seeing us for the last time."

Mulder fell silent, contemplating a very uncertain, and probably a very unhappy future. He hoped that he would be able to see them again, knowing that he would miss them in ways he never imagined possible. In fact, he couldn't be sure the future even existed. Tomorrow was the beginning of Skinner's trial, and up until Scully's testimony, he would sit in his fifth-floor office and go on with business as usual, contrary to the very insistent voice of self-preservation. Giving Scully the file of Sheila Freeman was only a gesture - and she had to recognize it as such. Mulder knew perfectly well that there were too many other things that would bring him down anyway.

And after Scully's testimony, he would try to leave the country. He still had to decide where he wanted to go or what he wanted to do. The notion was comical, in some perverted, tragic way, and he chuckled lightly. All in all, for a man who would soon be wanted by the state and by the Consortium, he felt remarkably serene and composed. All in all, the resolution to the plan gone severely wrong didn't seem too awful.

"How did you do it?" his sister pointed to Tommy discreetly. "I had to take him to the ER, and the next day... he was fine. The doctors still have no idea what happened."

"I'm not sure what you mean."

She sighed, her disbelief apparent. "Fine. We will just call it magic."

He grinned. "You really should believe in miracles."

"They are in love with you, Fox," Sam spoke sadly. "Rob is hardly ever home, and even when he is, he never plays with them. I think... he is afraid of them. I don't know of anyone who isn't, frankly, except for you."

"And you."

The picture was ready, and Samantha watched with a growing smile as it floated toward her brother who accepted it in stride, accustomed to objects in this house moving seemingly of their own volition. "I can remember enough from before... to know that I wasn't born with this ability, Fox. But I'm not blind, I know that it's not normal, and I've learned to hide it. For the children, it's natural."

Mulder stared at the photo, hardly recognizing the relaxed, casually dressed man as himself, two kids bearing remarkable resemblance to him in his arms. Peculiarly, it was a picture of normalcy - happiness - that he had for no more than two days. He freed himself from the kids, words of good-byes falling from his lips unwillingly, and kissed his sister on the cheek. "You have to come back here, if only for them," Sam whispered in his ear. Sitting down in the car and turning keys in ignition, he threw her a mischievous smile.

"Let's just say I'll be here if another miracle happens."

The District Attorney measured the jury with a piercing look, preparing to make a statement. Skinner watched the man with interest, recognizing a worthy adversary. He realized that to most people in the room, including the DA, the case was clear-cut. The evidence seemed to be unquestionable. The time of the crime could not be established due to the lack of the body, thus any alibis and witnesses he provided would be pointless. The inherent desire of the crowd to see the government bureaucracy exposed as corrupt played against him as well.

The room was full of FBI agents, reporters, and the simply curious. The walls were lined with the TV cameras. Today, the interesting part would begin. The case seemed to drag until now - it took more than two days to choose a jury, and Skinner had to respect the tenacity of his lawyer - though it was obvious that even she didn't believe in his innocence.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury! Today, we will provide irrefutable evidence that will prove that this man, Walter Sergei Skinner, had murdered Henry Davidson in cold blood. We will also prove that it was premeditated..."

A nudge in the elbow distracted Skinner from the carefully rehearsed speech. His lawyer was showing him a small note and he read it quickly, disbelieving his eyes.


Skinner turned around, scanning the courtroom, but he failed to spot the small figure of his agent. With a stony expression, he scribbled on the notepad quickly: "Ignore this."

Clearly annoyed, she picked up the pen. "That is impossible, Mr. Skinner. If she says that she has evidence, I need to see it - before I present my case to the jury."

Skinner glared at her angrily but didn't bother replying.

"Your jury, counsel."

"I request a thirty-minute recess, your honor," Ellen Lehmer didn't think long about it.

"Fifteen minutes. The court is in recess," the judge granted emotionlessly.

Skinner glanced at his watch as his lawyer disappeared. Fifteen minutes would be over quickly, and then the games would continue. When all was said and done, he very much wanted for all of this to be over - no matter what the outcome.


Milton stared at the TV screen, watching the navy blue suited lawyers file out slowly.

Something was wrong.

The elder turned to the other around him. "Something's happened." He shook his head, watching a red-haired federal agent lean over the railing to talk to the defense attorney. "Something is very, very wrong." He leaned in towards the TV, trying to judge the facial expression of the defense attorney, and her client, Walter Skinner. "Where's Mulder?" he asked absently.

"Either at the office or on his way here," someone in the background replied.

An arm with gold cuff links peeking through the Armani suit offered Milton another glass of bourbon, and the elder pushed it away angrily. "No more drinks. No more talk. I want to hear what Miss Scully has to say." He paused, his mouth forming a grim line, suspicion rearing its ugly head. "And I want to be ready."

"The defense calls Special Agent Doctor Dana Scully," Lehmer proclaimed, and Skinner watched as a very calm Scully approached the witness stand and raised her right hand to swear that she would speak the truth, and only the truth so help her God.

"Dr. Scully, how long have you known Mr. Skinner?"

"Over four years," Scully smiled for his benefit. "He was my Assistant Director during that time."

"How would you describe your experience while working for him?"

"He was never an easy man to get along with, and we had our share of conflicts and disagreements during these four years, but I learned to respect him. I know that he is an honest man and I believe that he is not a killer. In fact, I have undeniable proof that the pictures you've all seen today are fake."

The courtroom stirred, and the judge pounded his gavel, trying to restore silence and order. Skinner felt a growing unease, a certainty that he had missed something important in his earlier judgement of Scully and Mulder. This new piece of the puzzle, the favorable testimony, did not fit into the picture. But he couldn't have possibly been wrong before, unless...

Skinner massaged the bridge of his nose, struggling to concentrate on the task at hand while flashing on the possible scenarios in the back of his mind, discarding them one after another. His logic failed him - but he reminded himself that Mulder was hardly a man ruled by cold reason. To understand him, one needed to stop thinking logically, and he tried to do just that.

Meanwhile, Lehmer, unperturbed, addressed her witness again. "How is that possible? Only today we listened to the testimony of Agent Scott from the Special Photography unit and he proved that the pictures were more than real."

"The pictures are, indeed, real. But the person holding the gun is not Walter Skinner. Using a special photographic analyzer, one can see that whoever it is..." Scully tried to stifle a deep sigh of resignation, knowing how it would sound to everyone's ears, "is not human."

The rumble of noise grew exponentially, and even the judge's continuous cries for order were ignored. He stared at the woman on the witness stand who seemed to grow even quieter amidst the chaos she created, then at the lawyer. "Counsel, I think you had better explain what it is you're trying to accomplish here, and present me with this evidence."

"With pleasure, your honor. Permission to approach the bench?"

As the two women conferred with the judge, the silence in the courtroom was tight as a spring. And Skinner knew that once it was released in motion, its power would be enough to knock out everyone in its way.

Milton exchanged a long look with Northam before turning back to watch the televised trial that was turning out to be more entertaining than anyone might have originally thought it would be.

"Dr. Scully, are you suggesting that Mr. Skinner was framed for this murder? But by whom and with what possible purpose?"

Milton watched hatefully as Scully prepared to reply to the District Attorney. Bloody hell. They should have gotten rid of that bitch a long time ago. The trouble was, she really seemed to have nine lives.

"I have a strong suspicion that the pictures in question were taken by a man named Erran Drake, now deceased, but who was employed by the certain organization that was proven to have been involved in other... shady businesses. Mr. Skinner, no longer useful to this organization as an Assistant Director of the FBI, was framed for murder."

Milton held onto the glass of bourbon in his hand, willing it not to shake, not to betray his fear. How could she possibly know about Erran Drake?

"You're not implying that this organization has the power to juggle positions within the FBI."

"That's exactly what I am implying."

The DA paused, seemingly processing this information, deciding that the next question could not hurt his case more - but curious to know the answer. "That would have to mean that both the Director of the FBI and the Assistant Director who replaced Skinner are involved, as well. Are they?"

Scully was silent, clearly unprepared for the question, visibly shaken.

The judge turned to look at her, expectation written in his features. "Dr. Scully, please answer the question."

"Yes, they are."

Milton paid them no attention, his mind already engaged in the strategic handling of this disaster. He was convinced that Scully would not be uttering such allegations had she not had some substantial evidence to back them up. And the only person who could have possibly helped her was being crushed in the process of this testimony.

"We have a leak," Northam announced in his wheezy voice, and Milton peered at him in annoyance.

"You think?" he stood up abruptly, ignoring the stares of other Consortium members, some accusatory, some frightened, and reached for the phone. "Miller? Have you spoken with Mulder today?"

"No," the doctor sounded surprised. "Why, are you looking for him?"

On a sixth sense, Milton restrained the positive reply. "No, I was just hoping to speak to him if he was around. Nothing important."

"I will see him tomorrow - but I am sure you will find him if you call the Bureau," Miller offered helpfully.

"Goodbye then," Milton hung up. It seemed that minutes had passed before he was able to face the room and address them calmly. "Gentlemen, we have made a grave mistake. One for which I am largely to blame. But we must deal with the consequences calmly and rationally, and find the guilty parties later. First order of business. Find Fox Mulder and bring him to the D.C. facility. He is currently in the Bureau Headquarters, or on his way here, and I don't care whom you must involve to accomplish that task. Second and just as important: we must empty the facility right away. This includes everything and everyone. We don't have much time before it may be found. Third: we will have to find a different place to convene in the future. You will be informed of when and where the next meeting will transpire. Fourth: I would advise everyone, no matter what happens, not to compound the situation by turning state's evidence."

Northam listened to the speech with visible approval, nodding at the end. "I hope everyone will remember that it's much easier to deal with the police and FBI than with your own colleagues."

After the thinly veiled threat, the conversation and liquor didn't flow as easily.

"What about her?" some young man pointed to the TV, and Milton flashed him an impenetrable look.

"Too visible," he sighed audibly. "Too visible."

Milton's thoughts turned back to the redhead's ex-partner, and he shook his head. "Son of a bitch," he muttered, wondering how such a catastrophe hadn't been detected sooner. He stalked out of the room, stilted steps eventually leading him to a vault.

Working the combination dial deftly, the door opened on its hinges silently. Milton grabbed the nearest .38, loading it with one fluid motion, a sense of urgency fueling his actions.

The D.C. facility and a traitor named Fox Mulder were waiting for him.

Mulder clicked off the TV and glanced at his watch. 4:35 PM, and Scully's testimony was obviously over. That should be sufficient. He closed his father's storybook, feeling frustration threaten to overwhelm him again. Bits and pieces of clues -- scattered dates, assorted numbers, and random names -- and Mulder still couldn't find the bigger picture that he knew his father wanted him so desperately to see.

January 4th, 1970. October 22nd, 1974. December 6th, 1976. A sequence of letters that spelled out "Great Falls" if you counted every fifth letter, the same sequence spelling a confusing string of nucleotide bases for every three letters. Two characters of the story had their names in bold on one page, Cora the Giraffe and Thomas the Rhino -- a small detail that was still driving Mulder crazy. He looked at the book critically, knowing that there was still enough evidence to exonerate Skinner, and implicate the Consortium. Still...

With a sigh, he collected the coat and stepped out of the office without a backward glance.

"Kim, did I ever thank you for putting up with me?" he put on his best charming expression.

His secretary looked up with surprise. "No, sir, but it's my job - and my pleasure."

"Could you see that this book gets to Agent Scully as early as possible tomorrow morning?" he held out "The Eleventh Hour," yellow post-its and pieces of paper sticking out of it visibly. "It's an important piece of evidence," he explained at her bemused expression.

"Of course, sir. Don't forget, you have a board of directors meeting at 10 AM," Kim reminded him.

Mulder nodded absently, thinking about another parting gift waiting for Scully at his apartment - her file, placed prominently on his computer keyboard. He would fail miserably as a Santa Claus. With a sigh, he began playing with a little Porsche sitting in his hand. "Walter Skinner is a great man to work for. Don't you miss him?"

She seemed momentarily taken aback and didn't offer a reply.

"See you later, Kim," Mulder put on the coat, flashed her a quick grin. "The trial's going well, from what I can see."

Once in the elevator, he hesitated before pushing the button - finally choosing the parking level, trailing a finger lightly over the first floor button from whence a staircase would lead him to the basement. There was nothing and no one in the X-Files office, anyway.

Mulder picked out the key as he walked to his car. The door opened smoothly and he slid behind the wheel, taking a moment to search through the papers lying on the passenger seat before starting the engine. He struggled only briefly as the nauseating sweetness of chloroform pushed against his mouth and nose, closing his eyes, plunging his mind into heavy, overwhelming darkness.

The man in the backseat took Mulder's arm and searched for a vein with the ease of a professional, using a syringe to plunge another portion of the drug into his system. He stepped out of the car, surveyed the unconscious form slumped against the wheel, and looked around inconspicuously. It was still early by the Bureau standards, and there was no one else in the parking lot. Opening the trunk of the Lincoln Towncar standing right next to it, he dragged the unresponsive body inside it quickly, then closed the door with a heavy thud.

The nearby videocamera continued to provide a steady picture of rows of cars and no disturbances.

"Do you have anymore questions, counsel?" the judge turned to Skinner's lawyer.

"No questions, your honor."

"Are there any other witnesses?"


The judge glanced at the jury. "It is 4:40 PM, ladies and gentlemen. We will finish this tomorrow. Dr. Scully, counsels, step in my office, please. The court is adjourned."

He led them into a small room, inviting them to take seats in the heavy leather chairs around the table. "Counsels, I sincerely wish that we had all known about this beforehand. Perhaps, this trial need not have happened."

"You're not suggesting that you believe in this 'inhuman' killer theory," the DA glanced at the judge darkly.

The judge didn't reply, turning instead to face Skinner's lawyer. "Next time you want to turn any trial into the "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," please inform me. My courtroom is not a circus."

"Your honor, I am the one who held onto this evidence until now," Scully entered the conversation. "This is no one's fault but mine."

The judge sighed audibly. "Counsels, I will see you tomorrow. Let us try to wrap this trial quickly. Dr. Scully, I need to speak with you in private."

The DA shook his head in numb frustration and walked out of the office, throwing a disgusted "you win" to Ellen Lehmer on the way. The woman offered a smug expression in return, visibly pleased.

"Dr. Scully," the judge spoke when they were alone. "You're using my courtroom and this trial to bring something else to light. I know that this case and your testimony in favor of Walter Skinner are only your secondary purposes. May I ask what it is you're trying to accomplish - and why do you feel compelled to do it now?"

"Sir, I hope that the evidence I presented so far is relevant to the case. I'm sure you would have stopped me if you thought otherwise. I'm sorry if I stepped outside of the boundaries," Scully paled visibly, trying to retain the semblance of calm. She didn't want to antagonize this man now. Quickly, she added, "I assure you that at the moment, Walter Skinner's freedom is my primary goal."

The judge waved the explanation away. "From the bits and pieces you let slip during your testimony, I could tell that you knew more. I would like to see more evidence, Dr. Scully. Bring it here tomorrow and we will review it while the jury decides on a verdict."

Scully swallowed nervously, knowing that this was too good to be true. "Sir, with all due respect, I wish we could review this evidence right now. It is here with me, and I have already waited too long to come forward with it."

He sank down into his chair and sighed, eyeing the twilight outside. "This had better be good enough to miss my dinner," he growled non-threateningly. "Why did you wait, Dr. Scully?"

She bent to look through the briefcase and pull out the appropriate documents. "The man who submitted this evidence was implicating and endangering himself by doing so. He assumed that I would not use it before the trial."

A shower of auburn hair obscured her face, but the judge could swear that he heard the tears in her voice. Yet when she handed him the papers, her eyes were absolutely dry -- a figment of his imagination, maybe? "What is the name of this man?"

"Fox Mulder. He used to be my partner."

He nodded thoughtfully and opened up the first folder. "By the way, Dr. Scully, you shouldn't worry about tomorrow. No matter what the jury decides - I will dismiss this case due to the lack of evidence."

The tightly controlled muscles in her face suddenly relaxed, and she smiled gratefully. "Thank you, your honor. Just... thank you," she eyed him inquisitively. "May I ask... why? The green blood rarely makes a convincing argument," Scully laughed mirthlessly.

The judge didn't return the gesture, growing serious. "Personal experience, Dr. Scully," he offered cryptically. He swept the room with an expansive gesture before issuing a mouthed, "the walls can hear".

Scully nodded numbly, unable to comprehend the judge's actions... until she saw the picture of Senator Matheson hung beside that of Janet Reno and Bill Clinton. She was once again reminded of how many people had lives invested in the conspiracy, of how many events were fixed, rigged, and automatically doomed to failure or success.

Walking out of the judge's chambers, with Skinner's exoneration all but guaranteed, with completed, damning evidence against the Consortium, Scully had never been so depressed. Reluctantly, she picked up a cellular phone and dialed a familiar number - knowing that Mulder should share in this triumph no matter what their relationship was like at the moment.

When she received no answer after several tries, Scully felt angry and tired. In this, as in so many other things in the last few weeks, she would have to be alone.

The voices floated inside a world covered by a heavy suffocating blanket. "Dear Lord, how much of this crap did you give him? He's been out for hours."

Oh yes, now he remembered the taste of chloroform in his mouth. How old-fashioned of them. Mulder's head seemed like a giant pulsing globe ready to burst from pain and pressure. How long was he unconscious?

"I think he has a nasty concussion," an unfamiliar voice responded.

Milton grunted unhappily. "This is very inconvenient. We don't have much time."

Experimentally, Mulder tried to open his eyes, but the light that penetrated between the slits of his eyelids made his head hurt even more. The stifled scream came out as a small moan.

"Oh, Fox, you're coming around. Help him sit up," Milton's voice instructed someone. Mulder tried to raise his hands to support his head but realized too late that they were tied behind his back. Two rough hands pushed him up and against the wall, and the world went out of focus momentarily.

"You have a concussion," Milton informed him coldly. "I'm afraid your head hasn't been treated too gently since we decided to arrange for this meeting. So try not to make any sudden movements."

Mulder swallowed painfully, fighting a wave of nausea. "Water... please."

Milton seemed to think about it, then nodded to the other man who stepped out of the room, came back with a paper cup. "Only so we can have this chat," he tersely explained, as water poured down Mulder's throat, spilling over his chin.

"Thank you," he fell into silence, too exhausted to say anything else.

"So you decided to leave us, Fox?"

"Couldn't... handle the pressure," Mulder's attempt at humor fell on deaf ears.

"Why, Fox?" Milton sounded genuinely curious. "After everything... I imagine you might not care about money or career or even your life. But we gave you your sister. We healed her child. And even though I threatened Agent Scully... well, I was the one who'd warned her about the danger a few years back. She is too visible a figure for us to really get rid of her."

"But I bet you pray for an unfortunate accident once in a while," Mulder croaked by the way of an answer. "I did it for all people who died while opposing you. I did it for all women whose lives you wrecked," he met Milton's steely glare. "I did it for myself."

Milton sat down on the chair in front of him. "Does it hurt?" he pointed to Mulder's head.

"Wouldn't you like to know."

Milton ignored the hostile tone, speaking casually. "I had my suspicions, you know. I was afraid that we made a mistake by trusting you. But do you realize just how difficult it is to find good people these days?"

"Is that a rhetorical question?" Mulder asked sourly.

"You had everything to lose by betraying us. And I hoped that you'd begin to like being here," Milton continued, a touch of disappointment in his voice.

Mulder laughed, a dry sound that sent him into a fit of coughing. A minute later, he leaned against the wall, his eyes closed. "I generally don't get off on power trips, Milton."

"Henry Davidson used to be like you," Milton picked up the cup with water, put it to Mulder's lips. "Idealistic and foolish. But he understood very fast what he was supposed to do to survive. How important our work was and how to keep it in secrecy."

Mulder winced, the physical and emotional pain slamming him simultaneously. "Everyone so loves to compare me with him," he cut each word, short and angry. "But there is a basic, and vital difference."

Milton smiled, knowingly and victoriously. "You don't smoke?"

"He said yes, and I said no," Mulder watched with satisfaction as the elder's smile faded. "If you want to know the reason behind my... betrayal... maybe I just didn't want to be like him."

Milton nodded in understanding. The door opened, revealing the figure of Miller. "James, the building is almost empty. Are you about done here?"

"Dr. Miller. Come in," Milton was all friendliness, pulling up a chair to welcome the new arrival. "I was just chatting with Fox, here. He was telling me why he submitted the discriminating evidence on us - and on himself."

Miller regarded Mulder emotionlessly. "Himself?"

"You have to... watch TV, Miller," Mulder grinned, fighting another wave of nausea. "Agent Scully testified against me today, just as I'd asked her to."

"Fox, you do realize that you cannot possibly destroy us. We are prepared for unexpected. At most, you helped Skinner and made us discard a good facility. I imagine we might lose some people - some valuable, some not, but you cannot win this war alone."

"And why did you fight, Fox?" Miller regarded his former colleague with clinical interest. "The work we are doing... it will help save the humanity when the inevitable happens. We are searching for ways to protect people against aliens."

Mulder shook his head. Again, the doctor's response was mechanical, sounding like it had been rehearsed, memorized to the point that it became automatic. "But your methods are unacceptable."

"War is war, Fox," Milton offered.

"I realized something," Mulder shifted against the wall, trying to arrive at a comfortable position, failing miserably. "Sometimes, one cannot save something as huge and encompassing as humanity. Sometimes, it's best to just remain human and save a few people that you love."

"And if everyone of us did that, wouldn't this planet be a 'happier place?'" Milton drawled cynically, and Mulder glanced at him sharply. "What does it take to say no when someone offers you the world: stupidity or nobility?"

Mulder's face adopted the haughty expression of someone who already owned the world. Milton received no answer.

The elder walked out the door for a moment, then returned with a satisfied, grim expression. "You are rather brave, Fox. You cannot possibly expect to live after this conversation - and look at you. You are calm as a quiet pond."

Mulder suppressed a shiver along with thoughts of an impending death. "It's from the concussion," he murmured softly. "Maybe chloroform affects those instincts of self-preservation."

Milton was clearly disinterested as he glanced at his watch. "You know what to do," he spoke to the man hovering in the background. "Goodbye, Fox."

Miller came to stand with Milton by the door, just as another man entered the room and handcuffed Mulder's hands to the wall. The first blow landed on his ribs, and he cried out in pain. He didn't have a chance to catch his breath as a second blow knocked him down. Oxygen was hot lava piercing his lungs, and the world around him was set on fire.

"Goodbye, Fox," he heard Miller's voice through the roar of dull noise in his ears. When the dizziness came and brought with it another wave of nausea, Mulder didn't resist it.

The sole of someone's shoe connected with his head and the darkness consumed him once again.

Milton walked with Miller down to his office. The doctor was unusually pale, and he winced visibly at a few agonized cries that echoed from the room where they left Mulder.

"You don't seem very surprised at this turn of events, Miller," Milton sat down in the unoffered chair and smiled.

"Neither do you," Miller turned away, started putting some files and books into the prepared cardboard box.

"I'm not a very emotional sort of person," Milton replied out of context. "Really... but even I am saddened that we must get rid of Mulder. I came to like the boy."

Silence was his answer.

"I thought you had... grown attached to him, as well."

Miller shrugged, made his voice sound light. "He was only someone I worked with. No special feelings."

"I see. Let's cut this crap, Miller, and get to the chase. You knew that Mulder wasn't with us, didn't you? You had to have some suspicion that possessed you to go to the Bureau parking lot and check up on the bastard. And you did not inform us," Milton's voice was perfectly controlled, as if he was merely commenting on today's weather or the quality of freshly brewed tea.

"How could I possibly know that?" Miller looked surprised. "And besides, nothing happened at the parking lot." He tried to busy himself with collecting his things but his hands shook too much.

"You are a psychologist extraordinaire. And you liked Mulder. Maybe not from the first time you met him but you did grow to appreciate him."

Miller sat down heavily, jumbled thoughts and images whirling in his mind. Mulder... sometimes he thought of him as a son he'd lost. Sometimes it was just heartening to see the younger man's smile after hours of work that he still detested even if he'd never admitted it.

And sometimes, he identified with Fox Mulder to the point of tears.

It was pathetic, really. What exactly did he think would happen? That he and Mulder would continue working together like the couple of buddies that they weren't?

Seconds slithered by, and Milton stood up, pulling out a revolver. "You still haven't said no, you traitor," Milton held the revolver against Miller's head.

"I didn't say yes, either," he squeezed through gritted teeth. "But what do you care? Destroy everyone, as long as you don't destroy yourself, isn't that right, James?"

"Did Fox relate to you this joke I told him? It's one of the new rules for our facilities. Burn it to the ground if you know it will be found."

"Sounds like a good time to follow the rules, then," he whispered hotly.

"You believe in the rules? Do you still believe in us?" Milton asked, staring at Miller intently.

The doctor closed his eyes -- the answer was brutally obvious when the barrel of a semi-automatic was pointed at his head. "Yes, James. My loyalty to the Consortium is still intact."

Milton smiled, handing Miller another pistol from his belt. He nodded to the video screen in Miller's office that was emotionlessly recording Fox Mulder's beating.

"Prove it."

His ribs had to be cracked. Or maybe broken. Too many parts of his body were singing in pain, and his head alternated between periods of sledgehammer-worthy torture, and coherent thought-destroying numbness.

Footsteps echoed from the hallway outside, and Mulder was quickly learning to fear the sound. His eyes widened when both Miller and Milton approached -- the elder looking smug, the doctor looking increasingly uncomfortable.

"Do it now," Milton ordered sharply. "Or you can say 'hi' to Thomas."

Mulder watched the exchange, hearing the name ring a bell -- knowing that it was important to Miller when he saw the doctor wince.

"Don't bring my son into this equation," he retorted sharply.

"Your son," Mulder echoed dumbly, frustrated with the time it was taking for his thoughts to form. "Your son," he whispered again, his brow furrowing in concentration. He looked to Miller, his voice coming out softly. "Was your wife's name Cora?"

Both Consortium members regarded Mulder suspiciously, but Miller nodded.

Something clicked within Mulder -- the gears in his brain started processing faster and the epiphany was earth shattering.

"Your son's name was Thomas?" Mulder asked again breathlessly.

Miller nodded, and Mulder's eyes widened. "Don't shoot me, Miller. It's Milton I would shoot."


"Because, they killed him."

Miller hesitated and Milton looked shocked. "What on Earth..."

"Your son's name was Thomas. Your wife's name was Cora." The pieces were falling into place and Mulder could barely keep up. "Your son!" he shouted, paying no attention to the pain it brought to his lungs, "Your son was born January 4th, 1970. Your wife and the company she had been working for at that time, Rousch, abducted him when she had custody, October 22nd, 1974. And then he died December 6th, 1976." Inside, his mind flipped through the pages of the book, offering numbers, dates, and words -- the solution that had eluded him for the longest time, only now thundering into place. "They used hybrid DNA. The same DNA that was found in Scully, that's still in Scully. The same DNA that they are trying to mold into humans." He closed his eyes, trying to recall the specific genetic sequence, the scientific term Scully had used seemingly eons ago. "C-T-G-G. A mutational hot spot." Mulder shook his head, words spilling out of his mouth. "Your son died. Christ, Miller, why do you think he got cancer in the first place?"

Miller's gun wavered but didn't lower, and Mulder pressed on. "Your son, it was the case study that my father gave me. Little hints. Little numbers and places and names. Great Falls, Montana... that's where he was, wasn't it? They killed him, Miller. And they guilted you into staying."

Milton shook his head. "The ramblings of a dead man," he scoffed. "For God's sakes, Anthony. You're the psychologist! You should know a mind game when you see it."

"I know way too much to be just playing mind games, Miller. Think about it."

"Have I ever deceived you in more than twenty years that we have known each other?"

"He's been deceiving you from the beginning, Miller. He's used your guilt to leash you to the Project. And my father helped him," Miller still looked mistrustful. "Look who you're talking to, Miller!" Mulder shouted. "I can recognize a cleverly disguised guilt trip when I see it!"

Milton looked to the doctor, talking nonsense words about loyalty, taking off the safety of the .38 behind his back. "Think about your work, Anthony. Our larger goals. Kill Mulder now, or I'll kill both of you myself."

Miller backed up a few steps, raising the gun in his hands slightly. Mulder watched the scene in front of him with strange detachment, as his field of vision often became obscured by red as blood dripped from his brow. He blinked, blinding himself momentarily. A shot echoed in the red, and Mulder jumped, grunting at the pain, feeling the restraints bite into his skin.

Lifeless, wide pale eyes stared up in horror and surprise, as a solitary body fell onto the facility floor.

A man clad in black finished pouring gasoline, tossing the empty canister aside and wiping sweat off his face. He didn't know why this building was being destroyed, nor did he care. He followed orders, he was being handsomely rewarded, and the rest never concerned him.

"Maybe we should check that everybody's out?" someone asked hesitantly. "Take a last look..."

The man pondered dilemma only for a second. "If anyone is there, it's their own damn fault. Everyone important enough knows that 1:00 AM is the deadline," he glanced at his companions, seeing nothing but grim resolve on their faces. "It's 12:59."

The match was lit, and the man accepted it respectfully, imagining how a small spark dancing in the wind would create a powerful flame, consuming everything in its way.

"Ready, set, go," he chanted under breath and tossed the match at the fuel-soaked walls at precisely one hour after midnight.

"Miller," Mulder whispered, reassuring himself that the bullet which sliced the air seconds earlier was sent from the doctor's gun and that it was Milton lying in a rapidly growing pool of blood. "I'm sorry."

Miller dropped the gun and took a step backwards, seemingly mesmerized. "What are you sorry about?" he asked automatically.

"Your son. This. Everything," Mulder wasn't sure what he was apologizing for, but the elder's shell-shocked silence was gnawing on him - frightening him more than the barrel of a gun directed at his head. "Do you want to untie me?"

Miller flinched at the hesitant request, visibly returning to the reality, blinking his eyes as if he just woke up. On some level, he supposed that he did wake up - after having been asleep for more than twenty years. "Hold on, Fox. I'll have to find the keys to handcuffs," he moved uncertainly to Milton's body, intending to search his pockets.

"Check my coat," Mulder rasped. "Mine should fit."

Miller nodded, picking up the black article discarded in the corner. A few seconds later, the key slipped into the lock smoothly, the bonds were off, and Mulder exhaled as the blood circulated easier through his throbbing wrists. "Thank you," he managed to offer.

"Can you stand?" Miller asked him, concern entering his voice for the first time this evening.

"I'll try," Mulder didn't believe in his own words, certain that his bones and muscles would betray him. Miller was offering him a hand, and he gripped it tightly, grateful for the support. "You knew that I would betray the Consortium and you didn't tell them," he stated quietly. "Why?"

Miller pulled him to a full height, half-supporting the younger man's frame with his own. "Later, later, Fox. I will explain everything once we're safely buckled up in my car."

"Oh shit," Mulder winced, clutching at his chest for breath, and Miller leaned him against the wall, trying to assess his state as best he could with a quick examination. Ribs were obviously broken, and the beating compounded the concussion, but the legs were relatively intact, and Miller offered a silent prayer of thanks for the small miracles.

"Fox, we don't have much time," he spoke urgently, hoping that Mulder was still stable enough to fully understand him. "The building will go up in flames at any moment, and we have to get out of here."

Walking meant dizziness, nausea, and expending what little energy he had left, and Mulder decided that he really wasn't up to it. Still, just because it was easier than arguing, he nodded agreement with eyes closed. "Okay."

"Come on, Fox, you have to start walking," Miller tugged his hand noting that there was still no sign of movement from his companion. "I'm really too old to carry you," he half-joked, half-lamented.

Mulder inhaled deeply, immediately regretting the gesture. Small, shallow intakes of air, he reminded himself. Using all of his powers of concentration, he tried to forget the aching body, the constricted breathing, and the pounding in his skull. And he made the first step.

"Wonderful," Miller smiled encouragingly. "Now, let's keep moving. Hold on to me, to the walls, but please, keep moving."

Mulder obeyed, Miller's sense of urgency keeping him on his feet contrary to all of his expectations. "It's hot here," he complained softly, too engrossed in the simple function of walking to fully understand the meaning of his own words.

Miller didn't reply, only pushing him harder towards the narrow staircase. "Just three flights, Fox. Then you can rest. I'm right behind you."

Mulder flashed an apologetic look at the doctor's tired face and gripped the railing, struggling to remain standing despite a particularly bad spasm of pain. "Just give me a minute."

Miller shook his head stubbornly, trying not to pay attention to Mulder's ashen pallor and the sound of teeth grinding, knowing that the compassion would undo them even faster. "No. No minutes, no seconds. God dammit, keep walking!"

Mulder's eyes flew open at the loud voice, and he began his descent downstairs. They both came to a halting stop upon reaching the second floor, contemplating in horror the fire already leaking towards the steps, coming at them from the hallway. Miller ran upstairs, only to return in seconds. "The fire is coming from above, as well. We have to go down."

Mulder froze, and Miller shook him roughly. "This is really not as bad as it seems. We can still make it," he spoke gently, all the while wondering what was wrong with the young man.

"Pyrophobia," he explained. "I'm still with you, Miller," Mulder promised, more for his own reassurance than for the doctor's.

Miller, his worry intensifying exponentially, watched as Mulder took a few steps downstairs and swayed, almost falling face forward. "Not now, Fox," he caught him just barely. "Don't black out on me now. Please," Miller didn't notice when he started begging the younger man to wake up, aware only of the rapidly approaching fire and of the heavy smoke penetrating his nostrils. He briefly considered dragging him downstairs, then decided against it, afraid to cause more damage. "We'll get you home, and then you can have a normal bed to sleep in," there was still no sign of life from Mulder, and Miller continued rambling. "Think of your niece and nephew, Fox. And Agent Scully would be very upset if you died. I really don't want to explain myself to her after this."

"What are you talking about, Miller," Mulder's voice held exasperation and an odd twinge of affection as his eyes swam back into focus and he tried to stand.

Miller's face brightened, a genuine smile of relief illuminating his features. "Let's go, Sleeping Beauty."

Mulder walked once again, berating himself for moving too slowly, painfully aware that Miller would have already been safely out of the building were it not for him. "Why don't you get the hell out of here," he shouted without turning around.

"Keep walking," Miller barked at him gruffly. "We've had enough of your heroic measures for one day."

Mulder wondered detachedly since when did Miller begin to sound like a military commandant, and disturbingly like Walter Skinner, but it sure as hell had the desired effect on him. Just a few more steps - and the door, though licked by fire, was still reachable.

The resounding crash that came from behind him nailed him to the spot, and he turned around abruptly, almost falling in the process. The entire staircase was awash in flames, and he couldn't see the old doctor. The rush of adrenaline brought by panic was the only thing that still kept him standing. "Miller!" he screamed, lunging back in the flames, finally realizing that the landing from above must have fallen on him. "Oh God, no," he pleaded as air sizzled around him and he knew, with a crystal clarity of desperation, that it was too late to go back. That there was only one way open to him now, and that he would be walking out of this building alone.

Stumbling backwards, Mulder leaned against the door, paying little attention to the scorching temperature of the metal handle, his eyes closed so as not to see the funereal pyre of a... friend.

He made himself walk a considerable distance away from the building, the visions of his comfortable couch, Miller's concerned eyes, and Scully's gentle hands, everything he would never see again, alternating in his mind. When he reached the nearby park, and let the night air clear his lungs, Mulder knew that he could finally - mercifully - rest.

Yet, he sat for a long time, oblivious to the tears streaming from his eyes, watching the orange flame, hotter than sun itself, reach out lovingly to the navy-blue sky.

Scully stared at the smoldering remains through the car window and closed her eyes dejectedly. "We're too late," she whispered. "It's all gone."

Skinner glanced at her from the passenger seat, remaining silent. Finally free from prison's bars, thrown back into the conspiracy's fray, he felt an enormous sense of resignation. Did it matter if he was an Assistant Director, a prisoner, a spectator? Que sera, sera -- and the actions of everyone were inconsequential, weren't worth a damn as long as the penthouse on West 46th kept humming.

Scully had reluctantly shown him the information she had been given, never offering to bring Mulder into the equation. He turned away from the scene unfolding in front of the windshield, his mouth becoming a grim line. It was easy to hate Mulder -- but Skinner knew how desperation could fuel a man. He could see it in Scully's eyes right now, and he wondered how much of Mulder's insanity was in her current quest for the truth.

He could still hear the hiss of the dying fire, the smell of charred rubble. So reminiscent of a post-napalm, outback Vietnamese town -- Skinner briefly wondered if this war with the Consortium would also be a losing one.

"Well, well, well..." he heard Scully remark beside him.

He followed her gaze, not comprehending what exactly she was thinking. He watched Director Robinson's still silhouette, the red wash of emergency lights casting an eerie hue to his rotund figure.

"What's wrong?"

"It's Robinson," she whispered. "He's one of them."

Skinner looked at her doubtfully. "Scully, I've worked with the man..."

"You don't understand," her voice shook with anger. "He was responsible for the death of Agent Winters. Winters went to him with information of Mulder's," the word came harshly through her teeth, "...duplicity."

Skinner shook his head. "Blevins was dirty; we took out all the moles in the FBI." His voice hardened, the parting shot leaving his mouth before he could stop it. "Well, with the exception of Mul..."

"You have to believe me," she whispered intensely. It was a peculiar role reversal - never would Scully have believed that she would speak with the same desperation as Mulder, meet the same disbelieving stare that she had so often given him in the past. She started for the car door, but a hand on her shoulder halted her progress.

"Maybe we should wait," Skinner said. "See what he does."

Scully pulled free from his grasp. "That's all I've been doing: sitting and watching. I've already waited too long."

He watched her receding figure momentarily before stepping out of the Taurus' closed comfort and approaching the smoldering ruins.

Scully walked briskly to Director Robinson, ignoring the rubble crushed under her feet, the hot waves quickly bringing a flush to her cheeks.

"I've been waiting for you."

Scully closed her mouth, the words she was about to say disappearing. "What do you mean?"

The elder made no move for a few seconds, enough time for Skinner to join Scully's side. "Ah, Walter. So nice of you to join us." The frown on Skinner's face grew more pronounced as Robinson walked casually through the ruins, his voice eerily calm. "I was happy to hear of your acquittal," he continued nonchalantly. "Nice to see that the American system of trial by peers is working. Of course," he threw him a knowing glance. "I'm sure the fact that Judge Gibbons is a Matheson sympathizer had nothing to do with it."

Scully eyed Robinson malevolently, trailing his footsteps by a few feet. He pointed towards the burned remnants of a skeleton. "James Milton. You can tell, because that lump of melted gold is his watch." The Director continued to move through the rubble, passing near what used to be a doorway. "Anthony Miller. Your ex-partner was a dangerous man to befriend."

"Director Robinson," she started, trying to ignore his statements.

"No," his tone turned abrupt. "You listen, Agent Scully. And you listen good." He pointed a finger in her direction. "I don't say anything until you get me full protection. Full anonymity. Not this Witness Protection bull shit."

Scully backed up, her eyes showing her incomprehension. "I... I don't understand. Are you confessing?"

Robinson looked around him, suspiciously eyeing the firefighters and M.E.'s circulating through the scene. "Humans are fallible. Working in law enforcement this is made especially clear. Power mongering. Dog eat dog. Trying to form a consensus on how to save human nature. No one is immune." He shook his head while gesturing towards Milton's corpse. "But he prevented it -- he kept the common goal in sight. And I would rather die sponging off the government's money than bickering with old cronies." He smiled at Scully and Skinner's blank expressions. "The date is set, Agent Scully. *They're* coming. And because of your interference, all of human kind will perish. Mulder would have been able to tell you all of this."

Something dropped in Scully's stomach, a bitter taste formed at the back of her throat at the Robinson's repeated usage of the past tense. "What are you saying? Where is he?"

"Nothing, Agent Scully," Robinson's smile grew larger - baring teeth. "You must overestimate my position in the Consortium to think I would know Mulder's whereabouts."

Scully glared at him, knowing that he was trying to antagonize her, wisely deciding to switch the topic. "What about the FBI? Who are the other moles?"

"You mean, except for Mulder?" Again, there was that smug look that served to remind her that he held the advantage. "No way."

"I have evidence that speaks of your duplicity," Scully stared at him, hoping he wouldn't call her bluff.

"Your evidence?" he mocked. "The odds and ends that Mulder compiled? The evidence that makes sense only to you?" Robinson shook his head. "You'll have enough to get past the pre-trial hearing, but it'll be obliterated during cross examination."

Scully adopted an expressionless mask - Robinson's refusal not surprising. Questioning a law enforcement officer was like pulling teeth. They already knew the tricks of the trade, and she was ready with another, familiar tactic. "We have no reason to believe anything you're saying."

Robinson chortled. "You mean you want a sign of faith? Fine..."

As he talked, Scully and Skinner exchanged stupefied looks. It was silly to imagine that the double agents had a stereotypical appearance, but Scully would have liked to think that she had been immune. That Mulder's paranoia coupled with Skinner's concern would prevent her from exchanging valuable case information, prevent her from giving evidence to those agents that Robinson was easily naming. Agents she had come to admire in her time at the Bureau, all corrupt.

"Agent Killarny from VCS..."

"Dr. Hardisty from forensics. I believe you co-presented a lecture with him, Agent Scully..."

"Agents McNally and Scott from photo lab..."

"Agents Sheppard and Rosslyn at Quantico..."

"SAC Semko in New York, who I believed graduated from the Academy at the same time as you, Walter..."

Scully concentrated on the ground beneath her feet, wondering how the FBI had managed to conduct normal investigations when Consortium hands had dirtied so much information. It was something Mulder hadn't even mentioned, and she wondered resignedly how many others Robinson was unaware of.

When his voice came back into focus, Robinson shook his head, feigning concern. "Of course, I doubt any will show up for work. In fact, you probably won't hear from them again."

Scully reached for the cell phone in her pocket. "We'll see about that." She dialed a familiar number, not sure if she was relieved or disappointed when Kim, rather than Mulder, answered the phone. "Hi, this is Agent Scully. I was wondering if you could call and find out the whereabouts of Agents Killarny, Hardisty, McNally, Sheppard, Semko, Scott, and Rosslyn."

There was a lengthy pause before Kim answered. "I can do that, Agent Scully, but have you heard from Agent Mulder since last night?"

Warning bells rang in Scully's ears as she was reminded of Robinson's foreboding words. "No, why?"

"He left me a... document to give you, and left. He was a bit... not himself when I talked to him. When I arrived this morning, his car was already parked beside mine. I thought that maybe he had come in early, but his briefcase and papers were still in the front seat..."

"Did you call security?" She interrupted harshly.

"I did, and apparently, the videotape in the parking lot was tampered with. It didn't record anything, just played in an endless loop."

"I see," she whispered, feeling the time slow down as she watched Robinson's knowing expression, as her mind presented her with several possible scenarios and reasons why Mulder didn't answer the phone yesterday. "Open his car and let me know what you find inside."

"All right," Kim sounded uncertain and more than a little concerned now. "Agent Scully? He had a letter of resignation on his desk. I was trying to find his personal agenda," she hastily explained. "It wasn't completed... but it was dated for tomorrow. Is there anything I can do?"

"Just let me know what you find," Scully looked at Robinson while she disconnected the phone - realizing that he only pretended ignorance before. She stepped closer to her Director. "If you don't tell me where Mulder is right now, I will pick up the phone and invite one of the Consortium killers for hire to come and take you out, you pompous piece of shit. Now, talk!"

"I didn't want to upset you," Robinson stepped back, raising his hands in a mocking surrender. "But Agent Scully, it was your courtroom antics that led to his downfall. Considering that he was the one that asked you to testify, he should have been prepared. And so should have you."

You knew this was going to happen, her mind screamed. What else did you expect once you volunteered to take a witness stand? "What did you do to him?" she hissed maliciously.

"What penalty do we use to punish those guilty of treason, Agent Scully?"

She swallowed, the lump in her throat growing bigger. "Death."

"And tell me, Agent Scully," Robinson added with a ugly sneer, "why should the Consortium treat their traitors any differently?"

"You're lying," Scully shook her head, refusing to believe him. "Prove it."

"I saw him brought to the D.C. facility, unconscious. He must have been taken in the FBI parking lot. Though I did not participate in the interrogation that must have ensued, judging by the people who went in the room - and judging by the sounds - I would say he was either dead or in no shape to leave the building when it went up in flames."

Scully listened to the indifferent recitation as black waves passed in front of her eyes, and she suddenly felt Skinner's supporting hand on the small of her back. The smell of charcoal and gasoline was assailing her nostrils, the sight of Milton's skeleton, the stench of burnt flesh and singed hair nauseating. It was an awful way to go, more so considering how afraid Mulder was of fire. And a thousand of memories of her partner could not abolish the vivid images that Robinson planted in her mind.

Well, she'd already said goodbye to Mulder, hadn't she?

"Agent Scully, I'm surprised that you still care," Robinson smirked at her horrified silence. "After all Mulder had done? Would you like me to tell you what he'd been a part of since he joined our organization? Free of charge."

"He never joined you," Scully whispered, her voice gradually gaining strength. "He was never one of you."

Something close to sympathy flickered over Robinson's face. "You would be surprised."

She bit her lip and staggered away blindly.

Skinner watched her leave, then turned to face the Director, speaking his first words since leaving the car. "Poor Andrew Winters," he shook his head. "It seems you've killed the wrong agent. But rest assured, Robinson," a sick smile distended Skinner's features. "We'll make no mistakes. Agent Mulder may be dead, but his death will cost the Consortium dearly."

Robinson looked bored. "Just get on the horn with the DA and get me my deal. I may have just confessed to being an accessory to murder, but anything I say, or anything that you have found from what I've said is inadmissible unless it accompanies my Miranda waiver," he held up his hands. "And it appears that I haven't signed it yet."

"Not only do you betray your own colleagues, but you have the balls to ask for a deal." Skinner sneered, the testosterone building as both men squared off. "One false accusation, Robinson, and I'll let everyone in your holding cell know that you're a snitch." He leaned in close, whispering hotly. "And you *do* know what they do with snitches in prison, don't you, Director Robinson?"

Shaken slightly, Robinson backed up a few steps. "Careful, Walter. I am still your priceless informant, and I can give you an address of another facility that might still be intact," Robinson's expression faltered as Skinner pushed him to the car, almost shoved him inside.

Scully's small frame was shaking, and Skinner put his hands on her shoulders gingerly, hoping to instill her with courage, knowing in advance that he would fail.

"This is what we've been working for, isn't it?" she whispered in anguish. "Robinson gives us names. He points us to the physical evidence. This is the end - the possible victory - and Mulder should be here to see it."

This was a happy ending without a hero to live happily ever after. "Scully, you mustn't give up hope. Mulder has surprised us before," Skinner spoke gently, loath to instill optimism, but suddenly unable to bear the alternative.

She glanced over at the burnt ruins, turning away swiftly, putting a hand across her mouth to stifle a groan. "Sir, you must believe that Mulder did all that he could to help you. He never wanted to take your place."

Skinner closed his eyes, the realization that Mulder literally sacrificed his life for him, among other things, unexpected and jarring. And he resented him for making this choice. As he resented him for thrusting him back into the job he didn't really want anymore.

And Skinner hated Mulder for not being here to put his arms around a small pale woman, because his own arms didn't have the same power to comfort her. But as Scully looked up, silently begging forgiveness for Mulder's actions and for her own, he smiled, drawing her closer.

"I am still waiting to hear for an explanation of his own."


"As I lower my sword and lay down my shield to gaze upon the battlefield around me, my soul aches more than my body, because I am alone. A conquering knight, I cannot celebrate my victory, for my defeat is far greater.

"I've sharpened the knife that severed the fragile bond of trust between us, and it is I alone who should grieve for its loss. I've split my very being in two, only to achieve my goals, but to also become incomplete. But if you erase the cruel words from your mind, if you forget the images of the last few months, you will remember me the way I had been.

"With great humility, I surrender my weapons to you in hopes that you are just as strong without me as you have always been beside me. You are one of the few who have a heart to face up to the truth - and to prepare for the future. Learn from my mistakes, and if you can, forgive them.

"The perseverance of life is astounding, and I will live - because it is always harder than dying.

"This end is only the beginning.

"We have won."

Scully sat up straight in bed, her pulse racing, her senses on overdrive, fighting against the onslaught of reality - of awareness. He was here, an undeniable presence, an easy smile she hadn't seen in ages on the familiar face, and he spoke the words of assurance and apology, of hope and victory.

Of life.

The room was empty, silent, save for a soft tapping of branches of trees on her window, an occasional rustle of sheets, and a steady rhythm of the alarm clock. Irrationally, she envied its stability, its impeccable equilibrium in this universe, recognizing her own imperfection and weakness.

Her mother had asked her gingerly why she was blaming herself for Mulder's death and Scully choked on the negative answer. Because I should have been certain that he was safe and away before I testified in court. Because I should have pulled him out of the snake pit when I realized that he'd gone too deep. Because I couldn't help him.

Because I should have never let him do it in the first place.

Since his death, Scully felt like she was stumbling in the dark without any support or hope. Nothing was right, nothing held any meaning. Not the newly reopened X-Files division. Not the three additional agents that Skinner assigned to work under her charge. Not the second-floor spacious office filled with frustratingly ordered rows of files and boxes of evidence from Great Falls, Montana facility that Robinson directed them to. Even the "I Want To Believe" poster looked eerie, awash in spring sunlight streaming in from the street.

And the only reason why she continued was her belief that she was doing the right thing, knowledge that there were few others qualified to do the work - as well as what she recognized as a misguided sense of vengeance for Winters and Mulder. Scully drew her knees to her chest, shivering in the cold air of the bedroom, huddling under a warm comforter. Slowly, reluctantly, she passed a hand over her eyes, trying to dispel a haunting vision, reminding herself that it was best to believe in the worst, to surrender to the painful truth. The guilt and grief were simply playing tricks with her mind.

And yet, they couldn't find his body. And Mulder had been believed to be dead before - and she heard a similar message from him... and she couldn't be certain about what happened that night. The night when she could have still saved her partner, a man who sacrificed everything in the name of his ideals. No, she corrected herself: our ideals.

A buff colored folder, still untouched, sat idly on her night stand. Someday, she vowed, she would get the courage to read it. Sometime in the future she would be willing to look for answers in its accurate little numbers and impassionate analyses. For now, she would look at it, touch its covers almost reverently, and think of the dead man who still invaded her dreams.

"Do you believe in extreme possibilities, Agent Scully?" she heard a mocking voice echoing in the darkness, and she replied softly but firmly: "Yes, I do."

Lucy switched from one radio station to the next with a feeling of utter resignation. Country or church bells were all the options she would get in the middle of nowhere, on a lonely stretch of I-95 Highway. It figured.

When she saw a hitchhiker extending a hand, she hesitated only briefly before stopping, remembering all the cautionary tales. But she still had a long way to go, and she had to find a way to entertain herself. Besides, the guy was very attractive, even if he did look like he was run over by a train. Twice. And then patched up together rather haphazardly.

"Hello. Thanks for stopping," he threw a backpack in the trunk, and stretched his long legs as he settled down in the front seat.

"Thanks for the company," Lucy smiled, pulled back in the traffic lane. "Where are you heading?"

The guy appeared to think for a moment, confusion and amusement alternating in his eyes. "I'm not sure," he admitted finally. "You?"

"Jacksonville, Florida," Lucy shared. "You've got a ride to there - or anywhere along the way if you like."

The man nodded gratefully, looked around. "May I?" he pointed to the newspaper lying behind him.

Lucy nodded, watched as he winced while turning around - ground his teeth as if in pain. "Are you all right?" she asked, concerned.

"Never better," the man was already looking through the newspaper. "It just takes awhile to recover from being tortured at the rack and burnt at the stake," he smirked, obviously delighted at her expression of genuine horror. "Made you wonder."

She guffawed, embarrassed at falling for the joke, decided to switch the topic. "So who else resigned today?"

"Huh?" curious eyes peered from behind the newspaper.

"In the past week, several senators, two Supreme Court judges, the Director of the FBI, and so many other officials have resigned or were arrested, I started to wonder who was next," Lucy explained. "Have you been following the news?"

"No, I've been out of the loop for a while," the hitchhiker continued reading. "Secretary General. Oh, and an Assistant Director of the FBI was found dead, but not before resigning," there was a trace of humor in his voice. "Burnout and stress are hard to handle. Could I keep this?"

Lucy shrugged, watched as the man folded up the newspaper, stuffed it in his pocket. She could swear that she heard him say softly, "Way to go, girl," and saw a flash of sadness that disappeared as quickly as it came.

They rode in silence, and she studied him surreptitiously. Despite the ruffled appearance and tired lines around the eyes, there was an unidentifiable grace about the man. He looked... relaxed, calm. It was not the forlorn calmness of a man rolling along with a tide, but a self-assured poise that could only be achieved through peace of mind.

Lucy decided that she envied that.

"Are you going to Florida for a vacation?" the hitchhiker asked after a while.

She shook her head. "No, I'm moving. Sold everything, wanted to start a whole new life. You too, I guess?"

The man rubbed his forehead and didn't answer. The toy alien that Lucy kept on the rearview mirror seemingly entranced him. "That's my little brother's version of a good luck charm," she explained. "It reminds me of him."

The huge smile that appeared on the hitchhiker's face in the next moment was dazzling, and Lucy was tempted to hold her breath. Still smiling, he turned to her and nodded.

"A whole new life."


Author's Note: (Anna)

Wow, I can't believe we are done. It's been six months, and it's been worth every single day. Well, first of all, I must mention my co-author who exasperated me, who argued with me, who questioned my ideas, who tortured me by supplying tiny little parts of a chapter before bringing it to the conclusion, who made this story into what it is, and who pushed me to write better. Maraschino, you are incredible, and I sincerely hope that we do it again sometime.

Huge gratitude to our wonderful and understanding beta-reader and editor extraordinaire, Seda. Thank you so much for your patience, for putting up with our slowness and an additional burden of dealing with two authors. This story would never have been complete without you.

Also, thank you to everyone who wrote us, asking for more, providing encouragement, and telling us that they enjoyed the story. Thank you to all wonderful authors who inspire me every day.

One lesson that I learned in the process of writing Shield & Sword was this: Never Become A Spy. It's really not worth it, unless you are in the British Intelligence and your name is James Bond :-)

Write us! Let us know what you thought. And let us know whether there could have been any other possible resolution to our plot. I'm genuinely curious if this could have come out happier than it did.

Author's Notes (Maraschino):

If ever given the choice to co-author with Anna or myself, please -- if you value your mental health -- choose the former. Anna, thy name is patience to the nth degree. You truly are a gifted writer (making me look up words in the dictionary on numerous occasions). Thank you, thank you for stretching my imagination, for bearing with my lame-o excuses when it would take me two weeks to write a little section, and simply for listening to me when I had the overwhelming urges to vent.

Seda, thanks for your wonderful suggestions, for reminding us that not all readers can see into our sick, demented heads and understand what we didn't coherently put onto uh... paper.

For those who wrote at the end of chapter sixteen, when the movie was looming over us, thank you for the encouragement and for keeping us on our toes when the last thing we wanted to do was think about the (and I quote) @%*%$#! Shield and freakin' Sword.

Speaking of the movie, as Anna mentioned earlier in the story, we consider "Shield and Sword" our version of Season Five up to and including the movie. We'd love to hear how we fared in comparison to CC's red-colored, top-secret, hush-hush, sixty million UST-fest.

It's been an adventure and half. Feedback, criticism, and flames are all welcome -- thanks for reading :)


Spread the Joy

By Anna Otto annaotto1@aol.com

Disclaimer: OK, all these characters might have the names of the ones you see on this TV show created by Chris Carter, but actually we have decimated them so completely in our "Shield and Sword" that they might be unrecognizable by now. Thus, I am not sure who to attribute the inspiration to. And in lieu of other contenders, I dedicate this piece of insanity to my fish. OK, to the ghosts of the fish I used to have when I was seven.

Spoilers: Well, Shield and Sword, but I seriously advise you to read this much much later after the actual story. The effects of this tiny little innocent piece could be deadly.

Archive: if anyone wants it, they can have it. Does anyone?

Summary: Hmm, a tough one. Let's just say that I have invented a new way to get rid of the dark anti-human conspiracies and shady organizations like Consortium. And the prescription is available from your local psychiatrist.

Rating: Oh, don't ask me that. OK, probably PG?

Classification: SH (S stands for stupid :-)

This is Badfic/Parody, so beware! You will NOT understand this if you didn't read "Shield & Sword" (shameless plug here for myself and Maraschino - it's archived at MTA, Annex, and our own webpages). You might still laugh at it though :-) I wrote this in the middle of writing S&S, just to get over the writer's block - but it came out weirder than even I expected. So, without further ado...

"Ninety-nine bottles of Prozac on the wall, Ninety-nine bottles of Prozac. You take one down, You pass it around, Ninety-eight bottles of Prozac on the wall. Ninety-eight bottles of Prozac..."

Mulder studied his detestable reflection in the mirror. God, but he hated himself. With a passion that grew ever stronger and ate at his black heart. The double life he led now caused him to have a clinical depression and there were black, unhealthy circles around his usually beautiful and charming hazel eyes from the lack of appetite and constant nightmares. Oh, and constipation.

Yes, the visions of Scully haunted him every night, and he woke up to find his pillows soaked in tears and sweat and occasional droplets of blood from his nose from the times he hit himself on it out of usual self-hatred and, of course, loss of sanity.

Tortured and in terrible, inhuman pain, Mulder opened the refrigerator door and felt the tears sting his eyes.

Well, of course, he was crying over the fact that Scully didn't talk to him anymore! And Andrew was dead! And he just really, really hated himself! But these tears could have easily been shed for the rotten strawberries and a really expensive but spoiled Brie. The problem was that he hated cheese and preferred the sunflower seeds and pizza to just about anything else in the world.

And the complete and utter sadness of it lay in the fact that there was no one to share his pizza with.

Still crying, Mulder put a hand over his heart, wondering if he could stand the harshness of his fate, and decided that he had to be strong. Really strong. He would have to endure. Silently and with deadly calmness, he picked up the yellow pages, found a phone number of a psychiatrist, and made an emergency appointment.

Because even though he had a Ph.D. in Psychology, he really shouldn't have treated himself, and besides, the numerous victims of his terrible and magical skill of erasing memories already marred his degree! Well, actually, the root of the problem lay in the fact that he was not a psychiatrist which was what he really needed right now, and he could not prescribe any medications, because that would get him arrested, and then...

And then he would probably land in jail right next to Skinner's cell, and his ex-boss would stare at him with a burning gaze and the light would shine off his bald head and blind his beautiful hazel eyes...

Mulder made a gigantic effort to stop this disturbing train of thought. He really should have been thinking about how sad his life was and about how terrible he felt and about how much he wanted to shatter that detestable reflection in the mirror but the glass was too thick and he was too weak from not eating enough and...

Oh, the horror of it all could bring him down on his knees, no, actually, on all fours, and make him howl like a wolf at the moon.

The psychiatrist was a kindly old man who reminded Mulder of Miller and of Milton and of his father even though none of them looked like the psychiatrist, but they were all old and at this point Mulder just didn't care. Because when you have a depression, you stop caring, even about the fact that you make no sense anymore. And no one understands you or gives a damn anyway.

"What is your problem, Mr. Mulder?" the doctor asked and Mulder suddenly winced because he had this gnawing, incredible, worst headache ever. With noble resignation, he reached into his pocket and took out a bottle of Morphine, shaking out two pills.

The doctor eyed it with ever-growing worry. "You shouldn't be drinking this! It's a very dangerous and addictive medication, and besides, you will be unconscious for most of our session!"

Mulder waved his hand weakly. "Oh, don't worry about it. It's nothing. You see, I started with Tylenol and then someone told me that Excedrin, in the green bottle, was better, but soon it wasn't enough so I had to smuggle in some Codeine from Canada, and considering the terrible, addictive and destructive effects of this medication, I had to switch to Morphine. But of course, I have already built a level of tolerance to it and I assure you this is only to aid me in my migraines which are related to the stress that I have been under lately."

The doctor coughed, trying to hide from the cold light of the beautiful but deadly hazel eyes. "Of course. So what caused this stress?"

Mulder thought about it a little, trying to decide if the doctor would sell him to the Consortium if he explained the truth and decided that they were everywhere, the whole damn planet was bugged and there were ears in every innocent little place and that this doctor could actually be an alien, maybe the bounty-hunter, and that he could take no chances at all. "I am working for some really bad, bad people, and I am doing some terrible things at my job, and every day when I get up I am trying not to kill myself."

"OK..." the psychiatrist sounded concerned. "Why don't you quit then?"

Mulder's full lower lip quivered and he tried hard not to cry. "Oh, doctor, you shouldn't ask me these questions! They will kill you and me if they find out."

"All right," the doctor sighed and Mulder knew that he was thinking about paranoia and all these other nasty mental diseases that he actually wasn't suffering from, and he suddenly felt very stupid and delusional for having come here.

"Doctor, no one can help me," he whispered brokenly, detachedly, painfully, and his hopeless words scraped the perfectly conditioned air of the little office. "I just need a prescription for Prozac so that I don't kill myself because if I do they will take the children of my sister who doesn't love me, who doesn't want to see me, and I don't understand why I should care but I have always felt guilt for her abduction and if I let something bad happen to her now I don't know if I could live with myself. Then I will definitely have to kill myself."

"Mr. Mulder, you are giving me no chances at all to help you!" the doctor reached out a hand to him in supplication, knowing that this patient was ready for a complete mental break-down and remembering an epithet he read in a book of someone named Jose Chung about a "ticking time-bomb of insanity." Because this man certainly personified that definition.

"Just give me a prescription, please," now there was steel in the perfectly modulated voice, and anger in the chiseled face, and the long thin fingers twisted so that the knuckles were painfully white, and the bones were ready to break and only the perfectly manicured nails were still beautiful and polished.

The doctor wrote a prescription because now he was really, really afraid, and because it was true that he just didn't give a damn and there was another patient waiting for him already.

Mulder strode proudly out of the office, breaking down several times on the way to the elevator. Finally having made it inside the cabin, he suddenly felt claustrophobic, and he was glad because he didn't feel anything but sadness in a really long time, and it meant that he was still human, so he lied down on the floor and stared at the bright lights overhead and cried from joy.

And then he went to the pharmacy to fill a prescription.

The beautiful red-headed woman came in to the psychiatrist's office and stared bleakly at him, and her amazing, deep like the ocean and large like the UFO true-blue eyes filled with fresh, salty, transparent tears. The doctor offered her a handkerchief and she accepted it with trembling hands, wiping the dirty tracks on her face that the make-up left behind.

Oh, but life was just so unfair and cruel and all of the people and animals that she loved died and if she thought about it long enough, she knew that there just wasn't enough money to buy flowers for all of their graves.

"What happened, Ms. Scully? You seem very upset," the doctor asked her sympathetically.

"Oh, I am fine, doctor, really," she managed to squeeze a shaky smile but her words sounded brave and stoic. "Pay no attention to me."

The psychiatrist took a deep breath. This was going to be a long one. "You wouldn't have come here if you were fine."

"Well, I do think that I am suffering from a mental disease but I am not sure how to classify it, and I need your professional opinion," Scully admitted honestly, because she was a professional as well, in fact, she was a medical doctor but her specialty was very different, and she didn't know a lot about mental illnesses. Except, of course, she could probably recite all of the diseases she attributed to Mulder, because he was the only thing that she knew in depth and could give lectures on the subject.

The doctor frowned. This was curious. "I am always glad to help. What are the symptoms?"

"Well, there is this man that I used to work with, and in the past few months he did a lot of bad things. Like, he lied to me and many other honest people, he backstabbed his boss who cared about him, he participated in the unspeakable experiments on human subjects, he covered up many terrible crimes, and he was an accomplice to murder," Scully recited emotionlessly, coldly, trying hard not to break down and wail because this was a very inappropriate place for such inappropriate behavior and she was always a very proper person. "And I still worry about his safety and I still cannot make myself hate him, and sometimes I think that the only way I will ever hate him is if he takes off his pants and swims in acid," Scully moaned a bit just imagining the picture. "Actually, then, I will probably have to take care of him, because he has no one else in the world, his parents are dead, and his sister hates him and he always felt guilty because of her abduction..."

The doctor took off his glasses thoughtfully, and contemplated the situation. "You are, of course, a very disturbed woman, I will be honest with you on that," he uttered finally. "But while there is no definition for it in the medical dictionary, I think that your mind is clouded by a lot of issues which probably go far back to your childhood and which I am prepared to examine with you fully. Would you like to make an appointment for next Monday?"

Scully shook her head negatively. "You know, doctor, I would honestly love to," she flashed him a perfect, wide, blinding, amazing smile, and the doctor put on his glasses immediately back on his nose because he wanted to memorize every part of her marble face before she left his office for even though she was insane, he still rarely received visits from such beautiful women.

Meanwhile, Scully continued. "But I can't because I might be dead by that time. Or my friend might be dead. Well, he is not my friend anymore, of course, but considering that I obviously have issues... You see, it's very difficult to plan ahead."

Doctor was sad that he wouldn't see her again. "I can give you a prescription for Prozac?" he offered enticingly.

"Oh, I can write one for myself, thank you very much," Scully answered proudly and stood up to leave. The world kind of tilted around her and she realized that she didn't eat in a really long time because she was also depressed and she would forget about food and it made her nauseous and actually at times it was very convenient because she lost a lot of weight and she looked completely amazing in the mirror, that is when she actually dared to look at herself because in fact she was afraid of her reflection. "But it was kind of you to offer."

She left the office and she stopped in the hallway and had a really good cry because she really, really missed Mulder, and Andrew, and Queequack, and Melissa, and she hadn't seen Skinner in a really long time, and she missed him as well.

And then she put on her usual cold mask and went to fill out a prescription.

"James! It's so wonderful to see you!" Mulder screamed at Milton and threw himself into the embrace that was actually not forthcoming. "I haven't seen you in a long time. Why don't we have these meetings every day? Every week is just not enough. And besides, I can get so many frequent flyer miles!"

Milton was concerned. Maybe they put too much pressure on him. Really, the guy already had to deal with a job of Assistant Director, and that was enough for anyone. But they just had to make him go and work with all these women and Miller... No wonder. "Fox," he tried to sound tender, "are you feeling all right? Maybe you would like to take a vacation?"

"Are you kidding?" Mulder gawked at him. "I never felt better. I am full of energy. Ready to destroy the world and rebuild it all in the same day!" he plopped down in an armchair. "When do we start?"

Milton sighed, deciding to attribute this strange behavior to the hot weather outside and possible sunstroke. It would probably pass soon, the atmosphere in this room was depressing and dark enough. "Would you like some tea?"

The tea was being served at the moment, and Mulder beamed, eyeing it hungrily. "Oh yes, I would love some! Isn't everyone having some? And I want some biscuits, please."

The conspirator shrugged, deciding that he might as well share tea with the poor young man that seemed finally at piece with himself and with their organization. Mulder obviously needed some company, and even though Milton was heartless, he still kind of cared about him. "I would love a cup."

Everyone drank tea, and then someone shuffled over to the windows and opened the draperies. The bright sun lit the stuffy room, and Milton shaded his eyes, then opened them wide. "Look at this sun! It's so... yellow and festive. I never noticed before. And are there trees blooming outside?"

"I believe so," Northam replied in awe. "And I can hear the little birds singing everywhere, twit! Twit! Twit!"

Yet another man got up and came to embrace him. "The sky is so blue... and look at the people below! They just look so tiny and precious..."

Milton cried. "Oh, people! I love them. Did you know how much I love people?"

Mulder smiled, reveling in the joy he spread by emptying his bottle of Prozac into the teakettle. He could share because he was still due for ninety-nine refills! "I've always known, James! Always! Because I want to believe in the goodness of all people, even such bastards as yourself!"

"You're right, my friend," Milton offered him a shaky hand, then pulled him into the tight embrace. "There is good in all of us."

Cancerman opened the door and surveyed the joyous company presented to him. He dreamed about this meeting for a really long time, imagining the looks on all their faces, and now he wondered if he'd stepped into the wrong room. These people were not behaving correctly. They were the awesome, mysterious, and dark Consortium, and they were not supposed to kiss or laugh or embrace.

"Henry! My God, we missed you!" Milton ran up to him and actually picked him up, but couldn't completely whirl him around the room. "Where have you been?"

Cancerman was stunned by such nerve. "You've had me killed!"

"I am so sorry," Milton whispered in his ear. "I decided to go to a confession tomorrow and I promise you that I will confess this terrible, terrible sin."

Mulder stood up and his legs were unstable from the sheer happiness that he felt. "My favorite Black-Lunged Son-of-a-Bitch!" he offered him a hand, then reached over to kiss him on the cheek. "It has been tough without you," he confided. "Before I had to deal just with you, and now I have the entire damn organization to please. Can we just go back to the way things were before? I honestly miss seeing you at Skinner's office."

Cancerman took a step back. Oh God, this was horrible. This scene of destruction was unimaginable. Maybe the date has already come and gone and clones replaced everyone he knew. "I'm too late," he whispered horrified and ran out the door, pulling out his cellular phone with shaking hands and dialing 911. The operator came on the line, and he dictated the address and his name to her. "These people are all insane! It must be a new virus. I only hope that I didn't pick it up myself. I must find out from the aliens how it is being transmitted."

The operator sounded sympathetic. "Well, sir, I wouldn't worry too much about it. Just stay where you are and someone will be along to help you shortly."

"Thank you," he nodded, slightly reassured. "Thank you so much."

In the brightly-lit hallway of the Georgetown Medical Center's Psychiatric Wing, Scully saw Mulder and at first she almost had a heart attack, but then she remembered that she was not reacting properly. Now that she has come to terms with her issues, she could go and face her demons head-on.

"Mulder, I missed you so much!" she sang in his ear happily. "I never dreamed I would meet you here."

"Scully!" he sounded completely happy though just a little unlike himself. "I missed you too! It's wonderful to see you."

"Isn't it, though?" she pulled him into a hug and they stared out the window together, in perfect harmony and silence.

It was a beautiful day and the sun was shining brightly...


P.S. Hey, look! I got Mulder and Scully back together!


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