Title: Ahead of Twilight
Author: TexxasRose
Written: March 2, 1999 - May 20, 1999
Classification: S, A, MSR
Disclaimer: If I owned Fox Mulder I'd keep him much too busy to solve cases. If I owned Dana Scully she'd be my shopping buddy. I don't own Skinner or the Gunmen or anybody else that you recognize either, obviously. They all belong to Chris Carter, and 1013, and Fox Broadcasting, and all those other lucky entities.
Spoilers: Anything up until Biogenesis is fair game.
Rating: R
Archive: Please email me if you wish to archive

WARNING: Minor character death. This story also contains mild language, minor references to rape, references to domestic violence, and a couple of rather graphic shooting scenes.

Summary: Mulder's life has changed irrevocably and now he must depend on Skinner to help him recover from a horrible injustice.

Chapter One

The verdict had come quickly, the jury deliberating for only three hours before returning with their decision.

A federal agent accused of murder. It was sure to grab headlines in any newspaper or television broadcast in the nation.

Reporters from all over the country packed the courtroom, their attention focused on one man who now stood motionless, fearing even to breathe as he awaited his fate. Today he would learn what became of him. At this moment his life was completely out of his hands.

He had held out hope until the end that their goal had simply been a good scare--it wouldn't have been the first time they had toyed with him in that manner--but now all hope was gone. The verdict was in, and as it was read in a toneless, dispassionate voice, he felt his world crashing down around him. He finally understood that they were all-powerful and he was nothing. To ever have believed otherwise had been so foolish.

His shoulders jumped as the gavel banged and life ended. From here on out there would be nothing for him but cold existence. There would be appeals, of course, but in his heart Mulder knew it was over. He was a dead man now, although the heartbeat might go on in his body for years to come.

It had happened simply, but not suddenly. Time had been dragging inexorably toward this moment for months, but he recognized now, as he faced the reality of it, that he had never truly believed it would arrive.


Guilty of murder.

He felt the world go black around him as his vision narrowed to a small tunnel, centering on the gavel. How could this have happened? How could life be over? It mattered to no one that he was an innocent man; the court would say anything 'They' commanded and 'They' had decreed him doomed. 'They' wouldn't kill him outright. Where was the fun in that? 'They' wanted him to suffer. What better way to cause that suffering than by sending him away in chains, disgraced before his family, friends and the world, never to be seen again?

A hand touched his arm and he turned, still in shock, to face its owner. Her eyes were brimming with the tears she refused to shed here in front of reporters and gawkers, but her face was a mask of misery that matched his own. Without a word she put her arms around his waist and lay her head upon his chest. Numbly he raised his hands to embrace her and felt resistance as they were drawn behind him.

Already? They wanted to take him already? But he hadn't had a chance...

Before he could even complete the thought his wrists were cuffed behind him, the sharp snap of the metal causing them both to jump. Mulder felt the cold knife of reality cut through his soul. It was his very last opportunity to hold her and he had lost it. Stumbling, resisting for a moment, he tried to catch his breath enough to speak to her.

"Scully..." he murmured as they took his arms and forcibly led him away, his feet unwillingly following the path that had been set by those determined to destroy him. His voice gained power as he was hustled away from her. "Scully!" he cried, lunging toward her. The two burly guards hauled him back and dragged him in the direction of the door as the courtroom erupted in a cacophony of sound. They reached the exit and he jerked away from them once more, turning for a final look at the woman who meant everything to him.

A single tear escaped her, breaking his heart with its downward path. Skinner put an arm around her shoulder, sensing she needed his comfort, and Mulder watched as he led her away.

His breathing rapid and shallow, the pain in his chest almost unbearable, Mulder took one more look at the courtroom. One more glimpse of freedom. The last person he caught sight of before the door closed behind him was the smoking man, leaning against the jury box, casually lighting up one of his infernal cigarettes. Their eyes locked for a moment and the older man smiled, giving a nod to Mulder. Mulder turned his head away and the world was taken from him.

Four Years Later

It was a funny thing about liberty, Mulder mused as he watched the scenery pass. It could never be taken for granted. One day you could have it, and the next it could be gone, yanked away from you without warning. For him it had happened with a knock on his door late at night, police demanding entrance with a warrant for his arrest. He would never forget the cold fear he had felt as they cuffed him and escorted him to the police car. Even with the knowledge of his own innocence, he was afraid. He'd had a bad feeling from the beginning, somehow sensing that this was something more than a simple mistake.

The next few weeks and months were a blur to him now, meaningless time spent locked in a cell at a county jail. Mulder knew that a desperate fight had gone on outside those walls for his freedom, but in his eight-foot-by-eight-foot world he was helpless to assist. Time had ticked deliberately by for him. It was like a heartbeat losing precious life every second, slower and slower and slower, until the day the guilty verdict had been read at his trial and the lifeforce drained completely away.

The next four years were ones he would spend the rest of his time on Earth trying to forget. Most of the days (one thousand seven hundred three of them, Mulder knew without a doubt) had passed in relative obscurity, too many spent in solitary confinement--partly for his own protection and partly because Mulder, being possessed of a less-than-obedient nature anyway, had discovered that when you have no hope of ever regaining your freedom, compliance to rules can sometimes mean nothing. He would work diligently, at times, to get himself thrown into solitary. It might have been oppressively lonely but it was safer for him there. A federal agent in a federal prison, as anyone would agree, was not a nice thing to be. Safety being assured, there were drawbacks. The days had dragged on even more slowly in isolation, and Mulder had discovered that although his life ended, his existence went miserably on. One twenty-four hour period blended unnoticeably with another, each melting inevitably into the next and the next until Mulder was certain that he had somehow been plunged from life into hell without benefit of death. Moment dragged relentlessly into moment, time that teased and tortured him with its perseverence. He had been certain that he could not survive in prison, and he was right. The only thing he had mistaken was his estimation of how long it could take a body to die once the soul had given up.

Some moments in the four years of monotony stood out with crystal clarity, and these were the ones Mulder knew he would try forever to shove from his consciousness. Flashes of them occasionally came unbidden to his mind in a series of still frames--memories of being restrained by another inmate while a guard beat him senseless, of being cornered in the exercise yard by two of the biggest convicted murderers he'd ever seen, being held struggling against the concrete wall of the prison while-- Forcibly he repressed that memory and a dozen others like it. There was no point in reliving his torture. It was over. He was a free man.

Mulder sneaked a glance over at Skinner sitting behind the wheel. The older man caught him looking and gave him a smile. Mulder stared in amazement. Skinner possessed a smile? He was sure in all the years he'd worked for the man he had never seen those lips when they were not either chewing him out or pressed thinly together, holding back words over his and Scully's latest escapade. Not that Skinner had ever been one to hold much back, he reflected, consciously and neatly side-stepping the trip his mind had attempted to take into Scullythoughts. He'd become quite adept at avoiding them in the last year-and-a-half (four hundred ninety-four days, his subconscious whispered faintly), and although he knew the current situation regarding Scully was something he couldn't elude, ditching those thoughts right now seemed an excellent idea. Time enough to cope with all that later. Right now he was busily reminding himself what it felt like to be free.

They were approaching an area of greater population now, shops and restaurants beginning to dot the landscape, and Mulder found himself seeking out faces--faces not hardened by the extreme lives most of his companions of the last few years had experienced. Mothers with young children fascinated him, and he stared out the window unashamedly, drinking in the sights and sounds of liberty.

"You hungry?" Skinner's voice startled him, and Mulder considered the question. He couldn't recall the last time he'd actually felt the pangs of hunger. Appetite had left him long ago never, he was sure, to return. He couldn't deny the thought of real food, outside food (freedom food), sounded nice if only for the idea of it, so he nodded slightly and watched as Skinner pulled the car into a nearby Burger King. When they reached the menu-speaker Skinner glanced over at Mulder, seeming to understand that asking Mulder to make a quick choice now, after all the years of having nearly every decision made for him, would be cruel. He ordered two burgers, fries and drinks and pulled the car ahead. Meanwhile Mulder leaned back in his seat and, closing his eyes, happily inhaled the air that had wafted into the car when the window was opened. City smells. Exhaust from the cars in the queue coupled with the mouth-watering aroma of frying food, and overlaying it all was the sound of children playing on the restaurant's playground. Mulder swallowed hard around the sudden lump in his throat and hoped Skinner didn't decide to start a conversation.

Instead, Skinner silently guided the car forward until they reached the window, where he paid for their food and handed Mulder a cold drink and a wonderful-smelling paper bag. He took his own drink and placed it in the car's cup-holder, then slowly drove around the parking lot and found a space in front of the playground where he parked the car and killed the engine. Mulder opened his eyes, which he had squeezed tightly shut while enjoying the aroma of the food, and saw Skinner looking at him quizzically. Embarrassed, he realized he was clutching the bag to his chest protectively. He held it out to Skinner, who extracted a burger and fries and handed it back to him. Mulder took out his own meal, lifted a french fry hesitantly to his mouth and found himself experiencing complete and utter bliss. There had never, Mulder decided, been anything to compare with burgers and fries purchased from a greasy fast-food joint.

Skinner made short work of his meal while Mulder consumed his more slowly. Once they were both finished the older man gathered up the garbage and took it to the can just beyond the car. When he returned he found Mulder staring at the children playing in front of them. There was a little girl of about four, with reddish-blond hair, and Skinner sighed inwardly. He knew thoughts of Scully had to be tormenting Mulder, and wondered how long it took a man to get over a woman loved with the passion and devotion that Mulder felt for his old partner.

"Mulder," he said, lightly tapping the man's arm, and Mulder turned to him with eyes that were more profoundly haunted than any Skinner had seen before. He thought he had experienced everything in 'Nam, but he'd been wrong. No sight had ever touched him as deeply as the naked hurt in those hazel eyes. A moment later it was gone as Mulder again consciously thrust thoughts of Scully aside. He couldn't face up to them now. He would deal with them later.

They drove in silence for another half-hour and Mulder began to grow sleepy. He settled back against the leather comfort of the headrest, realizing that for the first time in years he could drop off to sleep without worrying about being dragged from his cot and...hurt. He glanced over at Skinner and an unfamiliar feeling crept over him. It had been such a long time that it took him a minute to identify the sensation. Safe. He felt safe with Skinner.

A sudden cessation of motion jerked him awake and Mulder blinked heavily, looking around the parking garage, perplexed. Skinner was already in the process of withdrawing a large suitcase from the trunk when Mulder finally stepped uncertainly from the vehicle.

"Sir?" he began hesitantly, and Skinner stopped him.

"Mulder, you don't work for me anymore, you don't have to be so formal. Call me Walter." He slammed the trunk and motioned Mulder toward the elevators.

"Where are we, Sir--Walter?" Mulder asked, feeling the unfamiliar name roll off his lips with difficulty. It would take some getting used to.

"My building. You'll be staying with me for a little while, until you get your feet back under you and control of your money is transferred over to you."

The money. Mulder knew he'd inherited quite a lot of it when his mother died--Scully had told him the terms of his mother's will on one of her last visits to him. Confident in the belief that Skinner and Senator Matheson would someday be successful in their campaign to get him released from prison, Teena Mulder had left her son her entire not-inconsiderable estate. She had inherited money from her parents as well as from his father when he'd died, and had continued to maintain a modestly comfortable lifestyle, so the bulk of her money had been invested and had grown steadily over the years. It amounted, according to Scully, to a little over three-and-a-half million dollars. Mulder had been stunned. He'd had no idea his grandparents or parents were so wealthy. There had certainly been very little outward sign of it, but thinking back he could now remember an occasional indulgence or two that probably couldn't have been afforded on his father's income.

He'd been surprised to find she'd made no provision for Samantha. His jaw tightened as he realized that his mother had undoubtedly known things that would now never be revealed, and he wondered if this was an indication of her certainty that Sam would never be returned. He also wondered if his mother had discussed it with Scully.

Now that he was out of prison the money should, legally, be turned over to him, but Mulder figured that like everything else involving the legal system it would require time. It had taken several months from the time of the real murderer's confession for Skinner and Matheson to actually obtain Mulder's release. A new trial had been necessary and while it had progressed quickly once begun, getting it started had been a bitch. To Mulder it seemed as though the justice system was reluctant to let go of someone once they had them incarcerated, as if certain that if you weren't guilty of the crime that put you there, you were certainly guilty of some crime and were, therefore, right where you belonged.

Not that Mulder cared much about assuming control of his money, but he would need some means of supporting himself while he tried to decide what to do with the rest of his life. He couldn't go back to the good old FBI, that much was certain. Somehow Mulder doubted they would rehire him even though his innocence had been proven. And he wasn't so sure he would have returned in any event. It wouldn't be the same without Scully.

Nothing was the same without Scully.

He followed Skinner into the elevator and they rode it silently up to the seventeenth floor, stepping out into the deserted hallway. Skinner led him a short way down the corridor and unlocked a door, stepping back so Mulder could enter. Mulder was impressed to find that his old supervisor's apartment was large, roomy and actually quite neat and welcoming.

Seeing Mulder's surprise, Skinner informed him, "I have a housekeeper come in twice a week." Skinner hung his coat on the coat rack behind the door while Mulder stood uncertainly just inside the doorway.

He didn't belong here. He didn't belong anywhere. It upset him to think that Skinner had worked so hard to get him out, and now he had no place to go. Clearing his throat, he began, "Si--Walter, I don't..."

"What, Mulder?" Skinner asked, looking at him searchingly. He knew things would be extremely difficult for Mulder at first, and had never considered abandoning the younger man to his own devices. He'd personally invested enough into getting Mulder released that he now felt responsible for his former agent.

"I don't want to impose," Mulder said in a voice that was almost a whisper, eyes not rising above the carpet.

Skinner surveyed the broken man before him and wanted to kill those responsible for destroying the strong, proud person Mulder had been. He felt a bolt of pure, blinding fury run through him and took a deep, quiet breath to control it. Mulder didn't need his anger now, it would only frighten him. Mulder needed Skinner to be calm and casual, so calm and casual he would be, even if the urge to hunt down the cigarette smoking man and anyone else who had been behind Mulder's farce of a trial--and kill them slowly and methodically--burned in him.

"It's no imposition, Mulder. Actually, I welcome the company. I have an extra bedroom and bathroom, so it isn't as if you'll be crowding me." He picked up Mulder's suitcase from where he'd set it inside the front door. "You'll give me someone to watch football with on Sundays," he called over his shoulder as he started off down a hallway, and after a moment's hesitation Mulder followed, not knowing what else to do.

They entered the bedroom that would be his and Mulder stopped, regarding the room with a dazed expression. A few of his belongings were already here--books, personal items, even his computer. His feeling of awe increased when he saw how much consideration Skinner had given to making him comfortable here. It obviously hadn't been a spur-of-the-moment decision. Skinner had had plenty of time to change his mind or make other arrangements. Maybe that meant Skinner actually wanted him around. The idea of being wanted was a novel one.

Skinner threw the suitcase onto the bed and opened it. "I packed up some of your clothes from your storage unit this morning," he explained. "They may be a little large on you until you put some weight on, but they're better than that." He gestured toward the nondescript outfit the prison had given Mulder to wear home.

Mulder looked around the room, his gaze lingering on the large bed--was it really all for him?--and felt a lump forming in his throat. He fought to contain his bubbling emotions, and took a deep, shuddering breath. Skinner, seeming to understand that he wanted to be alone, nodded toward the next room, telling Mulder it was his bathroom, and left.

As soon as the door closed behind Skinner, Mulder gave up the fight and let the tears come coursing down his face. His feelings were overwhelming. Most prominent was an almost crushing sense of gratitude toward Skinner--an emotion Mulder was inconversant with after existing so long in the role of victim. Skinner had never given up the fight to get Mulder released, had never stopped believing in Mulder's innocence. It would have been so easy, over time, for Skinner to forget about Mulder rotting away there in that prison and simply go on about his life, but he hadn't. Skinner had continued his quest with the same dogged determination that Mulder himself had once possessed and, unlike himself, Skinner had been successful in his endeavor. Mulder stood here a free man due almost solely to his former supervisor. Senator Matheson had contributed influence, and the Gunmen had assisted with the grunt-work, but Skinner had been at the heart of the operation, Mulder knew.

Hand-in-hand with gratitude came intense sadness at the thought of all he had lost, things that could never be returned or retrieved. His job, his mother, the last four years of his life, and most of all...

Slowly he sank onto the bed, grabbing at a corner of the spread and shoving his face into it to catch the tears and stifle the sobs as he quickly lost control. All the fear, frustration and despair of the experience erupted in a rush and Mulder was helpless to stop the flood once it began. Like a child he cried for a long time; every time he thought he was beginning to calm down another wave of sobs would overtake him and he would fall helplessly into the grief. Finally, exhausted, he stretched out on the bed, relishing the roominess of it, and slept.

In the kitchen Skinner looked around for something he could feed Mulder for supper that night that wouldn't be too hard on him. He knew Mulder had a touchy stomach. Scully had always been concerned at her partner's lack of appetite, and he was afraid that after the burst of raw emotion he could hear coming from the bedroom, Mulder wouldn't be able to handle more than the lightest of meals this evening. Most people wouldn't have realized he was as close to the two of them as he'd been, but after Mulder had saved his butt on more than one occasion, with Scully offering her own brand of invaluable assistance, he had come to think of these two agents as his friends. Friends took care of friends, he had been raised to believe, and that was the reason he'd never given up on Mulder. That and the fact that he was absolutely convinced of the man's innocence. His face tightened as he heard the muffled sobs go on and on, and Skinner clenched his fists, resisting the urge to drive them into the wall.

A knock at the door woke him, and Mulder realized it was getting late. It was dark outside, and glancing at the clock he saw that it was already 6:30 p.m. Sitting up, he rubbed a hand across his face. His eyes felt gritty and swollen, his nose was stuffed up, and his head was pounding.

"C'mon in," he called, sniffing surreptitiously as Skinner stuck his head around the door.

"I'll have some supper ready in a few minutes," he told Mulder, ignoring the obvious evidence of his tears. "If you like you could have a shower and change clothes."

Mulder sat uncertainly on the bed, not quite knowing what to do next, and Skinner, seeing his confusion, flipped back the lid of the suitcase and grabbed a set of sweats and clean underwear for him. Mulder accepted the clothes gratefully and stood, slowly stretching his stiffened limbs.

"I'll leave you alone, then," Skinner told him, retreating from the room, and Mulder curiously opened the door to his bathroom. He was pleased to find that it was fairly spacious, but as he caught sight of the large tub he was assaulted with memories of the prison showers. His eyes squeezed tightly shut and for just one moment he was back there, feeling the familiar urgency to get clean and get out before someone found him there who might want to do him harm. Mulder hated the way the simple act of washing his body had turned into a daily ordeal in that place. With a long sigh he retreated from yet another unpleasant thought, and vowed never to take another shower as long as he lived. Leaning over, he set the stopper in the tub and began running water as hot as he could stand it. No more having to rush to get clean before the lukewarm water turned to cold, either. Never again.

Mulder made sure the door to the bathroom was locked, enjoying the luxury of being able to do so, and sank down gratefully into the tub. He trusted Skinner, of course, but old fears were hard to overcome and he knew he wouldn't relax unless the door was secured. Few things in life had ever felt so good, he decided as he submerged himself completely, letting the hot water wash the smells of the prison away. Eventually he reached for the bottle of shampoo that Skinner had thoughtfully provided, telling himself idly that a haircut needed to be the first thing on his agenda. The prison barber had been a kind-hearted soul but he couldn't cut hair worth a damn, and in addition to being more closely cropped than Mulder preferred it, his hair was uneven and ragged. He'd get it cut into a decent style soon, then let it grow as long as he liked. No more worrying about a bureau dress code.

Forty-five minutes later, when he emerged from his bedroom dressed in clean, if loose-fitting sweats, Mulder sniffed the air appreciatively. After his crying jag earlier he'd have sworn his appetite was gone for the evening, but Skinner had managed to coax it back with whatever he was preparing. Mulder entered the kitchen to find him standing at the stove stirring a pan of soup, wearing jeans and a comfortable shirt, and couldn't suppress a tiny smile. He had rarely seen Skinner so informal.

"Feeling better?" Skinner asked nonchalantly, inwardly rejoicing at the slight curve to Mulder's lips.

"A lot better." Another almost-smile. "I never suspected you had a domestic side." Mulder's voice was soft as he quickly lowered his eyes.

"Well, everyone has to kick back sometimes," Skinner said philosophically. "Have a seat, Mulder."

Mulder took a place at the small kitchen table and watched Skinner intently. Skinner poured half the soup into each of two bowls and put the empty pan in the sink. Mulder had already taken a peek at the sandwich on his plate and discovered it was bologna with cheese, thickly spread with mayonnaise. It looked excellent.

Skinner sat down and gestured to the spoon beside Mulder's bowl. "Dig in," he said, taking a bite of his own sandwich. "It's not fancy, but it's good."

"It smells great," Mulder said shyly, swirling the spoon into his soup and finally lifting it to his lips. He sipped it slowly, savoring the salty taste of it, and Skinner nodded in satisfaction.

After a few sips, during which Mulder kept his eyes on the tablecloth, he finally spoke. He felt like the worst kind of ungrateful bastard for not thanking Skinner profusely for saving his life, bringing him home and making him feel safe again, but words seemed completely inadequate. Taking a deep breath, he gave it his best shot.

"Sir, I--Walter--I don't know what to say. How to thank you..." he began, and Skinner shook his head slowly.

"You don't need to thank me, Mulder." The eyes behind the glasses were more gentle than Mulder had imagined they could ever be.

"But you've done so much, worked so hard to get me released..." Mulder protested. His fingers played uncomfortably with a corner of the tablecloth.

"I hate injustice, Mulder," Skinner cut in firmly. "It's the reason I went into law enforcement in the first place." When Mulder didn't answer, he went on, his voice becoming more hushed, and it occurred to Mulder that Skinner had his own set of painful memories. "Besides, it could have been me. I remember a time I could have gone to prison for a murder I didn't commit, and you saved my ass then. I consider this no more than I owe you."

Mulder's gaze shot up at those words. His expression was one of confusion. "You didn't owe me anything, you saved us more than once, Scully and me..." He stopped, unable to complete the sentence.

Skinner sighed inwardly. He knew this would be the hardest part. Sooner or later Mulder was going to have to face up to the fact that Scully was out of his reach now, and he only hoped the other man was strong enough to bear it. "Mulder, I don't know what happened between the two of you, why you made her stop coming to see you, but I do know that after you were sent away she was...decimated. She did love you, Mulder, no matter what you may think now."

Mulder fought valiantly to keep the tears from falling but once again lost the battle. He swiped angrily at them as they streamed down his cheeks unchecked. Finally he buried his face in his hands and gave in to the sobs, hating the fact that he couldn't stop them. Skinner rose and came around to put his hands reassuringly on Mulder's shoulders and found himself embracing his old friend in a comforting hug instead. Skinner smiled wryly at himself sitting in his kitchen holding another man while the other man sobbed his heart out. It was a good thing he lived too high up for people to peer in his windows. This would completely ruin his reputation as a hardened ex-marine.

He had never encountered such a broken spirit as the one before him, and for a moment wondered if Mulder could ever be put back together. Angrily he shook off that thought. Mulder was an incredibly strong person and he had overcome obstacle after obstacle in his lifetime. Surely he would get past this last, most difficult hurdle without falling apart.

"How am I--" Mulder gulped around his hiccuping sobs, "--supposed to get by without her? I depended--on her--so much--"

"I don't know," Skinner said, at a loss for words, "but you will. Somewhere inside you is the strength that has always sustained you through tough times. You're a survivor, Mulder."

"But what happens--when a survivor--no longer wants to survive?" Mulder asked, finally beginning to regain some control. He wiped his face with the backs of his hands and stared at the floor, waiting for the answer.

Skinner had none.

He had slept so much that day, first in the car and later after his crying bout in the bedroom, that he found himself wide awake when bedtime arrived. After lying there for an hour, decadently enjoying the soft comfort of the mattress and the smell of clean linen, Mulder finally sat up and reached over to switch on the bedside lamp. He wandered across to the bookcase but found nothing that caught his attention. Smiling grimly, he perused the titles of the books he had owned. Before. Mulder shook his head in amused disgust at some of the things that had interested him then. It all seemed so unimportant now.

Finally turning his back on the books, he made his way to the desk and sat down in front of his computer. He wondered idly what kind of shape it was in after all these years as he flipped the switch, and was impressed when it began powering up. After a few minutes the screen lightened and Mulder froze. The picture that had been his desktop wallpaper for the last couple of months before his arrest was as clear as the day it had been taken.

Her mother had been the photographer, he remembered as he closed his eyes and began to take deep, controlled breaths through his nose. The three of them had gone out for Sunday brunch to celebrate Scully's birthday, and he had given her the new camera as a gift. Mrs. Scully told them she wanted to be the one to christen it, and had ordered them to stand close together and smile. Mulder remembered how he had slid his arm around Scully's waist at the last second before the picture was snapped, and how Mrs. Scully had winked conspiratorially at him just before pressing the button that had immortalized the moment. He'd taken his copy of the picture to Frohike, who had scanned it, enhanced it, and e-mailed it to him. Mulder had immediately installed it so it was the first thing he saw when he fired up his computer. He'd never told Scully.

Quickly trying to remember how it was done, Mulder went into the display controls and changed them so his desktop now gave him a stark, white background. He couldn't deal with this memory just yet. On the other hand, neither could he bring himself to delete the picture.

Mulder only vaguely remembered the files he'd had on his hard drive, so he went browsing through them with the intention of clearing out old junk and refamiliarizing himself with things. Suddenly he sat back and inhaled sharply.

He had forgotten all about his journal.

He'd kept it occasionally, when a case was particularly interesting or in some way disturbing. Other moments in his day-to-day life had inspired infrequent entries as well, and as he stared at the screen, Mulder was transported back years to a memory he wished he could delete from his mind as easily as he could delete the journal files.

He was lying in a hospital bed, having been fished out of the water after almost drowning, and the sudden urge to tell Scully how he felt about her had been overpowering. It probably had something to do with the drugs they had been giving him, he told himself cynically, but the sentiment certainly wasn't drug-induced. Even as the words left his lips he knew they shouldn't. "I love you," he'd said, and her response had been so predictably Scully-ish that he had smiled when she strode out of his room, knowing that while her words might dismiss his, her heart would not. She loved him as well. He knew it. It simply had to be true, after all they had shared and seen and done together. The level of devotion they'd had to one another went far beyond normal friendship, it was simply undeniable. When he had gone to Antarctica to fetch her after she'd been kidnapped, when she had rescued him from the waters of the Bermuda Triangle, it hadn't been because they were good friends, and it hadn't been out of professional respect. They had done it because, in saving the other, they were each saving themselves. With a razor-sharp pang Mulder realized that right up until the very end he'd clung to the hope that he and Scully would one day be a real couple.

He wanted badly to open the journal files and read, to try and touch his former life in some way. Maybe he could recapture a few moments of the joy he had known on rare occasions. They had been few and far between, but there had been moments of joy in that life, most of them revolving around her. He gave it serious consideration, almost succumbing to the urge, but deep inside he knew it was a bad idea. Never again would he be Special Agent Fox Mulder of the FBI. Never again would he investigate X-files with Dana Scully at his side. Those days were gone forever, stolen from him, irretrievable. All those days and all those cases and all the times shared with Scully seemed like a dream to him now, as if he had never truly lived them.

His throat constricted painfully as his mind wandered back to the day she had entered his life. She had walked into his domain with a look of sheer wonder on her face. Had it been wonder at the work in which he was engaged or wonder at his level of sanity? Even now he wasn't sure. Scully had never really believed in all the things they'd seen, her practical mind simply wouldn't let her. She had been a true partner though, sticking by him and supporting him even when she didn't understand what was going on. They had been so young then, so innocent, the knowledge they possessed barely scratching the surface of the depths to which it now extended. The bad guys had been just that--bad guys. Not evil. Thinking back, Mulder could pinpoint the exact moment when they had become evil in his mind. It was the moment in which he had realized that 'They' had taken Scully from him, that it hadn't just been the workings of Duane Barry's dementia. At that very second his innocence had ceased to exist.

His eyes played over the journal entries for 1998. He knew exactly which one contained his thoughts after his revelation to Scully. He'd been elated, in a way, that he had finally worked up the courage to tell her, and at the same time disappointed that she had never mentioned it again. Perhaps she hadn't believed him, maybe it had been too much to hope for. Scully had loved him, damn it, he knew it. Even when he'd thrown her out of his life, he had felt her love surrounding him for a long time afterwards. But then Skinner had arrived one day to break the awful news to him...

He let the cursor wander to the journal icon, feeling sickness in the pit of his stomach, and wondered if he would really do this to himself. Reading it now would be like losing her all over again. Shaking his head resolutely, he backed out of the folder containing that entry. Positioning the cursor over the 'Journal' folder, he clicked the mouse button. The record of his previous existence was gone forever. Just like the life it represented. Just like Scully.

In the end they hadn't been able to save each other after all.

Mulder stared for a moment at the blank spot that had represented all the good things in his life. All contained in six brief--too brief--years. God, such a tiny percentage of his life had actually been happy. It was her. She was the reason. The only relationship in his entire adult life to mean anything to him had been with her. Memories rushed unbidden through his head. Memories of the fights, the cases, the rare smiles...the pain was almost unbearable.

Regret hit him without warning.

"Oh God, Scully, what did I do?" He backed hastily away from the computer, almost falling in his rush to distance himself from the monitor. He focused on the screen, eyes blurry with more tears. Gone. His entire life gone with the click of a mouse. 'Oh shit!' he thought. 'Oh God NO!'

The cry of anguish from Mulder's room brought Skinner up from his bed with a start. He raced down the hall, all thoughts of sparing Mulder further embarrassment deserting him at the desperation he heard. Flinging open the bedroom door, his eyes searched for the cause of Mulder's pain, but as far as he could see, there was nothing. No blood, no explosion, nothing, just Mulder frantically pounding on his computer.

"Mulder, what is it? What happened?" Nothing. Not even a sign that Mulder knew he was in the room. He advanced toward Mulder, his eyes focused on the other man. What was he saying? It didn't seem to make any sense...

"Ohgodno! I didn't mean it! Shit! Give it back!" Mulder raised his arm in preparation for another swing at the hapless computer, but Skinner caught him roughly and spun him around in the chair.

"Mulder, talk to me! What the hell is wrong?"

Mulder just stared at him, his mouth opening and closing but no sound emerging. Putting his hands firmly on Mulder's shoulders, Skinner caught his gaze and held it, trying to bring him back. "Calm down. Take a deep breath. Another. Again." Mulder's eyes began to focus as he obeyed, and Skinner breathed a sigh of relief. When he felt Mulder was calm enough he asked again, "What happened?"

"I...I...deleted it. All of it! I didn't mean to and now it's all gone...everything..."

Skinner threw a confused glance at the computer, then focused once more on Mulder. "It's not gone, Mulder, it's just in the recycle bin. We can get it back."

Mulder shook his head. "No, I don't keep anything in the bin, I have it set to delete immediately."

"Well hang on. Don't panic again. You of all people should know nothing ever really disappears." He crossed to the phone and began rapidly punching in numbers. After a brief pause, he said, "Hi, it's me. I need you to come over here right away. Yeah, fine, just having some trouble with his computer."

Twenty minutes later he was opening the door to let a sleepy-looking Byers into his apartment. The Gunmen had been an invaluable source of support to him while Mulder was imprisoned, both moral and technical. They had alternated weekends with Skinner so Mulder had visitors every Saturday, comparing notes with him and helping out whenever possible. In the process, they had become Skinner's friends, as well. Not the kind of friends a person could hang out with--Skinner was a longer who "hung out" with no one, and he preferred it that way. No, the guys had become the type of friends he knew he could call on in a crisis. The kind who would stop at nothing to help. The best kind of friends.

"Hey Mulder, what's up?" was all Byers said when he entered the bedroom.

Mulder heaved a resigned sigh and explained what he had done. Byers listened intently.

"So you didn't shut it off?"

"No." Mulder buried his head in his hands. "I can't believe I did such a stupid thing."

"Ah, don't worry about it," Byers told him lightly. "It happens to everyone." He motioned Mulder away from the computer and sat down, settling himself comfortably in the chair. Quickly exiting Windows and entering DOS, the man typed furiously. He made some 'uh-huh, hmmm' sounds occasionally, but apart from those the only sound in the room was the tapping of the keyboard.

"Got it," he announced a few minutes later. "Which ones do you need restored?"

"You found them?" Mulder asked eagerly, leaning toward the computer. "I don't remember the exact names, but they all started with 'j' and four numbers and ended with '.txt'."

Byers' fingers again flew across the keyboard and a few minutes later all the files were restored.

"Done," he smiled, standing up and waving Mulder into the chair.

Mulder sat and immediately began opening files, assuring himself that they were all indeed there. "Thanks," he tossed over his shoulder as Skinner and Byers silently left.

"How's he doing?" Byers asked when they reached the living room. "We thought it best not to overwhelm him the first day."

Skinner sighed again. "Better than expected, but not as well as I'd hoped. I'm trying not to smother him."

"Scully?" Byers asked curiously, and Skinner shook his head warningly.

"Not a good topic of conversation right now."

"She hasn't called?"

"No, and I doubt she will. And I wouldn't let her speak to him even if she did. He's not ready for that."

Yawning hugely, Byers nodded agreement and took his leave. Skinner glanced once again down the hall toward the spare bedroom, then resolutely headed for his own bed, leaving Mulder to his privacy.

Mulder had been free for a week before Skinner finally got up the nerve to broach the subject on his mind. He dreaded the look in Mulder's eye when it was mentioned; he was afraid it would be the same expression he wore when Scully came up in conversation. That was a look Skinner had come to fear, for he knew it meant Mulder would lose his appetite and shut himself in his bedroom for hours. With a sigh, mentally crossing his fingers, Skinner finally spoke as they were finishing breakfast on Saturday morning. There were difficult things to be faced now that Mulder was free again--this would be one of the worst.

"Mulder, there's something I've been thinking about."

Mulder's dark head raised from the plate where he was shoving scrambled eggs around in pretense of eating them. He put down his fork, his eyebrow rising inquisitively at Skinner.

It had been a bad night, plagued with nightmares, and Skinner wondered how many of them were about prison and how many involved other memories that tortured the younger man. He'd heard the cries coming from the guest room and had wavered at first, uncertain whether he should try to comfort Mulder or leave him to work it out alone. His answer came when he stood outside the other man's bedroom door and heard the muffled sobs, not quite stifled by the pillow. Skinner had turned and noiselessly gone back to his own room, leaving Mulder with his dignity intact. There was nothing else he could do.

"You haven't been to visit your mother's grave," Skinner said quietly. "Would you like me to take you there today?"

Mulder's face paled and he began to nervously tear small pieces from a slice of toast, dropping them on his plate beside the uneaten eggs. Staring down at the mess he was making of his breakfast, Mulder nodded, not trusting himself to speak. He'd wanted to go to his mother as soon as he'd been released, but Skinner had already done so much for him that he didn't like to mention it. He didn't have a car of his own any longer, and he hadn't felt comfortable asking to borrow Skinner's. Besides, Mulder wasn't sure, after all these years, if he still remembered how to drive one, although he supposed it was something you never completely forgot.

The idea of getting behind the wheel and fighting city traffic frightened him. The idea of standing at his mother's graveside and finally forcing himself to confront the fact of her death terrified him beyond belief. So far he had managed to avoid that thought, along with all the other really painful ones, and convince his subconscious that she was alive and well. It wasn't as though he had seen her or talked to her often before-- But still, he knew she was always available should he need her. Now...

He swallowed past the lump in his throat, telling himself angrily that he would not let the tears start again. "I'd like that, Sir." He still couldn't get used to the idea of calling his former boss by his first name, and addressing him verbally as 'Skinner' was completely out of the question.

Skinner sighed inwardly at the 'Sir', wondering if he would ever get Mulder to feel comfortable with him. He supposed it was tough, living in the same house with the man you used to consider one of the major authority figures in your life, but he hoped it would become easier as time passed.

"We can leave as soon as we've finished here, then," Skinner told him, going back to his own meal. "It's not far. We buried her nearby. I thought you'd prefer it that way."

Mulder smiled a little. It amazed him, the way Skinner had never faltered in his determination to exonerate him, or his belief that he would one day be successful. Mulder had long since lost hope of ever regaining his freedom when Skinner had arrived one day with the incredible news that the real killer had been found. Apparently the guy had killed again--for his own reasons this time--and when his house was searched evidence was found linking him to the crime for which Mulder was imprisoned. Since they had him dead-to-rights on the current murder, the D.A., influenced both by a powerful Senator and an Assistant Director of the FBI, had convinced the man that confession was good for the soul--or in this case, his health. If he confessed to the other murder, thereby clearing Mulder, they assured him he would escape the death penalty. Knowing that conviction and probable execution were almost certain in this case, the suspect's attorney had advised him to take the deal and the wheels had been set in motion to free Mulder.

Mulder didn't know any more details than that. He didn't want to know. Any time Skinner tried to raise the topic with him, he quickly changed the subject. Some things, Mulder felt, did not bear discussion. He only knew that now he was a free man and he would die before he would ever be locked up again.


As the car approached the cemetery Mulder felt the coldness in his body increase little by little, until finally he was completely numb. His mind twisted desperately to escape what he was about to force it to accept. In his hands he clutched a bouquet of pink roses--they had been his mother's favorite. The small amount of conversation he and Skinner shared during the ride had ceased some miles back, and now that familiar tunnel vision was creeping up on him again. His breathing grew heavier, and he knew it would take him the rest of the day to recover from this nightmare.

"She's over there," Skinner said, gesturing to a large headstone nearby. "It looks like S--someone's been here recently." He caught himself just before uttering Scully's name. The last thing Mulder needed right now was to be reminded of the love he had lost. It occurred to Skinner that he was the last link Mulder had to his old life. Sadly he wondered how long it would be before Mulder felt the need to sever ties with him in order to eliminate as many memories as possible. Somehow it seemed inevitable. He'd always liked the man, but this past week had made him realize how much he'd missed Mulder over the past four years. Missed the debates they had always had in his office over cases, missed the younger man's passion and fiery intensity. Mulder was one of the strongest personalities Skinner had ever known--at least he used to be. Watching him now as he made his way across the cemetery toward his mother's grave, Skinner thought he just looked tired. Tired and sad. There wasn't a hint of the old Mulder in him today, although Skinner had seen traces of him during his week of freedom. He was convinced the Mulder he had known was still inside somewhere, and was determined to help him emerge. On the other hand, Mulder without Scully seemed somehow...'incomplete' was too trite a word to describe what Mulder was. Fragmented. That was it. Mulder was fragmented. Torn to pieces.

Mulder approached the headstone with trepidation. He knew how damn-near impossible this would be, but he also knew it was the right thing to do, something he needed to do--something he *must* do. There was a pot of white carnations sitting beside her stone, and Mulder wondered for a moment who had brought them. Surely not--?

Dodging yet another thought, he knelt beside the stone, tracing the letters carefully with his fingertip. Teena Mulder. 'Beloved mother' it read, and he mused on the words. Yes, he had loved her, as any son loves his mother. Had wanted to believe she loved him, had craved her attention and affection. If only she had been there to support him, the awful experiences of the past ten years might have been easier to endure, but she simply hadn't been that kind of mother. She had always seemed somewhat distant, even more so after Sam's disappearance. If things had been different, he might not be in the position he was in now. He might not have spent so many years searching for an elusive truth he had never found, for the sister he knew now he would never recover--he might never have lost the last four years.

Might not have lost Scully.

"Mom," he whispered softly, almost afraid to speak aloud but needing to talk to her. "I miss you. I wish things...could have been different between us. I wish--I could have been here for you, Mom. I wish--" his voice wavered and he had to stop before he broke down. Lowering himself from his crouch to sit on the ground, he pulled his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them. Mulder stared off into the distance as he hugged himself protectively, and thought of the times in his life that his mother's love for him had been evident. There hadn't been many, but he now clung desperately to the few he could recall. He needed to dwell on the good things about her. He could almost hear her voice calling to him as he let the memories wash over him, tangible things that teased and tormented him.

He sat that way for a long time, eyes closing occasionally at some remembered pain, until he gradually came back to the present and guiltily thought of Skinner, patience personified, waiting for him. Glancing over at the car he saw that Skinner had taken out a book and was quietly reading to himself. Mulder still marveled at all his former boss had done for him. He'd never been sure whether or not Skinner even liked him before, but was beginning to get the impression that he actually did. It gave him a bit of a warm feeling inside, gratefully welcomed after the coldness of the morning.

Mulder picked himself up from the ground and brushed off the seat of his jeans. It was time to say goodbye. Sadly he realized he had barely known her--he missed her with an aching loneliness he could never have anticipated. As he walked toward the car he absently thought that he needed to buy himself some new clothes--these were still painfully large.

Skinner looked up to see him coming and wordlessly put the book away. He took note of Mulder's dampened eyes but saw that his face was unmarked by tears. Silently Skinner said a prayer of thanks--he'd been afraid this visit might be too much for Mulder but apparently the man was as strong as he'd suspected. In fact, it may have been just what Mulder needed to start living again, he thought as he pointed the car toward home.

"Do you know who left those flowers on her grave?" Mulder asked suddenly, and Skinner considered carefully before he answered.

"No," he lied, keeping his face carefully neutral. He wasn't about to mention Scully's name to Mulder. Not today. Not even Mulder was that strong. A man could only take so much pain. His jaw tightened as he endeavored to keep his sudden rush of emotion hidden from the man at his side.

Damn them anyway, he thought with quiet fury. Damn them all to a fiery hell. Mulder hadn't deserved this. Scully hadn't deserved it. They could have been so good together if they'd only been given the chance.

Mulder had adored Scully for years, that much had been obvious; Mulder wore his emotions on his sleeve most of the time. Skinner hadn't been certain she returned those feelings until Mulder's trial. Her devotion to her partner during that time and her utter devastation after Mulder was taken away from her in chains lay to rest any doubts he may have had in that regard. Scully adored Mulder as well.

That was what made it so hard to understand why she'd done what she had done.

Chapter Two

Dana Scully Morrow sat at the desk in her den long after midnight. The house was still now, her husband and step-daughter asleep, and she had crept from her bed after hours of tossing and turning, unable to find rest. It was time. Tomorrow she had to call the attorney handling Mulder's trust fund and set up a meeting between the three of them to transfer control of the money to its rightful owner. After that meeting, her last tie with Mulder would be severed.

The picture in her hand was well worn, and Dana kept it well hidden. It had a special place in her third desk drawer, stuck carefully inside a dictionary at the beginning of the 'M' words. 'M' for Mulder. It was a photograph of the two of them together that her mother had taken. Mulder had playfully eased his arm around her waist just as it was being snapped. She knew Mulder had a copy on his computer--Frohike had spilled the beans to her about that ages ago. She also knew she wasn't supposed to know about it. She smiled sadly, remembering the old times. Leaning back in the chair, her eyes took on a faraway look as her mind traced the path of their partnership, which had deepened into friendship, which had eventually grown into love. Had they been a normal couple they would have undoubtedly married and produced several children by now, but things in Mulder's orbit were never normal. She had long since learned that sacrifice of the commonplace was the price to be paid if he was part of your life. She often thought that she could retire now and just write about their experiences in the brief--relatively brief--time they had spent together, and live off the royalties. Surely more odd and unexplained things had been encountered by the two of them than any other seven people combined.

She thought of the times they'd trusted only themselves, never certain who was on their side but always having the security of absolute faith in one another. It had sustained them when nothing else would have--the knowledge that when the entire world was turned topsy-turvy there was still this one constant they could depend on. Dana knew she would have never had the strength or courage to fight her cancer had it not been for Mulder's ever-present support and determination to do something, anything he could, to help. In the end he had been the one, she still believed deep in her heart, who had saved her life. Certainly he would never have survived the first year of prison life if he hadn't had her visits to look forward to and her love to rely on. At least he'd had it until...

With determination she replaced the picture and, locking the desk drawer against prying eyes, left the room.

The old times were gone now.

She wandered into the kitchen, still not sleepy, and made herself a cup of cocoa. As she sat at the table sipping the warm liquid, she caught sight of her reflection in the glass patio door and stared. Who was that woman? She looked so old, somehow, and saddened. With a wry shake of her head, Dana realized that she *was* older and sadder than she had been a few years ago. Since Mulder had been sent away her interest in life had slowly diminished, being replaced by an empty void that she had tried in every way to fill. She'd been only partially successful. Her relationship with her mother had been somewhat chilled by her marriage to Zachary Morrow, but Margaret Scully had eventually warmed up, helped largely by the addition of a new granddaughter. Zach's little girl was a beauty and a sweetheart, and Maggie had grown to love her as quickly as Dana. Over time, they had resumed their normal mother-daughter connection, but each knew the other had not changed in their thinking. Maggie Scully had badly wanted Fox Mulder as a son-in-law, and she had never fully accepted Zachary. Dana had recognized that she never would, and once that course had been silently agreed upon it had never again been mentioned. Dana knew how lucky she was to have a mother who loved and stood by her, even when she did things that were disappointing, and disconsolately wondered if things might have been different for Mulder had his mother been equally supportive.

She'd always had rather unforgiving thoughts toward Mrs. Mulder; her contact with the woman had been extremely limited and the times when any mother should be at her son's side--times when Mulder had been ill or injured--she had been conspicuously absent. She knew the relationship between her partner and his remaining parent had been strained, at best, and it wasn't a topic of conversation either of them cared to pursue. Largely due to this perception, Dana had been shocked and surprised when, not long after Mulder's conviction, Teena Mulder had arrived for a visit.

"I came to talk with you about a very serious matter, Miss Scully," she had said after Scully served her coffee in the kitchen of her small apartment.

Scully had leaned back in surprise, one eyebrow raised, and waited. She couldn't imagine what Mrs. Mulder could want to discuss with her that would possibly classify as 'serious'.

"I know that Mr. Skinner, aided in some small way by you, I believe, is attempting to prove my son innocent of this ridiculous charge," the woman had gone on, and Scully nodded, wondering if the constant love and support she provided Mulder counted as her 'small' contribution.

"I have every confidence that he will one day be successful, but I'm also realistic. It could be years before Fox is returned to us, and once he comes home, he's not going to be able to support himself--at least not at first."

"Mrs. Mulder, I don't understand--"

"Then let me explain it to you, young lady," Teena had interrupted her severely. "I'm not going to live forever. I hope to still be alive--in fact I plan to be alive--when Fox is released, but in the event I'm not..."

"You want me to take care of Mulder?" Scully had asked, confused.

Mrs. Mulder sighed lightly. "I've made a will. Something I never did before." Her shoulders gave a tiny, delicate shrug. "I always thought Fox would take care of all the details. He was such a help when his father died. Now it appears he may not be available."

Scully shifted uncomfortably, wondering if Mrs. Mulder was about to ask her to handle the funeral arrangements in the event of the elderly woman's death.

"I have, of course, left everything to him, as he is my only living relative," she continued. Her eyes had been downcast, and Scully knew thoughts of Samantha had been running through both their minds. She almost opened her mouth to question, then thought better and kept it closed.

"I know you love my son," Teena said suddenly, her eyes meeting Scully's with a piercing blue gaze that had looked into her soul. "I know you can be relied upon to never hurt him. That's why I would like to make you trustee over the inheritance, should I die before Fox is released."

Scully felt as if the breath had been driven out of her stunned body. She had certainly never expected Mrs. Mulder to place her in a position of responsibility such as this--she hadn't even thought the woman liked her.

"As I said, I hope to live to see that day," Mrs. Mulder went on, ignoring Scully's astonishment, "but in the event I don't, I've come to ask your permission to place this burden on you, as my son's closest and most trusted friend."

Scully swallowed hard around the sudden lump in her throat. She couldn't decide if it was caused by the emotional moment or by Mrs. Mulder's acceptance that, in her son's case, justice might never be served. Whatever their differences, it was undeniable that both women desperately believed in Mulder's innocence and wanted him returned to the free world.

"It's no burden," she said when she found her voice. She felt light-headed, detached as if in a dream. "I'd be happy to help you and Mulder in any way possible."

Mrs. Mulder had given her an aloof smile and squeezed her hand in thanks. "My attorney will be contacting you," she'd said, rising to go, stiff formality returned now that the moment was over. She had shown herself out, leaving Scully to sort through this latest circumstance.

Once she was alone, Dana had stared blankly into her coffee for a long time, considering the Mulder family and the new alliance she now had with them. She wondered exactly how much control Mrs. Mulder was trusting her with (very little, it turned out later; most of the details were handled by the attorneys but Scully was required for occasional signatures) and how much money was involved. Mrs. Mulder had apparently made no provision for Samantha's return, and Scully found that odd. Perhaps she had long since accepted the fact that her daughter was dead, or perhaps she knew if Samantha ever reappeared her doting older brother would see to it she was provided for. Or, Scully mused, perhaps the woman knew that Sam was simply never going to be returned by those who had taken her.

It hadn't been until Teena Mulder's death a year later that Scully had learned the extent of Mulder's inheritance, and the additional, rather surprising terms of the woman's will. The money was to go in trust, handled mostly by Mrs. Mulder's attorney and nominally by Scully, until such time as Fox was released from prison, when he would be given full control of it. On the occasion that he should die in prison, having never been released to assume his fortune, the entire estate--all three point five million dollars of it--was to fall to Dana Katherine Scully.

Shaking herself back to the present, Dana buried her weary head in her hands. Zachary had wanted the money, she could see it in his eyes at times when he thought she wasn't looking. She'd never told him about such a private matter, of course, being disinclined to discuss such things, but she found out after their marriage that her brother Bill had related to his friend the entire story. She'd been furious when she discovered it, but by then the damage had been done. She and Zach had one of their worst arguments ever over it, and for days they had avoided one another. Finally Dana had decided to mend fences with him, if only for her step-daughter's sake. Things had never been quite the same between herself and her husband, but then things had never been as good as they should have been. She supposed that was what you got when you married a man you didn't love for all the wrong reasons.

She had been faithful in her visits to Mulder, unfailingly appearing each and every Saturday bringing news and gossip and all the good cheer she could possibly muster. Mulder had seemed happy to see her, grateful for any contact with the outside world and especially for her company. She wanted desperately to be able to touch him, take his hand, feel contact with him, but their visits were conducted with a wall of glass between them, and at times she thought it symbolic of their entire relationship. They could see one another, talk to each other, share jokes, give support, but anytime they reached out for more there was always a barrier in the way. Sometimes it had been one of their own creation, and at times, as now, it was one that had been forced upon them, but the obstacle was equally effective no matter its origin.

Eventually she had felt Mulder begin to distance himself from her, and she had become frightened. She didn't think she could stand to lose any more of him, she was already so incredibly lonely without him. She'd tried to continue as a field agent after he'd been sent away, but eventually had requested reassignment back at Quantico, where she was now teaching. Sometimes she felt she'd never left and that the entire partnership with Mulder had been nothing but an illusion. Each time she caught him withdrawing she died a little more inside. She knew the fragile relationship they had was being steadily eroded but was frightened at her helplessness to stop the deterioration. Her heart grew more desolate with each visit until finally she began dread, rather than anticipate them.

On occasion she would find him ill, or bruised, and wondered how much he was concealing from her. She knew fights were common in prison, and prayed that Mulder would lie low, keeping out of as much trouble as possible--but that had never been Mulder's way. She soon came to understand that he was a common target for anyone looking for a victim. He was smaller than many of the inmates--loss of appetite and will combined served to diminish his physical stature--and the knowledge that he had been a federal agent fueled their hatred toward him. If she mentioned it Mulder would hastily change the subject, and it became clear to her that he didn't want to discuss the situation. Finally she bowed to his wishes, although it broke her heart to see the bruises and marks on his body.

His retreat from her became more and more pronounced, however, until she could no longer ignore it, and one Saturday, sixteen months into his sentence, found herself broaching the subject.

"Mulder, tell me what's wrong." Her voice had been carefully controlled, although she wanted to cry at the sight of him. There had been another fight, and not only was his face a mess but he was holding one arm protectively close to his body. At first she couldn't decide whether it was the arm troubling him or if he was trying to protect his chest, but it soon became obvious that his rib area was very sore, and she wondered if the prison doctor had examined him. Probably not, she told herself. Mulder wouldn't have asked for medical attention and there was nobody here to force him to take care of himself as she had always done.

He snorted in disgust. "Nothing's wrong, Scully," he'd growled. "Everything's peachy. I get three tasty meals a day, a comfortable bed to sleep in, and I don't have to work. What more could a guy ask?"

She bit back the angry retort on the tip of her tongue. Mulder had lashed out at her before when he was angry at circumstances. She hadn't let it bother her then and she wouldn't today.

"I mean," she explained carefully, "why are you pulling away from me? Lately you hardly talk to me when I visit, and two weeks ago you wouldn't even see me!"

"I wasn't feeling well," he muttered, not meeting her eyes.

She paused a minute. "Okay," she answered finally. "You weren't feeling well. I'll accept that. What I can't accept is the way you've withdrawn from me." Frustration colored her voice. "What's changed, Mulder? I feel as if I don't even know you any longer."

"Maybe you don't," he replied fiercely, raising his eyes to bore into hers through the glass. "You don't have a clue, Scully, you have no idea what it's like in here! You come each week for your mercy visit and then you leave this place to go back to your nice, safe, comfortable life, and I'm left to deal with another week in hell!"

His words hit her like a hammer. She'd never realized he thought of her visits to him as "mercy". "It isn't like that and you know it, Mulder!" she responded hotly. "I come to see you because I want to, not because I have to. I care about you."

"I never asked you to." His voice had grown cold and she flinched as if he'd slapped her.

After a moment of silence she tried again. "You know we're doing everything we can to get you out of here," she reminded him desperately. "It just takes time--"

"Too much time." He gave a short bark of mirthless laughter. "On the other hand, time is all I have now, isn't it?"

She leaned toward him and her soul cried when he instinctively drew back. "You have me, Mulder," she'd said softly. "You'll always have me."

"No, Scully, I'll never have you," he said cuttingly. "Not you or anyone else. And you know what? That's just fine. I don't need anyone, and I don't need your pity." He turned away from her, running his hands through his close-cropped hair in agitation, thus missing her look of utter betrayal.

"Stop worrying about me, Scully," he said when he caught sight of the tears she was holding back. He took an angry, perverse delight in them. He had almost accomplished his goal today. One more push and he would be victorious. "Stop waiting for me. Stop coming to visit me." Taking a long, deep breath, as if his next words required all the strength he could muster, he added, "I don't want to see you again. Forget you ever knew me."

Blindly Scully groped behind her for the chair, feeling her knees begin to buckle. She knew Mulder so well, knew exactly what he was doing right now. She wasn't sure of the technical name for this tactic, but she recognized it for what it was. He felt guilty because of her devotion and he was trying to shut her out, run her off, set her free. From his own egocentric viewpoint, Mulder believed that if he got rid of her he would somehow be doing her a favor. She wondered with a moment of absolute fury if he was doing it for her benefit or simply to assuage his own sense of guilt.

"Mulder--" her voice was nothing but a whisper, barely discernible in the room.

"No," he told her firmly, that old Mulder mask of indifference already in place. "It's over. Whatever we may have had is gone. We never had a chance."

At that she found her voice, anger giving her strength. "I won't let you do this," she said, her voice deepening with emotion. "I won't let you cut me out of your life this way because of some misguided sense of self-pity or guilt. You can't get rid of me that easily."

He gave her a smile that sliced her to ribbons with its sharpness. "But I can, Scully. It's the very last thing I have control over."

He turned to the guard, who was studiously ignoring their conversation, and Scully wondered in the back of her mind how many scenes like this one he had seen played out over the years. "Take me back," Mulder commanded, and the guard reached to unlock the door.

"No. Wait!" Scully said, pressing her hand to the clear barrier as he began to walk away from her.

He stopped momentarily, but refused to face her. "It's over, Scully," he said to the wall. "Go make a life for yourself. I can't be there for you."

"Mulder, you don't have to be anything for me," she said pleadingly. "I don't expect that from you. I already have a life, and right now part of it is here with you."

"I don't want you coming here anymore," he had repeated grimly. His teeth had been clenched tightly and she knew, somewhere beneath her own pain, how much those words had cost him. "I don't want to see you again."

"Mulder, don't do this to me. Don't tell me how to live my life," she had commanded, feeling herself trembling with fear and fury. The icy feeling in the pit of her stomach told her if he walked away now she would lose him forever.

Reaching for the doorknob he turned slightly toward her. They stared at each other for a few seconds, during which she could see the ache in his eyes, before he nodded to the guard and slipped quietly through the door. And was gone.

She stared after him, breathing heavily, years of practice allowing her to control the tears that wanted to course down her face. She would not cry here, she told herself furiously, and managed to keep herself in check until she reached her car. Then she had lost command of her emotions entirely for a few minutes, screaming, crying, pounding the steering wheel in anger at him, at herself, at the smoking man--at the entire world that had taken him from her and taken everything from him, turning him into the empty shell she had just left.

After a few weeks of almost unfathomable pain during which she had realized that Mulder didn't really want her out of his life, that he was simply being predictably Mulder-ish, she had gone back to the prison to resume her usual visiting schedule. He had refused to see her.

She had not lain eyes on him since.

Over time, out of pure self-defense, Scully had managed to stoke up her anger at him, thereby overpowering the other emotions that threatened at times to consume her. Mulder was a bastard, she told herself dismissively. A selfish bastard not worthy of her time. He hadn't wanted her and had told her so in no uncertain terms. Ending their relationship--if it could be called a relationship--had been the best thing for both of them, she insisted to that tiny voice inside that dared disagree with her. She would give him what she wanted. No problem. Leaving him was easy.

It was the staying away that was almost impossible.

Walter Skinner removed his glasses, placing them gently on his desk, and rubbed the bridge of his nose wearily. He'd just finished an uncomfortable telephone conversation with Scully (he simply couldn't bring himself to think of her as 'Dana Morrow' even after all this time) and now he was a man with a problem. Scully had scheduled a meeting with the attorney handling Mulder's inheritance for the next day, and it was his job to make certain Mulder arrived at that meeting so all the papers could be signed that would give Mulder control of the money. It was necessary. It was unavoidable. It was going to be hell for Mulder.

Skinner was desperately tired of avoiding the topic of Scully, but he was also reluctant to upset Mulder needlessly. The look in his friend's eye when Scully crossed his mind was both heartbreaking and horrifying, as if Mulder had gazed into that dark abyss so often spoken of in literature and found it laughable in the face of his own pain.

It hadn't been even a week after her engagement to Zachary Morrow that Mulder had been thrown yet again into solitary confinement for the longest stretch he would spend there. Skinner had arrived for his regular bi-monthly visit only to be told his former agent had "gone crazy" and attacked another prisoner in the mess hall, beating the other man badly before the guards had been able to stop him. It had been over a month before Skinner had seen Mulder again, and once he did he had been unable to obtain an explanation for the violent behavior. Mulder had been sullen and silent on the subject, and Skinner knew not to push.

Scully had called him after her last meeting with Mulder, once she had regained control of her emotions enough to maintain her usual cool, confident air. Skinner tried valiantly to talk her out of what he perceived as an abandonment of Mulder, but he had been unsuccessful. When Scully did eventually try to mend fences with Mulder she had been thoroughly rebuffed, and after three Saturdays of being turned away she had informed Skinner she wouldn't be returning. She was giving Mulder what he wanted. He could see in her eyes that she knew the truth behind Mulder's actions, but it was buried so deeply beneath her own pain he doubted it mattered.

It had been just over a year later that she had announced her engagement. She had come to him in order to tell him personally, knowing he would be passing the information on to Mulder. Skinner had seen the tears behind her smile, but in true Scully fashion she had shrugged them off.

"He doesn't want me," she'd stated flatly in answer to his unspoken question. "I've given him plenty of time to get past this, but he still refuses to see me. He returns my letters." She had taken a deep, steadying breath. "I can't force Mulder to have a relationship with me, Sir. He's made it perfectly clear that it's over."

But Skinner knew it wasn't over for Mulder, that it would never be over.

Breaking the news to Mulder had been one of the most difficult things Skinner had ever been called upon to do. Mulder had stared at Skinner, his eyes dead, then turned away and buried his face in his hands. Skinner sat silent and uncomfortable, knowing the other man was fighting back tears, until finally Mulder raised his head. His face was blank. Skinner had seen that face on a number of occasions in the past, usually when Mulder was being verbally attacked by a co-worker or superior, but never had he known it to conceal the depth of emotion it did that day. He had risen, hands in his pockets, and quietly asked Mulder, "Is there anything you want me to do for you this week?"

Kill me, begged those haunted eyes, but Mulder just gave a quick shake of his head and fixed his gaze firmly on the wall as Skinner left the visitor's cubicle. He knew that sooner or later Mulder's carefully constructed facade was bound to crumble, and hoped Mulder would be alone when it happened. Now, thinking back, Skinner wondered if Mulder had deliberately gotten himself thrown into solitary in order to have a chance to grieve for Scully.

Since his release, Mulder had studiously avoided the topic of his ex-partner, and Skinner was certain that seeing her was something he would postpone forever if possible. Unfortunately, it wasn't possible, and now the time was upon them.

Laying his head on his arms, Skinner wondered for a moment at the complexities of the Mulder family. Teena Mulder had loved her son, of that he had no doubt. It had been made very clear to him in the meetings he'd had with her after Mulder was sent away, yet never once had she visited him in prison. He supposed she couldn't face the pain of seeing her child behind bars. It would be difficult for any mother, and Teena had certainly faced more than her share of troubles where her family was concerned.

Although she hadn't visited Mulder she had kept in touch with Skinner, and he had been happy to give her frequent reports both on Mulder's condition and on any progress made in trying to free him. Things had been bleak for a long time, and as he pondered life and death, Skinner wondered if Teena was in a place now where she could see that they had finally achieved their goal. She had been a very strong woman right up until the end.

He remembered the day she had called him to ask if he'd help her pack up Mulder's things. Skinner had groaned inwardly, and agreed with a sense of dread. He didn't want to paw through Mulder's belongings, it felt too much like the invasion of a man who had already been violated enough. Most of all he didn't want to be with Mrs. Mulder when she inevitably broke down, but he had apparently been designated the 'strong one', and had never been one to shirk his responsibilities. She had surprised him, though, quietly and determinedly going about the business of sorting through her son's possessions, never shedding a tear. They had worked side by side for hours with few words exchanged, and once they were finished she had calmly called for a truck to haul away Mulder's stuff to be placed into storage.

"I think I'll have to sell his car," she'd told Skinner softly, "but I can't bear to part with anything else. He'll need it when he's released."

"Mrs. Mulder--" he began, and she shook her head firmly.

"I have absolute faith that you will save my son, Mr. Skinner. I have to believe it. I simply can't lose him, too." With those words she strode purposefully from the room, and Skinner watched her go with admiration. Spunk, his father would have called it. She had spunk.

He sank down to Mulder's couch, gazing around the room that was now stripped of all personal items, and thought of the man who had been its occupant. How many years had he lived in this small apartment? Skinner had no idea, Mulder had been here when they'd met, but it was long enough to leave his essence, his imprint on the place.

He hadn't come here many times, but though few in number his visits had been memorable. He still vividly recalled sitting on this very couch while Agent Scully held a gun on him. They had been at a standoff--he'd known she wouldn't kill him, but wouldn't put it past her to shoot to protect herself even from him--when a noise at the door had startled her. To their astonishment, in had walked the man they both thought had perished in a boxcar in New Mexico. The look on Scully's face at Mulder's unexpected appearance hadn't registered with him in the next few, tense minutes, but recalling it later he recognized it for what it was. He wondered when they had fallen in love with each other, and how he had been so blind as to not even notice it until then.

He remembered arriving here one morning, Mulder's suicide having been reported, fearing, dreading that look at the man who not so many weeks earlier had saved his own life. And Scully--Scully had been her carefully controlled self at that time, and he'd believed that inside she was falling apart. Of course he'd discovered later it had all been an act, but had the circumstances been different, he doubted her reaction would have changed. Glancing up at the ceiling he shivered as he recalled the surveillance that Mulder had been subjected to. How had the man survived all the things that had been done to him? And to Scully? His eyes drifted to the window--Scully had been shot at through that very window, although there was no evidence of it now. There was nothing left to any of them but memories, both good and bad.

It had been so difficult to gain their trust, and at first he wasn't sure why he even wanted it. He was their superior, they worked for him, that should have been enough. But somehow along the way he had come to respect this set of agents like no other, and found himself desiring their respect in return. Eventually he had earned it, and over time had come to think of them as his friends, although Skinner was essentially a loner. There was never a time he would have called up Mulder or Scully and asked them over for dinner, but he knew that if he needed them they could be counted on unequivocably. That, in his opinion, was the truest sort of friend. He knew his loyalty to them had been questionable at times, but Mulder, and to a lesser extent Scully, had believed in him firmly. That was why he was helping Mulder now.

Raising his head from his arms, Skinner reached for the telephone on his desk, intending to call Mulder to inform him of the meeting, then drew back. This type of news was better broken in person, he decided. That way Mulder couldn't run away. He had to get this meeting with Scully over with in order to begin rebuilding his life. Skinner knew Mulder was going to fight against it, and he could be more persuasive face-to-face. Mulder had been in a fragile state all weekend after the visit to his mother's grave, and Skinner had been careful to give him plenty of space. He'd seemed better last night, sitting up late watching Monday Night Football, and he'd still been asleep when Skinner left for work that morning. Sitting back in his chair, he began to plan the best way to approach Mulder with the bad news.

"Mulder, you have to face her sometime."

"Why?" Mulder demanded stubbornly. "Give me one good reason why."

Skinner shook his head in exasperation at his friend. "Because the problem isn't going away and you can't avoid her forever. Because sooner or later you're bound to run into her and you may as well get it over with now. Because these papers have to be signed, and it's easier for all concerned if you and Dana meet with the attorney together."

Mulder pursed his lips but said nothing more, and Skinner went into his bedroom to change out of his suit. Mulder had put up a good argument, telling Skinner the attorney could mail the papers to him for his signature, but Skinner was determined not to let Mulder wriggle out of this. He, more than anyone, wanted to get this meeting between Scully and Mulder behind them. Maybe then Mulder could begin putting those fragments of himself back together.

The minute Skinner was out of sight Mulder sank wearily to a chair, his legs giving out. To see her again, after all this time. How would he react? How would she? Would she be cold and distant, or greet him warmly as an old friend? Mulder wasn't sure which would be worse. He knew from experience that her icy exterior could flay him, but to pretend... He shook his head firmly. They simply couldn't pretend things were just like the old days. They couldn't deny the painful words that had been uttered at their parting. All they could do now was try and put the past behind them. Scully had gotten on with her life, he reflected grimly. It was time he did the same. Mulder rubbed his hands over his face, stubbornly fighting back a wave of emotion, then stood determinedly. Skinner was right. It couldn't be postponed any longer.

"When is the meeting?" he asked when Skinner emerged from the bedroom, and Skinner breathed an inward sigh of relief.

"Tomorrow," Skinner told him bluntly, his authoritarian exterior betraying no hint of his anxiety. "Ten o'clock. Take my car, I can catch a ride to work."

Mulder hesitated. He hadn't driven in over four years, and now Skinner was offering him the use of his car without a moment's pause, he realized uncomfortably. What if he wrecked it? That thought was quickly followed by the reminder that, once he emerged from the meeting with Scully, he would have access to a large amount of cash. If he crashed Skinner's car he'd just buy him a new one, he told himself recklessly. Maybe he'd buy himself one as well. Maybe it was time.

Mulder was up early the next morning, pacing throughout the apartment restlessly and generally annoying Skinner, who patiently held his peace. Skinner ate breakfast and watched as Mulder played with his own, but refrained from nagging. It probably wouldn't be doing Mulder a favor to insist he meet Scully with a full stomach anyway, not with his tendency toward nausea under stress. Just before leaving for work he tossed Mulder his keys, sternly reminding him, "Ten o'clock, Mulder. Don't be late."

Mulder caught the keys one-handed and, with a knot in his stomach, went to his room to get ready. Facing Scully for the first time in years would require a little extra self-confidence, which he was miserably low on these days, and he decided he'd better bathe and put on some of his new clothes. At least they didn't hang unattractively off his frame like the old ones. He hoped once this meeting was behind him he would be able to find his appetite again. He hated being this thin and sickly looking.

Combing his hair in the mirror after he'd shaved, Mulder surveyed himself critically. His ribs were too prominent, but she wouldn't be able to see that--he'd be sure to wear a loose-fitting shirt. His arms and legs were also thinner than usual, and Mulder decided it was time he began exercising. Being able to run again sounded wonderful, and maybe his workout routine should include some weight lifting to help bulk up his arms. While they were watching football Monday night, Skinner had suggested he look up some of his old basketball buddies, but Mulder had wryly pointed out to him that being surrounded by a bunch of guys who were bigger, stronger, and in better shape than he was didn't really sound appealing at this time. Skinner had given a snort of laughter and gone back to watching the game, which Mulder appreciated more than the other man knew. He didn't want to be treated with kid gloves, he just wanted to be normal. At least as normal as possible under the circumstances.

Skinner had loaned him five hundred dollars so he could buy the clothes and a few other personal items. Mulder had stared at the money in awe for a minute, then tucked it into his jeans pocket, already feeling the familiar gratitude mixed with a heavy dose of guilt. Skinner shouldn't have to do this for him. He was such a burden. He had mumbled his thanks uncomfortably, and Skinner had simply nodded, dryly telling Mulder that he could repay it when he became a rich man. Mulder still couldn't quite accept the idea that so much money would soon be his. He briefly considered blowing a large amount on something fun and frivolous, like a brand-new Ferrari, but quickly rejected the idea. It just wasn't him.

With the promise of a free lunch he'd gotten Langly to drive him to a nearby shopping mall so he could get that decent haircut he'd wanted and buy new clothes. They'd driven in awkward silence for a time, and finally Mulder had sighed, determined to break the ice with his old friend.

"I'm sorry I'm not good company," he'd begun, but Langly shook his head, indicating Mulder's apology was unnecessary. "I don't quite know what to say."

"We're just glad to have you back, Mulder. Sorry we haven't come around, but we didn't want to make you feel weird. We figured when you were ready you'd contact us, and I guess we were right."

Mulder smiled. "Well, there wasn't anybody else I could ask to drive me around in the middle of a weekday," he joked. "All my other friends work for a living."

For a moment it almost felt like old times, especially when Langly asked him to come and hang out with the guys on Friday--they missed his wit and his company.

Again Mulder had to smile. "You just miss the beer I bring," he kidded, but agreed to the plan. He wondered for a moment if he should invite Skinner along but quickly decided Skinner would probably enjoy being rid of him for an evening. It was definitely time to jump back into life.

Langly had offered to accompany Mulder inside, but Mulder thanked him, saying he needed to face this first venture away from his safe haven alone. Waiting in line to pay for his purchases, Mulder felt odd. He wondered if the salesclerk behind the counter could tell where he'd been for the last four years. He felt out of place, as if he had the words "ex-con" stamped on his forehead. He'd been forced to think of every other person in his vicinity as a potential threat for such a long time that he was now wary of them, and had deliberately chosen a time to shop when he knew the mall would be practically deserted. All the same, Mulder had been glad when the ordeal was over.

Bridgette, the sweet young thing who had cut his hair, had wanted to make conversation, but he hadn't been able to muster up sociability. She'd begun by demanding, in a nicely chiding way, to know who had created the disaster she saw before her. Mulder just smiled and told her "Frank."

"Frank?" she'd questioned, one perfect eyebrow raised.

"Yes. Very old friend of my father's," he'd lied, his expression serious. "He's been cutting my hair since I was a little boy. Frank's getting up in years and his eyesight isn't all it should be, but I can't bring myself to give up on him."

"So why are you here?" Bridgette asked as she quickly snipped and combed, hiding the mess that had been made of his hair with her magic scissors.

"I can't bring myself to live with such a bad haircut, either."

She laughed, the giggling laugh of a young woman who had not yet learned the things of which men were capable, would probably never be targeted by evil people because of her determination and stubbornness. Mulder sighed inwardly, relishing the idea that such innocence still existed in the world and mourning the loss of it in himself. It had been such a long time since he'd really laughed.

Once he'd finished making himself feel human again with his new clothes and haircut, Mulder had called Langly from a pay phone. He'd arrived within minutes, and Mulder had a suspicion that Langly had never left the mall parking lot at all, but he didn't ask. He knew how lucky he was to have friends like the Gunmen and Skinner, friends who had worked and sacrificed for him and had never deserted him.

Too bad the same couldn't be said of her.

Dana looked at the clock for the twentieth time that morning. It was still only 8:45--she had over an hour to kill before they were to meet Mulder, and the drive to the lawyer's office wouldn't take more than ten minutes. She'd already washed the breakfast dishes and made the beds, and now there was nothing to do but sit and wait. In the middle of the living room floor, her stepdaughter sat playing happily with her dolls. Smiling at the display of four-year-old innocence before her, she reflected on her current life. It wasn't good, but the Nymph, as Dana called her, was the one bright spot in her existence. Finally able to endure the anticipation no longer, Dana asked her, "How would you like to go to the park?"

The little girl's eyes lit up, and Dana's heart swelled. She adored this child. She sometimes wondered if Zachary had introduced her to his daughter early in their relationship in order to sway her decision toward marrying him. Her brother Bill had been instrumental as well, since Zach was an old friend of his. He'd been pushing her and Zach toward each other for years, but had backed off somewhat while she was still partnered with Mulder. Ever since Mulder's arrest, though, Bill never passed up a chance to remind her that Zach was stable, sane, and available, which she supposed was meant to be a subtle jab at Mulder in his absence. She had steadfastly resisted for over two years, only finally giving in and agreeing to a first date in a fit of determination to move on with life.

At first, after Mulder's rejection, she had fought the idea of dating other men, her heart still firmly set on him, but as the days had dragged on and he had refused to have any contact with her, Dana had finally realized that the situation was out of her hands. It was Mulder's decision, and it had been made. She had to choose--either sit around licking her wounds and waiting on him, or try to grab a little bit of, if not happiness at least contentment, before she died. When Zachary had proposed after a month of dating, Dana had thought it over carefully for a couple of days. Once or twice she'd almost convinced herself to pay Mulder a visit just to find out if he'd talk to her--but had changed her mind when she remembered the pain she had suffered after their last meeting. Mulder didn't want her, she reminded herself with a stubborn set to her jaw. He had not minced words in telling her so. She wouldn't waste any more of her time on him. She and Zach had been married soon after in a modest, but nice ceremony by her mother's priest and Dana had never looked back--at least not by all outward appearances.

Now, driving toward the park with her daughter safely buckled into the car, she again tried to convince herself her feelings for Mulder were gone.

Mulder had to admit that getting behind the wheel of a car again felt good. After a few minutes of awkwardness he began to get a feel for it, and soon was driving comfortably, if more carefully than usual, in the opposite direction from the address Skinner had given him. He briefly considered running away, then ruefully told himself stealing Skinner's car wouldn't exactly endear him to his host, and when he was found Skinner might just kill him for such a stunt. He'd been very clear that he'd accept no excuses for Mulder missing this meeting. With a tight feeling in his stomach, Mulder tried to resign himself to the fact that he had to see her today. There was no escape. In desperation he told himself the meeting couldn't take longer than half an hour. Thirty short minutes. Just long enough to watch an old rerun of Night Gallery. Except, of course, there would be no commercials--no reprieve. He'd already decided a stiff drink was in order once the meeting was behind him.

Glancing at his watch and noting that he had over an hour before he was due at the attorney's office, Mulder made a quick decision and swung the car onto the freeway. Feeling much the same as he'd felt when he discovered his journal files on his computer, Mulder found himself instinctively driving toward his old neighborhood. He asked himself the same question--would he really do this to himself?--but as he grew closer and closer to his former home he knew it had already been answered. Yes, he was going to do this to himself, and he would most certainly regret it later.

Goodbyes had to be said, however, and Mulder wanted to get them out of the way. All of them. Exorcize all the ghosts that haunted his dreams, taunting him with the memory of all he'd lost. Face your fear, he told himself firmly. Face it and put it behind you. All well and fine, his inner self argued, but the closer he drew to Hegal Place the sharper the pain in his stomach became, until he was afraid he was going to have to stop the car and throw up. When he finally parked in front of his old building, his hands were trembling violently and he felt light-headed. Leaning against the headrest, he closed his eyes tightly, trying to summon up the courage he would need to do this thing that he was already telling himself was a terrible idea.

At last, after a severe inner conversation in which his practical side angrily insisted to his emotional persona that this must be done for recovery to progress, Mulder stepped from the car purposefully, refusing to allow cowardice to drive him away. He was here, it would never get any easier, and he needed to see...

Knocking on the door of the landlord's apartment, Mulder glanced around the familiar corridor. It was identical to the one upstairs. A vision floated in front of his eyes without warning--he could almost see the scene replayed in a diaphanous reality, much like a hologram--and Mulder gasped, feeling physically assaulted by the memory. Scully...him...the hallway outside his apartment... Clenching his fists tightly, he let the pain bring him back to the present. After a moment he opened his hands to find that he had actually drawn blood in a spot or two. He was wiping them on his jeans when the door opened and he stared into the face of his former landlord.

"Mr. Mulder?" the man asked, astonished.

Mulder's eyes met his briefly, then dropped to the carpet. Of course Mr. Perrino knew where he'd been for the last few years. Everyone knew. With a muttered, "I'm sorry," he turned, about to leave, when the elderly man's voice stopped him.

"I'm glad to see you back," he said sincerely. "I read about your new trial in the papers. How've you been?"

Mulder slowly turned back to the man, disbelief evident on his face. Mr. Perrino was happy to see him? Why? He hadn't exactly been a model tenant, what with the shootings, unauthorized surveillance, and then there'd been that incident with the waterbed he wasn't supposed to have. Mulder thought his landlord should have been delighted to see him go.

"I never believed you were guilty of that trumped-up charge anyway," Mr. Perrino continued briskly, ignoring Mulder's expression of doubt. "You were always a pain in the ass as a tenant, but still, you were a nice young man. You couldn't have done what they said you did."

Still staring at the floor, Mulder nodded slightly and almost whispered, "Thanks. I appreciate that. Sorry about all the trouble I caused you back then."

"Oh, don't worry about it," the old man told him happily. "It's all over and done with now. Will you be needing a place to live, then? As luck would have it, your old apartment is empty right now, although I feel I must remind you," shaking his finger in Mulder's face, "no waterbeds!"

At his words all the breath left Mulder's body in a rush. Could he do this? Should he? The decision was removed from him, as Mr. Perrino had already grabbed a key off the rack beside his desk and was gently pushing Mulder out the door.

"Let's just go upstairs and you can have a look at it, all right? I know the last tenant painted the walls, you might not like the color, but we can always change that, can't we?"

With a feeling of resignation, like a man on his way to his execution, Mulder followed Mr. Perrino obediently into the elevator and waited while it creaked its way up to his old floor. When he'd lived here he'd most often taken the stairs, usually in too much of a hurry to wait on this ancient machine, but Mr. Perrino was in his eighties and Mulder supposed stairs were too much for him these days. His sense of impending doom grew as they approached the door behind which so many years of his life had been lived. While Mr. Perrino fumbled with the lock, Mulder cautiously stretched out a hand, his finger lightly touching the brass "2". It was much shinier than the "4" and had obviously been replaced recently. He gave a tiny, wistful smile as he remembered the trouble he'd had with that pesky "2".

"Now I must tell you, the rent's gone up a bit while you were away, but I--" Mr. Perrino stopped and looked slightly uncomfortable. "Have you been able to find a job, Mr. Mulder?"

Mulder shook his head slightly, his eyes glued to the spot where his couch had stood for so long. "I've been staying with a friend," he said absently, pushing forward into the room. Gratefully he realized his body was becoming numb, protecting itself from the pain this should be causing him much as it had when he'd visited his mother's grave. As then, he knew he would have some sort of emotional breakdown later, but the important thing was that it didn't happen here. Not now. Not in front of this man who was such a symbol of his past life. He smiled again, fondly remembering his poor fish and wondered what had become of them. He'd have to ask Skinner this evening. He knew Skinner had adopted them, but had seen no sign of the aquarium anywhere in Skinner's apartment.

He allowed Mr. Perrino to pull him through the entire apartment, largely ignoring the man's chatter as wave after wave of remembrance washed over him. He noticed the carpet in the bedroom had been replaced, and recalled the ocean he'd put his feet into one morning--again and again and again, although nobody believed that except him--when his waterbed had leaked. In the kitchen he closed his eyes against the memory of himself heating pizza in the oven while Scully waited in his living room, casefiles, computer and notes in front of her, as they settled into an all-nighter preparing their reports for Skinner. That hadn't been long after her return, and he'd still been giddy with her company at that point. Wandering back into the main room Mulder stared thoughtfully at the ceiling. It was a fairly safe bet, he believed, that the subsequent tenants had never had their apartments bugged, that no one had surreptitiously observed their every movement.

Lowering his gaze once again to the bare wall where his leather couch had been, Mulder shivered. For a second he could almost feel Scully's hands sliding through his hair as he lay there, eyes closed, exhausted. What had they been doing that day? Scully had been talking on his phone, he remembered. She'd kept her voice hushed, trying not to disturb him as he lay there with his eyes shut, arms crossed, simply letting her presence surround him. It was a bad day, he recalled that much. They'd been about to lose again, he was sure. Whatever the situation, the mere fact of her hands gently stroking his forehead had made it better. Shaking his head again, he forced himself back to the present.

"So will you be wanting it?" Mr. Perrino asked, watching him expectantly, and for a short second Mulder felt the word 'yes' on the tip of his tongue.

Thankfully, common sense prevailed and he shook his head again, more slowly this time. "I'm sorry, Mr. Perrino, but I'm not sure coming back here to live would be a good idea right now. There are so many memories..."

"Of course, I understand," the man told him sympathetically, and without another word Mulder turned to walk out the front door.

He didn't get more than a few steps before a wave of pain hit him so hard he had to lean against the wall, gasping for breath. Right here. It was right here in this very spot, and good god he could still feel her arms around his neck, her soft lips on his forehead, could still see the acceptance and love shining in her tear-stained eyes as he'd leaned closer and closer, almost reaching her mouth with his own before--

"Mr. Mulder! Somebody call an ambulance!" he heard Mr. Perrino shouting as if from miles away.

Clutching his left arm, fighting the pain coursing through his chest, Mulder carefully lowered himself to the floor, forcing his breathing to remain slow and steady. "No," he gasped, but his ex-landlord ignored him, already knocking on the door across the hall.

"No!" he managed, louder this time, feeling the pain beginning to diminish. "Mr. Perrino, I'm all right."

"You're not all right, you're having a heart attack!" Mr. Perrino insisted, pounding again at the door adjacent to Mulder's limp body.

"No," he said weakly, then gathered his strength. The sharp pain throughout his body was almost gone now. "It's not a heart attack. It's just a panic attack." He gave a wry smile which was immediately eclipsed with another wince as one last stabbing pain shot through him. "I get them sometimes. I'll be all right. Really."

"Are you sure?" Mr. Perrino asked doubtfully. It was clear he still wanted to call an ambulance, but with a quick glance at his watch Mulder confirmed his suspicion. He was going to be late for the meeting if he didn't leave right now. He didn't want to have to face Skinner this evening if that happened.

Politely refusing the older man's insistent offers of assistance, Mulder stood, still holding to the wall for support, and steadied himself. Managing a smile for Mr. Perrino he began to make his way down the hall, grateful now for the elevator. Seeing there was nothing else he could do, Mr. Perrino followed him, one hand outstretched should Mulder lose his balance, but every step gave him more confidence. By the time they reached the ground floor Mulder was able to appear relatively normal, and thankfully was able to convince Mr. Perrino he was capable of driving. The man watched as Mulder drove away, giving him a friendly wave, and Mulder felt a rush of unexpected pleasure. There was someone outside his small circle of old friends who was happy to see him a free man again, he told himself. Mr. Perrino had been genuinely pleased at his visit, and Mulder breathed a little more easily knowing he had gotten one more difficult necessity out of the way. He wondered if he would ever find the courage to visit Scully's old neighborhood.

Switching on the radio to drive away the sadness that threatened to engulf him, Mulder decided driving past Scully's apartment would be an extraordinarily bad idea. He was still feeling somewhat weakened from his panic attack and there was this meeting yet to endure.

He found the office easily, and pulled Skinner's car into a parking space near the street. Stepping out into the cool morning, Mulder took a deep breath, hit once again with a sense of wonder at just being free. It was amazing the things you forgot, like how it felt not to have to glance behind you every minute, and how nice it was to decide, on a whim, to go wherever you wanted to go. Mulder didn't even have a cell phone to tether him any longer, and he found the sense of privacy and liberation to be exhilarating.

She caught her breath suddenly, forgetting to push the swing for a moment until a squeal from the little girl brought her back to reality.

Mulder was here.

He stood beside the car, staring down the street, and she was able to get a good long look. Absently continuing to push her daughter, she took in the sight of him hungrily. He had lost some weight, which made him look even taller, and his hair was shorter than usual, which set off his profile quite nicely. He was dressed all in black today, and she wondered briefly if he had done it deliberately. She remembered complimenting him once, at least a hundred years ago, on how nice he looked in black. The jeans clung gracefully to his legs, not too tight, and his shirt hung loosely from his body, untucked and casual. As she watched he reached up to remove the black sunglasses he'd been wearing and tossed them into the car before slamming the door. He turned as if to walk toward the entrance and she found herself calling to him.


Hearing her voice stopped him in his tracks. After a second he turned, searching for the source of the shout, and saw her waving to him from across the street. Firmly swallowing the lump in his throat and telling himself he would not allow his heart to shatter today, he ignored her and entered the attorney's office.

Scully stared after him in shock. She didn't know what type of reception she'd expected from Mulder, but she certainly hadn't thought he would disregard her completely.

"Who's that, Mommy?" asked the child in the swing.

"Just a friend, Nymph. A very old friend," Scully replied absently, her eyes still on the door through which Mulder had disappeared. Shaking off the thoughts of him, she smiled at the little girl and held out her hand. "We have to go to Mommy's boring meeting now, but I promise you lunch at McDonald's afterwards, okay?"

She was rewarded with a happy nod as the girl sprang eagerly to her feet, slipping her hand trustingly into Scully's.

After carefully crossing the street, the Nymph reminding her solemnly that they must look both ways, Scully opened the glass door and escorted her daughter inside. A secretary sitting behind her desk greeted them with a smile.

"Mrs. Morrow?" she asked, and after an almost unnoticeable hesitation, Scully nodded. Morrow. She hadn't been able to bring herself to change her name professionally, preferring to be called 'Dr. Scully', and so few people called her 'Mrs. Morrow' that she still felt unfamiliar with the name.

"Just through that door," the secretary pointed. "Mr. Mulder's already arrived."

Scully's heart leaped into her throat at the mention of his name. Ushering the little girl into the office she pulled out a chair from the large conference table and helped her climb into it. Reaching into her purse, Scully extracted a coloring book and a box of crayons she'd had the presence of mind to stuff in at the last minute before leaving the house. During the entire time she fussed with her daughter she was able to avoid looking at Mulder, but she could feel his presence, reaching out to her from across the table, and for a moment she could swear she smelled the aftershave he'd always worn.

Now that her task was completed, she had no pretense to look away, and finally her eyes sought him out. It was his turn to avoid looking at her. Neither had counted on the precociousness of the child.

"Are you a friend of my mommy's?" she asked, regarding Mulder thoughtfully from beneath her dark bangs.

When Mulder didn't answer, Scully stepped in. "He's a very old friend of Mommy's, Emmie. His name is Mulder."

She stared at him for a moment, then informed Scully, "He doesn't look as old as Grandpa."

The attorney had arrived just in time to hear her statement, and his laughter broke the tension in the room a little. Mulder didn't actually laugh, but the ghost of a smile crossed his lips. Finally he looked at Scully, but still refused to meet her eyes.

"Emily?" he asked in a somewhat startled voice.

"Emmaline, Emmie for short," she corrected him quietly, her eyes not quite finding his either. Scully knew she would never admit, even to herself, that the nearness in names between Zachary's daughter and her own had been one more factor in her decision to marry him. She simply wasn't that shallow; she certainly knew the difference between the two girls. Where Emily had been blond and round-faced, Emmie had her natural mother's dark hair and eyes, and finely sculpted features. Emmie was destined to be an incredible beauty, Scully thought. It wouldn't be many years before the boys would be wanting to date her.

After that a pause descended, and just as it threatened to lengthen into an uncomfortable silence, the attorney cleared his throat. He didn't know what the bad karma between these two involved, but it was practically tangible. "Let's get down to business, shall we?" he asked, and Mulder and Scully gratefully turned their attention to him.

"This is your copy of everything, Mrs. Morrow," he said, handing her a sheaf of papers. Mulder flinched slightly at the name.

As Scully leaned over the table to take the copies from him, Mulder noticed a dark bruise coloring her upper arm. Involuntarily he reached his finger toward it, and at the last second drew quickly back. He didn't want to touch her. If he felt her skin under his fingers he'd never get to sleep tonight.

Seeing the question on his face, Scully assured him, "It's nothing. I backed into a bookcase yesterday. Wasn't looking where I was going and banged into it pretty hard. Hurt my head, too, but I'm all right."

He risked a brief glance at her face and almost froze when she smiled at him. He could see the lines of weariness around her eyes. Sadly he realized they matched his own. They had both aged in the past four years.

"So she's with him now, huh?" Bill Scully asked as he shoved another beer toward Zach. His friend had been so despondent over his wife's appointment with Mulder this morning that Bill had driven up from Norfolk, where he was stationed these days, to spend the day with him. It was a long drive, but Bill and his brother-in-law had been friends since grade school. He didn't mind the miles on his car or the extra gas if it meant he could be with Zach when he was feeling down.

Zach was certainly depressed today, and it disturbed Bill a little that he wasn't certain of the reason. Was it because Dana was with Mulder, or was it the fact that Mulder's release from prison removed any chance Dana had of inheriting the money? Zach had been rambling on for an hour now about both topics.

"When Dana told me the terms of that old woman's will..." he shook his head sadly. "I never thought that bastard would get out."

"He shouldn't have," Bill commented, gazing into his own beer. They were each on their third, and had no intention of stopping soon. Every time Bill thought of Mulder, and all his family had suffered because of the man, he took another swig. So far he had managed to blame Mulder for every misfortune to befall the Scully family for the last ten years. The more he drank the more creative he became. With difficulty he directed his mind back toward his friend.

"You know the worst part of it?" Zach was asking angrily. "When we first got married, she was trying to help him get out! Working against herself. Working against *me!* You can bet I put a stop to that," he told his old friend with a satisfied look.

"How'd you stop it?" Bill asked, taking another sip.

"I have ways of keeping her in line," Zach said mysteriously, his smile taking the sting out of his words. "Dana usually does as I tell her."

"'Bout time she found a real man to take care of her," Bill muttered.

"Oh, I am that man, buddy, I am that man." Zach took a long swallow of his own drink, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and belched loudly. "Sonofabitch should have died in that place, anyway," he announced.

"Should have," Bill agreed, wondering why Mulder always seemed to land on his feet.

Leaning closer to Bill, Zach whispered conspiratorially, "I tried to arrange it, you know, but things didn't quite work out as planned."

Bill stared at his friend, afraid to ask questions. He knew Mulder had received several beatings while incarcerated, one of them so severe it had left him hospitalized for weeks. His sister had received the information from Skinner and passed it on to him. He had just figured it was all a part of prison life, but now...Zach was talking as though he might have had something to do with it. But that was crazy, Zach was a nice, normal guy with a wife and a kid and a job. He wasn't the type of person to even have the connections to...was he? With another long swallow of his beer, Bill decided he didn't really want to know. Surely it was the liquor talking. Zach always did turn into a terrible braggart when he was drinking.

"So now it's gone. All that money, gone," Zach said sadly.

"Well, maybe not," Bill answered after a minute of fuzzy recollection. "You might still have a chance at it, but you'll probably be a very old man by the time--"

"What are you talking about?" Zach demanded, suddenly appearing more sober than he had seconds earlier.

Bill shrugged carelessly. "Before Mulder was arrested, I know he had made Dana his heir in case his mother had already kicked the bucket," he explained. "Of course, his estate didn't amount to much back then, probably less than ten thousand dollars." He leaned over, as if imparting an important, little-known fact. "It's a lot more now," he said owlishly.

Zachary stared at Bill for a long time, long enough that Bill began to grow uncomfortable, then rose suddenly from the table. He extracted a wad of cash from his pocket and threw some down in front of Bill. "I have to go," he told his companion, slapping him on the shoulder. "Thanks for coming up to offer me moral support, old friend."

"Where are you going?" Bill asked, but Zach was already out the door.

It was over. The papers were signed, sealed and delivered, and Mulder was a rich man. Rich by his standards, anyway. It felt odd, knowing he had all that money at his disposal, and in some ways uncomfortable, although he'd already decided his first purchase would be a new car. Then maybe he'd start looking for a house--Skinner had been great, treating him like an old friend instead of some type of psychosocial invalid or misfit, but sooner or later Mulder knew his presence was bound to become an imposition.

Mulder left the office quickly, while Scully was still helping Emmie gather her things. He hoped to make his escape without being forced to speak to her. Then he intended to find a bar somewhere nearby and spend the afternoon getting quietly drunk. The pain he'd felt at her nearness had been incredible, much more severe than he'd ever imagined it could be, and he was exhausted from the effort of hiding his emotions. He kept his face carefully shuttered through the entire nightmare, and when it was over gathered his papers hastily and almost ran for the door.

Scully watched him, an expression of angry disbelief marking her lovely features. Once the meeting had begun Mulder had been all business, studiously ignoring her. There hadn't been an opportunity for personal conversation and as he disappeared out the door she knew if she let him go now he'd never give her another chance. She wasn't willing to throw away all the years of their friendship just because Zach and Emmie were now in the picture. Sweeping Emmie's crayons into her bag, Scully lifted the little girl, although she was really too big to be carried far, and rushed after him.

Mulder reached Skinner's car and flung open the door, sinking into the seat gratefully. Blindly he reached for the sunglasses he'd tossed on the dash earlier--he thought it best to hide his slightly dampened eyes from anyone who might pass. God, she was still so beautiful, he thought, in spite of everything. She was thinner than he remembered, but not as painfully thin as when she'd been wracked by her cancer. Her face had appeared etched with weariness, but when she smiled--Mulder drew in a sharp breath, willing the sudden ache in his chest to disappear. When she'd looked at Emmie he had seen the old serenity there in her eyes, and it nearly broke his heart to realize he hadn't been the one to put it there. It was obvious to even a casual observer that Scully loved that child. Apparently she loved the child's father as well, he reminded himself with a slight curl to his lip. She'd married him.

He turned to close the car door and felt his stomach lurch. She was there. She'd crept up without a sound.

"Mulder," she began, and he gripped the steering wheel ferociously.

"Just go away, Scully," he muttered.

"Not until we talk," she insisted. "You can't just walk away from me like this."

"Why not?" he flared, unable to maintain his control any longer. "Isn't that what you did?"

She stared at him, a flush tinting her cheeks. "You didn't want me!" she reminded him angrily. "You insisted I leave, and when I tried to visit you later you wouldn't see me! My letters were returned--you cut me out of your life completely." She was breathing heavily with indignation, but he ignored that fact.

"Oh come on, Scully, you knew the situation. You knew *me*. You must have known that wasn't what I really wanted." He gazed up at her from behind his shades and she had a sudden urge to rip them from him, force him to meet her eyes.

"I suppose I did know that, Mulder, but that doesn't change the fact that I had no access to you at all."

He turned slightly away, his face tinged with embarrassment. He knew what she was saying was true, he had cut her out, but damn it, he insisted inwardly, he'd have waited on her had the situation been reversed! Finally getting his voice under control, he said quietly, "I was wrong, Scully. I'm sorry. I didn't want you to waste your life waiting for me."

'And I didn't!' she was tempted to say in a cutting voice, but she changed her mind when she realized he was fighting back tears. It struck her suddenly that Mulder was still in love with her. She truly hadn't believed it until now. This meeting must have been sheer torture for him.

Sliding Emmie to the ground but keeping a firm grip on the little girl's hand, Scully leaned against the car. Her expression was gentle as she kindly turned her back on him. "But I wanted to wait for you, Mulder," she told him softly. "It's all I wanted to do. And I was willing to do it, but you wouldn't let me. If you hadn't shut me out completely, if you'd only left me one thread of hope to cling to--"

"Scully... "

"I was lonely, Mulder." Her voice had taken on a deeper tone, and it occurred to him that she was fighting back tears of her own. "I already missed you so desperately, and then when you sent me away I had to feel the loss of you all over again." She paused, staring across the street at the children playing in the park. "Zach was there, he was attentive, he was good company, and he had a daughter I adored." She gave the child in question a squeeze and reassuring smile. The little girl looked slightly taken aback at the tone of the conversation. Scully realized sadly that Emmie had seen enough marital spats between the adults in her life that she didn't look terribly surprised. Shrugging, she went on, "It hurt too much to hope that when you were released you'd have anything to do with me. I really thought you didn't care any longer."

Agony descended on him like a crushing weight and for a moment it was all he could do to simply draw breath. "You mean I caused this?" he asked finally in a strangled voice. "I drove you to this, Scully?"

She glanced down at him then, and the suffering she saw on his partially-hidden face frightened her deeply. She stretched out a comforting hand to him but he withdrew as if scorched the moment her fingers grazed his arm.

"I couldn't live in limbo, Mulder," she told him, her voice pleading for his understanding. "I had to go one way or the other. Since you made it clear I couldn't have you, I took Zach."

"And Emmie."

Her chin rose defiantly. "Yes, and Emmie. I may not love Zach the way I loved you, but we've done all right together."

He turned his face slightly toward her now, eyes still hidden. "Loved?" he asked, his voice harsh as he fought to control his pain.

She stared back at him stonily. "I buried those feelings, Mulder. I had to in order to survive."

There was nothing more to say. Scully, after loading Emmie into her car, climbed in beside her and drove away.

Mulder watched her go, wishing he could find that numbness now, but no merciful lack of feeling would rescue him this time. Finally realizing he was much too upset to drive, Mulder grabbed the shades, tossing them aside, and exited the car. He slammed the door as forcefully as his strength would allow and, shoving his hands in his pockets, head bowed in misery, started toward the park across the street.

Zachary hadn't intended to do what he did after leaving the bar. He was on his way home, having reached the end of his endurance listening to Bill prattle on and on about that Mulder bastard, when a thought struck him. Why not go try to get a look at the sonofabitch? He had seen photographs, mostly blurred and grainy, taken from newspaper accounts of the two trials. From what Zach could tell, there was nothing about the infamous Fox Mulder to warrant his wife's continued, unexplained interest. Glancing at his watch, he decided if he hurried he might make it to the lawyer's office before they left. He quickly made a right turn at the next light and altered his destination.

Once he reached the block where the office was located, Zach slowed his truck and approached the parking lot with a watchful eye. After a moment of scanning the area, he saw the door to the attorney's office swing suddenly open. A tall, dark-haired man let the door fall shut behind him as he stalked purposefully toward the car parked next to Dana's. Just as he climbed inside Zach saw his wife emerge from the same door, Emmie clutched in her arms. She quickly intercepted the man and Zach pulled his truck over to the curb to observe their conversation. He couldn't hear anything, of course, but it was evident from their body language that angry words were being spoken. Zach smiled smugly, confident in the belief that Dana was telling her ex-partner off, when he saw his wife stretch out a hand to touch the man. Even from this distance he could see the compassion in her action and his smile turned to a scowl of jealousy. In the next moment Dana hastily buckled Emmie into her car and soon was disappearing down the street out of sight.

Watching carefully, Zach saw the man who could be none other than Fox Mulder climb out of his car, slam the door, and head for the park. Later he told himself it was simply an opportunity too good to waste. All he heard was Bill Scully's voice in his ear saying 'It's a lot more money now'. All he felt was rage. Without warning he slammed his foot down on the gas pedal and drove straight for the man crossing the street.

Mulder looked up, confused at the sound, just before the truck impacted his body and sent it flying. Landing hard on the pavement, he lay stunned and gasping for breath. Dimly he heard the sound of screaming, but as he turned his head painfully toward the huge pickup that had struck him, Mulder was aware that the driver had not left the vehicle. Instead, the man in the street watched in dazed horror as the truck began slowly backing up. Mulder tried to sit and immediately sank back in agony. The pain in his chest was sudden and intense and none of his muscles wanted to obey. Fighting the throbbing torment that pervaded his upper body, he carefully rolled over on his side to face his attacker. Mulder could only stare, terror paralyzing him, as the pickup halted in its reverse path and once more began to move directly toward him, quickly gaining speed. Closing his eyes, helpless, he awaited the impact.

Zachary grinned as he pressed on the gas pedal once more, intending to finish off his victim with this pass, when his attention was drawn by a woman running for the curb and screaming bloody murder. It was possible she'd seen the whole thing. She was a witness. If he killed Mulder now she might be able to identify him later. Sizing up the situation quickly, Zachary decided not to risk it. Hoping the near-hysterical woman hadn't the presence of mind to get his plate number, he deliberately lurched the truck forward, swerving at the last second to miss Mulder's head by inches. With a screech of tires he roared away, leaving the injured man in the street, the woman repeatedly screaming his name.

"Mr. Mulder! Mr. Mulder!" Joyce, the secretary from the attorney's office, had been returning to her desk after a quick trip to the coke machine when she'd happened to glance outside and see the truck hit Mulder, gasping in horror at the image. She'd immediately dropped her soft drink to the floor and run for the door, already beginning to yell. Her boss, alerted by the screaming, had run outside to see what was going on and quickly taken charge of the situation. Joyce was a great legal secretary but she wasn't someone you wanted around in a crisis, he decided grimly as he called for police and an ambulance.

Mulder opened his eyes slowly, gradually reaching the realization that he was operating under a haze of some very good shit. He knew that because he could feel pain in his chest, but somehow it didn't *hurt*. It was simply something he was vaguely aware of. He tried moving his arm, found it too heavy to lift, and with a sigh wondered who had beaten him up this time and why. Eventually his eyes focused, and he saw with relief that he wasn't in the prison infirmary. This was a real hospital, with a real hospital bed, and beside that bed sat Skinner, patiently reading.

"Welcome back, Mulder," Skinner said, tossing the magazine aside and rubbing the bridge of his nose. He yawned once, stretching his arms above his head, and smiled a little. "I'd ask how you feel, but I think I know."

"Feel pretty good r'now," Mulder slurred, and Skinner snorted a laugh.

"Well that's something, anyway. Do you remember what happened?"

Mulder nodded once, then winced and held his head still. Mistake. Mentally he began taking inventory. Head, chest, arm...what part of him wasn't injured? Sneaking his eyes open again he glanced down at the lower half of his body and sighed in relief. No casts or bandages visible down there, his legs seemed in working order, and all the pain was concentrated in his upper body anyway. As he lay quietly, the medication again began to take hold, thankfully wiping out the effects of his ill-conceived head movement.

"Truck hit me," Mulder stated clearly, fighting his tongue, which felt an inch thick. "Really big one."

"That's right," Skinner nodded. "It was a hit-and-run. I'm surprised you remember anything."

Mulder turned his head very slowly to gaze at Skinner. "It wasn't a hit 'n' run," he said carefully. "It was d'liberate."

Skinner furrowed his brow, regarding the man in the bed. Mulder wasn't given to serious flights of fancy, although he'd had some weird ideas in the past. "What makes you think it was deliberate?" he asked finally.

Mulder grimaced a little. He knew his former boss wasn't going to like his answer. After hesitating for a long moment he replied, "I jus' knew. Tried to hit me again."

"Who did?"

"Th' driver."

"Did you get a look at the driver, Mulder?'

"No," Mulder muttered. He swallowed, his throat suddenly dry. Skinner picked up a cup of water and held the straw to his lips, allowing him to drink. After a few sips Mulder seemed satisfied and Skinner replaced the cup.

"Do you even know if it was a man or a woman?"


"What do you mean when you say he tried to hit you again?" Skinner didn't want to appear impatient with Mulder, but the only eyewitness to the incident had clearly stated that the truck hit Mulder, backed up and roared away. The secretary had given a surprisingly coherent account considering the state she'd been in, and there was nothing in her statement to indicate, in Skinner's opinion, that this had been anything more than a simple hit-and-run.

"Backed up," Mulder explained, fighting the unconsciousness threatening to overtake him. "He was coming f'r me again. She screamed. He left." His voice trailed off to a whisper.

Mulder relaxed against the pillows, exhausted with the effort of trying to make Skinner understand. He had known, when he'd looked up at the grill of the enormous truck and seen it begin backing down the street, that he was about to die, but had been terrifyingly unable to do a thing about it. He couldn't even move out of the way, couldn't call for help, could only lie there in helpless fascination as the pickup started forward again. He'd closed his eyes, he remembered now, not wanting to see the impact, and seconds later had felt a rush of air through his hair as the truck passed him by. He supposed he'd lost consciousness after that, waking up here in this room, pleasantly riding the pain on a narcotic cloud.

Skinner removed his glasses and swiped one hand over his eyes, then replaced them on his nose. "Mulder," he said, meeting his friend's eyes steadily, "I know you're sincere in your belief, but I have absolutely no evidence that this was anything out of the ordinary."

Mulder shook his head again desperately, trying to ignore the rush of agony that jerked him fully awake. "Someone tried to kill me," he insisted.

"Do you think they were targeting you specifically, or was it supposed to be a random hit?" Skinner asked curiously. Not that Mulder had never been a target before, of course, but there was no reason for anyone to want him dead now. He was no longer a threat to those who'd previously put him out of the way. Surely they'd leave him alone. Besides, if they'd wanted Mulder dead, he'd *be* dead. They couldn't afford mistakes like this and they didn't hire amateurs.

"Don' know," Mulder replied, his speech growing even lazier as his eyes closed and he drifted under again.

Skinner thought about what Mulder had said, going over the secretary's statement carefully in his head, but in no way could he come to the conclusion that Mulder was right. His former agent must be mistaken. Who would want to kill him? His thoughts were interrupted by a sudden presence at the door.

"How is he, Sir?" Scully asked, coming softly into the room. She'd gotten the phone call from Skinner immediately informing her of the accident, but with nowhere to leave Emmie for the day had been unable to come to Mulder until now. Zachary hadn't been happy when she told him she'd be out all evening visiting an old friend in the hospital. She knew their subsequent fight must have been heard by the neighbors, and wondered if he would still be awake when she arrived home tonight. Scully suppressed a shiver. She hoped not. She hated it when Zach drank, and he had been drinking steadily all day, first with her brother Bill, then later alone. The only time they had their really bad arguments was when he was under the influence, and in addition to that, she knew that today he'd been battling disappointment over the potential loss of Mulder's money. It had always disgusted her, this interest Zach had in Teena Mulder's will.

"He's bunged up pretty badly, but he'll recover," was Skinner's response.

Scully approached the bed and Skinner offered her his chair. She smiled at him gratefully and sat, reaching over to clasp Mulder's hand in her own. "His pulse is a little fast," she observed.

"He was awake until just a minute ago. Scully," Skinner said, crouching beside the chair so she didn't have to crane her neck looking up at him. "Did you see or hear anything unusual before you left?"

She stared at him searchingly. "No," she told him, "why?"

Skinner pressed his lips together into a thin line, and Scully was transported back to the old days when she and Mulder would sit before him in his office and he would wear exactly that expression. It usually meant he had conflicting information and didn't quite know what to do with it.

"Mulder seems to think this was no accident, that it was a deliberate attempt on his life," he told her flatly.

Her eyes widened at the implication. "But who would--? And why?" she asked. "Surely the people who sent him away--"

"If they'd wanted to, I'm sure they'd have found a way to prevent his release," Skinner interrupted. "They fixed one trial, they could easily have influenced another. I don't believe it was them. In fact, I don't believe it was anybody. I think Mulder is mistaken, but he seemed adamant, and you know Mulder. Once he gets an idea in his head..."

"A nuclear weapon couldn't dislodge it," she smiled in agreement. "But you know, Sir, Mulder was right more often than he was wrong. At least partially right."

"I'm surprised to hear you admit that, Scully. You always seemed to want to prove him wrong." Scully stiffened, and he hastened to add, "I don't mean to be unkind, but you never appeared to buy into most of Mulder's paranormal ideas."

She relaxed back into the chair, deciding he hadn't meant offense. "I didn't buy into them. I don't buy into them. But somehow, we usually managed to reach a compromise in our beliefs..."

"But not always," he finished for her.

Sadly she shook her head, fighting back tears as she squeezed Mulder's hand again. "No, not always," she whispered. "Not often enough."

With his head he gestured toward the man in the bed. "How will he react if he wakes up and finds you here?" he asked with forced casualness. "Did you two mend any fences?"

"None," Scully confessed sadly.

"I don't want him upset," he warned as he rose, his popping knees reminding him painfully of impending age. In spite of your best efforts, he reflected idly, your body got older day by day. "He's had an incredible day. I won't have his pain escalated by your presence, no matter how good your intentions."

Not trusting herself to speak, Scully nodded, her eyes on Mulder's still form.

"Then I think I'll step out for a bit, if you don't mind," Skinner said. It seemed the most graceful way to give her time alone, and Scully obviously needed that now. She nodded again and Skinner left the room, softly closing the door behind him.

Scully took in Mulder's profile as he slept, head turned slightly away from her, and silently thought that he hadn't changed all that much in physical appearance since she'd seen him so many months ago. The day he'd cut her out of his life. His face was more lined than before, but then so was hers. There was a speckling of grey at his temples, and she reached forward to lovingly smooth the short bangs away from his forehead.

Mulder, feeling her hand on his face, opened his eyes groggily.

"Scully?" he asked, wondering if she was a dream.

She only smiled in answer. He wondered how many times they had replayed this scene--him waking up in the hospital after an injury and her sitting beside him, waiting. Waiting for him. Waiting on him. Why hadn't she waited this last, most important time? Exhaling a long breath, Mulder forced his mind from that thought. She had explained it to him as well as it could be explained, he supposed. It would take him time to accept her words, but he knew she'd been truthful.

"I'm sorry I couldn't be here before now," she told him in a gentle voice. "I had to wait for Zach to get home so he could watch Emmie."

He forced himself to focus on her. "Does he know you're here?" he asked sharply, carefully enunciating through his morphine fog.

"He does," she lied, telling herself it was only half a lie, really. "He sends his best."

Mulder gave a sickly grin. "Bullshit," was his only comment.

"Mulder, about our conversation earlier--"

"Forget it, Scully. I understand that you did what you thought you had to do. In time I might even come to accept it, but that's my problem. There's something else I need you to do for me right now." His eyes sought hers out earnestly as he struggled to remain lucid.

"What is it, Mulder?"

"This person who hit me, whoever it was...Scully, it was deliberate. I tried to tell Skinner but he didn't believe me. You have to find out who wants to kill me and why." The earnestness in his voice frightened her, and she wondered suddenly if Skinner had talked with Mulder about psychological counseling.

"Why do you think it was deliberate?" she asked gently, repeating Skinner's earlier question, and Mulder still had no real answer.

"I just know, that's all," he said in a low voice, dropping his gaze. "I can't explain it, but I knew at the time. I could feel it, Scully. Skinner didn't believe me, but surely you can see that this was too coincidental."

//Scully, you have to believe me// whispered his voice from the past.

She shook her head slowly as his face took on a look of frustration. "I'm sorry, Mulder, I just don't. Skinner says there's no evidence--"

"What about the truck?" he interrupted, fighting back feelings of desperation. "Did anybody get a good look at the truck or the driver?"

//Nobody else on this whole damn planet does or ever will...//

Scully's eyes widened at the memory, but she forced herself back to the present. "The only witness was Joyce, the secretary from the attorney's office. All she could tell us was that it was a red truck. And that it was a definite hit-and-run," she added pointedly.

"Scully, the last thing I remember is the sound of Joyce screaming hysterically," he mumbled sarcastically, aware that he was beginning to lose his battle against the medication. "Surely she's not the most reliable of witnesses."

"You were hurt. You were unconscious. Does that make you more reliable?" She squeezed his hand to take the sting out of her words, but he drew back.

"I saw what I saw 'n' I know what happ'n'd," he insisted, his speech slurring again.

"Well, without more evidence than your feelings, we simply have nothing to go on," Scully said, hurt that he had pulled away from her once again. "The police will keep looking for the driver of the vehicle, of course, but you know the odds of them finding anything are slim."

He nodded uncomfortably and shifted position to get a better look at her. Her hand had rested on the bed rail and the long sleeve of her blouse was pulled back a little. His eyes couldn't miss the darkened spot just above her right wrist.

"What's that?" he asked, gesturing toward it now.

Scully drew her hand back hastily and crossed her arms. "What's what?"

"Scully, don't bullshit me!" he said angrily. He knew exactly what he'd just seen. She'd been able to deny it at the meeting this morning, and Mulder had believed her because the Scully he knew would have pulled out her weapon and shot any man who had dared to hit her, but this was too obvious to ignore. "Those were finger marks. Did he do that to you?"

Scully glared, angry with him for noticing, angry with herself for not covering it up better. Zach had grabbed her wrist during their argument, squeezing much tighter than he should have, and she'd finally had to threaten him before he had dropped her arm remorsefully, apology in his eyes. He was a big man, she was a small woman, and occasionally when his temper got the better of him he would grab her wrist or arm a bit too firmly. How dare Mulder suggest it was anything more than that? What kind of woman did he think she had become?

"Maybe Zach and I like to play rough, Mulder, did you ever think of that?" she demanded coldly. "What business is it of yours?"

Her words hit him like a splash of icy water. He settled back into the bed, his eyes gleaming like coals. "None at all," he bit out. "What you and your husband do," he said, emphasizing the word, "is your business. I doubt he'd care for you spending your evening at another man's bedside, so why don't you just go? There's no need for us to see each other again."

He couldn't look at her as she rose from the chair and started for the door. Stopping in the doorway, she turn back as if about to speak, but his face was a stony mask and a second later she was gone.

Mulder forced himself to breathe slowly and deeply, clenching the bed rail with his right hand as hard as he could. He knew if he let himself give in to the emotions racing through him he would fall apart completely, and he was determined to keep control. Not to let her get to him. Not to shed a tear.

Chapter Three

Zachary Morrow regarded the third drawer of Dana's desk with interest. She kept it locked. In most aspects of her life Dana was open and honest, but Zach was aware that there was a depth to his wife she kept carefully hidden from him. It angered him in a way, but it also contributed to the mystique that had attracted him to her in the first place. He'd always thought Bill's baby sister was hot, but as he'd watched her grow into a woman, his admiration had turned to lust and something more. Zach wasn't madly in love with Dana--he would never make that mistake again after falling so hard for Allison, his first wife. After Allie's betrayal, Zach had sworn he'd never re-marry, but the pressure of raising a daughter alone had been incredible, and Zach missed the company. He decided he wanted someone to share his life with, if not his heart. Dana seemed the obvious choice. He'd known her forever and had always fit in well with the Scully family, and the older Dana got the more sexy and attractive she appeared to him. After that partner of hers, Mulder, had been sent to prison she had acquired a saddened look that Zach thought gave her a wiser, gentler countenance. There was something about adversity that seemed to bring out the best in his Dana.

Curiously he began to explore the desk, searching for the key to the drawer. Zach had been drinking today, and when he was drinking he wasn't himself, as he would be the first to admit. He'd also been thinking about the money again. The money that may or may not be lost to him. The question uppermost in Zachary's mind these days was whether or not Mulder had changed his will. He'd seen the two of them outside the attorney's office that day; they'd been arguing. And when Dana had arrived home from the hospital that night after visiting the bastard, she'd been very quiet. He wondered if they'd had a fight, and if the fight had led to a change in the will. There was no delicate way to ask that question, and Dana closed off every time he mentioned anything having to do with Mulder.

Having exhausted his search of the contents of the desk top and after rifling through the unlocked drawers, Zach began to run his hands absently along the underside of the desk. Sometimes, he'd been told, people would tape keys in a place like that. Not a very good hiding place, in his opinion, but still... Examining underneath the desk more thoroughly, Zach arrived at the conclusion that Dana really was smarter than the average woman. On a hunch he drew out the middle drawer and slid his hand inside, carefully feeling the surface of the wood. He was almost ready to abandon the search when his fingers grazed something. Touching it more carefully, he smiled in triumph, and a moment later withdrew a key, pieces of masking tape still clinging to its shiny surface. He drained his glass and victoriously fitted the key into third drawer, smiling when it clicked in the lock.

His smile faded when he saw the contents of the drawer. Not a thing resided there except a very large, very musty dictionary. Puzzled, he felt around and behind the book, even lifting it to look underneath, and when that yielded no results, he pulled the book from the drawer and set it in his lap. Idly he began to flip through it, not expecting to find anything, when to his surprise it fell open to reveal a photograph carefully tucked away in the middle. It was a picture of Dana with her ex-partner, obviously taken before Mulder's arrest all those years ago. Jealously Zach noted the expression of relaxed happiness on his wife's face. He couldn't recall ever seeing her look like that with him.

Drinking directly from the bottle this time, foregoing the glass, he regarded the man in the picture with contempt. Fox Mulder. The cause of so much dissension between himself and Dana. He really believed when they were married that she had gotten over the bastard. His own attraction to Dana had more than a little to do with the money she had been almost certain to inherit, but still--a man expects his wife to love him. Dana could be a little intimidating with her smarts and her adherence to science, but Zach was equally strong. He tried his best to control and subjugate her, and it only added to his excitement that he was never successful. Dana wasn't a woman to be cowed--she was a wildcat. She was also a demon in the sack when she wanted to be. Now he allowed himself to wonder if, on those occasions, it had been Mulder she saw behind her closed eyelids.

Carefully and deliberately, Zach placed the bottle of Jack Daniels on the desk beside the open dictionary. Open to 'M'. 'M' for 'Mulder'. How sweet. With a sneer he ripped the picture in half. Too bad he couldn't rip the heart right out of Mulder as easily. God knew, he had tried. The first time had cost him five hundred dollars. The guard he had paid to beat the s.o.b. had done a fine job, but he'd been interrupted before he could complete the task. He'd lost his job and Mulder had spent three weeks in the hospital recovering. The second attempt--Zach grinned coldly. That one had been for free, and the glee he'd felt at the satisfying 'thunk' of his truck bumper against Mulder's body almost compensated for the fact that the prick had survived yet again. He and Dana had had one of their worst fights ever that evening, before she'd run off to comfort the guy. She hadn't stayed out long, though, he realized now, and had been none-too-happy when she'd arrived home. She had also made fiery love to him that night, but there had been an anger in her, a passion that had nothing to do with sexual attraction. He'd thought at the time it was due to their earlier argument, but now he wondered if she'd had a spat with Mr. Perfect. It would explain a lot. Like why she hadn't seen or heard from the guy in the month since he'd been released from the hospital. At least Zach didn't think she had.

"What do you think you're doing?" The unexpected sound of her voice behind him made him jump.

"Damn it, Dana! How many times have I told you not to sneak up on me like that?" he demanded irritably as he swung around to face her.

"Zach?" she questioned, her eyes widening as they fell on the ripped picture. "Why are you going through my desk?"

He gave a short bark of laughter. "Maybe you could tell me," he began, leaning back in the chair and taking another swig of the Jack, "why my wife has a picture of another man oh-so-carefully tucked away in a drawer." His comment was deceptively mild, and Dana wondered how full the whiskey bottle had been when Zach had begun. It was two-thirds empty now, and if he'd had that much to drink--she sighed inwardly. She'd better try to get him to bed.

"Come on, Zach," she began soothingly, and flinched when he slammed his palm down forcefully on the desk, causing the pencil holder to shake.

"Don't patronize me!" he flared.

"Shh, you'll wake Emmie," she pleaded, wondering if this would be another of their memorable arguments. Usually after one of those he would roar away in a rage, truck tires squealing, and she always wondered if he would make it home alive.

"Emmie," Zach informed her in a cold voice, "is used to her mother behaving like a slut. Her real mother did the same."

Scully winced inwardly when she remembered Zach telling her the story of his first wife's death. She had been on her way to a tryst with her boyfriend when the small plane in which she was flying crashed, killing everyone on board. Emmie had been just under two years old.

"I'm not behaving like a slut, I'm trying to persuade you to stop acting like a drunk!" she returned angrily. She managed to jump aside a split second before the liquor bottle crashed into the wall behind her.

Dana stared at her husband in horror. She had never seen him like this before. She knew he'd been jealous of Mulder throughout their entire marriage, but that didn't explain why a simple photograph should send him over the edge tonight. Not long after they'd been married, back when Zach still thought he could control her, he'd even insisted she drop her efforts to help obtain Mulder's release. She had complied with his wishes in the interest of family harmony, secure in the knowledge that Skinner and the others would never give up. She'd seen ugly greed in Zach whenever Mulder's money was mentioned, and there had been extreme anger the night she had gone to the hospital to be with Mulder, but never had she witnessed this exhibition of cold, murderous fury.

Deciding the most intelligent way to handle the situation was probably to beat a hasty retreat, Scully turned to leave the room, a look of supreme disgust on her face. Zach was out of the chair like a shot.

"Not so fast," he growled, grabbing her arm just above the wrist and jerking her around to face him. She stared at his fingers gripping her forearm, marking her exactly as she'd been marked the night she'd seen Mulder in the hospital. She raised dangerous eyes to his.

"Let me go," she hissed in a deadly voice. Zach dropped her wrist and she turned away, missing the pure hatred that darkened his features. She never saw the first blow coming.

Mulder struggled to rise out of sleep enough to answer the ringing phone. Groping on the nightstand for it, he finally located it and managed to push the appropriate button.

"H'lo," he mumbled, yawning and rubbing at his eyes with his free hand. He sat up straight in bed when he heard the sound of Maggie Scully's voice.

It was a sound he'd heard frequently in the past month--she had called him several times a week just to chat with him, seeming to understand that he still had feelings for her daughter--but this time it was different. She'd always sounded happy when she spoke to him before but tonight there was a tone of hush in her voice that frightened him. It spoke of tragedy.

"Fox, you should come down to the hospital right away," she said, and he could hear the tears she was fighting back.

"Mrs. Scully, what's happened?" he demanded, feeling the old familiar terror beginning to squeeze at his chest. Forcing himself to breathe evenly, he switched on the lamp beside the bed. Things always seemed worse in the darkness.

"She's going to be all right, Fox, I don't want you to worry--"

"Is it Scully--Dana?" he asked anxiously, glaring at his fingers and inwardly ordering the tingling in them to disappear. He knew the signs of an impending panic attack well, and he simply didn't have time for one now.

"She's been beaten. She and Zachary got into an argument, and he--"

"Where is she?" he interrupted harshly, already climbing out of bed and searching for his clothes. "What hospital?"

He listened while she told him the details, then threw the phone to the bed and began dressing. He really thought he had himself under control until the vision of Scully's lifeless, battered body swam unbidden before him. His eyes widened and with a loud gasp he found himself sinking to the floor, all his strength draining away.

"No, no, no," he heard himself murmuring from a distance, and with the part of his brain that hadn't yet shut down he reached again for the telephone. He knew he needed help. He had to call the man who had become his lifeline.

Skinner answered the phone somewhat grumpily, never at his best when awakened suddenly. For a moment Mulder was afraid he'd made a mistake, but by then he was beyond retreat. Skinner was equipped with Caller ID.

"Mulder?" Skinner asked when no sound came from the line. "Mulder, is that you? Is everything okay?"

"Scully," Mulder managed, desperately working to take in enough air.

"What about Scully?" Skinner asked soothingly. He was concerned for Dana, but right now his primary goal was calming Mulder before the man did something rash and injured himself.

"She's been hurt."

Skinner could hear Mulder's labored breathing over the wire. "How badly?" he asked, sitting up and switching on a light. It was already apparent that sleep was over for the night.

"I--I don't know--her mom called--"

"All right, Mulder. Is Scully in the hospital?"

More breathing. "Yeah."

Skinner headed for the bathroom, grabbing up clothing as he went. "Then you hang up the phone, get dressed, and sit tight. I will be there to pick you up in twenty minutes and we'll go together. Do not try to drive in this condition. Do you understand me, Mulder?"

There was silence for a minute, then a weak, "Yes, Sir."

"All right. Go and get dressed now. I'll be right there."

Skinner threw on clean clothes and hurried out the door, fearful that Mulder might disregard his directions and try to drive himself to the hospital anyway. The last thing he wanted was a near-hysterical Mulder in control of a vehicle.

To his relief, he arrived to find Mulder waiting quietly and obediently, fully dressed, his panic apparently under control for the moment. Skinner ushered Mulder out to his car and, after ascertaining exactly where Scully was hospitalized, drove there silently. He was sure he would get a more coherent account from Maggie Scully than from Mulder. The pale face of the man in the seat beside him was grim and firmly set, and silently forbade conversation.

When they reached the hospital they were quickly directed to Scully's room, and as they approached it they met her mother coming down the hallway. She was finishing a conversation with a doctor when she caught sight of them, and her relieved smile gave Skinner hope that Scully might not be badly injured after all.

"How is she?" Mulder asked in a rush, his eyes glancing toward the nearby hospital room.

"She's going to be all right, Fox. He didn't manage to hurt her too badly, probably because he was drunk. I guess his aim was off," she said bitterly.

"Can I see her?"

"She's asleep, but you can go on in if you like." He hurried toward the door she indicated. "Fox!" she called suddenly, a thought occurring to her.

Mulder turned back, his hand already on the doorknob.

"She looks bad. A lot worse than she is."

He nodded and slipped inside. At first he couldn't bring himself to look at the figure in the hospital bed. His ears took in the softly beeping monitors, one delivering pain medication and another attached to an IV bag. There was a catheter bag hanging from the bed and Mulder felt his stomach churn when he caught the tinge of red in her urine. The bastard must have damaged her kidneys in some way.

Finally he forced himself to raise his eyes slowly, allowing them to creep up the blanket hanging off the bed, over the raised bedrail and finally come to rest on what should have been her face. It was half-covered with gauze, a few wisps of her hair creeping out from underneath. One eye was completely hidden. The arm that lay across her chest was already marked with those familiar finger-bruises that Mulder had seen before.

Unconsciously backing away in horror from the image of Scully in this condition, Mulder felt his back hit the wall. He raised his hands to his face to block out the vision and heard himself moaning as if from a far distance. Knowing he was losing control but utterly unable to prevent it, Mulder slid slowly down the wall, tears forming in his covered eyes, as his knees gave out completely.

This could not be happening. She was supposed to be the one constant--even if he couldn't have her he could know with certainty that she was out there, happy, alive and vital. This woman who lay before him breathing shallowly, the beauty of her face marred by bandages, could not possibly be his Scully. Of course, he reminded himself dimly, she wasn't *his* Scully any longer. If she were, she wouldn't be here. He would never have hurt her, never have harmed her in any way and that bastard--

His fists clenched and he was filled with a rage that he hadn't felt in a long time. The urge to take a life simply because the owner of that life didn't deserve to exist was coursing through him, and for a moment Mulder considered how good it would feel to put his gun to Zachary Morrow's forehead and pull the trigger. In the next instant he felt Skinner pull his hands away from his face and stared up at the man in horror. Had he really been considering--? But no, Mulder knew deep in his heart that tracking down Morrow and killing him was out of the question, no matter how satisfying it might sound. There was no way in hell he would risk going back to prison.

"Mulder, are you okay?" Skinner asked anxiously, helping his friend to his feet. "Come over here, sit down."

Mulder allowed Skinner to lead him to the other side of the bed and lower him to a chair. Mrs. Scully appeared at his side with a cup of cool water, which he accepted with a muttered, "Thanks." After taking a minute to compose himself, Mulder let his eyes stray back to Scully.

She didn't look as bad from this side. There were faint bruises on the area of her face that was visible, but for the most part it looked normal. The hand that lay at her side was unmarked as well, and slowly Mulder reached out his own and laced his fingers through hers.

"Scully," he murmured, leaning forward to catch the whisper of her breathing. The steady rise and fall of her chest reassured him. Finally he turned to Maggie and asked, "How badly is she hurt?"

She explained Scully's wounds to him, none of which were too serious, and he began to relax a bit.

"She's going to need your strength, Fox," she told him, patting him on the shoulder. "She always did depend on you."

He stared up at her for a moment, swallowed hard, then turned his gaze back to his ex-partner's tiny form. He was supposed to be strong? How? He had no strength left for himself any longer. Scully had always been the one who carried him on her back during bad times. She'd been a fountain of strength when he was ready to lie down and give up, and her determination had brought him through more than one rough patch.

He barely noticed when Skinner and Mrs. Scully left the room, so engrossed was he with his thoughts. If I'd only told her, he kept berating himself. If I'd only told her how I felt that day at the prison instead of turning her away, she wouldn't be here now. She would have waited for me, I know it. She'd have waited forever if I'd given her something to wait for. Instead I drove her right into the arms of another man, one who hurt her. If only I hadn't lied.

Mulder bit back the sob that wanted to escape. His fault. This was his fault for not being honest with her, or with himself. Scully was a grown woman, she was capable of making her own decisions about what to do with her life, but he had taken that right away from her. He had made the decision for both of them, and it had been the wrong one. In an effort to relieve himself of guilt he had brought them both to this point--Scully was married to a man she didn't love, a man who had managed to injure her finally, while he was as lost in his own life as a sailboat adrift at sea.

No more lies, he told himself firmly. Ever. From now on I'll be honest with her and with myself. I'll tell her how I feel, even if it means losing a little dignity. She may not feel the same, but I'd rather lose her honestly than to a lie.

That decided, Mulder lay his head on her bed, beside their clasped hands, and eventually drifted into a restless sleep.


The voice penetrated her consciousness through a blue haze as she fought to identify it. Struggling, she was at last able to open one eye, gradually realizing that the other was covered with gauze. Finally focusing, Scully located the source of the voice.

"Mulder?" she murmured weakly.

He tenderly brushed back a tendril of hair that had fallen over her forehead and smiled. "Welcome back."

"How...how did I get here?" she asked, her uncovered eye scanning what she could see of the room.

His smile disappeared. "A neighbor heard the commotion and called the police," he told her seriously. "It's a good thing she did or that bastard might have killed you."

The eye closed, as if blocking out the memory. She swallowed and a moment later Mulder pressed a spoonful of ice chips to her lips. Gratefully she accepted his offering, sucking slowly as the ice melted. When her throat was sufficiently lubricated she spoke again.


"In jail," Mulder told her bluntly. "Right where he belongs."

"Mulder, he tried--"

"He tried to kill you, Scully."

She shook her head in frustration. "He tried to kill *you*, Mulder. He's the one."

Mulder's eyes widened as he made the connection. "The driver who hit me?"

She nodded.

"Are you sure, Scully?"

She smiled grimly. "I can't prove it, but I had my suspicions before. I examined his truck, but..."

"That truck was so big my scrawny self probably didn't even make a dent," he finished wryly.

"There was a dent," she told him, and gave a real smile at his expression. "Very small. I couldn't prove anything, I still can't. But I know, Mulder."

His turn to nod. "You're probably right," he agreed. "What made you suspect him, though?"

She waited, gathering her strength and her thoughts. The conversation was tiring, but it was the first time in years Mulder had spoken to her as if she were human, and she didn't want it to end. He seemed like the old Mulder, the one she missed. The one she had loved.

"His truck," she explained softly. "Big red truck, just like the witness described. And he was angry at losing the money."

His eyebrows shot up again. "My money?"

"Bill told him about it. But there was no evidence, and I...didn't want to believe he was capable."

"And yet, he was capable of this," he pointed out, indicating her bruised and battered body.

She shifted uncomfortably. "I know what you're thinking, Mulder, but you're wrong. He's never hit me before."

It was clear he didn't believe her. "C'mon, Scully, this kind of thing doesn't just happen overnight. There must have been some signs of it. I saw the bruises on you before."

"But those were different." She saw his expression and suddenly it became very important that she convince Mulder she was telling the truth. "He would grab me a little too hard," she confessed, "when we were fighting, usually. But Mulder, I swear, he's never raised a hand to hurt me before. Those other things were done in the heat of the moment. Zach would just forget his own strength when he was caught up in an argument. And he was always sorry afterwards," she insisted, her visible eye drifting to the television set, the window, the bare wall--anything was better than facing him and seeing his disappointment in her.

His fingers reached out and gently swiped away the tear that escaped her. Firmly she fought back the ones that wanted to follow. Mulder settled back in his chair, as if realizing the subject had grown unbearably uncomfortable. Sniffing, she focused her gaze on him at last.

"So why are you here?" she asked, the gentleness of her tone softening the words.

A little smile. "Because I want to be. Because I needed to be. Because I decided to stop lying."

She shifted again to give herself a better view, and winced at the sharp pain through her ribs. "Lying?" she asked.

He pursed his lips for a moment, as if deep in thought, then fixed her with his steady eyes. "To both of us. I know I said I didn't want to see you again, but it was a lie, Scully. I did want to see you, because I...I'm still in love with you," he finished in a rush.

"Oh, Mulder--"

"I know you don't feel the same," he continued, holding up his hand to stop her, "and I want you to know that I'm okay with that. It's not what I want, of course, but I understand. You have a husband--"

"Not for long," she inserted bitterly.

That stopped him. "You're filing?" he asked, his chest tightening with hope.

"Mulder, I told you I'd never loved him like--well, like I should. This whole thing has really brought home to me what a mistake I've made with my life. I should have been stronger when I was weak." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "I should have waited for you."

"Oh, Scully, I should have let you," he whispered, and lowered his head to the crook of his arm, leaning forward onto her bed. She carefully stretched her hand to reach his hair and stroked it gently. After a moment he raised a face to her that was, thankfully, dry.

"You know, it's almost funny in a way," he observed as her fingers trailed down his face and returned to the bed.

"What is?"

"Of all the things 'They' did to us, the worst thing of all we did to ourselves."

She smiled sadly. "Are you saying we let them win?"

"They don't have to win, Scully. The outcome depends upon us as well. The game isn't over until we stop playing. Or until we're dead.

'No matter how the winds may blow or waves that swell against us, We will still our journey on and reach the farthest shore ahead of twilight...'"

Her eye filled this time. "That's beautiful, Mulder. What's it from?"

He looked surprised at her question. "I don't remember."

She laughed through her tears at the comically shocked look on his face. Mulder didn't remember everything, of course, but damn near, and to hear a confession like that from him was completely out of character. It even surprised him, apparently.

"Something I learned in junior high school, I think," he told her lightly. "The point is, we're only defeated if we say we're defeated."

"You mean until they make you cry 'uncle'?" she asked, amused.

He smiled. "Nobody ever has, although I've been close a time or two," he told her lightly. "So let's keep playing the game, Scully. Let's keep playing until we win."

"Or until we die."

He nodded.

"Well, Mulder, unless you're planning to go back to investigating government conspiracies and the paranormal, there's no reason for anyone to want us dead any longer."

"Except Zach."

"And he's in jail. And I *will* be pressing charges against him." She repositioned herself again, more carefully this time. "Are you planning to go back to investigating government conspiracies and the paranormal?"

He threaded his fingers together and rested his chin on them, a faraway look in his eye. "Not right now. In fact, right now I don't have any plans at all. I'm sort of...drifting. I bought a house, though, so I'm out of Skinner's hair--so to speak."

She ignored his attempt to change the subject. "How long are you planning to drift?"

He sat back in the chair and bit his lip for a moment, and she could tell he was waging an inner battle against his 'no more lies' policy. Finally he spoke, and from his tone she knew it was the truth.

"I never thought of myself as a coward, Scully, but now I think I must be one."

"How so?" she asked, reaching to capture his hand. She sensed the difficulty this conversation was causing him, but it was time for the two of them to sweep away the baggage between them. Time to start rebuilding their relationship, in whatever form it might take.

"Remember all those times I said I wasn't afraid of them?" She inclined her head in assent. "Well I'm afraid of them now. I'm afraid because I know what they can do--and what they won't do. I used to think that if I got to be too much trouble, they'd just kill me, but now--now I know they won't. They'll send me to hell instead."

"You don't think they'd try to send you back?"

He shook his head slowly. "I don't know. I don't want to find out. I *won't* find out. I do know this--I'll commit suicide before I'll go back to prison, ever." The words were more forceful than he'd intended, and Scully felt her body chill at their vehemence. He really meant it.

"And what about Samantha? What about your father? Melissa? What was done to me, what was done to you? Are you just giving up on all that?" Her voice held no anger, only a question, but it frightened her to think that Mulder may have lost his passion.

"Melissa's dead, and so is my father. No truth, no answer will ever bring them back. As for Samantha--how many years have I been searching for answers about her, only to come up with nothing? I've been told so many conflicting stories about my sister that I don't know who or what to believe."

"So you've decided to believe in nothing?"

He sighed. "Right now it's all I can do to work up a belief in myself."

She might have said more, but the door to her room opened and Maggie Scully entered.


"Dana, you're awake! Fox, why didn't you call me?" the woman asked reproachfully, but her eyes smiled at Mulder.

"I--we were just talking," Mulder stammered, still not quite at ease around Scully's mother. He didn't know yet if Scully was aware of her visit to him while he was in the hospital the month before, or of the numerous supportive phone calls he had received from Maggie since. Some days they had been all that kept him going. Mulder knew without the encouragement of her, the guys and especially Skinner, he'd have been a basket case by now.

Maggie smiled fully then, taking the chair he had vacated beside her daughter. "How are you feeling, sweetheart?" she asked Dana.

"Stupid," Dana told her flatly.

"Oh, now--"

"No, Mom, you were right about him all along."

"No." The word was said abruptly. "Don't give me too much credit, Dana. If I'd ever have suspected Zachary would do anything like this to you, I'd have found a way to somehow prevent your marriage. I didn't see this coming either."

Scully tried to glance at Mulder, to see if he was picking up on this, but couldn't find him without turning her head, which just hurt too much.

"All those years he was a friend of your brother," Mrs. Scully was continuing, "all those times I welcomed him into our home, and then to have him do something like this to my daughter..."

"Mom, he was drunk, he wasn't himself--"

"Don't make excuses for him, Scully!" Mulder ordered sharply from the corner where he'd retreated. He came back into her view, realizing she wasn't able to see him. "Most people have gotten drunk at one time or another. That's no reason to beat the shit out of your wife." His voice was unforgiving, and Scully knew no matter how she tried she would never get him to see the situation from Zachary's point of view. Not that Zach didn't deserve to be punished, oh he certainly did, and she meant to see that it happened. But he wasn't one hundred percent guilty either, she reasoned. After all, she had married him, knowing she was in love with another man.

"Fox is right, Dana. There is no excuse under the sun for this." Maggie's face was hardened, and Scully suddenly, achingly remembered the only other times she had seen that expression on her mother. Melissa's death. Her father's death. It brought home to her how close Maggie thought she had been to losing her only remaining daughter.

"I know," Scully whispered then, closing her good eye. "I know you're right. Both of you. Mulder?" She sought him out again. "Could you look me up a good divorce attorney? I'd like to get things started right away."

He grinned, a real Mulder grin. The first one she'd seen in--God, how long had it been? Years. "I'll call Pamela today and ask her to recommend one," he said, referring to his own attorney.

Scully remembered Pamela Mondale well. She was tall, slightly heavy but with a face and demeanor so cheerful that her tendency toward overweight was scarcely noticeable. She'd had the remarkable ability to put her clients at ease immediately, Scully recalled. Everyone involved in Mulder's case had instantly known Pamela would give everything she had to defend Mulder. Scully had no doubt that, in a fair fight, Pamela would have easily managed to get Mulder acquitted.

"And now I should be going," he told her, coming over to lean down and kiss her cheek. She relished the soft touch of his lips on her skin. This was something else they'd lost, something nobody had taken away from them but that they'd managed to sacrifice themselves. Maybe they could get it back.

He raised his head and started to straighten up, but she reached behind his neck and pulled him back down to her. She returned the kiss on his own cheek, then softly whispered in his ear, so softly only he could hear her, "I believe in you, Mulder."

He stood, averting his eyes, and she understood that it was because of the rush of emotion engulfing him. She'd almost made him cry. That hadn't been her intention, but it was important to her that Mulder know he could count on her belief even when he couldn't count on his own. Just like in the old days. With a quick peck on Maggie's cheek as well, Mulder left the room without looking back.

"What the hell are you doing here?"

The unwelcome voice hit him like a brick wall as he exited Scully's hospital room. Raising his eyes from the floor, Mulder gazed directly into the angry face of her brother, Bill. He looked scruffy, tired, and Mulder realized he must have driven up from Norfolk as soon as he heard the news.

"Don't worry, I'm leaving," he said, attempting to step around Bill. He didn't want to have a confrontation here in the hospital, and certainly not right outside Scully's door. He made a face of impatience when Bill moved to block him. "Excuse me," he said levelly, meeting the other man's eyes and forcing himself not to back down.

"You're the cause of this, you know," Bill informed him. "Just one more thing you've done to my family."

Instead of defending himself, Mulder decided it might be best to let Bill get it out of his system now. He intended to be at the hospital as much as he could while Scully was recovering, so her brother would have to get used to his presence, or at least learn to live with it.

"The only reason Zach was drinking was because of you!" Bill hissed, lowering his voice a little when he saw a nurse staring at him. "He found that picture of the two of you together. It upset him so much he got drunk, and then he and Dana had an argument--also about you--and one thing led to another."

"One thing led to another?" Mulder asked, amazed at Bill's capacity to blame him for everything under the sun. He wondered dimly just how world hunger and overpopulation could be his fault, but had no doubt Bill could use circuitous logic to pin it on him if the chance arose.

"Yes. And now Zach's life is ruined, Dana's life is ruined, and it's all because of you."

"And how do you know all of this?" Mulder questioned.

"Because I've just come from seeing Zach. He's really broken up about this. He feels terrible. I just hope I can talk Dana out of doing anything stupid before you convince her to take action."

Mulder had reached the end of his endurance. Face darkening, he stepped closer to Bill, who instinctively took a step backwards and found himself pressed against the wall with his enemy uncomfortably close.

"Are you telling me," Mulder began ominously, "that after driving half the night from Norfolk because your sister is in the hospital, you first went to visit the man who put her there?"

"I wanted to get his side of the story. I'd want to kill any man who hurt my sister, you of all people should know that. But Zach and I have been friends for a long time, and he's not the kind of person--"

"And are you furthermore telling me that you plan on trying to convince her *not* to divorce this sonofabitch?" Mulder's voice remained dangerously low but he pressed slightly closer to Bill, enjoying the shift of discomfort his nearness prompted.

"I don't expect *you* to understand our faith, Mulder, but we have strong beliefs about the sanctity of marriage. Besides," Bill insisted, staring at a spot over Mulder's shoulder, "Divorce isn't the answer. Marriage counseling--"

Mulder went on as if Bill hadn't spoken. "And as for Zach feeling terrible--your sister is in a lot of pain right now because of that man. She's covered in bruises, her face is a mess, she has a cracked rib, and it's all because of him. I'm so happy to hear *he* feels terrible. Want to know how much pain medication your sister is on?"

Bill's face registered his disgust. He put his hands on Mulder's chest and shoved him back a few steps. Turning away, he flung over his shoulder, "At least I know where my sister is, Mulder. I didn't lose mine, the way you did."

There was an audible gasp from the doorway of Scully's room, and both men turned suddenly to find Mrs. Scully standing there, the glare on her face reserved for Bill. He had the grace to flush and look guilty, at least. She retreated back into the hospital room, closing the door firmly, and Bill made as if to follow her.

Mulder felt his stomach drop to his shoes, both at Bill's words and Maggie's overhearing them, but wasn't about to let the bastard walk away with a cheap shot like that. Reaching out he grabbed Bill by the arm and swung him around. "If you go in there and encourage Dana to stay with the man who did this to her you might just experience the pain of losing a sister yourself," he warned.

Bill dropped his eyes to Mulder's hand, then shook it off and entered Scully's room without another word. Mulder leaned against the wall, eyes tightly shut and fists clenched against the shaking, carefully concentrating on his respirations. Slow and steady, slow and steady, he told himself.

"It's the new me," he muttered sarcastically. The difficult honesty he'd displayed with Scully and now this confrontation with Bill had drained him emotionally. Since his release from prison he'd only been required to exhibit such a show of assertiveness once, when he'd told Skinner he was moving out. The older man had not been pleased, being of the opinion that Mulder still wasn't ready to be on his own, but Mulder had refused to retreat. Finally Skinner had managed to make a deal with Mulder--he wouldn't try to stop the younger man from leaving if Mulder would promise to get some counseling. He'd shoved a business card into Mulder's hand--Mulder had realized later that Skinner had been planning to hit him with it soon anyway--with the name of a therapist.

"She's good. She's worked with people who've been in prison. And I hear she won't jerk you around," Skinner had added with a smile. "I'd appreciate it if you'd return the favor."

Mulder had dropped his eyes to the card, simultaneously angry at what he percieved as presumption on Skinner's part and awed by the depth of compassion and understanding this man with the gruff exterior could exhibit. At last, in order to keep peace and because he didn't want to alienate one of his few friends, Mulder had nodded agreement. Mulder had begun looking for a house the next day, and Skinner had been supportive when he finally announced he'd found one to his liking. It wasn't far from Skinner's apartment, which made the AD breathe a secret sigh of relief. He was certain Mulder had more crises in his future, both major and minor, and he didn't want to be too far away to help out when needed.

Closing a deal on a house when paying cash didn't take long at all, they found, and within two weeks Mulder was moved in, if not settled. He'd been happily living out of boxes ever since, putting things away when the mood struck him but mostly just enjoying his independence. He liked Skinner, had found his company entertaining, but he hated feeling like a burden. It was bad enough to have to call on him for the occasional pep talk, which Mulder congratulated himself on being smart enough to do. He knew that after years of being imprisoned he couldn't simply go it alone all at once. Skinner had made it plain that, should Mulder need him and not call, he would make Mulder very sorry, and though the words had been spoken in a jesting tone, Mulder sensed the underlying steel beneath them. So when he needed help, he'd called. The last thing Mulder wanted was to get on Skinner's bad side.

Dana looked up as her brother entered her room, smiling through the bandages.

"Bill," she said, reaching out a hand for him.

"How are you, Dana?" he asked softly, moving to take a seat beside the bed.

"How is she? Just look at her!" said their mother furiously, turning from the window where she'd been standing. "That friend of yours could have killed her!"


"Don't 'Mom' me, Bill. I've already lost one daughter and I am not about to lose another." The fierceness behind the quiet words shook Bill.

"It wasn't Zach's fault about Melissa," he pointed out.

Scully rolled the eye that was visible. "Don't start in on Mulder, Bill," she warned weakly. All the activity of the morning had begun to wear on her strength and she knew she wasn't up for an argument.

Bill smiled, rubbing the back of her hand. "I'm not here to cause a problem, Dana," he told her gently. "I came to see how you were."

"I'll live," she said dryly.

He nodded. "I've...seen Zach," he told her hesitantly.

She stared at him. "You went to see Zach? This morning?"

"Yeah, I--you know, just wanted to give the guy a chance to explain himself, Dana."

She shifted a little in the bed and he noted the wince as her ribs pained her. "There's nothing to explain," she told him coldly.


"No, Bill. He lost control and like Mom said, he could have killed me." She stared straight ahead at the wall, refusing to even glance his way, the section of her face that was visible set grimly.

"Has he ever done anything like this before?" he prodded quietly. When she didn't answer he went on, "Dana, you know he loves you. He just...lost his temper. I know that's no excuse," he added quickly, raising his hand to stop the angry words he saw about to spill from her lips. "He's sorry--hell Dana, the guy is devastated. He's so disgusted with himself for doing this to you, and he's so afraid...he's going to lose you."

"He is going to lose me," she told him firmly, steel in her blue eye. "He's already lost me. It's just a matter of paperwork."

He was shaking his head before she finished. "Don't do this, Dana. Don't make any hasty decisions--"

At that Maggie Scully had had enough. "How can you say that?" she demanded of her son. "How can you look at your sister lying in a hospital bed and tell her the man who did this to her loves her?" She clenched the rail of the bed so tightly her hands went white. "He never loved her, not really. It was the money he thought she might inherit that he cared for."

Bill managed to look shocked. "Mom, that's not true!" he protested.

"It is, you know it is," Maggie insisted. "Bill, you're not as blind as all that."

"Still, divorce may not be the answer," he said stubbornly after a moment of shocked silence. "She needs to talk to Father McCue--"

"Will you two please stop!" Scully demanded, gathering all her strength into her voice. "This is *my* decision and *nobody* has a say in it except me!"

Bill turned to glare at her. "What about Mulder?" he questioned angrily. "You'll listen to his advice and ignore your own family!"

She stared him down until he dropped his eyes to the blanket covering her.

"Bill, I know you mean well," she said firmly. "Both of you do, but I'm far too old to be told what to do. I won't stay married to a man who tried to kill me, and I can't believe God would want me to."

"What about Emmie?" her mother asked anxiously. "If Zachary's in jail who will take care of her?"

"She can probably stay with Zach's parents until I get out of the hospital," Dana returned. "Then she can live with me unless the courts forbid it for some reason."

"After the divorce is final there won't be any guarantee that you'll have custody of her," Bill reminded her. "If you send Zach away--"

"I'm pressing charges, Bill, that's final. Don't try to talk me out of it."

"I'm only saying you ought to think of the child."

He took her hand and she let him, not returning the squeeze he gave her fingers but not pulling away either. "What do you think I should do, Bill?" she asked finally. "Tell me exactly."

"I think you should forgive him," Bill told her promptly. "I think you should go for some marriage counseling--no, Dana, hear me out," he overrode her as she tried to interrupt. "You two can work this out, I know it. You said yourself he's never raised a hand to you before, what makes you think he will again?"

"Why should I let him have another chance?" she demanded. "What will he do to me next time he gets drunk and angry?"

"He won't get drunk again. He promised me he'd go to AA. And as for angry...if you'd get rid of the pictures of Mulder, cut that guy out of your life for good, there wouldn't be anything for him to get angry about."

"He found a picture," she told him in a low, fierce voice. "He pried into my personal things and found a picture of me with a man I worked with very closely for years. If that's all it takes to set him off--"

"Enough!" Mrs. Scully interrupted. "Bill, you're only upsetting her. Dana's old enough to make her own decisions."

Bill stood abruptly, then bent to kiss his sister on the cheek. "I hope you know I love you, Dana," he told her softly. "I'd never urge you to do anything I thought was bad for you."

She sighed. "I know that, Bill, but I don't think you fully understand the situation."

He shook his head and left the room, and Scully was suddenly transported back to another day, another time, when she lay dying in a hospital bed and had had almost the same conversation with Bill. He hadn't wanted to open his mind then, either, having already accepted her death as fact. He'd been resistant to the possible remedy Mulder had presented because it was something neither he nor the doctor had encountered before. It was a stark contrast between her brother and Mulder--one always ready to believe and one sure he already had all the answers.

She glanced over at her mother. "Mom, what do you think I should do?" she asked, wondering what answer the staunchly religious Maggie Scully would give.

Mrs. Scully pulled the chair close to the bed and clasped her daughter's hand tightly. "I think you should reach the decision that's right for you," she said simply. "Your brother may not approve of it, but Dana, nobody has to live with it except you. Trust in God, honey. He understands more than we give Him credit for, I'm sure of it."

Dana smiled through the tears that suddenly flooded her eyes, and her mother wiped them away gently. "No matter your decision, I will always love you, baby," she said.

Scully clutched blindly at her mother's hand. "I know, Mom. I've always known that. Even when we had our differences."

The knock at the door ended their moment, and Maggie smiled when she saw Mulder's head appear.

"If I'm interrupting--" he began hesitantly, but she motioned him inside.

"Come on in, Fox. I need to step out for a bit anyway, and I'd be more comfortable if you could sit with her."

"Sure, Mrs. Scully, I'm happy to," he told her, taking the seat she vacated, and watched while she left the room, closing the door behind her.

"So. Did you and Bill have a knockdown dragout fight in the hall?" Scully asked with the ghost of an impish smile.

He laughed shortly. "Not quite, but we did come close." He leaned intently forward. "I called Pamela and she's sending an attorney friend of hers over here to talk to you this afternoon. Scully, I think you might want to consider a restraining order."

She wrinkled her brow. "Why, Mulder? I'm going to press charges against Zach, he's staying in jail."

"Bill's on his way to post bail right now."

"What! Did he tell you that?"

Mulder shook his head. "No, but I just know. And I think you're the first person Zach's going to want to talk to when he's released."

She pursed her lips thoughtfully, then glanced over at him. "What do you think will happen, Mulder? You've obviously spent some time thinking this through."

He sat back in the chair and crossed his legs. "I think he's going to come here and try to convince you how sorry he is. I think he's going to promise you anything you want to hear in order to avoid a divorce."

"Why?" she asked. "He doesn't love me, not really. Why would he be so determined to stay married to me?"

He smiled. "Simple. You're still named as the heir in my will. Somehow I suspect Bill has informed him of this."

Her mouth dropped open slightly. "Still?"

He shrugged. "There's no one else I'd want to leave the damned money to, Scully." He grinned. "After all you went through with me and all you put up with out of me, you deserve it."

"Mulder, you have to change it," she told him urgently. "Change it and make it very well known that you have. Otherwise, you'll still be a target."

"Not if he's in jail. You'll send him there, and I'll be very careful until then."

She shook her head, a thoughtful look on her face. "No," she said slowly, "I think this might go a lot deeper than you realize."

He felt his stomach tighten again. "What do you mean?" he asked, trying to keep his voice neutral.

"Something I remember Emmie saying..." Scully's brow furrowed as she reached for the memory of her step-daughter's chatter. "She had a phrase she liked to use for a while, I remember it because it annoyed me. 'His ass is dead'."

Mulder laughed, surprised he could feel amusement at a time like this.

Scully gave him a mock glare. "You can laugh, Mulder, you've never been embarrassed in the middle of the grocery store by a four year old!"

"Okay," he grinned, "but what does that have to do with Zach? Or me?"

"Emmie told me where she heard that phrase, and I'm trying to remember..." She gnawed on her lip, feeling the memory slowly make its way back to her befuddled mind.

"Zach gave him money," she finally recalled. "Emmie said her daddy gave a policeman a dollar--"

"A dollar?"

"But she's just a little girl, Mulder. She recognizes a dollar, but it could have been any amount of paper money."

"But why a policeman? I still don't understand--"

"Maybe it wasn't really a policeman," Scully told him softly. "Maybe it was a prison guard."

Mulder froze, his eyes wide and staring. "You mean the one who beat me?" he finally asked, keeping the tremor out of his voice with supreme willpower. It wouldn't do to let Scully know how frightened he was at the idea that Zach might have been behind his attempted murder.

"It was right around that time that you were hurt so badly that Emmie trotted out her favorite phrase," she confirmed, taking his hand again and squeezing it comfortingly.

"Shit, Scully!" he breathed softly, feeling the knot of fear grow. "Do you think it could be true?"

She nodded somberly. "I'm afraid it might be. He's always had an inordinate interest in your money, Mulder."

"What can we do about it?" he asked, helplessly running a hand through his short hair, grown out a little now. Angrily he told himself that there was a time he'd have come up with an iron-clad solution to a problem like this one, but he wasn't that man anymore. The Fox Mulder who had been able to quickly handle complex equations like this one had died on the day the guilty verdict was handed down. Today's Mulder could sometimes barely make it from day to day, let alone evade a killer.

"We should tell the police--"

"No!" he interrupted sharply. "No police. I'm done with them for the rest of my life."


"Scully, I don't trust them. We already know they can be bought," he added bitterly. "I don't want to have anything to do with law enforcement. Besides, we can't prove a thing, can we?"

She shook her head regretfully. "I guess not."

"So what are my other options?" He was pacing now, jumping up to stride back and forth across the room with agitation. "How can I protect myself from him?"

"Like I said, change your will. Change it now, Mulder, today, as soon as you possibly can."

He paused, turning to her for reassurance. "Do you think that will deter him?"

She shrugged. "I can't imagine Zach would want to kill you if he had nothing to gain from it."

He looked at her uncertainly, thoughts running quickly through his mind. "Maybe," he finally agreed. "Maybe."

Chapter Four

Mulder opened the door to his new house and stood back carefully to allow Scully to enter. She was better, but still walking a bit slowly. Silently he thanked the stars he'd been able to persuade her to stay with him while she recuperated from her injuries. The obvious answer had been for her to go to her mother's, but Scully had been reluctant to impose. He suspected it was because she was weary of family discussion about her impending divorce. Even though Mrs. Scully had told her daughter she should make her own decision, Mulder knew deep inside she had trouble reconciling that with her deep religious beliefs, and the conflict was beginning to wear on Scully. Knowing she had nowhere else to go, he'd offered her his second bedroom and she'd accepted with visible relief.

He had held his peace about Zachary, knowing when Scully made up her mind to do something it was done. The divorce papers had been filed already, and now they were simply waiting on the court system, typically backlogged. According to Rick Lee, Scully's attorney, the quickest they would be able to get their case before a judge would be two months from now. In the meantime, she had followed Mulder's advice and taken out a restraining order against her soon-to-be-ex husband. It hadn't happened quickly enough to protect her from his visit, however, and Mulder still got a tightness to his jaw when he thought of Zach at Scully's bedside.

He'd shown up at the hospital late that afternoon after Bill had posted his bail, bearing flowers and wearing a forlorn expression. Mulder had watched him enter Scully's room from the end of the hall where the coffee machine was located, and had immediately taken up residence outside her door should his assistance be required. After less than ten minutes Zach had come storming out of the room, glared spitefully when he caught sight of Mulder, and left the hospital without a word. When Mulder had crept carefully back into Scully's room, unsure what he would find, he had been pleased to see a triumphant smile on her face.

"He tried to threaten me with Emmie," she reported. "He said he'd never let me see her again."

"What did you tell him?" Mulder had asked curiously.

"I said that unless he wanted Emmie raised by strangers, I was his only option once he was sent to jail. His parents are in poor health. They can't take care of her."

"I take it he was less than thrilled with that response?" he commented dryly.

"He was livid," she replied, satisfaction in her voice. "Do me a favor, Mulder, throw those in the trash, would you?" she asked, indicating the bouquet Zach had left on the bedside table.

Mulder had been happy to oblige.

Now Scully looked around the living room of his new home, her face registering a combination of exasperation and familiar affection. "Not quite finished moving in?" she asked, one eyebrow raised. The bandages had been removed from her face, and the bruises and swelling were just beginning to diminish. The vision in her left eye had cleared, for which they were both thankful, but she was still sore all over and the cracked rib would take time to heal.

Quickly Mulder moved a pile of old magazines from the couch so she would have a comfortable place to sit. Scully accepted his helping hand gratefully, sinking with relief onto the leather. Absently she rubbed her hand over the arm of the couch for a minute, then looked up at him with a wistful smile.

"This sure brings back memories," she told him softly.

He nodded, unable to speak for the moment. It had brought back a lot of his own memories as well. He'd actually considered sleeping on it as he used to, but after living at Skinner's place for so many weeks he'd learned to appreciate the luxury of comfortably stretching out his six-foot frame. One of his first purchases after signing the papers on his house had been a king-sized bed. Mulder decided he was never again going to sleep on anything that reminded him of a prison cot. He still loved his couch, but it was no longer his bed. The other bedrooms he hadn't gotten around to furnishing quite yet, so the day before, once Scully had agreed to be his houseguest, he'd made a hasty trip to a furniture store to purchase the essentials for what would be her room. He'd managed to have them delivered that morning by adding a hefty fee to the usual delivery cost, but it was worth it to have everything in readiness for her. Seeing the contentment on her face now, he was glad he'd made the effort.

"I'll put your things in your room," he said, starting down the hall with her suitcase, and she followed him slowly, taking in the layout of the house. It was larger than she would have expected Mulder to purchase. He had always seemed content in his tiny apartment.

Mulder entered the bedroom, just two doors down from his own, and dropped the suitcase on the bed. He turned to find Scully right behind him, a bemused expression on her face.

"What?" he asked.

She gave a little laugh. "I don't know, Mulder. Somehow I just never pictured you in a house, certainly not one this big. Whenever I would think of you, it was always in your old apartment. You just seemed to belong there."

Seeing the look on his face Scully opened her mouth to apologize, but he shook his head at her. "It's all right, Scully."

"I didn't mean--"

"I know." He sighed. "I always pictured myself there, too. Always thought that if I ever got out of prison, somehow I'd find myself back there. I actually had the chance, too, but I couldn't take it."

"Memories?" she asked softly, placing a gentle hand on his arm.

He nodded. "So many memories, Scully," he almost whispered. His eyes locked with hers and suddenly he knew, they both knew, that their kiss started so long ago was about to be completed.

His hands came up to tenderly cup her face, mindful of the bruising, and he felt hers reach around his waist, drawing him closer. Slowly, more slowly than before, more slowly than he could have imagined, her lips came nearer and nearer until finally he felt their soft brush against his own. He intended the kiss to be short, gentle, so as not to aggravate her injuries, but Scully wanted more. She kneaded his back with her hands as her mouth pressed more urgently against his and before he was expecting it her tongue slipped inside, tentatively exploring.

Mulder melted into her then, letting her take the lead, not wanting to find himself guilty of rushing her into anything she might not be ready to face. He opened his mouth to her and let her taste him, all of him, sliding his tongue against hers with a passion that grew quickly out of hand. He could feel himself becoming light-headed, felt his arousal growing, and finally, before he lost his senses completely, he withdrew from her kiss, his breathing ragged.

"Scully, we can't--you're not ready for this," he stammered, feeling his knees giving out as he lowered himself to sit on the edge of the bed.

Scully closed her eyes and took a deep breath, releasing it heavily. "You're right, Mulder," she said finally, after regaining her own equilibrium. "As much as I'd love to push you down on that bed and make love to you right now, I can't." She lowered herself to sit next to him and took his hand in hers. "Repulsive though he may be, Zach is still my husband, and I just can't...with you...not while I'm still married to him."

"Scully, I don't expect you to--" he began, but she shushed him.

"I know you don't, Mulder. You wouldn't." She met his eyes, clear and honest. "The truth is, I want to have a relationship with you--that is, if you still want me."

"I think that's pretty obvious," he grinned.

She returned the smile. "When my divorce is final, Mulder...then we'll talk about it. But until then, we'll have to be just friends, no matter what we may feel. Because one more kiss like that and I swear I'll forget all my ideals."

He stood up then, rubbing his sweating palms lightly on his jeans. "I'd better leave you alone for a while," he said, abruptly changing the subject. "You should get some rest. Do you need help unpacking?"

She shook her head, already arranging herself on the bed. "A nap sounds good right now," she admitted, yawning. "I think I still have residual painkillers in my system."

He helped her crawl beneath the covers and left the room, turning out the light and closing the door. Outside, Mulder leaned his head against the wall, feeling suddenly exhausted. He wasn't sure how he would endure being in such close quarters with her and being unable to touch her, but he knew he had to make the effort. At least she was here.

Days melted into weeks, and somehow they managed to contain their passions, maintaining a properly platonic relationship at all times. He made sure she took care of herself physically, recovering from the injuries Zach had inflicted on her, and she was there to pick up his mental pieces when he had a crisis. She was particularly helpful after a bad therapy session. He'd been seeing the therapist Skinner had recommended once a week for the past couple of months. Skinner and Scully had both urged him to follow the therapist's advice and go for twice weekly sessions, but he had steadfastly refused. Mondays were enough, he insisted. He was doing fine.

Actually, Mulder was doing more than fine, considering the baggage he had to deal with. His panic attacks had decreased and he was able to get through most days relatively painlessly. The memories that constantly plagued him were getting easier to live with, aided largely by the fact that Scully was in his life again. The old pain that had become so familiar was beginning to diminish. He found that he had forgotten what hope felt like. It was nice to remember.

Life had become a bit like the dream he'd always had of the two of them together--laundry, shopping, sitting around the house in the evening sharing conversation--everything but the sex, and Mulder fervently hoped that when her divorce was final they could begin an intimate relationship as well. He wanted to ask her to marry him, but was afraid to press her for that committment. Maybe she wouldn't be ready to dive in again so soon after ridding herself of one husband, he reminded his eager inner self. That in mind, he carefully avoided the topic, allowing himself to imagine them in that situation only in his most private fantasies.

"What is it?" Mulder asked when he saw her face. He had just returned from a brisk run, and was anxious to hit the shower and wash away the sweat, but the sight of Scully sitting quietly and forlornly on his couch halted him.

She looked up at his voice, her face betraying an emotion he couldn't pinpoint. There were tear streaks on her face, and Mulder was suddenly hit with the certain knowledge that this had something to do with Zach. Sinking to the couch beside her he pulled her into a comforting embrace which she willingly returned.

"I've done something," she confessed. "Agreed to something, and Mulder--I'm afraid you're going to be so disappointed in me." Her shoulders hitched with the sob she bit back.

Mulder turned her face up to his and brushed back the hair that had fallen over her eyes. His expression was tender as he waited for her to go on.

"I've agreed...to drop the assault charges against Zach," she said in a rush, closing her eyes momentarily while she waited for his eruption.

It never came. When she opened them, she found him staring down at her in puzzlement, but no trace of anger was evident on his features.

"Why?" he questioned softly, settling them back against the couch and pulling her even closer. "You must have had a good reason."

She nodded against his chest, enjoying his warmth and the sound of his heartbeat. It had been so many years since he'd held her this way, and never before had the understanding of their love been so palpable between them.

"I received a visit from his parents," she told him, and he made a rumbling noise in his chest. "It's all right, they're very nice people," she informed him, raising up to look him in the eyes for a minute, then settling back comfortably. "They just wanted to talk to me."

"They wanted to ask you not to send their son to jail," Mulder corrected, controlled anger finally seeping into his voice.

"Well, yes and no," she confirmed. "They were very upset with Zach for what he did, but at the same time they were concerned for Emmie. They can't raise her, Mulder, they're in poor health and they're too old. And Emmie doesn't have any other living relatives."

"But you said you'd try to get custody of her," he pointed out.

Scully sighed. "I don't want to disrupt her life too badly," she said, "and Emmie does adore her father. Zach is very good with her."

"What did they promise you?" he asked bluntly, and felt her tense in his arms. Mulder refused to relent. "Did they tell you that you could see her if you dropped the charges?"

She was silent for a moment, and he could tell she was choosing her words carefully. "Zach has agreed to that. I'd get her one week a month, and his parents would drop her off and pick her up. It wouldn't violate the restraining order. Zach still wouldn't be able to come near me."

"And if you refuse?"

She raised her eyes to look at him now. "They didn't threaten me, Mulder, if that's what you're getting at. They told me this was Zach's idea, and I believe them. Apparently Emmie misses me and wants to see me."

"So you drop the charges, and then what? Do you still get to see Emmie after the divorce is final?"

"Yes. I made certain of that. Look Mulder, I know this is hard for you to believe, but Zach and his parents are concerned for Emmie. They want her to be happy, and it's hard enough to lose one mother without her having to lose another. She's been crying and asking to visit me, and Zach finally devised this plan to make her happy. On the other hand, he isn't stupid, and he doesn't want to face trial," she added wryly. "The opportunity to strike a deal was probably too tempting for him to resist."

Mulder nodded, remembering briefly, with a shaft of pain, his own trial. The moments before the verdict was read had to qualify as the most terrifying of his life. Clinging to the practically invisible hope that he would somehow be acquitted, and feeling his stomach turn to lead when the jury had pronounced him guilty. For a second he almost felt sympathy for Zach, until he remembered the sight of Scully, in pain and covered with bandages. He swallowed hard.

"You've already agreed to this, I take it?"

She pulled away from him gently, changing position so she was sitting facing him on the couch. Equals.

"Yes, I have," she admitted. "I want to see her too. And they said they would bring her over on Sunday night if I agreed. Mulder, it's still your house, and I'm fully recovered now. If you don't want to deal with her--"

"No, no, Scully," he assured her hastily. The thought of her moving out struck him with fear. He couldn't lose her again. "I'd love to have Emmie here. Will she still go to her daycare, or stay home with me?"

Scully laughed then, a sound of happiness mixed with relief. "I wouldn't do that to you, Mulder," she promised. "She'll go to daycare same as always. She likes it there, anyway, she has lots of friends there. She'd have nothing to do around here except drive you insane."

"I'll drive her, then," he promised, pulling her back into his arms. He wasn't ready to relinquish the feel of her pressed close against his body. It was all he could have of her these days. "To the daycare, not insane," he clarified, and she laughed again.

Scully gave him a brief, tight hug in thanks, then relaxed against him. They sat that way for a long time, simply enjoying the nearness of one another. Soon, she vowed to herself, soon we can have more.

Mulder lounged beside the pool, soaking up the warm sunshine after a vigorous swim. His eyes were closed as he drowsily let his mind drift from topic to topic, enjoying the heat of impending summer on his skin. It had been forever since he'd been able to do this, and they were enjoying the first really warm day since his release from prison. Without warning a shadow crossed him, and he shivered a bit with a sudden chill. Lazily he opened his eyes and squinted up into Scully's smiling face.

"If you fall asleep out here and get sunburned, I'll end up having to smear lotion all over you," she told him, grinning wickedly as her eyes took in his swimsuit-clad form.

"Ooh, Scully, promises promises!" he replied cheekily, reaching for his towel. Wrapping it around his shoulders casually, Mulder scooted to a sitting position.

"How was your day?" He felt a bit awkward at the fact that Scully was still gainfully employed while he'd done nothing worthwhile since his release, but it just felt so damn good to be on his own recognizance. For the first time in years nobody was telling him what to do or when, or where to go, and the liberation was exhilirating. He had been giving some thought to the rest of his life, finally, and had almost formulated a definite plan, but he'd been afraid to run it by Scully. He was a little concerned at what her reaction would be, considering the man he had been a few years earlier. That Mulder would have been discontented with his vision of his own future, but the person he was today welcomed the challenge, and most importantly, the relative safety of his intentions.

"Long and tiring," Scully sighed, flopping into a chair beside him. "Sometimes I wonder how some of these kids managed to land jobs with the FBI. Is it just me, or are people getting stupider by the day?"

Mulder laughed, and Scully watched him, enjoying the sound. She didn't hear it often. He was much more somber than he'd been before, and she missed his sarcasm and wit more than she'd realized.

She shook her head in exasperation. "I had two students pass out at an autopsy today," she told him in disbelief. "And these people want to hunt down our country's worst criminals? They'd head for the hills if they saw some of the things you and I investigated."

Mulder sobered immediately. "Scully, if people knew the things you and I found out, the entire country would be on the verge of collapse. Maybe 'They' were right all along. Maybe we should have kept our noses out of it."

She stared at him, completely taken aback by his statement. Scully was constantly surprised at the changes in Mulder, and this was one of the most pronounced. She'd tried to lure him out of his occasional bouts of depression with stories of the unusual or paranormal, but Mulder was completely uninterested. None of it mattered any longer, he had informed her, and she realized that what he really meant was that he wanted to concentrate on the things in life he couldn't live without. The rest was decoration. The Mulder she had known in a previous life had never had to fight for his freedom or safety on a daily basis--those things were a given. This man before her had learned how easily it could all be stripped from him, and was now determined to focus on those things that meant the most. He simply didn't have time for the interests that used to be his bread-and-butter. Not yet, anyway.

"I guess," she began hesitantly, "I've always hoped that once you got used to your freedom you'd pick up where you left off in one way or another. I can't imagine you not seeking out answers to questions nobody else has thought to ask."

He shook his head slowly, his eyes never leaving her face. "I don't want the answers anymore, Scully. I don't even care about the questions. That sounds defeated, I know," he went on, seeing her expression, "and I don't mean to come across that way. One thing I've made myself believe is that nothing is going to beat me. Not after all I've endured. I suppose you could say it set me back at the beginning, though. Sort of made me want to get back to the basics of myself."

"What do you mean?" she asked, kicking off her shoes and tucking her feet up as she crossed her legs Indian-fashion.

"I mean, going back to what I originally intended to do with my life," he told her seriously. "I never sought out the FBI, they were the ones who recruited me. Apparently one of my professors was impressed enough with my senior thesis to share it with a friend of his in the Bureau heirarchy, who passed it on to VCU. They decided I was some kind of boy-wonder and offered me a job profiling if I made it through the Academy. I took it because it was a chance to begin earning money and making a life several years earlier than I'd planned.

"It was nice at first, too, until it started to wear me down and drive me crazy," he added, rubbing his nose where it was already beginning to blister.

"But then you found the X-files," she prodded.

"I found the X-files," Mulder agreed. "And then I found you. And then they took it all away." His voice drifted into nothingness as he stared across the yard, the late afternoon sun reflecting off the water to illuminate his saddened face.

"And you don't want it back? To prove to them they haven't won, if nothing else?" she asked, mystified.

Mulder shook his head firmly. "No. I never want to get involved with that stuff again. Actually, I've been thinking of going back to school, working toward my doctorate so I could practice as a psychologist."

"When I was first assigned to work with you I thought you were already a psychologist," she smiled. "I remember being terribly intimidated because you appeared to have obtained your education so quickly."

He grinned back at her. "Lots of people thought that, Scully, but I really only have an undergraduate degree. I can't hang out my shingle just yet. I think I might like to, though. I was always good at relating to other people's problems and helping them work through to the solutions," he told her. "It's what I planned on doing for the rest of my life when I was much younger. The FBI was a detour, and one I very much enjoyed for the most part, but maybe it's time I got back on track."

"Are you serious? You really want to go back to school?"

He nodded again. "I'd like to work with kids. I have to do something, Scully, and I do still love psychology. At least I have the luxury of not having to hold down a job while I study."

Scully laughed. "That's true, Mulder. You won't even have to eat beans and weenies or SpaghettiO's like most starving students."

"Hey, what's wrong with SpaghettiO's?" he demanded, following her as she rose and started toward the house. "They're one of nature's perfect foods!"

"Nature?" she scoffed, opening the refrigerator and beginning to remove ingredients for pasta primavera. "Nature has nothing to do with that stuff, Mulder, it's all pressed and formed in a lab somewhere," she called after him as he went to change. "Didn't you ever see Soylent Green?"

"SpaghettiO's is *people*!" he paraphrased, his voice carrying down the hall.

She smiled at the sound of his contented laughter as she threw chopped vegetables into a bowl, considering Mulder's new career plan. He may not have the same goals and beliefs, but thank God he was still the same old Mulder underneath it all.

Mulder held out the telephone to Scully with a pained expression. "Zach," he mouthed quietly, dropping the phone in her lap. It still disturbed him greatly to think that Scully's estranged husband might have tried to kill him, but so far the restraining order had had its desired effect. They had neither seen nor heard from Zach since Scully left the hospital. Mulder went back to his task of loading the dishwasher and watched her out of the corner of his eye.

"Yes?" she said grimly into the phone, wondering what Zach could want with her after all these weeks.

"Dana, I'm sorry to bother you, but I need to ask a favor. For Emmie." His voice sounded apologetic and friendly, so normal that for a moment she wondered if he'd forgotten the terms on which they had parted. Surely he hadn't forgotten beating her so badly she'd had to spend three days in the hospital, she thought incredulously.

"What?" she asked crisply, with a quick glance at Mulder. He was scraping plates and seemed to be all right, so she turned her attention to Zach with the hope of getting rid of him quickly.

"It's her birthday party this Friday. I've already invited the kids from her daycare and planned everything, but now I find I won't be able to make home in time."

Scully sighed, knowing what was coming. "What do you need me to do, Zach?" she asked warily, noting the way Mulder's back stiffened slightly at her words.

"Do you think maybe you could have the party there?" he asked. "I could send a note home telling the parents of the address change."

"Why can't you just change the time and send a note to that effect?"

"I'm not going to have time to do it at all this weekend, Dana," he said, and she could have sworn she heard a bit of a whine creeping into his voice. "And Emmie would be so disappointed if we had to cancel."

Scully looked over at Mulder again, but he had his back to her so she couldn't see his face. Surely he wouldn't mind this one thing? Mulder loved kids, and Emmie had quickly wrapped him around her little finger. Besides, how long could a birthday party last for a little girl? Not more than a couple of hours at most.

She groaned inwardly. "All right, Zach, I'll do it. What time?" She grabbed for a pen and wrote down the details of the party, all the while feeling Mulder as he turned to stare at her in shock; he had no idea what she was agreeing to.

"Fine. Everything will be fine, Zach. No, that won't be necessary, just send the cake to the daycare center that morning and I'll have Mom pick her up."

She gently placed the phone on the table, turning slowly toward Mulder's inquisitive face. "It's Emmie's birthday on Friday," she explained helplessly. "He has to work and wanted to ask if we'd have the party here. I didn't know what else to do."

Mulder's face was grim for a few more seconds, then he broke out in a weak smile. "Sure, Scully. It'll be all right." Scully could tell when he turned away quickly and concentrated on silverware that things were not 'all right'.

"Talk to me," she said softly, coming up behind him and encircling his waist with her arms. "If it really bothers you, I'll ask Mom to have the party at her house instead."

Mulder shook his head, quickly drying his hands on a towel and turning into her embrace. "It's not that," he told her softly, burying his face in her hair momentarily. "It's just..."

"What, Mulder?"

He sighed deeply. "What are the mothers going to think about leaving their little kids at the house of a convicted murderer?"

Scully drew back in surprise, staring up at his saddened face. "Mulder! You are not a murderer!" she said sharply.

His lips curved in a half-smile. "People talk, Scully. And they read the newspapers."

"Then they will have read about how you were proven innocent," she declared staunchly. "You are not a criminal, Mulder, you never were. Just because a horrible injustice was done to you--"

"Scully, how many people ever know the entire story? Scandal sticks, exoneration doesn't."

"Well," she said finally, "anyone who doesn't want to leave their child for the party is welcome to go. We don't need people like that around, and Emmie doesn't needs friends with that kind of attitude."

He gave a short laugh at her loyal words and hugged her briefly before turning back to his cleaning, but Mulder was worried. So far, of the few people who had recognized his face from news accounts, all had been supportive, but it was foolish to believe it would always turn out that way. Sooner or later someone was bound to point an accusing finger at him, utter painful words, and he feared having to face the humiliation. Shaking his head slowly, he forced himself to think positively. What were the odds, he reasoned, of it happening at Emmie's party?

"Mrs. Scully! I didn't expect you," he said with a nervous smile as he opened the front door wide for her to enter. Scully had been due home ten minutes ago and he was growing more apprehensive by the moment--if she didn't arrive soon he was going to have to face ten little girls all alone. Not only was it terrifying, but Mulder thought it wasn't a good idea for a man to be the only adult in a house full of pre-school girls. Not in this day and age. He'd been praying fervently that he could talk one or more of the parents into staying.

"I was just about to call Scully," he added as Maggie smiled and kissed him on the cheek in greeting. "She's late."

"I know. She was detained at work so she called me to ask if I'd come over and help out. That's probably her now," she said as the phone on the kitchen table began ringing.

Mulder raced to answer it, and sure enough it was Scully reporting that she'd had an unexpected problem that must be dealt with immediately.

"I'm really sorry, Mulder, but my mom is on her way to your rescue."

"She's here now, Scully. Thanks for sending her. I"m sure we'll manage just fine," he told her stoically, fighting down the butterflies in his stomach as the time for the party neared.

"Don't worry, Mulder. Mom will take care of most of the details, all you'll have to do is serve the cake and ice cream and make sure nobody falls in the swimming pool."

"That might be a bigger chore than I imagined," he answered morosely. "I've seen how fast Emmie can be, and now there will be ten of them!"

Scully's laughter rang through the line. "Mom is a seasoned professional," she assured him. "She'll tell you what to do."

"Fox!" came a cry from the bedroom down the hall, and Mulder started toward the sound, carrying the cordless phone with him.

"I gotta go, Scully, Emmie's calling me. The kids will be arriving in a few minutes." Mulder hung up and hastened to answer the little girl's summons.

"C'n you tie my dress?" she asked him, her innocent dark brown eyes gazing up at him trustingly. Emmie had captured Mulder's heart easily, and had found in him a willing slave. She had so much trouble pronouncing 'Mulder' that he had finally given in and allowed her to address him as 'Fox'.

"Grandma Maggie does," she had pointed out obstinately. "And I let you call me 'Nymph' like Mommy."

He'd finally admitted good-natured defeat. "Just don't tell anybody, okay?" he made her promise, and she had shaken her head solemnly, agreeing to keep his awful secret.

Mulder turned her around and tied the sash of her dress in a bow at her back. "Are you ready to turn five?" he asked with a wink.

Emmie giggled. "Fox, I'm already five! I turned five at midnight," she reported, carefully repeating what Scully had told her.

Mulder shook his head. "Nope. I know your mommy thinks you did, but she's wrong. Research has shown that little girls don't turn five until their birthday parties officially start."

"What's 'research'?" she asked curiously, and Mulder groaned, recognizing the sign of an impending barrage of questions and realizing he had brought it on himself.

Luckily, he was saved from having to answer by the ringing of the doorbell. Offering her his hand, he asked with a twinkle in his eye, "My I escort you to your party, Miss Morrow?"

She giggled again and slipped her hand comfortably into his. Mulder felt a pang in his heart as he thought momentarily of the children he would never have. The idea of being with anyone but Scully was repulsive to him, and since she could no longer bear children his hopes of someday becoming a father had practically disappeared. He'd just have to make do with Emmie's infrequent visits.

Two hours later Mulder was exhausted and ready to kill himself if he heard one more request for cake or another whining voice ask to use the bathroom. The kitchen looked as if an earthquake had recently struck, and Mulder felt as if he'd been caught right in the middle. Wrapping paper covered the floor around the table, and smears of chocolate icing and cake crumbs were everywhere, including on Mulder himself. He'd found himself a great favorite with the girls, and all of them had wanted to hold his hand or sit on his lap at some time during the party. He'd never actually had his own slice of cake, but he was quite full from the numerous shared bites that had been forced on him.

Emmie, completely forgetting her promise, had proudly introduced him as "My Fox," to all her friends, and giggling cries of "Fox! Fox!" had permeated the air.

Maggie had laughed at his discomfiture, reminding him that he had started it all by allowing Emmie the liberty, and he gave her a mock glower as he grumbled, "Thanks for the support."

Emmie sat happily at the center of it all like a queen, very politely thanking all her friends for the gifts they had brought and then studiously separating them into stacks of those she liked and those she didn't. Mulder had been about to quietly point out to her that someone might get their feelings hurt, but before he could speak one little girl knocked over her glass of red punch and everyone scrambled for safety. He and Maggie flew for towels, barely rescuing the gifts before the liquid reached them. When they were done mopping up, Emmie announced she wanted to show her friends the bedroom she slept in when she stayed with Mommy, and nine giggling examples of femininity raced after her down the hall.

Mulder collapsed onto the floor in a heap, gazing up at Mrs. Scully as she began to placidly clean up the mess. Within minutes, to Mulder's surprise, the room actually began to slightly resemble a kitchen again.

"How do you do this?" he asked wearily, and she laughed.

"I'm a veteran of birthday parties, you know. Just be glad they're little girls, Fox. Boys are quite different. At Charles' ninth birthday party I turned my back for one minute and they managed to shave the cat!"

Mulder winced. "Thank goodness we don't have a cat," he muttered, glancing again out the back door toward the swimming pool. It had been his greatest fear that one of the children would slip away unnoticed and drown before they could stop her, but once they had been told they mustn't go outside, the girls had turned their attention to cake and presents.

Sudden shrieks of laughter came from the hall, and with a rumbling of feet the girls burst back into the kitchen. Mulder was a sitting duck and they pounced on him immediately. Within seconds he was being swarmed upon by ten little girls intent on tickling the life out of him.

"Emmie, you'll pay for this!" he roared through his laughter as he struggled to escape their tiny hands. It was another of his secrets she had spilled that day. "Maggie, help me!"

"Girls, your parents are arriving." Maggie's voice cut through the screams of mirth, and a minute later she was helping him to his feet with a smile. "Talk about being rescued in the nick of time!" she told him as he straightened his shirt and brushed off the back of his jeans.

"Thanks, Maggie. Emmie simply cannot be trusted with a confidence," he said darkly, attempting to glare at the culprit, but failing miserably when she put her arms around his legs and hugged him.

"Thank you for helping me turn five, Fox," she smiled up at him, and he sighed, knowing he would always melt inside when she looked at him that way.

"You're welcome, Nymph," he told her. "Now, let's tell your friends goodbye and thank them for coming, shall we?"

Emmie dutifully echoed the words to each little girl as her mother or father arrived to collect her. There were only two guests remaining when Mulder, raising his head from listening to Emmie whisper something in his ear, was unexpectedly confronted with an angry face.

"I can't believe my husband left Jessica here with you," the woman hissed, and Mulder was shocked at the venom in her words.

"I don't--"

"If I'd known this was *your* house, I'd have insisted Jessica miss the party. I know who you are. You're that FBI agent that killed a man!"

"No, I--"

"They never should have let you out," she interrupted, not giving him a chance to defend himself. "It's a sad day for our country when powerful friends and money can get a killer freed."

She was gone before he could collect himself enough to reply, and Mulder stared after her, his face pale. He had known there would be people who felt this way, but to actually be confronted with one... He felt his stomach churn and quickly ducked down the hallway to the bathroom, leaving a stunned Maggie Scully to turn the last child over to her father. Maggie's lips pressed together thinly at the memory of the woman's words.

"Is Fox sick, Grandma Maggie?" Emmie asked, staring after him worriedly.

"He'll be all right, Emmie," Mrs. Scully replied. "I think he just had a little too much cake to eat." Holding out her hand to the little girl with a smile, she added, "Want to come help me clean up?"

Nodding, Emmie happily joined her and soon they had the kitchen back to a semblance of order. Eventually Mulder made his way out of the bathroom, his eyes downcast and his face solemn.

"Mulder, it was just one silly, uninformed woman," Scully said soothingly, her heart aching at the sad expression he still wore. They'd been expecting Walter for dinner that night and had invited Maggie to stay as well, and now the four of them sat around the table sipping coffee and sharing conversation. She noted Mulder's lack of appetite and sighed inwardly.

"I've talked to Roberta Jenkins before, and she's one of those paranoid types that thinks the government is planning to lock citizens up in concentration camps someday," Scully went on. "She'd naturally believe that as a former federal agent you had connections. I'm sure she didn't bother to read the accounts of the real killer's confession."

"She'd just believe it was made up, anyway," Skinner observed.

"Really? Concentration camps?" Maggie asked, her eyes wide. "I've never heard that one before."

Scully laughed at her mother's face. "It's just a wild story, Mom, but some people will believe anything."

Mulder's countenance darkened a little as he remembered being accused of that on more than one occasion, but he knew Scully wasn't poking fun at him. The sick feeling in his stomach at Mrs. Jenkins' accusations had diminished somewhat, but he still felt depressed and upset over the incident. He'd managed to convince Emmie that he wasn't really sick, so at least she'd gone home to her father happy, but as soon as she left Mulder had retreated to the pool for a long, soul-cleansing workout.

"So many people have been supportive of you, Mulder, I guess I can't really understand why you let this one person upset you," Skinner said, sitting back in the chair and stirring his coffee.

"Words hurt sometimes," Scully interjected, seeing Mulder's discomfort, but he shook his head.

"That's not it, not really," he told them. "It's hard to..." His voice grew softer as he searched for the words, and his eyes found the tablecloth, not raising once as he tried to explain.

"Sometimes I still can't believe I'm free. I wake up in the night in that enormous bed and find myself huddled in the center of it as if I'm still cramped into my prison cot. There are times I find myself sitting, doing nothing, and I'll realize I'm waiting to be told what I should do next because I've forgotten that I can do as I please. If I see two or three men together in a group, my first reaction is fear." He paused and felt their eyes on him. "What happened today just brought it all back. When she spoke to me in that tone, suddenly I could see myself back there, trying to defend against accusations that were untrue, fighting fights that I could never win."

Scully's hand reached out and covered his, gripping it tightly, and he glanced her way and gave her fingers a squeeze with a grateful smile.

"Well, Fox," Maggie said quietly, "at least you're going to therapy and trying to get yourself put back together. There's no hope for a woman like Mrs. Jenkins."

"That's true," Skinner agreed. "She'll run around her entire life waiting for the sky to fall, and she'll never find happiness or even contentment, only disappointment in the fact that her predictions never come true."

"But she was right." Mulder's voice surprised them. "At least partially. It was money and powerful friends that got me out of there."

"You never should have been there in the first place!" Skinner exploded. He softened his tone a bit when he saw Mulder jump, unprepared for his reaction. "I'm sorry, Mulder, but I won't let you sit here and put yourself down because some idiot woman said something uncalled for. You were a victim. Period. Four years of your life were stolen from you, and now you deserve every day of freedom, every moment of happiness that you can lay your hands on. Did you call Jess about this?"

Mulder shook his head weakly. "I haven't had time. Besides, I thought I could deal with it on my own."

Skinner snorted. "When is your next appointment with her?" he demanded gently.


Skinner thought carefully. Scully would be with him all weekend, available to talk Mulder out of any depression he might decide to settle into, so maybe it would be all right. "Don't miss it," he finally told Mulder firmly. "I'll kick your ass if you do."

Mulder gave a laugh at that, and the tension at the table was suddenly broken. Skinner's authoritarian manner was exactly what he needed at times, he reflected. Occasionally a verbal kick in the pants was the only thing that could get him back on track when he lost his way, and he was oddly grateful to Skinner for his willingness to provide. Skinner could always tell if he needed help figuring things out, or if he simply needed to be told what to do; sometimes making decisions was too much to bear.

Scully stood at the window, covertly observing Mulder as he played basketball. It was something he did to clear his mind, and she knew Mrs. Jenkins' remarks of Friday afternoon still weighed heavily on him. Although the mood had lightened and the four of them had enjoyed the rest of their evening, she had sensed an underlying broodiness in Mulder for the rest of the night. It had carried over the weekend until finally today he'd changed into shorts and his Knicks jersey and gone outside to shoot some hoops. A lump rose in her throat when she contemplated the jersey. She'd given it to him for Christmas two years before his arrest, and it had quickly become his favorite. They had just come home from that strange visit to a house that Mulder still insisted had been haunted, and after trying to fall asleep for hours, Scully finally grabbed the gift she had for him and hopped in her car. She'd wanted to give it to him immediately. Technically it was Christmas, after all, the clock reading well after midnight. Mostly what she wanted at the time was to feel his nearness, confirm his safety, and enjoy his company. They'd only been separated a few hours and she missed him. As aggravating as Mulder could be at times, by then she had already fallen deeply in love with him. That year had been difficult for them both, she recalled now, but not nearly as difficult as the years to come.

He glanced toward the house, and she drew back a bit, hiding behind the curtains. She wasn't sure why she didn't want Mulder to catch her watching him, but she was enjoying this unseen observance. It was a warm day, and sweat was already coloring both the front and back of his shirt. As she looked on, he reached an arm up to wipe the perspiration from his brow, then easily sank a basket from halfway down the driveway. Scully shrugged to herself. An easy one for Mulder. He was truly good at this game, and loved it with a passion.

Her breath caught suddenly when she saw him tug at the hem of the jersey, and before she knew it he had removed it entirely and tossed it aside. Now he stood there half-naked, and she unconsciously licked her lips as she took in the sight.

Mulder had filled out nicely by now, and his form was long and lean. His sinewy, well-toned muscles rippling, he began moving quickly again, up and down the driveway dribbling the ball before jumping to drop it through the net. He was tanned and healthy looking, and Scully felt herself growing warm with anticipation.

One more week. One more week of celibacy and he could be hers. The divorce hearing had finally been scheduled, and exactly one week from today she would be a free woman. Mulder's woman. At last.

He turned so that he was facing her, and Scully almost moaned aloud at the sight of him. Droplets of moisture were running down his face, and even from her distance she could see them glisten as they sank down to nestle in the light dusting of hair on his chest. She began breathing again when he turned suddenly away, and the sight of his strong back and arm muscles almost did her in. Dropping the curtain aside, Scully stepped away from the window. She wouldn't torture herself any longer today, she decided as she started for her bedroom to change. A nice, cool dip in the pool seemed like a good idea.

With the exception of his desperate phone call about the party, Scully had neither seen nor heard from her husband since the day he stormed out of the hospital in a rage. Today that would change, and she was decidedly nervous. The court date had finally arrived, and they would stand in front of a judge, not more than ten feet separating them, as their marriage was legally dissolved. Would he approach her, try to reconcile, or would he ignore her altogether?

Zach had kept his promise after she'd dropped charges against him, and she and Mulder had enjoyed Emmie's company for three separate weeks in addition to her birthday party. Alan and Katie Morrow had been diligent in dropping her off and retrieving her, just as promised, and Scully was grateful to them for their support. In spite of everything, Zach's parents adored Dana. They loved their son, but thankfully had no illusions about him; they had been terribly disappointed in Zach over what he had done to her, and his father had insisted he attend the AA meetings he had signed up for. As far as Scully knew, Zach hadn't touched a drop of liquor since the night he had beaten her so badly. As far as she knew.

Her brother, Bill, was relentless in his belief that she should drop the divorce, even going so far as to suggest she remain married to Zach but live apart from him. Scully might have given more credence to his words if she'd been able to convince herself they came from a righteous desire to see her reconciled with the Church. Unfortunately, in his zeal to protect Zach from the consequences of his actions, Bill had become suspect in his sister's mind. She wondered how much he knew of the attempts on Mulder's life. She couldn't bring herself to believe he had participated, or even known before the fact--Bill might be a big, dumb jerk but he did mean well--but she often suspected Zach had revealed details to Bill that she herself would never know. The relationship between the brother and sister had cooled considerably. According to Maggie, so had the relationship between Bill and Zach, and Dana had to wonder if it was due to the beating she had received, or something more. Bill did love her, of that she had no doubt.

Now, preparing herself to face the judge and dissolve her sham of a marriage, Scully searched for that inner peace that she had felt on rare occasions. It had been present when Father McCue had prayed over her as she lay dying of cancer, and she'd also felt it when she made the decision to let Zach off the hook. Some type of unseen comfortor, a sweet feeling that she was making the right move. She wanted to feel it wash over her now and calm her nerves. Closing her eyes and inhaling deeply as she stood before her mirror, Scully searched inwardly for assurance. She was only partially successful, however; there was a feeling of calm, but underneath it was a sense of foreboding. With just a hint of fear Scully realized that deep inside she was afraid Zach would not go quietly.

"You ready?" Mulder asked, poking his head inside her partially opened bedroom door.

She put down her hairbrush and swung around, pinning a smile on her face. "Let's get this over with," she said lightly, following him toward the front door, and they walked silently to the car. The drive to the courthouse was quiet, with Mulder reaching over occasionally to squeeze her hand. Scully sighed and leaned against the headrest, closing her eyes. She hadn't slept much the night before. Her slumber had been plagued by nightmares in which Zach managed to drag her off to some unknown location away from Mulder. She could see Mulder in her dreams, helplessly searching for her, falling apart little by little. She knew he was stronger now than he'd been just a few months ago, but he was still so fragile in so many ways that it worried her.

"What's up?" Mulder asked lightly, glancing at her and seeing her furrowed brow. She'd been understandably pensive for several days, but this morning she seemed wound more tightly than usual. He put his hand on her shoulder and tried to massage away a little of the tension there.

She shook her head lightly. "Just nerves, I guess," she told him, banishing the images of her nightmares from her mind.

"After today," Mulder reminded her, "Zach will have no claim on you."


His heart jumped at her tone. "What is it?" he asked with forced casualness.

She sighed. It was obvious what Mulder wanted from their relationship. He'd made up his mind and was ready to forge ahead, but now that the moment was here Scully just felt scared. "I may need a little time," she said softly, gazing out the window.

He was quiet for the next few seconds, guiding the car into a parking place. "Sure, Scully," he said after he'd turned off the engine and pocketed the keys. "You can have all the time you need."

She thanked him with a weak smile and they walked toward the courthouse to face her destiny.

When the doorbell rang that afternoon, Scully didn't know whether she should even answer. The court appearance had been emotionally grueling and she was exhausted. Mulder had gone to one of his therapy sessions and she'd been ready to lie down for a nap when the chime sounded. Groaning aloud, she made for the front door, intending to quickly get rid of whoever was there. She felt a tendril of fear in her stomach when she saw the man on the porch.

"What are you doing here?" she demanded, instinctively reaching for her weapon and clutching at nothing but air.

"I just had one more thing to settle with you," Zach told her, his eyes boring into hers intently. "Is your boyfriend here?"

She ignored his question. "I have nothing to say to you," she told him, beginning to close the door. Her fear heightened when he grabbed her arm with lightning speed. She'd intended to quickly slam the door in his face, but he prevented that action.

"You don't have to talk, you only have to listen," Zach said darkly, leaning close to her. "I just wanted to let you know you'll never have him. If you know what's good for both of you, you'll clear out of here as quickly as you can. The longer you stay around him the more likely I am to...lose my temper." He gave her a wicked grin and Scully felt her anger rise, overpowering the fear.

"Get away from me," she demanded, trying to twist out of his grasp, but he held on firmly.

"Hear me out, Dana. I'm giving you fair warning. You're endangering him by staying here."

"Threats, Zach? If you can't have me, nobody can, is that it?" she asked sarcastically, wondering frantically what time Mulder could be expected to arrive. If Zach forced his way into the house--she had no way to defend herself except with a sheer physical fight, and he could overpower her easily.

He dropped her arm abruptly. "That's it exactly," he agreed smoothly. "So unless you want to visit him in the morgue..."

"You can't get your hands on his money now," she informed him. "I'm no longer his heir and you're no longer my husband. It's over, Zach."

He laughed. "Oh, it isn't about money anymore, Dana. It hasn't been about money for a long, long time. It's about what belongs to me. *You* belong to me. You always will. No judge's signature on any piece of paper can change that." He thrust a brown envelope into her hand suddenly, and she stared at it in confusion. "I'll be watching this place closely," he told her in an icy voice, his eyes grey steel. "If you're not out of here by tomorrow...well, wouldn't it be tragic if he met with an accident just as the two of you were beginning your life together?"

He was gone before she could draw breath to answer, and Scully closed and locked the door with trembling fingers. Her legs gave out suddenly and she sank to the carpet, completely drained of energy. The packet almost slipped from her fingers, and she clutched at it, wondering what Zach was planning. Whatever the packet contained was obviously meant to reinforce his warning.

She ripped open the paper curiously and almost fainted when a collection of photos fell to the floor. Picking them up with trembling hands, Scully felt the coldest of terrors invade her body.

Pictures of Mulder. Entering his therapist's office, coming out of the bank, dropping off Emmie at daycare, running---alone, always alone. Vulnerable. Unprotected. She scanned through the prints quickly, her mind dimly registering the fact that they spanned the entire time she'd been staying with Mulder, until her eyes found the last one. Scully clutched at it in horror, her eyes clamped tightly shut as a tiny moan escaped her.

Last Monday. Playing basketball in his own driveway. She'd stood at the window and watched Mulder and at the same time Zach had been somewhere very close, taking this picture, and they'd never even known. He could get that near without detection, near enough to shoot, near enough to kill. And he would. Good God yes, she knew he was capable--hadn't he already tried on two occasions? This time he would be more careful, more cunning. This time he might succeed.

She knew she should call the police, report the threat, but the knowledge that she probably wouldn't be believed weighed heavily on her. She was a battered wife who had dropped charges against her husband--she had zero credibility. If she called them now she would be perceived as a bitter ex-wife seeking revenge. It wasn't a reputation she liked, but it was one she was saddled with, deserved or not. Reality bites, she told herself grimly. Bites big.

Her next thought was to call Mulder, or even Skinner, but the more she thought about it the more she decided that wasn't the answer either. Skinner would only be able to go through proper channels, which would lead right back to the local police. Mulder would not only rebel at that, he would be terrified. If she told Mulder that Zach had threatened his life, he would either fall apart or disregard the danger entirely, depending on how his session with Dr. Coslow had gone. Grimly, she told herself they were trapped. Until Zach actually tried to harm Mulder, there was nothing they could do.

With a heavy heart, Scully pulled herself to her feet and went to lie down. Sleep was impossible now, but she had much to consider. She only had until tomorrow to make up her mind. Call Zach's bluff, or give up Mulder. Turning the problem every which way for hours, she finally drifted off into a restless sleep. She was vaguely aware that when Mulder returned he opened her door and then quietly closed it, not wanting to disturb her rest. She lay silently; it seemed better to let him think she was sleeping. It made the decision she was slowly arriving at easier if she didn't have to face him.

Mulder was sleeping soundly, lying on his back with his arms flung out wide on the bed. His bare chest rose and fell rhythmically with his breathing, and as Scully watched him she felt her resolve begin to slip. Hardening herself, she approached the bed.

She'd made up her mind at last. She had to go. As long as she and Mulder were together, he would always be in danger. Nobody could protect him from her ex-husband forever, and Mulder couldn't live if he had to constantly be looking over his shoulder. It was one of the things he'd often told her he cherished about his freedom--the knowledge that not everyone he met was a threat to his safety.

She'd shed many tears as she lay on her bed that evening, still pretending to sleep when he'd checked on her again around supper time. She was sure he wanted to talk, but once she'd arrived at her decision there was nothing left to say. Scully knew if she allowed him to, he would manage to talk her out of this course of action, and her mind was made up. On the other hand, she'd all but promised herself to Mulder when the divorce was final, and now there was nothing standing in their way. She knew Mulder expected them to take their relationship to more intimate levels, and smiled when she thought how kind he'd been, promising her as much time as she needed. Now she knew there would only be tonight, and she meant to make the most of it. She wanted him. Oh sweet Lord how she wanted him. Creeping quietly from her bed she made her way to his side.

Silently she stripped off the nightgown she'd been wearing and slipped into the bed next to him. Her warm naked body snuggled up to his and in his sleep he pulled her closer. Scully turned her face to him and began to lightly kiss his chest, nuzzling the hair between his nipples. He began to slowly awaken at her touch.

"Scully?" he mumbled, still caught in sleep.

"Yes, Mulder, it's me," she whispered, trailing her lips up to capture his.

His left hand slid up her back and tangled in her hair, holding her to him, while his right cupped her bottom lightly. He was fully awake now, still a bit fuzzy but aware that his greatest dream was in the process of becoming reality, however unexpectedly. Her mouth explored every inch of his face and neck, and soon he was fully aroused, thrusting against her with slow, even movements.

Their mouths met with intensity again, tongues battling and surrendering, and in the next moment all cognizant thought fled.

When Mulder awakened in the morning he was alone.

His eyes drifted open and he reached for Scully, but his arms came up empty. Groping at the huge bed and finding no warm body, he sat up and looked around the room. The only sign that she had been there was the fact that he was naked where he had previously been wearing boxers, and the sensation of slightly sore muscles strained by unfamiliar physical activity.

Climbing out of bed, Mulder slipped on the boxers which had made their way to the floor during the night, and padded down the hall to her room. She must have gone back there to sleep, he reasoned, but when he opened the door the sight that greeted him drove the breath entirely from his body.

She was gone.

Hastily he conducted a search of the room. Everything that belonged to her had been taken. Her clothes, her toiletries, even the pictures of her family were missing. Slamming a dresser drawer, Mulder turned to gaze around again in bewilderment. Surely she wouldn't run out on him after the night they had shared? There was no reason for her to hide now that she was free of Zachary.

He quickly checked the time and with desperate relief realized he'd overslept. Scully would already be at work. He went back to his bedroom and pulled on a pair of sweatpants before reaching for the phone. Somehow covering himself helped him feel less vulnerable, and his tingling sense of fear lightened a bit as he dialed her number.

"Dana Scully, please," he said mechanically to the woman who answered.

"I'm sorry, Sir, but Dr. Scully isn't here today."

"She didn't come to work?" he asked, feeling the tingling begin anew. "Did she call in sick?"

"No Sir, Dr. Scully is out for a two week vacation. Is there someone else who could help you?"

"Vacation?" he repeated dumbly. "When did she put in for vacation time?"

"Several weeks ago, I believe," the secretary told him, her tone growing slightly frosty. "It's really none of my affair. Now, may I direct you to someone--"

"No. Thank you," he told her abruptly, replacing the telephone on the nightstand and fighting back the panic that was beginning to wash over him. She hadn't mentioned taking vacation. Maybe she'd wanted to surprise him. But if that was the case, where was she? Where were all her things? Forcing himself to remain calm, he dialed another number from memory.

"Mrs. Scully," he said when she answered the phone sleepily.


"Yes, it's me. Dana--is she there?" His voice came out in a rush, displaying a bit of the panic he was feeling, and Maggie Scully closed her eyes briefly, praying for the strength she would need.

"She's not here, Fox," she told him gently. "She's left town."

He gripped the receiver numbly, her words barely penetrating the haze that was beginning to surround him.

"Where--where did she go?" he managed.

He heard her sigh heavily. "She came to me early this morning to let me know she was going. She asked me not to tell you. She knew you'd call here looking for her and she said--Fox, she just needs some time on her own."

Time on her own? Did that mean she'd gone off to think about their future? Was she considering ending their relationship when it had barely begun?

"Mrs. Scully, please, can you just tell me where she is? I really need to talk to her."

"I can't, Fox. I promised her. As much as I care for you, I won't break a promise to my daughter." The firmness in her voice reached him and he knew further pleading was useless. It was apparent where Scully got her determination.

"Can you just tell me when she's coming back?" he asked finally, the pain in his voice so evident that she could feel it as well.

She sighed again but gave no answer, and after a moment he slowly hung up the phone. Scully had run out on him again, this time with no explanation, and he couldn't even figure out what had gone wrong. What had he done to drive her away? She had come to him the night before, so it wasn't as though he had forced her into anything. After all they'd been through together, now that they finally had a chance, why would she go?

Angrily Mulder recognized the familiar signs of the panic attack approaching. He hadn't had one in several weeks, but this one was coming on with a vengeance and if he didn't do something immediately he would be in trouble. Quickly he grabbed up the phone again and punched a number he'd had programmed into his speed-dial for some time now. If anybody could help him...

"Yes, may I speak to Walter Skinner, please," he asked when his call was answered. He forced himself to breathe deeply, aware of the pain that was creeping up on him from all sides.

"Skinner," came the gruff voice from the other end of the phone, and Mulder clutched at it with desperate hope.

"Walter," he said in a voice that was almost a gasp. "You have to help me."

Chapter Five

Skinner rang Mulder's doorbell with trepidation; he had no idea what he was going to find once he got inside. Mulder had been almost incoherent on the phone, and Walter had finally told him to sit tight and not move until he arrived. Making a hasty excuse to his assistant, he'd been out of the Hoover building within ten minutes, driving across town as fast as he dared. He had a suspicion Scully was somehow involved--he knew her divorce hearing had been the day before--but Mulder hadn't been able to give him any information that made sense.

After standing outside for five minutes and receiving no answer to his ring, Skinner fished out his keys and inserted one in the lock, grateful that Mulder had at least had the foresight to give him a spare. Come to think of it, he thought randomly, Mulder had been amazingly cooperative since his return to real life. Prison had apparently had at least one positive effect on the man.

"Mulder?" he called, entering the living room and looking around. Nothing seemed amiss. He was about to call out again when he heard a weak response.

"In here."

He followed the sound down the hall to the master bedroom, breathing a sigh of relief when he found Mulder alive and apparently healthy. He did a quick visual and decided there was no immediate physical danger.

"Mulder, what happened?" he asked, kneeling beside the man who had curled himself into a ball on the carpet. Mulder was dressed only in sweatpants, and upon closer inspection Skinner could see that he was trembling lightly. "Come on," he said, grasping Mulder by the arm and tugging gently. "Let's get you up off the floor."

Mulder allowed Skinner to haul him to his feet and didn't protest when the other man settled him on the bed, pulling a blanket around his bare shoulders to help warm him. He sat there with his head bowed, eyes closed tightly, slowly rocking back and forth while his brain tried to process the horrible truth that he had lost her yet again.

"Mulder," Skinner said again, taking his shoulders and forcing him to stop. "You have to tell me what happened here."

"I lost her," Mulder whispered after a moment. "She's gone."


Mulder nodded miserably.

"What do you mean, you 'lost' her?" he asked. "Does this have something to do with her ex-husband?"

"I lost her." The words were repeated mournfully, and Skinner felt his blood chill at the desolation in Mulder's tone. This was bad. Glancing around, using his trained investigator's eye, Skinner tried to make sense of the situation. He guessed from the state the bed was in that a night of passion had ensued, and his lips grew thin at the thought of Scully running out on Mulder afterwards.

"Mulder, help me out here. Did someone take Scully? Do we need to involve the police?" He had to get the situation straight before taking action, but at that point Skinner suspected foul play was not a factor in Scully's abrupt disappearance.

He took Mulder's face in his hands and forced the younger man to look at him. "Did someone take her?" he repeated slowly, his eyes probing.

Mulder looked shell-shocked, as if he'd witnessed something never meant for his eyes. Finally focusing his dilated pupils, he shook his head briefly. "No," he said in a tiny voice.

His trembling was more pronounced now, and Skinner urged him down until he was lying with his head on the pillow. Lifting Mulder's legs, he arranged his friend under the covers, tucking them around Mulder's chin tightly. He was afraid Mulder was slipping into shock and Skinner was at a loss as to how he should handle the situation. Realizing Mulder was all but useless, he grabbed up the telephone lying on the floor beside the bed. Mulder had obviously dropped it when he'd curled himself into a fetal position. Perhaps Scully's mother would have some answers.

Skinner extracted a small card he carried in his wallet, searched for the correct number and dialed. Glancing over at Mulder and seeing the man's pale face and still form, he decided this conversation might be better held in private.

"I'll be right back, Mulder," he said softly, retreating toward the bedroom door. Mulder gave no sign that he had heard.

"Mrs. Scully? Walter Skinner," he said when he had firmly closed the door behind him. "What? Yes, this is about Dana. Do you happen to know where-- She did *what*?" He listened in stunned silence as Maggie explained that yes, her daughter had once again abandoned Fox Mulder. Biting back his anger, he thanked her brusquely and hung up. It was not Mrs. Scully's fault that her daughter had played Mulder for a fool, but the fact that she knew where Dana was and refused to divulge the information infuriated him. Opening the door and glancing into the bedroom, he saw that Mulder had not moved. Skinner drew back and dialed another number, hoping Mulder's therapist could tell him what course of action to take.

"I need to speak to Dr. Coslow, please, it's an emergency," he told the receptionist who took his call. "This is Walter Skinner, calling in regards to a patient of hers, Fox Mulder."

He was put through to Dr. Coslow in record time, and when he'd explained what he knew of the situation and Mulder's condition he waited silently for her instructions. Skinner was cool under pressure and not given to bouts of panic, but the reaction--or lack of one--that he'd seen so far from Mulder frightened him badly.

"I think you'd better bring him in," Jess Coslow told him quietly. "I'll have my secretary rearrange things so that I can see him immediately. He may need to be hospitalized for a day or two."

"He's not going to agree to that," Skinner objected.

"Walter, he may have no choice. Bring him in and let me see what I can do to help him."

Skinner thumbed the 'talk' button on the phone to cut off the call and went back to Mulder, still lying motionless in the bed.

"Mulder?" he asked softly, wondering if the other man had fallen asleep, but Mulder's eyes opened a crack at his voice.

"Dr. Coslow wants to see you. We need to get you dressed," he said, putting a hand behind Mulder's shoulders and slowly raising him to a sitting position. Mulder limply complied with Skinner's unspoken request, and sat on the edge of the bed while Walter fetched a t-shirt out of his closet and fumbled through the dresser for clean socks.

Skinner ended up practically dressing Mulder, pulling the shirt over his head and guiding his arms through the armholes, then putting his shoes and socks on as Mulder simply sat, unresisting through it all. When he was finished he went back to the closet and picked up an empty gym bag from the floor. Quickly he grabbed some of Mulder's clothes and stuffed them into the bag, adding basic toiletries from the bathroom. There was no way he was leaving Mulder alone after this, and if he wasn't hospitalized by this evening Skinner was determined to take Mulder home to his place.

Mulder remained motionless and silent, his eyes fixed on the floor, while Skinner gathered his things, and when Skinner returned to drop the bag on the floor beside him, he looked up as if startled to find the other man in his bedroom.

"Sir?" Mulder asked, confusion evident on his face.

"I'm taking you to Dr. Coslow, then I'm taking you home with me," Skinner responded in an authoritarian voice. "She's going to want to hospitalize you, I'm afraid, but I knew you'd resist that."

"I'm fine," Mulder muttered, dragging himself to a standing position.

"You are not 'fine', you have never been less 'fine', and don't lie to me," Skinner snapped, and Mulder flinched visibly. The older man softened his tone a bit. "I'm concerned about you, Mulder, and I'm not leaving you alone right now."

Hesitantly Mulder nodded, and allowed Skinner to lead him through the house and out to Skinner's car. He even sat passively while he was buckled into his seat like a child, his eyes closed, resting against the seat back as if the short walk had drained his energy. Not a word was spoken between them on the drive to Dr. Coslow's office. When they arrived, Skinner had to unfasten Mulder's seatbelt and gently pull him from the car, propelling him into the building where the receptionist motioned them immediately into the therapist's office.

Skinner settled Mulder into one corner of the couch and took a chair beside him while Dr. Coslow perched on the sofa next to Mulder.

"What happened?" she asked Mulder, but he gave no response, closing his eyes and bowing his head with a look of misery. She glanced over at Skinner with a raised eyebrow and he shrugged.

"I told you everything I know on the phone," he said. "Mulder's barely spoken two words since I arrived."

"I lost her."

The whispered words echoed around the room, speaking volumes in their simplicity.

"Who did you lose, Mulder?" asked Dr. Coslow gently.


"How did you lose her?"

Mulder looked at her, puzzled. "She's gone," he said, as if that explained everything.

Dr. Coslow sighed. It was going to be a long session.

"Would you like me to wait outside?" Skinner asked, seeing that Mulder seemed reasonably at ease with the therapist.

"That might be a good idea if Mulder's comfortable with it," she replied, and noted Mulder's slight nod with satisfaction. He wasn't as far gone as she'd originally feared. "There's no telling how long it will take us to get to the heart of this."

But it didn't take all that long, really. Less than two hours later the door opened to admit a Mulder who was at least walking unassisted. His face bore tell-tale streaks, but he no longer wore the look of a person out of touch with reality. His right hand clutched a styrofoam coffee cup, which he drained and tossed into a wastebasket before coming over to stand before Skinner.

"You were right, she wanted to stick me in the hospital," he said softly. "I told her I was coming home with you instead. Was that all right?"

Skinner stood and gathered up his coat. "Of course it was, Mulder," he said. "I had no intention of letting you do anything else."

Mulder almost smiled at the bossy friendliness of his former supervisor. Skinner could be counted on to never let him face a crisis alone. Sadly he realized that Skinner was the only person he felt he could depend upon unconditionally. The gunmen were his friends, but even they had their limits, and Scully-- He gritted his teeth forcefully. Scully was out of his life for good as of this moment, he told himself. This time he truly never wanted to see her again. He could no longer trust her.

Within an hour Mulder was settled in his old bedroom at Skinner's place. It was more sparsely furnished than before since his personal belongings had been transferred to his own house, but still comfortably familiar. Mulder dropped his bag on the floor and made his way back to the living room and Skinner's company. The last thing he wanted right now was to be alone.

Skinner looked up as he entered. "You look a little better," he observed, laying aside the newspaper he'd been scanning.

Mulder motioned for him to continue. "Don't let me bother you," he said, his eyes downcast, and Skinner was reminded of the Mulder he'd brought home that day from the prison, meek, unassuming, afraid of imposing. Silently cursing Scully, he said a quick prayer that Mulder would recover quickly from this setback.

"You're not bothering me at all," he responded, gesturing Mulder toward a chair. When the other man had obediently settled himself, he asked, "Do you want to tell me what this is all about?"

Mulder sighed and rubbed his hands across his face. He was silent for such a long time that Skinner had finally decided he wasn't going to answer.

"She left me," he murmured at last, his words muffled by his hands.

Skinner paused to let the implication of the words sink in. Mulder had graciously offered Scully refuge in his home when she hadn't wanted to stay with her mother and had nowhere else to go, and Scully had seemed happy to have his company. The two of them had been getting along for the last two months as if it were old times. The banter, the arguments--Skinner had been delighted to see their easiness with each other return. It had also been quite evident that the two of them still had strong feelings for one another. Mulder made no secret of the fact that he was in love with Scully, in keeping with his 'no more lies' policy, but Scully, as always, had been more reserved. Now Skinner wondered exactly what she did feel for Mulder.

"Did you two have a disagreement?" Somehow Skinner didn't think that was the case, but it seemed the obvious question to ask. Might as well eliminate all possibilities.

Mulder shook his head, dropping his hands and staring at the floor again.

"Want to tell me what did happen?" Skinner offered quietly. He didn't want to pressure Mulder, but it would make helping with his recovery so much easier if Skinner knew what they were up against.

Mulder's face grew puzzled, as if he were thinking hard. "I'm really not sure," he answered at last. "Jess asked me the same thing, but I just..."

"I take it the divorce went off without a hitch?"


"And afterwards, what did the two of you do?"

Mulder flushed. "Walter, are you asking if we--"

"I'm asking what you did, Mulder," Skinner interrupted sternly. "Did you celebrate, go out to lunch, go home and spend a quiet afternoon--what?"

"I had my regular appointment with Jess, and Scully went home to take a nap." Mulder seemed a little embarrassed that he'd misinterpreted Skinner's question, but Skinner let it slide.

"And after you got back from your appointment?"

The younger man sighed a little and leaned back in the chair, shifting his gaze from floor to ceiling. "She was still sleeping. In fact she slept right through supper. I finally went to bed about ten. I figured she was exhausted from all the stress of the last week."

"And then what?" Skinner hated prying information out of people, but in this case he knew Mulder needed to take it slowly.

"She--came to me. Last night. After I was asleep." Embarrassment again.

Skinner ignored it. "You made love with Scully last night, Mulder?"

Mulder nodded, his eyes squeezing shut at the memory. "Then when I woke up this morning--she--"

"She was gone," Skinner finished. He could see traces of tears attempting to penetrate the clenched eyelids, and stood up abruptly. Skinner escaped into the kitchen to make coffee in order to give Mulder a chance to compose himself. He hoped Mulder wasn't going to slip back into the near-catatonic state he'd been in earlier. When he returned ten minutes later Mulder had disappeared. Quickly glancing around the room, Skinner caught sight of the other man and felt his stomach give a lurch. Mulder was standing on the balcony staring down seventeen floors.

"Mulder," he called softly, inwardly praying the man would come quietly inside. He relaxed slightly when Mulder turned so he could see his face. It didn't look like the face of a man about to jump.

As if suddenly realizing what must be racing through Skinner's mind, Mulder stepped back into the living room with a twisted smile. "Don't worry, Walter, I'm not planning to throw myself off your balcony in despair," he said softly.

"I'm glad to hear that," Skinner responded, feeling his racing pulse begin to slow.

"Actually, I did consider it for a brief moment, but I decided against it. I wouldn't do that to you."

"Good, Mulder, because I'm not sure my career could survive if *another* man fell to his death from that balcony."

To his amazement Mulder laughed. Not a deep laugh, but a laugh nonetheless. He accepted the cup of coffee Skinner offered him gratefully, sipping cautiously at the hot liquid.

"I'm really not going to kill myself, you know," he reassured Skinner. "After all I've endured, jumping off a balcony because of this seems a little trite. I mean, think about it Walter," he continued, and Skinner returned to his chair, watching as Mulder began pacing the room slowly, reminding him vaguely of a caged tiger. "I've lived through abductions, torture, shootings, debilitating disappointments, and I've endured four years in a hellhole of a federal prison. Somehow it makes losing Scully seem...anti-climactic."

Anti-climactic. Those words from a man who, just that morning, had been curled into a ball on his bedroom floor, barely aware. Skinner was no psychologist, but it was clear to him that Mulder was in denial about his feelings. Probably as a measure of self-protection, he decided, and waited wordlessly for Mulder to continue.

Mulder didn't continue. He stopped his pacing suddenly and turned to Skinner with a half-smile. "You don't believe me, do you?" he asked.

Skinner put down his coffee cup before answering, buying time to find the right words. "I think Scully still means a great deal to you," he said carefully, "and I think you're trying to find a way to deal with this."

Mulder shook his head slowly, beginning his pace again. "No. You're wrong. She means nothing to me any longer. As of this day, Walter, she is history with me."

"Even if she comes back?"

"She won't come back," Mulder said positively.

"What if she does, Mulder? What if she has a good explanation?"

Mulder stopped and stared, emotion breaking through at last. "What the hell kind of explanation could she give me?" he demanded angrily. "What situation could have possibly made it necessary for her to sneak out in the middle of the night and leave town? After what she did--she *used* me, Walter! She's wanted to get me in the sack and she grabbed her opportunity as soon as it came along, then she up and disappeared. She never cared about me."

"You're wrong," Skinner insisted softly. "She did care about you. I don't know what she feels now, but I told you before, when you were sent away it nearly destroyed her."

"It nearly destroyed *me*!"

"And then you threw her out of your life." The words were said unaccusingly, simply, merely stating a fact, but Mulder's face drained when he heard them.

"Do you think--you don't this this is her revenge for that, do you?" His voice sounded choked, as if speaking around the lump in his throat was becoming too much of a chore.

"It had crossed my mind," Skinner admitted. "But it isn't like the Scully we both know to indulge in petty vengeance. And she's never deliberately hurt you before, Mulder."

Mulder was silent for a long moment. "I don't think either of us really knows Scully any longer, Walter," he finally said, his eyes focusing directly on the older man's face for the first time. "I don't think we know her at all."

Skinner called in to work the next morning and arranged to take a couple of days off. He'd spoken privately to Jess Coslow late that night, after Mulder had gone to bed, and she assured him that Mulder's calm was nothing but a facade.

"He's facing a crisis, Walter, a big one," she pointed out. "Sooner or later he won't be able to pretend any longer, and if he's alone when that happens I don't know what he might do. I wish he had agreed to stay at the hospital for a few days."

"I'll stay with him," he promised her. "He'll be more comfortable with me anyway. He'd have driven the nurses crazy. I can handle him."

"But if he has a breakdown, can you handle that?" she asked. "He's a very determined man when his mind is made up."

"I can be very determined myself, Jess. Besides, I used to be his boss, and that intimidation factor is still present. I can deal with Mulder." He'd hung up, wishing he felt as confident as he sounded. He wasn't sure what he would do if Mulder tried to harm himself, but he knew he had to prevent it if the situation occurred. He wasn't about to let Mulder sacrifice himself now. Not after all he'd come through.

Mulder slept through breakfast the next day, and Skinner was finally motivated to check on him by the memory that Mulder didn't use an electric shaver. It might be a bit difficult to slash open veins with one of those safety-type razors Mulder preferred, but it certainly wasn't impossible. With his heart jumping in his chest, Skinner eased the bedroom door open. His relief was enormous when Mulder raised a sleepy head to look at him.

"Did I oversleep?" Mulder asked, obviously not quite awake.

"No, it's all right. I was just checking on you." Skinner began to close the door but Mulder stopped him.

"Walter, I know you're worried, but you don't need to be. I'm fine."

Skinner snorted. "Sure you are, Mulder. If you're getting up now, I still have some breakfast that I can warm up for you."

"No thanks, I'm not really hungry," the object of his concern muttered, hauling himself out of bed and making for the bathroom. Skinner shook his head in exasperation and went back to the sofa and his newspaper. When, he wondered, was Mulder going to admit that he was not 'fine'?

The pretense continued for another day-and-a-half, and the catalyst for Mulder's eventual breakdown was something so simple that no one could have predicted it. Skinner had tried to shield Mulder from potentially dangerous topics or situations since he'd brought the other man home, but a visit to his mother's graveside usually calmed Mulder. When Mulder requested a trip to the cemetery (driving being expressly forbidden by Walter), Skinner agreed immediately. The moment his eyes fell on the grave he knew he had made a horrible mistake, but by then it was much too late. Mulder had seen them as well.

The flowers--white carnations. The type Scully always brought to Teena Mulder's final resting place. Skinner turned to Mulder and found his face to be as white as the blossoms on which his eyes were affixed. He was biting his bottom lip so hard that Skinner was afraid he would see blood trickle down Mulder's chin at any moment.

"Come on, Mulder, let's go back to the car," he said firmly, taking Mulder's elbow and guiding him away. Mulder looked back at the flowers once, then faced resolutely ahead.

"It doesn't matter," he muttered to himself over and over. "It doesn't matter."

Skinner was afraid. Mulder's eyes had taken on that haunted appearance again, and he seemed to have closed himself off somehow. He situated Mulder in the car and got them the hell out of there as quickly as he could.

Back home, he wanted to fix the old standy coffee, but was determined not to leave Mulder alone for even a second, and Mulder had curled up in a corner of the couch, staring out the balcony window with dead eyes. Walter was distinctly uncomfortable with Mulder's preoccupation with that window, and wondered if some type of lock that would prevent Mulder's opening it would be a good idea. Probably not, he decided. If Mulder wanted out there, he would simply break the glass. Seeing Mulder begin to shiver, he picked up the afghan he used on cold winter evenings while watching basketball games and tossed it over the other man's huddled body.

"She was there, Walter," Mulder said suddenly. "She came back to put flowers on my mother's grave, but she didn't contact me. Her mother said she'd left town. Surely Maggie wouldn't lie to me. Do you think she's really left town at all? Maybe she's just holed up somewhere. Maybe she's really staying with her mother after all."

"Slow down, Mulder!" Skinner commanded, and Mulder halted his frantic, almost manic reasoning.

"Sorry," he muttered, and Skinner put a friendly hand momentarily on his shoulder.

"Why does Scully put flowers on your mother's grave?" he asked, hoping to bring on the crisis which was so obviously just below the surface. The sooner they got it over with, the better for Mulder.

A trace of a smile crossed Mulder's face. "I asked her that once, and she said it was because she respected Mom." A tiny laugh. "She didn't think Mom loved me all those years we were partnered, but once I was sent to prison Scully said she figured out how much my mother cared."

"Most mothers love their sons, Mulder, even if they don't know how to express it," Skinner observed.

"Why can't she love me?" Mulder asked in a small voice, and Skinner's only thought was, 'here we go'.

"Do you know she's never said she loves me? She's implied it in so many ways and made me believe it, but she has never once committed herself to me."

"Have you told her how you feel?" Skinner questioned. It was obvious where this was leading, and the tears he expected were not long in making their appearance.

"Hell yes!" Mulder flared. "I told her years ago, ages ago, an entire lifetime ago! Do you know what she did, Walter? She walked away from me."

"That day in the prison?"

"No! Two years earlier, after that stupid Bermuda Triangle thing I did," Mulder explained angrily, and Skinner nodded understanding.

"I finally got up the nerve to tell her and she turned and walked away and she never mentioned it again, and I was too afraid to tell her again, and then she--"

"Slow down, Mulder." His words were gentle, soothing, but Mulder didn't seem to even hear him.

"--turned her back on me and married *him*! If she had just acknowledged me, Walter, if she had only told me what she was feeling... If Scully loved me, I might have been satisfied. I might have given up on that damned quest I was on and just loved her back. Maybe we could have made a life together and been happy, but instead I ended up--"

He stopped, bent double as if all his breath was gone, and now the tears came, starting not gently, not gracefully, but all at once, as if someone had turned a faucet on full-blast. Deep, wrenching sobs tore from Mulder's body and he clutched at the afghan as if it were the only stable thing in a world gone mad.

"I lost everything because of her," he gasped through the sobs. "Everything--my entire life--nothing's left now. How could I--have trusted her? I've been chasing her for so long and Walter, *she's never said she loved me!* Not once!"

Skinner let him cry and rail and yell in frustration and anger at the hand he'd been dealt. God knew it was a tough one to play, loaded with low cards and jokers everywhere. He was surprised Mulder had stayed in the game this long.

"I could have done so much if she had only told me! She just used me, Walter, that's all. I was someone she could turn to when she needed help, and I was a sounding board for her problems, and then just before she left I was a quick lay, one she'd been promising herself for years, I guess, but she never loved me at all! And she *knew*, she *knew* how I felt about her and she just didn't care! Why can't she love me? Why am I not good enough? What's wrong with me..."

Words stopped, after that, because the rush of tears and the effort of breathing eliminated their possibility. For the better part of an hour Skinner sat and watched Mulder as his heart finally broke. All the things he had endured and it all came down to this one thing: Scully had never told Mulder that she loved him. Grimly Walter wondered what she had been protecting. The truth had been so very, very obvious, but unless the words were spoken it meant nothing to Mulder.

Finally, at long last, the tears stopped. Mulder was exhausted, and he slumped against the couch limply. Skinner tugged and pulled until he got Mulder into a lying-down position, then carefully re-covered him with the afghan. Just as he'd thought Mulder had dropped off to sleep, he heard whispered words coming from the other man's lips. Leaning closer, Skinner was barely able to make them out, and when he did they puzzled him.

"Uncle, Scully."

Scully stared at the envelope she held in trembling hands. She didn't even need to open it; she was certain of its contents. It would be more pictures of Mulder, alone and vulnerable. Since her departure she had received a weekly packet of them. Apparently it was Zach's way of letting her know that he was still watching. She had tried calling him, wanting to tell him to leave Mulder alone now that she'd given him what he demanded, but his number was disconnected. For a moment she had even considered calling his parents, but decided against it--Zach had put them through enough, and there was no need to get them involved. It wasn't as if there was anything they could do.

Lately she had been debating whether or not to call Skinner, just to let him know what was happening. She knew the police ought to be involved, but remembering Mulder's vehemence against reporting Zach's attempts on his life she had held off on calling them. Besides, she told herself, they would have to treat this as a simple stalking case, which meant until Zach actually harmed Mulder, there was no action they could take. By then it would be too late. So far, she was sure, Zach had only sent her the photographs to remind her of his threat. If he found out the authorities had become interested in him, Mulder might be in real danger. Those reasons kept her silent, but the cost was high. She was in a constant state of agitation now, suffering from stress headaches and loss of appetite, and the blame could be laid directly on Zach. If he would only leave her alone--let her go on and make a new life--she could cope, even if that life couldn't include Mulder. This constant reminder that the man she loved was in peril, however, was making her a nervous wreck.

There was an unexpected knock at the door and Scully jumped, frightened for a moment. Nobody came to visit her here. Nobody. Quickly she shoved the envelope into a drawer with the others she'd received, then went to peer out the peephole.

Bill. What the hell was Bill doing here? Their last conversation had been somewhat less than amicable. Bill had applauded her decision to leave Mulder, and as if to rub salt in her wound had even had the gall to suggest she give her ex-husband another chance.

"Another chance at what?" she'd asked him sarcastically. "Killing me?" He had been less than receptive to her jibes.

Now she stood with her hand on the knob for a moment, calming her shaken nerves before she finally opened the door to confront him. If she'd expected anger or more suggestions on how she should conduct her life, she was disappointed. The only emotion evident on Bill's face was contrition.

"Can I come in?" he asked hesitantly after a moment of silence. Her staring made him even more uncomfortable than he'd been while waiting for her to open the door. He hadn't wanted to come here at all, but the urging of his wife, Tara, along with his own conscience and desire to mend fences with his sister had led him to her door.

Scully stared a moment longer, still dumbfounded at his appearance, then quickly regained her composure. "Sure," she said curtly, stepping back to allow him entrance.

He stood awkwardly in the living room of her small apartment for a full minute before she took pity on him and offered him a seat. Then he sank down slowly, lowering his long form onto one corner of the sofa.

"Dana, I want--" he began, and stopped, shaking his head. This wasn't how to begin. It wasn't about what *he* wanted, it was about his sister.

"I've come to ask you to forgive me," he finished hesitantly.

"For?" she demanded, refusing to give him the benefit of mercy. He had made her life miserable on many occasions, and she didn't know if she could ever forgive him for posting Zach's bail after he'd beaten her.

"For everything. For the way I've acted toward you. I realize now I had no right. I still don't want to see you with that guy, Mulder, but I'm glad--"

"You know, Bill," Scully interrupted coldly, "you have a remarkable capacity for making decisions when you have little or no facts at your disposal. You decided to dislike Mulder before you ever met him, and you never even gave him a chance. He told me what you said to him outside my hospital room the day you two met, and I was...Bill, I was ashamed of you."

"I was just upset," he said defensively. "You were dying, and it was--"

"It was all his fault? That's what you were going to say, isn't it?" At his guilty flush she leaned toward him and her voice grew intent. "Tell me what it is you don't like about him, Bill. I want you to put it into words. Make me understand."

He sighed and refused to meet her eyes. How could he put into words something that was merely a gut reaction? He didn't know precisely why, but from the moment he had heard about Mulder from their mother, heard about the quest he was on, learned the details of exactly *why* Missy had died, he had been certain that Mulder was bad news. That eventually Dana would suffer for her relationship with him. And hadn't he been proven correct time and time again? Hadn't she been through the wringer and beyond because of her feelings for Mulder and her devotion to him?

"If not for him you would have had a normal life," he started. "You'd have married someone you loved, had kids, been happy."

"You don't know that at all, Bill. Life doesn't come with guarantees. Everyone has sorrow."

"You've had more than your share."

She shrugged. "Maybe, but who decides what 'my share' is? You? God? You're still not telling me what I want to hear. Don't say you hate Mulder because of what might have been. Tell me exactly what it is about him that bothers you."

"The guy is crazy, Dana!" he exploded, having had enough of her crap. He may have come here to apologize, but she was still his baby sister, damn it, and she should look up to him. "He believes in aliens, for God's sake!"

"So what you're telling me," she said calmly, "is that you don't like him because he has beliefs that differ from yours. It doesn't matter to you that he's honorable, and kind, and a genuinely good person. You can't deal with him because he doesn't think like you."

He gave her a chagrined look and refused to answer.

"Well Bill, I don't think like you either," she went on, and he winced, knowing she was referring to the Catholic beliefs they had been raised with. "Does that make you dislike me?"

"Of course not, Dana--"

"Then accept me, Bill. Stop trying to change me. If I love a man you can't accept, the least you could do is keep your mouth shut about him. I tried your choice of a husband. It didn't work out." The irony of her words reminded him why he had come.

"Look, I didn't intend to get drawn into a discussion about Mulder," he said helplessly. "I came to apologize to you for the way I acted about Zach. I never should have gotten him out of jail, but Dana...I believed him."

She sat back and waited for him to continue.

"I know it was stupid, but he had been my friend for such a long time, and I really couldn't believe he'd ever deliberately hurt you. I was ready to rip him into pieces when I saw him that morning, if that helps," he added with a small smile, and she nodded.

"It does, a little. I did feel as though you had abandoned me."

"I'm sorry about that. I just want you to know that, although I may be a little dense at times, I do truly love you and want what's best for you. I was so taken in by Zach that I just didn't see the truth."

"And you see it now?" He nodded. "What made you change your mind?" she asked curiously. She had told nobody about Zach's threats toward Mulder. It was her secret, her burden to be borne alone.

"Something he said to me made me stop and think...there were things Zach had told me about in the past, but I didn't want to believe them. Dana, they were so absurd, you have to understand--"

"What did he say to you?"

He rubbed the bridge of his nose with one finger, something he did when he was agitated. It was a habit she remembered from their childhood, and Dana smiled.

"He said it wasn't about the money any longer," he replied, unknowingly repeating Zach's words to her. "Which implied that at one time it *had* been about the money, but Dana, I swear I never realized that. You and Mom tried to tell me, but I couldn't believe it. I thought the two of you were so blinded by Mulder that you didn't understand Zach. Turns out I was the one who was blind."

Scully wanted to laugh. At last, she thought, now that it's too late for it to make any difference, my big brother sees the light.

"Can you forgive me?" he asked softly, clutching at her hand. "I want us to be friends again."

"Oh Bill, of course I forgive you," she said sadly. "You're my brother, and I love you. But I need you to stop telling me what to do."

"I will, I promise, I'm through with that," he assured her. "Tara gave me a strong lecture last night, and I started to see how wrong I've been. Don't misunderstand me, Dana, I still don't care for Mulder and I'm glad you're not with him any longer."

"And what would you do if I went back to him?" she demanded, her hand in his growing suddenly stiff. "Is this apology sincere, or would you revert to your old ways?"

"I wouldn't like it," he confessed, "but I'd promise to be more civilized." He flashed her a smile, the one that had probably made Tara fall in love with him, she reflected. "That's the best I can do."

Scully sighed. "Then that's all I can ask."

He pulled her into a bear-hug, which she returned gratefully. She'd hated being on the outs with him, especially with Charles stationed overseas, and welcomed the chance to mend their relationship.

"I'd better be going," he told her. "I have a long drive ahead of me, but Tara convinced me I should take the weekend to come up and see you. I didn't want to try doing this over the telephone."

"I'm glad you came," she smiled, the first sincere smile he had seen from her in months. "I want us to work this out."

Bill kissed her quickly on the cheek and slipped out the door, which she locked firmly behind him. Tears threatened and she blinked them back quickly. With her heart lightened a little, she started for the phone. Her mother would want to know that she and Bill had made up.

"When are you going to let me go home, Walter?" Mulder demanded of his friend. It had been three weeks since Scully's latest defection, and he was getting heartily sick of being watched all the time. Skinner had taken a couple of days off work to help him through the worst of the crisis, then enlisted the help of the Lone Gunmen to keep watch over Mulder while he quickly arranged to take a two week vacation. Mulder had been lucky to grab five minutes of privacy in all that time, and it was beginning to drive him stir crazy. He just wanted to be alone to sort out his thoughts and feelings.

Skinner had also insisted he increase his therapy sessions to three times a week until he got over the initial shock of finding Scully gone, and Mulder had grudgingly agreed in order to keep peace. Well, it hadn't just been to keep peace, he admitted to himself. Inwardly he had been terrified at the way he'd momentarily considered ending his life. The thought that he might have actually done it, thrown it all away, all the things he'd worked for, all the progress he'd made... There was more to life than Dana Scully, he told himself angrily, and set out to convince himself of that fact. He'd been checking into psychology programs at universities in the area and decided George Washington was probably his best alternative. He wanted to get started as soon as possible. It would give him something other than Scully on which to focus his concentration.

Skinner shrugged casually, remembering a Mulder who would have simply announced his intention to leave rather than asking permission, but he supposed that Mulder was gone forever. A lot of the old arrogance had disappeared, and Skinner wasn't sure how much of the change came from Mulder's experiences and how much was simply due to greater age and maturity. Mulder had differing goals than before, but all the same, he wasn't *that* changed. He was still the Fox Mulder that Skinner remembered from the old days, only tempered with other passions. Some of the differences Skinner didn't miss at all. It was a bittersweet change.

"I suppose I'll have no choice when I go back to work on Monday," he answered, feeling nervousness begin in his stomach. He quelled it with a will--he had to set Mulder free at some point. "Why are you so anxious? Has staying here been that bad?"

Mulder grinned to take the sting out of his words. "Not really, unless you count the fact that the only time I can be alone is when I need to shit."

"Not true, Mulder. To my knowledge nobody has yet followed you into the tub," Walter pointed out, returning the other man's banter. He knew Mulder hated the restrictions that had been placed on him, and he'd regretted feeling forced to do it, but Mulder's safety had to be the prime consideration. At first he had truly been terrified that Mulder, determined and obstinate as he could be, would find a way to injure himself the minute Skinner's back was turned. As the days had passed and Mulder had shown no sign of making that fear a reality, Skinner had relaxed his watch somewhat, although he still tended to hover a bit.

"No, but I keep waiting for it," Mulder responded, instantly changing from lighthearted to morose. These quick mood changes were what worried Skinner the most. According to Jess Coslow, they were an indication that all was not well in Mulderland, in spite of the man's protestations that everything was (big sigh, Walter) 'fine'. He had grown heartily sick of that syllable in the last few weeks, amazed at the way Mulder--(and Scully too, Walter, tell the truth)--could turn a seemingly harmless word into something that made him want to wrap his hands around someone's neck. 'Fine'. 'Fine' meant 'yes, I'm in deep pain, but I don't want to talk about it because I can handle it on my own--see how well I've dealt with it so far?' or 'I don't want to tell you what I'm feeling because I already feel guilty that I've caused you so much trouble'.

"You can wait till hell freezes over for that, Mulder. I draw the line at washing your back," he answered lightly, thinking it best to keep things casual. If Mulder insisted on going back to his house and staying there alone, there was really nothing he could do. Mulder was a grown man, after all, and still considered psychologically competent. Skinner couldn't exactly lock him in the bedroom, although at times the urge to do just that, for Mulder's own safety, was strong.

His biggest fear was that as soon as Mulder was on his own he would begin searching for Scully, and that, he felt, was the worst thing his friend could do. As badly as he'd been hurt by her apparent betrayal, the best thing for Mulder, in Skinner's opinion, was to simply put her behind him and move on. He'd been pleased at Mulder's plans to continue his education, and to his surprise that had turned out to be a rock-solid goal. At first he'd been afraid it was simply an idea, tossed out in a wave of desperation, but Mulder was genuinely interested in persuing his post-graduate degree. Skinner thought it was probably the healthiest thing Mulder could do for himself right now. It would give him an anchor.

"Seriously, Walter." Mulder stopped his pacing and threw himself to the couch. "I'm ready to go home. I appreciate all you've done for me, but I have to be on my own at some point. I'm not going to do anything stupid, I promise."

The words were softened by the curve of Mulder's lips, and Skinner sighed inwardly. He tapped his fingers on the arm of his chair while he considered.

"Please, Walter." Mulder's voice was level, even, and contained no hint of pleading despite the words he had chosen. It was the first sign of the old, obstinate, determined Mulder that Skinner had seen in a long time, and it helped him make an immediate decision.

"All right, Mulder. Obviously I can't keep you here against your will. You can go, but if I find out you needed help and didn't call me..."

Skinner let the threat hang in the air, but Mulder knew exactly what it meant. It meant 'I'll hunt you down and kick your ass from here to San Francisco', and Mulder had no doubt that his authoritative ex-boss would follow through without hesitation. He'd been on the receiving end of more than one of Skinner's verbal ass-kickings, and did not wish to face another.

"I'll call. If I need you, I'll call. All right?"

Skinner held his eyes for a long moment before Mulder finally looked away. "What are you going to do?" he asked as Mulder rose from the couch to begin packing.

Mulder shrugged. "Swim in the pool. Play basketball. Get ready to start classes in the fall. Same things I always do."

"I meant," Skinner said carefully, "will you try to find her?"

Mulder was silent and still for a moment. "I know what you meant," he admitted grudgingly, his back to Skinner.

"And?" Skinner prodded when it seemed Mulder wasn't going to answer.

Mulder turned to him with a face that was ravaged. Pain, sadness, fear, all manifested themselves on his countenance for a few seconds before being replaced by the mask of blandness that Mulder wore so often these days.

"Why would I want to find her?" he asked in a neutral voice.

"Are you saying you don't?" Skinner countered, determined to make Mulder face the truth. "Can you let her go so easily?"

The mask almost slipped. Almost, but not quite. Mulder got it back under control in the nick of time.

"I know you and Scully have a lot of history together, Mulder," Skinner went on gently, "but it's time you faced the fact that you may not have a future together."

Mulder fled the room without another word.

Stuffing belongings into his bag, Mulder steeled his heart against further breakage. 'It doesn't matter,' he told himself fiercely. 'None of it matters any longer. Concentrate on the future.'

Skinner, approaching his bedroom to see if his assistance was needed, heard the low mutterings as his friend gathered his things, and with a heavy heart turned and retraced his steps. Slowly, little by little, he was losing Mulder. He remembered his initial suspicion that Mulder would one day cut all ties with his past, including their friendship, and wondered if it was nearer than he'd suspected.

Skinner stared at the telephone in his hand, surprised and furious at the owner of the voice on the other end. It had been six weeks since her disappearance, six weeks in which Mulder had become a frightening shell of the man he'd been before. The depression into which Mulder had slipped was deeper than ever, and were it not for the fact that it would completely destroy Mulder's trust in him, Skinner would have hauled his former agent back home to be watched and taken care of once again.

He tried to keep tabs on Mulder from a distance, but it proved difficult. Most of the time when Skinner called, Mulder didn't answer the telephone, and when he did he sounded cold and distant, and somehow distracted. Their conversations were brief and stilted. Skinner had arrived unexpectedly at Mulder's house several times, using his key to enter when his ringing had been ignored. The first couple of times he had found Mulder sitting on his couch in the dark, staring blankly at a wall. He had seemed surprised to see Skinner, as if not having heard the doorbell. Each time, Mulder had greeted him idly and gone back to staring, having nothing more to say. The only time Skinner was able to get a decent response out of him was when he threatened to remove him from the sanctuary of his home again. At that Mulder would flare up and insist that everything was 'fine'. On those occasions Skinner refrained from injuring Mulder only with the barest thread of self-control.

The latest visit had been a reaction to the call Skinner had received from Jess Coslow, Mulder's therapist. He had missed three appointments by then, and had refused to answer or return her calls, and out of desperation she had finally called Walter, knowing if anyone could tell her what was up with Mulder it was his only trusted friend. Skinner had gone ballistic.

He hadn't even bothered knocking that time, arriving at Mulder's house and immediately letting himself inside. Sure enough, Mulder was in his old familiar place on the couch, the room dim in the fading daylight. He'd stormed across the room prepared to give Mulder a very large piece of his mind, but the sight of his friend stopped him short.

Mulder was wearing the same clothes he'd been in four days ago when Skinner had seen him last, and it was evident he hadn't moved far from his seat in all that time. A half-empty glass of water sat on the coffee table in front of him, and Mulder gave no sign that he was aware of Skinner's approach. He waved his hand in front of Mulder's eyes and felt the first pang of real fear when it took Mulder several seconds to respond.

"Walter?" he asked at last, stirring a bit on the couch. "What are you doing here?"

"Mulder, do you know what day it is?" Skinner demanded gently.

Mulder frowned. He didn't want to answer questions right now, certainly not inane questions regarding days of the week. For the past week he'd been carefully turning over every moment of his life that he'd been able to recall, pinpointing where he had screwed up and what he'd change if he had the chance. After careful consideration, Mulder had decided that no changes were necessary. His life had been spiralling out of control since he was twelve years old, he concluded, and no action on his part would have deviated his life from the course it had taken. Somehow, he believed, even if he had quietly accepted Samantha's disappearance, avoided the FBI altogether and made a career in clinical psychology as he'd planned, events would still have conspired to bring him to this point.

"When was the last time you ate?" Skinner continued, having received no answer to his previous question.

Mulder shook his head lightly. "I don't know. It doesn't matter, I don't care. I'm not hungry, Walter."

Skinner pressed his lips together thinly. His first reaction was fury, but he knew that wouldn't help Mulder now. Instead, he reached out and hauled Mulder easily to his feet, wondering as he did how much weight the younger man had lost since Scully's exit. He seemed smaller, definitely lighter, and somehow transparent.

Putting his hands at Mulder's back and propelling him down the hall toward his bedroom, Skinner said, "The first thing you're going to do is have a shower. Then you're going to eat a meal."

Mulder stopped and turned to Skinner, his face absolutely blank, as it had been since Skinner arrived. "Sure, Walter. I'll do that. But I'm not coming home with you again."

After a second of hesitation Skinner nodded. He knew Mulder wouldn't consent to that in his present condition anyway, so short of kidnapping the man he had no option other than agreement.

Mulder entered the bathroom at Skinner's urging, taking the clean clothes that were thrust into his hand. After locking the door behind him he stared around the room in confusion. What was it he was supposed to do? Oh yes. Shower. Except Mulder didn't do showers anymore, not since prison, not since he'd vowed never to make himself so naked and vulnerable again. As if he were less vulnerable sitting naked in a tub of water, Mulder sneered inwardly. Life would bite you on the ass if it chose to do so, and there was not a damn thing you could do to prevent it. He'd learned that if he'd learned nothing else.

Mechanically, unthinking, Mulder filled the tub and stepped into it, sinking into the heat of the water with a distant sense of pleasure. He had felt so numb lately that any sensation was welcome, and he had forgotten how good it could feel to simply get clean. He lay there for a long time, thoughtlessly (thoughtless was the key these days, if his mind remained blank it was easier to get through each day) soaking in the warmth. When he felt the water begin to cool he sat up, feeling suddenly uncertain. There was something he was supposed to do next--what was it? Dry himself off, that was it. No, wait. Some steps came before that. Allowing his body to move on autopilot, Mulder reached for the shampoo and soap. Later he wouldn't remember washing himself at all.

When he stepped from the tub, still moving automatically, he reached for his towel and wrapped it around himself. 'What comes next?' prodded the tiny bit of consciousness he would allow. He stared at the sink for a full minute before his eyes fell upon the tube of toothpaste lying beside it. Unthinking still, he completed the task of toothbrushing, spitting the paste into the sink and rinsing as his thoughts attempted to become carefully blank again. When he finally emerged from the bathroom thirty minutes later, he was fully dressed, clean, his hair combed and his teeth brushed. It had taken him almost two hours. Skinner, who had been listening quietly outside the locked door for the entire period of time, prepared to break it down if he thought Mulder was about to harm himself, breathed an audible sigh of relief. Mulder had forgotton to shave, but in his present mental state there was no way Skinner was going to suggest Mulder get near a razor.

"Come with me," he ordered. "You have to eat."

Mulder shrugged and followed, sinking into the chair Walter indicated when they reached the kitchen. His eyes tracked Skinner as he searched the kitchen for food and utensils, finally settling on a can of chicken-noodle soup. It would probably be the least upsetting thing to Mulder's delicate stomach, and Skinner had no way of knowing how long Mulder had been without food. Apparently his body's need for fluid had been too urgent to resist, he thought, remembering the half-empty glass of water. After heating the soup, he placed it in front of Mulder and determinedly handed him a spoon.

Mulder accepted the spoon, uncertain for a second of what to do with it, but allowing his auto-pilot to take over once again. It was amazing, he told himself idly as he sipped at the soup, the things muscles and ligaments could remember with little or no help from the brain.

Skinner sat across from him silently as Mulder ate every bite of the soup in a mechanical, automatic way. Mulder had been completely cooperative with everything he had asked, cleaning himself up and eating without protest. He was certain that the second his back was turned Mulder would return to his spot on the couch and forget to bathe or feed himself until someone again arrived to force the issue. With a sigh he wondered what his chances were of getting Mulder hospitalized. Probably nil, he decided. Mulder wasn't so far gone yet that he needed to be committed, and he would never voluntarily submit to hospitalization.

There had been no conversation between them other than Skinner's orders and Mulder's silent obedience, and now Skinner began an attempt to coax words from Mulder.

"Why were you sitting on the couch for so long, Mulder?" he asked, leaning forward and resting his chin on his fist.

Mulder looked dazed for a moment, gazing around the room and down at the empty soup bowl as if uncertain how he had come to be sitting across from his former boss with a suddenly full stomach.

He shrugged again. "I don't know."

Skinner's jaw tightened but he let it slide. "Jess said you've been missing your appointments."

Mulder had stared at him keenly before replying, "I don't care."

If Mulder had denied, or raged at him for interfering, Skinner would have known how to handle it, but those three words sent a shaft of cold terror through his gut.

"What don't you care about?" he asked carefully, afraid of posing the wrong question.

Mulder shook his head slowly, his eyes beginning to lose their focus. "Anything. I don't care about anything."

"Not even Scully?" It was a low blow, he knew, but maybe it would get a reaction out of Mulder, sort of like the deep-pain responses medical personnel would seek from a patient in a coma.

Mulder showed no sign of deep pain. He showed no sign of any emotion at all. "I just don't care."

The depth of meaning to the words struck Skinner. He feared Mulder had reached the point where he truly didn't care--didn't care if he ate, or slept, or even whether or not his body took its next breath. Not actively wanting to live, not actively wanting to die, Mulder had achieved a state of true indifference. He'd had ample opportunity to end his own life in the past three weeks, but had not chosen to do so. Which, in and of itself, was scary when you thought about it. Because if Mulder couldn't even work up enough passion to want to put himself out of his misery, what was left of him? What was truly left inside that hollow-eyed shell? Skinner was afraid, and at a loss.

"I'll be all right, Walter." The words were spoken softly, almost in a whisper, but they gave a comfortable reassurance. Mulder was still inside there somewhere. He had simply wrapped himself in a cocoon of protection, needing to insulate himself from a world that had finally gone too far, bitten too hard, taken too big a chunk out of his ass. He needed to heal inwardly before he could take care of himself outwardly.

"I'm afraid for you," Skinner confessed, wondering at the openness of the moment. Guys didn't talk like this to one another. Guys said, 'hey buddy, how ya doing, you sonofabitch, you gettin' any these days?' and mindless phrases of that nature. They did not sit across from each other over a meal one had prepared for the other discussing deep emotions. Somehow, though, 'how ya doing you sonofabitch' didn't seem to fit the situation, he told himself grimly.

Mulder met his eyes unwaveringly. "Don't be afraid. I'm all right." And after a moment, "Thank you."

Skinner stood, then, knowing there was nothing else he could do short of committing the felony of hauling Mulder away against his will.

"I'm going to call Jess and tell her you'll be in tomorrow. I'll send one of the guys over to take you there. Don't fight me on this," he warned, seeing Mulder about to protest. "It's either this, or I *will* take you home and lock you in that bedroom. Understand me, Mulder. I am not letting you sink any deeper."

Without waiting for an answer he turned and strode out the door, leaving behind a still slightly confused Mulder. He knew, without looking back, that Mulder would return to his familiar spot on the couch within minutes.

Since that day he had enlisted the help of Frohike, Byers and Langley, and Mulder had been ultimately forced to make a decision: either die or begin living again. To their collective relief he had chosen to live, although his presence was more somber now. He was darker, somehow, more serious than ever before, but at least he was eating, sleeping, bathing--living. If only they could convince him that there was life after Scully.

Now, two weeks after finding Mulder sitting alone in the dark, Skinner stared angrily at the phone from which her voice was resounding.

"Walter? Are you there?" She sounded uncertain.

Gripping the receiver tightly, he forced himself to remain civil.

"I'm here," he said curtly. "Where are you?"

She sighed. "If I tell you--"

"Don't worry, Dana. I don't plan to mention this to Mulder."

"I'm in Baltimore," she confessed. "I got a job working in the county Medical Examiner's office here."

"That was quick," he observed.

"I had been looking into it before..."

"Before you deserted him," he reminded her bluntly. "Before you slept with him and then left him high and dry."

He felt rather than heard her sharp intake of breath, and a bolt of pure satisfaction shot through him.

"I did have a reason," Scully reminded him in a breathy voice. "It's why I called you today."

"I'm all ears."

For a moment she wanted to throw the telephone across the room, regretted ever initiating this conversation, but the thought of Mulder in Zach's clutches made her focus. Her feelings weren't important now. She could deal with her anger and humiliation later.

"Mulder may still be in danger, Walter. I need you to keep an eye on him."

He sat up straight in his chair at her words. "What do you mean by that?" he barked at her.

Haltingly, leaving nothing out, Scully related the story of Zach's visit to her on the day of their divorce hearing, the photographs he'd given her of Mulder, her reasons for not contacting either him or the police. Hoping to make him understand why she had disappeared so suddenly, she told him of the pictures she had continued to receive and how frightened she was that Zach still had access to Mulder.

"What makes you think he's a threat to Mulder now?" he asked. "Maybe he's only sending the photos as a continued reminder to you to stay away from Mulder--which I have to admit I think is an excellent idea."

She ignored his verbal jibe. "I'm worried because they're becoming more frequent. I used to get a packet once a week, then they started coming two or three times a week. Now I get one nearly every day. Everywhere he goes, Mulder is followed. Walter, it would be so easy for Zach to..."

"All right, Scully, I'll think of something," he finally said, rubbing the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. "But you have to agree to stay away from Mulder. It's difficult enough for him to get over losing you without you constantly coming in and out of his life."

There was silence from her end of the line for a long moment, then she answered in a choked voice, "Fine. Just--protect him, Walter."

He heard a click and she was gone. He sat for several minutes, considering his options, before finally deciding on a course of action.

"Frohike, pull over." Mulder had been mostly silent throughout the drive home from his therapy session, and Frohike had all but given up on conversation when the unexpected command came from his friend.

"Why?" asked Frohike suspiciously. If Mulder gave him the slip he would be facing the wrath of Walter Skinner, and that was a position in which the little man never wished to find himself.

"Just pull over," Mulder repeated impatiently, his eyes fixed on the mirror outside the car window. "I'm not going to jump and run, I promise."

"Okay, Mulder, but if you get me in trouble with Skinner I'm going to hang you up by the balls," Frohike answered, searching for a good spot to pull over to the curb. He managed to slide into a parking place fairly quickly, and turned to Mulder to demand an explanation.

Mulder's face had gone pale and his hand clutched the door handle as he stared at a nondescript white sedan passing them. There were two men inside; the driver kept his eyes on the road but the passenger gave them the once-over as the car slipped slowly by them and turned a corner.

"Do you know those guys?" Frohike demanded, seeing how nervous Mulder had become. His friend's hand was trembling slightly and he was firmly biting his bottom lip.

Mulder shook his head quickly. "No, but they've been following me for about a week now."

"No way!" Frohike exclaimed. "That's not Dana's bastard ex, is it?" He was instantly sorry he'd mentioned her name, but the damage was done. To his relief, he noted Mulder's lack of reaction.

Mulder grinned mirthlessly. "Hell no, Frohike. If he came around he'd probably just shoot me. Besides, since Scully took off there's no reason for him to give a damn about me anyway."

"So why would they be following you?"

Mulder turned around to look behind them and sure enough, there came the car around the block. When the driver saw them parked in the same place, he quickly changed lanes and sped past through the yellow light.

"I don't know," Mulder answered, his eyes on the disappearing vehicle, "but I think I'd better tell Walter. Can you drop me by the Hoover building? I'll catch a cab home."

"No can do, my friend, I have strict orders not to let you out of my sight until you are safely back inside your house."

Mulder sighed impatiently.

"I'll go with you."

At that, Mulder nodded and Frohike pulled the car away from the curb. All the way to FBI headquarters Mulder kept his eyes peeled for the white sedan, but it didn't make another appearance.

As they approached the front entrance, Mulder felt his steps becoming slower and slower until finally he stopped outside the door. Frohike almost ran into him.

"Hey!" he protested.

"Sorry," Mulder mumbled under his breath. He was about to do it. This was one of the last places from his past that he had not yet visited. How would he feel sitting in Skinner's office, facing him across the desk without Scully at his side, knowing he was no longer the man's employee but instead simply one incredibly fucked-up friend? His mouth twisted. Of course he knew how it would feel. It would feel like a thousand knives cutting his soul to shreds. Been there, done that.

"Memories. They're a bitch," Frohike announced from behind, and a second later he felt the smaller man's hands at his back, giving him a gentle shove. "But you gotta do this, Mulder."

"Yeah," Mulder finally responded, forcing his unwilling feet to move. "I know."

The guard at the desk phoned up to Skinner's office, and after a brief conversation produced visitor badges for the two of them. "Let me give you directions, Sir," the guard began, but Mulder brushed him off.

"I know where it is," he said in a voice that was tight with pain. When, he asked himself, was it going to stop hurting? When would life finally get tired of chewing on his carcass and let him rest? How much was one man expected to endure, anyway?

They entered the elevator with several other people, all appearing to be employees, and Mulder kept his eyes glued firmly to the numbers above his head. His greatest fear at that moment was running into someone like Tom Colton, someone who knew him from before. Someone who knew where he had been. Something worse was waiting for him, but Mulder did not as yet know that. Sometimes, he reflected later, it's better not to know what's in store. Had he guessed who he would meet up with outside Skinner's office that day, he would surely have turned tail and run as quickly as he could, but instead, blissful in his ignorance, he pulled Frohike off the elevator at Skinner's floor and they turned to the left.

He kept his gaze fixed on the floor, moving more by instinct than anything else, all the way down the hall. Occasionally he thought he heard whispers, and once was certain someone had called his name, but he ignored them all. Wasn't he a master at ignoring whispered comments, after all? All the years of dodging painful 'Spooky' comments paid off now, and he was able to successfully block out the sounds. They had almost reached Skinner's office when a familiar smell assailed his nostrils and he felt himself grow weak with fear.

Slowly raising his eyes, Mulder stood face to face with the man who had been behind his imprisonment. He felt his face drain, felt himself becoming light-headed, but sheer pride forced him to maintain eye contact and stay on his feet when his body wanted to whither into a faint. The elderly man casually removed the cigarette from his mouth, blowing smoke out his nostrils, and looked Mulder up and down.

"Hello, Mr. Mulder," he commented mildly. "You're looking surprisingly well for a man who's been through so many unpleasant experiences."

"Stay away from him, you bastard," Frohike growled, but Mulder put out a hand to stop his friend.

He didn't say anything to the smoking man. There was nothing to say. Nothing that could possibly make a difference now. Hanging on to the last shred of dignity he still possessed, Mulder met the man cold stare for cold stare, refusing to back down until finally, with a gesture of impatience, the smoker continued on his way down the corridor. When he disappeared around the corner Mulder crumpled.

Frohike caught him before he could fall, and Mulder took deep, gulping breaths, willing the panic tightening his chest to disappear. He was dragged the final few steps to Skinner's outer office, where Frohike shoved him into a chair and asked the assistant at her desk to bring Mulder a cup of water. She quickly complied, and Mulder gulped it down fast, feeling as dry as a desert. It occurred to him that he must have sweated out half the moisture in his body facing down his old nemesis.

Drawn to the outer office by the noise, Skinner emerged from his inner sanctum and took in the situation. The smoking man had just left his office, and it didn't take much brain power to put together what had just happened here.

"What did he say to you?" Skinner demanded roughly, anger darkening his voice.

Mulder shook his head, his eyes closed tightly, while he forced his breathing to slow down. "Nothing," he muttered. "It was nothing."

Skinner looked to Frohike for confirmation, and the smaller man nodded. "It just took him by surprise, I think," he said by way of explanation. "On top of what happened an hour ago--"

"What happened an hour ago?"

Frohike turned to Mulder, hoping he would explain things to Skinner, but Mulder's mouth was a grim line and his eyes were still firmly shut. His breathing had slowed down to a normal level, and the color was beginning to come back into his face, but he was still apparently battling the inner demons. Turning his attention back to Skinner, Frohike jerked his head toward Skinner's office door. Skinner nodded understanding.

"Come on, Mulder, let's get you inside," he said, taking the other man by the arm and helping him rise. Mulder allowed himself to be guided into the inner office, and moments later found himself sitting in exactly the same chair he had occupied so many times in the past. Forcibly suppressing the agony that wanted to take up residence in his heart, he told Skinner about the men who had been following him.

Skinner sat back in his chair, his lips slightly pursed in concentration. "Have you seen anyone else following you, Mulder?" he asked, perhaps a bit too quickly. 'Slow down,' he told himself inwardly. 'Slow down or you'll frighten him and he's barely hanging on by a thread now.'

"No," Mulder answered, puzzlement in his hazel eyes. "Why do you ask?"

Skinner leaned forward, clasping his hands together and resting his chin on them. He was silent for such a long time that Mulder finally prodded, "Walter? Is there something you need to tell me?"

"I put the tail on you," Skinner confessed at last.

Mulder's eyes grew wide at the revelation. "You what?" he asked incredulously. "It's not enough that you have my friends acting as babysitters, but now you have to *spy* on me?" The betrayal was clear on his face, and Skinner rushed to correct him.

"That's not the reason, Mulder. I had another motive for having you followed."

Mulder sat back, distrust still coloring his features but willing to give Skinner a chance. Silently he waited for Skinner to explain.

"I got a call from Scully last week," Skinner said, rising from his chair and coming around to sit on the edge of the desk in front of Mulder. He wondered, like Frohike, how the mention of her name would affect Mulder, and like Frohike, was surprised when there seemed to be no reaction at all. Mulder merely waited.

"She was concerned for your safety," he went on at last, and quickly filled Mulder in on all that Scully had told him. "Apparently Scully is afraid that her ex-husband is planning to do you some harm," he finished, "so she asked me to keep an eye on you. I knew you wouldn't consent to staying with me again, so this was the best solution I could think of at the time."

Mulder heaved a long sigh, letting his eyes travel over the desk, the window, the chair beside him where Scully had sat countless times as she supported him, backed up his theories even when she didn't understand them, had been his other half. Frohike occupied it now. 'How much?' he asked himself again. "When does it end?"

He didn't realize he had spoken the words aloud until Walter leaned forward to put a comforting hand on his shoulder.

"You'll get through this, Mulder. All of us are here to help you. You don't have to go it alone."

Mulder pushed himself to his feet, shoving his hands into the pockets of his jeans. "I know you mean well, Walter. You all do," he said with a glance over at Frohike. "But I do have to go it alone. Nobody can feel it except me."

The naked pain in his eyes tore at Skinner. He would have given anything in his power to shield Mulder from further hurt if he could, but there was nothing to be done. Mulder had endured more heartbreak in his life than any one man should ever be asked to bear, and Skinner knew it wasn't over. There would be more. Somewhere deep in his heart, no matter how much he might protest that he no longer cared, Mulder would always love Scully, always need her, always pine for her. The connection between the two of them had long since ceased to astonish Skinner; now he regarded it with a kind of envy. He had never had it with Sharon. They had been close, but they had never been two halves of a whole the way his former agents were. He wondered briefly if either of them realized how necessary the other was to their survival. He had been watching Mulder slowly die for years, seen him flourish in the brief time Scully had been with him, and witnessed his descent into what Skinner could only think of as blackness since her departure. Scully had been concerned for Mulder's safety; Skinner feared for his continued existence.

Mulder started for the door without another word, and Frohike rose to follow. Skinner reached out and grabbed his arm as he passed by.

"Watch him," he said softly into Frohike's ear. "Don't leave him alone."

Frohike nodded and hurried after Mulder, determined to make certain that no harm came to him today, by another's hand or by his own.

Chapter Six

"Where is she?"

Skinner closed his eyes briefly as he suppressed a sigh of exasperation. He had to give the man standing at his door credit--he'd held out almost two weeks before showing up to demand to be told Scully's whereabouts. Skinner had expected less than one.

They stood silently, facing off, for more than a minute while Skinner considered what response would be in Mulder's best interest. Mulder grew impatient.

"Walter? I know she must have told you."

"Why do you want to know, Mulder?" Skinner asked, stalling for time. There had really been no way to avoid this conversation, he knew. Every time he had spoken to Mulder since the day he'd revealed what he knew about Scully's ex-husband, Skinner had expected this question. Every time it didn't come, and he saw a little more improvement in Mulder's emotional condition, Skinner had felt abject relief, but that was over now. The moment of truth had arrived. Hazel eyes bored into his.

"Where is she?" demanded Mulder again, ignoring Skinner's question.

"I don't know." The lie was flat, unbelievable, and Skinner knew Mulder wouldn't be taken in.

Mulder gave him a look that might have been a grimace but seemed more like betrayal, and stepped around him into his apartment. 'Don't lie to me,' his demeanor warned, but he said nothing, only waited. The silence went on forever, broken only by the sounds of their breathing.

Mulder blinked first, as Skinner had known he would. "If you really don't know, then help me." Skinner steeled himself against the pleading in Mulder's voice. "Help me find her."

"How?" Skinner already knew the answer--it was obvious.

"You have all sorts of resources at your disposal, Walter," Mulder responded edgily. "It isn't as if she's vanished off the face of the earth. You could find her for me."

Skinner let the exasperated sigh escape now. How much would Mulder torture himself with this, he wondered, before he finally let Scully go?

"Mulder, I don't want to help you find her," he said firmly, seating himself and gesturing Mulder toward the couch. "I don't want you to look for her. And besides, what you're asking of me is an ethical violation, one that I'm not prepared to commit."

Now the silence definitely spoke of betrayal. Mulder ignored the offer of hospitality and remained standing, his entire body tense.

"Fine," Mulder said after a minute. "If you won't help me, I'll do it myself. I'll just hire a private detective."

The younger man turned as if to go and Skinner gave in. Cornered. It was the logical answer, but he had hoped Mulder wouldn't go that far. Might as well tell Mulder what he wanted to know, he decided. At least that way maybe Mulder would let him stay around to pick up the pieces when he inevitably fell apart.

"Don't bother, Mulder," he said, the regret in his tone stopping Mulder. "She's in Baltimore. County M.E.'s office."

Skinner watched the face before him as Mulder digested the information, wondering if he should follow up on it or let it drop. He prayed Mulder would reach the right decision, but in his heart he knew his friend really had no choice. Of course he would go after Scully. It was his destiny.

"Thank you, Walter," came the quiet reply, and Skinner sat silently as Mulder slipped out the door.

"Fuck!" The exclamation tore from Skinner suddenly. He was not a man given to profanity--he thought it unnecessary and childish--but on this occasion it felt warranted. Mulder was going straight into the lion's den again, and there was nothing he could do to stop him. Clenching his hands firmly together, he made himself resist the impulse to pursue Mulder and pound some sense into that stubborn brain. It would do no good. Once Mulder had set out on a course of action, nothing short of a brick wall could deter him.

Scully emerged from her office, tired and drawn after too many sleepless nights. The strain of worrying about Mulder had begun to impact her health, and even her co-workers were beginning to comment on her appearance. She hadn't heard a word from Skinner, and could only assume that he was keeping his promise to protect Mulder, but the pictures from Zach had continued to arrive, now on a daily basis. The only comfort she had was the fact that these days, Mulder rarely appeared alone in the photographs. One of the guys was apparently with him every day. She supposed that was Skinner's doing, and silently thanked him for it.

She made her way toward her car almost blindly, too exhausted to even take in her surroundings, and with her head bowed as she walked, she almost ran into him. At the last second she sensed his presence and looked up at him in confusion.

"Mulder!" she exclaimed, shock written all over her pretty face as she stepped back. "What are you...?"

His mouth twisted into a sarcastic smile. "What am I doing here?" he finished for her. "Funny, I could ask you the same thing."

Scully gritted her teeth firmly. She had no intention of engaging in a war of words with Mulder today--not when she was feeling so used up inside. "Go home, Mulder," she said shortly, reaching to unlock her car. His hand closed over hers and he spun her around, gently pushing her back against the door before she could get it open.

"I don't think so, Scully," he said firmly. "Not before we discuss a couple of things."

"There is nothing--"

"There is *plenty* to discuss!" he interrupted. "I think we should start with your reason for running out on me. Why did you even come to me that night if all you were going to do was fuck me and then leave?" he demanded, the hurt still obvious in his voice. "Couldn't you at least have done me the courtesy of leaving a note?" She had never heard this steely tone before, and having it directed at her now was almost too much to bear.

She jerked away from him angrily, but he pressed harder against her, pinning her to the car.

"Answer me," he demanded quietly, placing both hands on the car next to her shoulders, blocking any escape route.

"I had my reasons," she said, glaring up at him furiously. 'Go away!' begged her inner voice. 'Go away before he sees us together!'

He cocked his familiar eyebrow at her. "And those reasons would be...?"

Time to lie, she decided then, and lie big. It was the only way to get rid of him, which in turn was the only way she could protect him. Ignoring the ripping feeling in her heart, Scully coldly replied, "You were rushing me. You wanted committments from me that I wasn't ready to make."

He stared at her in disbelief. "Rushing you?" he said in that low, controlled voice that meant he was barely hanging onto his fury. "May I remind you that it was you who came to me? You who asked to move in with me? You who initiated--I told you I would give you all the time you needed, and I meant it. Scully, the last thing I was doing was rushing you."

She couldn't look at him, not at his eyes, not those eyes of his that always demanded honesty. Instead she fixed her gaze firmly on the top button of his shirt.

"It felt rushed to me," she insisted stubbornly. "I knew if I said I wanted to leave, you'd argue me down, so I decided to just go. How did you find me, anyway?" she asked pointedly.

He disregarded her question. "Then why did you have to disappear?" he countered smoothly. "Why not just move in with your mother, or get an apartment nearby? Why quit your job and leave town with instructions that I wasn't to be told where to find you? If you'd told me you felt overwhelmed I would have gladly backed off for a while. I can understand you wanting to leave me, Scully, but for God's sake why did you have to run away?"

She had to end this confrontation and end it immediately. The raw emotion in his voice was killing her, and for all she knew Zach could be watching them now. She glanced around hastily, but saw no one.

"Listen to me, Mulder," she said fiercely, leaning closer and speaking almost in a whisper. "I only did what I had to do. It's over between us. I've moved on, and you should do the same."

When he still didn't seem convinced, she decided to pull out the heavy guns. If Mulder had known the numbness engulfing her at that moment, he could have told her he understood completely--that when the pain became too much to bear, the body had a way of simply insulating itself, at least temporarily.

"I've been seeing Zach again," she lied. "We're thinking of getting back together." That should do it, Dana, she told herself sadly. That should just about finish him, isn't that what you wanted? What else could drive him away permanently?

Mulder looked stunned, as if she'd slapped him hard. Surely, after her ex-husband's threats toward his safety, after what he'd done to her, she wouldn't! His face was white, and she could feel his entire body trembling against hers. Seconds later he drew back and the contact between them was broken.

"You're serious?" he asked hoarsely. "You'd really go back to that bastard after what he did to you? What he's done to me?"

She looked away, unable to face him. "You don't understand, Mulder..."

"You're right," he ground out harshly. "I don't understand. Not you and not myself. I don't understand why I have this obsession with you after all the times you've hurt me, but I can tell you one thing for sure, Scully. I am through chasing after you." Tears were streaming down her face now, but he ignored them.

"You've always known how I felt about you. I've never tried to hide it," he went on, overriding her attempt to speak. "Sometimes I thought you felt the same, but you're too hard to read, and you reveal nothing of yourself. Well I'm finished with the guessing games, with the lies, and I'm finished with you. I can't stop loving you all at once, Scully, I realize that, but I will stop. I don't need you to survive, and I can't trust you anymore."

She gave a startled gasp--those words, more than any other he could have chosen, squeezed at her heart. To think that Mulder, the man who had been at her side through so many trials, the one she had seen through so many disappointments and heartaches, who had said she was the only one he trusted, could fling those words so casually in her face--until then she hadn't truly understood the depth to which he felt she had betrayed him.

Before she could formulate her thoughts into any kind of response, he was gone, had jumped into his car and was squealing out of the parking lot, loose gravel flying. Blinking back hot tears, Scully seated herself weakly in her own vehicle. It was the only solution, she assured herself, and he had Skinner to lean on. Had Skinner to trust. He would be better off without her--he would be safe. She lowered her head to the steering wheel and finally gave in to the sobs she had been holding back for so many weeks. It was truly over now, she knew. Even if Zach lost interest in his cause, Mulder would never forgive her for the pain she had put him through. Some hurts went too deep for absolution.

Mulder didn't know what to do so he simply drove. Racing through the streets unthinking, that same numbness that had enabled her to deliver her killing blow now engulfing him in its protective, if false comfort. He refused to allow his mind to consider the fact that she might actually reconcile with Zachary Morrow. It was simply too much to grasp. The Scully he had known and loved for so long would have put a bullet through that man's worthless carcass, but she was a different woman now. They were both so incredibly changed from the people they had been before. Episodes of intense camaraderie paraded through his consciousness rapidly, one memory on the heels of another until he was gasping for breath and barely noticed the tears streaming down his cheeks. How could two people who had been so completely entwined allow any one person or experience to separate them? The fact of his four years behind bars should have been irrelevant to them on the day of his release, but it had been too late. He had turned her away and she had turned away--each complicit in the destruction of the thing they held most precious. Had they been dealing only with outside forces they could have survived, but with each of them adding their own special brand of chaos to the mixture, they had managed to forever lose any chance of repairing the damage wrought by others.

Hours and miles sped by and before Mulder was aware of it, midnight was upon him. He was getting sleepy, his body exhausted in spite of the mind's turmoil, and reluctantly he turned toward home. Should he collapse onto the bed, with its merciless recollection of their one, treasured night together, or lose himself in the excruciating memories that went with his leather couch? Mentally flipping a quarter (heads you lose, tails you lose) he decided that maybe he'd just sleep on the damn floor.

It was a little after one in the morning when he parked in his driveway, and hauling himself to the door he fumbled with his keys. Finally managing the lock, Mulder almost fell into the darkened living room. He closed the door behind him and leaned against it wearily. His hand was just reaching for the light switch when an incredible pain slammed through his right calf, dropping him immediately.

His nerve endings discovered the pain before his ears could register the deafening sound or his eyes the blinding flash. The cry of anguish that tore from him was all but overwhelmed by his immediate gasp for breath. Still trying to comprehend what had happened, Mulder clutched frantically at his wounded limb, desperately attempting to staunch the flow of blood. In the next second, a lamp was switched on and he saw his assailant. His blood froze as he looked into the face of Zachary Morrow. 'Of course,' his mind jeered dimly. 'Who else could it be?'

"Morrow," he panted.

"None other." The grin on Zach's face was pure evil, and the light glinted off the small pistol he was now aiming once more toward his helpless victim. Mulder struggled to haul himself to his feet, but before he could regain his balance Zach's second shot hit him, this time catching him just below his ribcage. He was knocked back against the door from the force, and felt himself sinking slowly to the floor, eyes fluttering as he strove to remain conscious. That same detached part of his mind wondered if he was leaving a dramatic red streak on the whiteness of the front door. That's how it would look in the movies, he told himself. He wondered if Zach was really such a terrible marksman, or if he was deliberately missing in order to drag out the torture.

"Why..." he asked in a breathy voice. Sitting propped against the door, shocked and weakened, Mulder could only watch as his enemy approached him slowly. His eyes were fixed on the gun. Glock, 9mm, his trained eye told him, as if it mattered what type of weapon was used in his murder. Forcing himself to remain in an upright position, Mulder watched as Zach knelt beside him, his face only inches away. Sweat was dripping from his temples, mirroring Mulder's own. He saw the insanity in Zach's eyes and wondered idly what Zach saw in his.

"She still belongs to me, you know," Zach said casually as he trailed the barrel of the gun down the side of Mulder's face. "Nothing will ever change that."

Silently, Mulder waited to see what would happen next. For a moment he almost hoped Zach would put a bullet through his brain and be done with it, but in the next instant his survival instinct awoke. Maybe if he was able to get rid of this asshole he could call for help before it was too late.

"You're right," Mulder agreed, his voice tight with pain. "She is yours."

Zach's eyes widened--he hadn't expected that response--and then narrowed to tiny slits. Mulder was a clever one, he told himself, but not clever enough. Trying to throw him off the track would simply not work.

"I'm so happy you agree with me," he said smoothly, standing again and backing up a few steps. "In that case, you won't mind if I give her what she has coming, will you?"

The frantic question in Mulder's eyes confirmed his suspicions; Mulder still wanted her, still believed he could have her. It was a problem that must be dealt with completely. Raising the weapon again, he fired once more, this shot finding the fleshy part of his victim's upper arm. Grabbing at the new injury, Mulder felt himself losing balance, and an instant later was lying prone, gazing up at his attacker in fascinated horror.

"Leave her alone," he whispered, unable to gather enough strength for a real voice. "Don't hurt her."

"But she belongs to me. You said it yourself," Zach argued. He stood above Mulder, feet on either side of the limp body beneath him, and pointed the gun once more. "I can do anything I please with her."

Mulder saw the barrel aimed at his forehead and swallowed convulsively. This was it, then. This was where it ended. An end to the pain, his mind whispered, and with one last defiant look into his attacker's face, he closed his eyes and waited. An instant later he was ripped with agony again as the bullet struck not his head, but his abdomen. Barely able to breathe now, he felt the world gray out. He welcomed the oblivion, wanted it, reached for it. Eyes closed, breaths rapid and shallow, Mulder waited for death. He heard a voice at his ear, whispering once again the words, "She belongs to me. I'll never let her go." His body was shoved aside as the door opened and then closed behind Zach.

The pain of being moved brought him back to full consciousness, and with a flash of terror he realized where Zach was heading. 'Scully,' he thought frantically, 'I have to warn her before I die.' Grasping at his last reserves of strength, Mulder began to crawl obstinately across the room toward the telephone. His mind was working even as he felt his lifeblood draining slowly away. He didn't know her number. How could he warn her? Of course. Maggie. She was Scully's only hope.

Several excruciating minutes later he reached the table where the phone was located, taunting him with its nearness and unreachability. His first attempt to grab at it failed, his injured arm simply not having the strength to raise far enough above his head. On the second try, using the good arm this time, he was able to snag the cord and pull the entire base over the edge, crying out as it landed on his chest and shot a white-hot arrow of renewed pain through his stomach. Fighting now to maintain the consciousness he'd been almost ready to surrender, he felt for the speed-dial buttons. Maggie was number three, right after Walter and Jess, and he gave a relieved sob when his fingers touched it. He pressed the button and waited. Finally, after seven rings, she picked up.

"Hello?" came Maggie Scully's sleepy voice. "Who is it?"

"Mag--" he gasped, unable to complete the word. The grayness was back now, and no matter how hard he tried to fight against it he could feel himself losing.

"Fox? Fox, is that you?" Her voice was strong now, worried. She hadn't spoken to him since the morning of Dana's disappearance--he had simply refused to answer her calls, and sadly she told herself she understood. Now, though, he was obviously in trouble. She could hear short, harsh breaths from the other end of the wire.

"Scully--Zach--" he managed. "Going to--hurt her--"

"What about Dana?" Maggie demanded, fully awake and already beginning to look for clothes to wear. "Fox, what is it?"

Her voice carried through the connection, but it was unheard. Mulder had finally lost his battle with the grayness.

After a hurried call to Dana, in which she ordered her daughter to leave her apartment immediately, ("Don't ask questions, Dana, just *go*!") she dialed 911, giving them the sketchy details she possessed. Once assured that help was on its way to Fox, she lifted the telephone once more, this time to call Walter. He had been rather distant lately as well, but she knew it was only because he resented the fact that she had helped Dana hide from Fox. Between the two men and their damned Caller ID boxes, Maggie had been practically cut from their lives. Jutting her lip out stubbornly, she resolved to let the telephone ring as long as it took to get him to pick up. This was not the night for grudges.

Scully approached Mulder's bed with hesitation. He had just been brought to a room after hours of surgery and then another two in recovery, and she regarded his still, pale form beneath the sheets sadly. He was lucky to have survived. Tubes and wires snaked from beneath the sheets, metal and plastic testaments to the havoc that had been wreaked on his defenseless body by Zachary's bullets.

There was no doubt as to who the shooter had been, only of his current whereabouts. According to Maggie, Mulder had awakened briefly in the ambulance and begged the paramedics to warn her of the danger. The police had visited Zachary Morrow's home to find it empty, its occupant obviously having left in a rush if the jumble of clothing in both his and his daughter's bedrooms could be taken as an indication. Emmie had been dropped off with his parents with no accompanying explanation, the police had been told when they questioned Mr. and Mrs. Morrow, and they had no idea where their son had gone.

Skinner had wanted to have the police post guards outside Mulder's door, but after much argument Scully had persuaded him to call Langly and Frohike instead. Mulder, she pointed out, would probably enter full cardiac arrest were he to find himself not only helpless in a hospital, but with uniformed law officers guarding him. He'd be more likely to believe they were there to detain him than to protect his safety, she had reminded Skinner, and after some consideration he had agreed. Therefore, two of Mulder's closest friends (the ones he still trusts, Dana, she reminded herself sadly) were stationed outside the door that she slowly closed now, seeking privacy with the man in the bed.

Scully pulled up a chair and reached through the bed rail to take his hand, fighting back tears at its lifeless, limp feel. Even now Mulder's survival was not a certainty, and she was reminded of her coma, feeling his hand holding hers, hearing his voice begging her not to leave him alone, but being powerless to respond. She wondered if he could hear her now.

"Mulder," she began, and then stopped. What could she say? What apology could be sufficient for the suffering he had endured because of her? Finally deciding to forego words, she lay her head on the rail and satisfied herself with gently stroking his long, beautifully formed fingers. Scully had always admired Mulder's hands--hands that could belong to a concert pianist or perhaps a skilled surgeon, but instead had been used to solve horrific cases and capture some of the nation's most dangerous criminals. The hands of a hero. Hands that of late had dried too many tears.

"Please get better," she whispered, closing her eyes and continuing to caress him. "Please don't leave me now."

Toward the end of the day her mother made her go and get something to eat, so Dana obediently trekked to the hospital cafeteria and sat, unmoving, in front of a plate containing a cardboard chicken salad sandwich and a handful of pretzels. The empty coffee cup in front of her revealed her nutritional intake for the day, and as Skinner approached he shook his head. He didn't know what to make of the entire situation. Scully shares a night of passion with Mulder, Scully disappears, leaving Mulder a broken man, Scully tells Walter she has to avoid Mulder in order to protect him, now Scully refuses to leave Mulder's side. Skinner could only guess at the scenario that had led to the unprovoked attack on Mulder; Scully admitted that she had seen her ex-partner the day before, but refused to divulge details.

She looked up as he seated himself across the table from her, then dropped her eyes back to the untasted food.

"Did Mom send you?" she asked softly.

"She wanted me to make sure you were eating, but now that I see this," he replied, pointing disdainfully at the sandwich, "I advise against it."

A brief smile crossed her face. "I should have gone for the burrito. Mulder would have."

"In that case," Skinner observed philosophically, "he'd probably be lying upstairs due to food poisoning rather than gunshot wounds." Seing that his attempts at humor were falling flat, he shifted in his chair, leaning closer to her.

"I want you to tell me what happened, Scully," he ordered in his best Assistant Director's voice, and felt inward satisfaction when her head shot up. Her instinct to respond to his authority was still strong.

"Mulder came to see me yesterday," she said finally, slowly, as if dragging the words from herself. "But I suppose you knew that. You must have told him where to find me." There was only a hint of accusation on her face, but Skinner took note of it, silently daring her to comment on his behavior.

"I had no choice, he was going to hire a private detective. I didn't see any reason to put him to the time or expense, since any decent investigator would have found you easily. It isn't as if you were trying to hide."

She nodded, accepting his explanation.

"So what happened?" he asked again, wishing desperately for a cup of coffee.

She shrugged. "We fought. It seems to be the only way we can communicate these days."

"Sounds more like a lack of communication to me."

"Did you tell him about Zach? The pictures?"

"I had to tell him everything, Scully. He came to my office a couple of weeks ago, terrified because he had spotted the surveillance team I put on him."

"Surveillance team?" she demanded in disbelief. "Walter, how could you? Someone with Mulder's experience could hardly miss--"

"He missed your ex-husband," Skinner pointed out bluntly.

She grinned mirthlessly. "I'm sure Zach doesn't use approved, professional surveillance techniques. He's a stalker. Obviously a good one."

It was his turn to shrug. "Anyway, it didn't help matters when Mulder had a brief run-in with our cigarette smoking friend in the corridor outside my office."

Now her expression was horrified. "What did he say to Mulder?" she asked, her fingers tightening convulsively around her styrofoam coffee cup.

"Nothing, really, at least according to Frohike. I think it was more the shock of running into the man, and of course, Mulder's first thought was that he was the one responsible for the tail."

She nodded. "Naturally. And that's when you told him?"

"I had to, Dana, he was petrified. I couldn't very well tell him I was having him followed without revealing the reason."

She twirled the empty coffee cup between her fingers with forced casualness. "What was his reaction?"

"Predictable. What did you talk about yesterday?"

She flicked her eyes up at him, then down again. "Predictable things. He wanted to know why I left. He never did let on that he knew about the pictures."

Skinner sat silently for a few minutes, until it became obvious that she had no intention of continuing. "Am I correct in assuming that the two of you didn't reach any kind of understanding, and also that you probably parted company with Mulder's rather hasty departure?"

She stared. "You do know him well," she observed.

"I know his capacity for conflict avoidance, yes. But he did seek you out, so I expect he wanted some answers."

"He did."

"And did he get them?"

A tear finally made its way down the left side of her face, soon followed by a matching counterpart. "I didn't know you'd told him," she said tightly. "I lied to protect him, and it was the worst thing I could have possibly done."

She buried her face in her hands and let the emotion take hold. She was exhausted from hours of worry about Mulder and fear that Zach could show up at any minute, as well as concern that Mulder might not pull through this time. 'Third time's a charm!' her inner voice insisted, and she shuddered at the implication that Zach might meet with success in his latest attempt on Mulder's life.

Skinner reached a hand out and rubbed her shoulder gently for a moment. As angry as he had been with Dana Scully after her apparent abandonment of Mulder, seeing the raw pain coursing through the woman before him brought back too many memories. Mulder and Scully still belonged together. They always would. Unfortunately, if they couldn't reach an agreement soon, Skinner thought it might just kill Mulder.

"I'm sure when you have a chance to explain it to him, he'll understand."

She rubbed away the tears and managed to bring herself under control with an effort. "I don't think so," she said sadly. "He told me...Walter, he said he doesn't trust me anymore."

It was the last thing Skinner had expected to hear, and his eyebrows shot upwards. He wracked his brain for the right words to say, finally coming up with something he thought might comfort her. "You earned his trust once before, Scully. Surely you can do it again."

"If he'll give me a chance," she murmured, her slumped shoulders indicating what she thought the odds of it were. She stood and tossed the plate of food into a nearby waste container, along with the mangled cup. "I'm going back upstairs."

He watched her go with more than a little fear. Mulder's trust was so hard-won, but Scully had owned it almost from the beginning. If he had lost faith in her, truly, Skinner didn't know if there was enough of a relationship left to salvage.

She refused to leave his side after that, and on the evening of his second day of unconsciousness, raised herself from the chair hopefully when he finally stirred. She had been watching his chest rise and fall steadily, each hour that he breathed increasing his chances of continuing to do so, and when his eyes fluttered open she knew, without a doubt, that Mulder was going to live. Relief flooded her entire body, leaving her weak, and she sat back limply in the chair, still grasping his hand, as he slowly turned his head to look at her.

His eyes were slightly unfocused at first, but once they settled on her they gained a glittering anger that frightened her. She attempted to smile through her tears, but Mulder's face remained stony as he watched. Finally, moistening his lips, he attempted to form words. His voice was rusty, cracking through his dry throat, but there was no mistaking his intent.

"Get--out," he rasped, and she recoiled at his fury.


"Now." His voice gained strength as his throat became lubricated with saliva. Glancing down and realizing she held his hand in hers, he drew away.

As Mulder's fingers slipped from her own, Scully had a brief but terrifying flashback of the day they had taken him from her in handcuffs. He'd not wanted to leave her that day, had been taken against his will, but this time he was removing himself deliberately.

"I can't leave," she confessed, reaching to brush the hair from his forehead and wincing as he tried to jerk away. The sudden movement caused the pain in his abdomen to flare up, and once it awakened, its companions in his arm, leg and side came to life as well. Seeing the sudden tightness to his mouth and the way his pale face lost its last vestige of color, Scully guessed the problem. Immediately she reached over and pushed the button that would release a dose of medication into Mulder's IV, and within a few minutes he was more comfortable, if not comfortably numb.

"Go away, Scully," he whispered, closing his eyes as the drug soothed his pain.

"Sorry, Partner," she said. "I'm not leaving you."

He gave a small sigh. "We're not partners any longer, Scully. We're not even friends. And we've never been lovers, in spite of that one night."

She knew she had hurt him, that he had the right to hurt her in retaliation, but she flinched at the jab his words sent to her heart. Still, letting him go now--now that he knew the whole story of why she had gone--was unthinkable. Mulder could be gotten around. It would just take some time.

"We can get it back again, Mulder," she began, but he slowly shook his head.

"I don't want it back, Scully. I don't want *you* back. Just go away."

Before she could open her mouth to protest, Skinner was at her side, firmly but gently grasping her above the elbow. She looked up at him, stunned. Surely these two men couldn't be serious about making her leave?

"Mulder," she tried once more. "You must know I never meant for it to come to this."

He closed his eyes and turned his head away. "You're the one who said you wanted to end it, Scully. Well you've got your wish."

There were no more words to say as she allowed Skinner to pull her easily from his side, from his presence, from the room.

"He can't--he doesn't mean--" she stammered once outside the door.

Skinner put his hand on her shoulder and interrupted her firmly. "Let him go, Scully." Startled, she looked up to meet his gaze.

"Once and for all, just let him go. It's the best thing."

She stared at him for a full minute before speaking. "I'll stay away for a little while," she said carefully, "to give him time to recover. But it isn't over between us, Walter. It can't be. I can't let Zach win, not after all we've been through. And I don't believe it's truly what Mulder wants either. He still loves me."

"That may be so," he agreed, "but he can't take any more. Just let him go. Please, Scully." His soft brown eyes contained more than a request, less than an entreaty. He was asking, pure and simple. "He can't stand any more of this up and down bullshit. You've jerked him around once too often."

"I'll go. For now," she answered finally. He watched her small frame as she retreated down the corridor, not taking his eyes off her until she stepped into the elevator and disappeared from view. He wondered how Mulder would react to this once he recovered from his injuries.

"I'm sorry, Scully, he's sleeping," Skinner lied as his eyes played over Mulder. His physical recovery was progressing nicely, but emotionally his friend was a wreck. Mulder tried to hide the turmoil in his mind from Skinner, but hadn't been successful--Skinner knew every nook and cranny of that mind by now, and he was acquainted with all Mulder's defense mechanisms.

"I'll tell him you called." He put down the phone and sighed. "Are you ever going to speak to her again?" he asked, crossing his arms and levelling his gaze at the man in the bed.

Mulder shrugged. "Sooner or later I suppose I'll have to," he conceded. "But not as long as you're here to protect me." His grin belied the seriousness of the words, and if Skinner had been a casual acquaintance he might have been fooled. Instead, he recognized the real meaning behind Mulder's choice of phrase. He really did feel the need of protection from his diminutive ex-partner.

"You know, Mulder, I doubt Scully would drag you off behind some bushes and rape you," he said dryly. "Just speaking to her on the telephone wouldn't really put you in that much jeopardy, and it might get her off your back. How long do you think she's going to put up with this brush-off routine?"

Mulder smiled. "Maybe long enough for me to move to Seattle."

Skinner snorted. "Yeah, I can just see you in Seattle."

"I hear it's nice there," Mulder commented, the twinkle in his eye growing. It had become a running joke with them in the past week, beginning when Mulder had morosely declared that the only way to put Scully out of his life forever might be to move across the continent.

"It rains there," Skinner finished. Mulder hated rain. Mulder hated anything that kept him penned up indoors. "Seriously, Mulder."

Mulder looked up at him, shifting his position slightly to take the pressure off his wounded leg. He glanced away quickly when he saw the firm expression on Skinner's face. Sighing, Mulder nodded once. He knew his friend was getting tired of lying to Scully on his behalf. She had tried to visit him twice since the day he had awakened to find her there, and each time Skinner had politely but determinedly turned her away. Sooner or later he was going to have to face her.

"I know, Walter, I know. It's just...every time I think about it I get chills."

Skinner shook his head in exasperation. "You tell me you're over her, but I know you're lying. I tell her you're sleeping, but she knows I'm lying. She says she doesn't want to hurt you again...is she lying?"

Mulder absently wound a corner of the sheet around his finger, back and forth, while he thought about his answer. Finally, he said, "I believe she doesn't want to hurt me. I don't think she ever did. Scully just made some bad decisions."

This was too much for Skinner. "You've never made a bad decision in your life have you, Mulder?" he demanded through his laughter.

Mulder glared up at him. He wanted to join in the laughter, but it was too much of an effort just now. The past few minutes of friendly banter were all he had the emotional strength for.

"I excel at making bad decisions, Walter," he replied seriously as he settled back against the pillows.

Skinner frowned. It had been a fun moment with Mulder, but the fact was, his friend was still hurting, both inside and out. The inner pain would take much longer to heal.

Skinner stood at the nurses station waiting patiently to be presented with Mulder's discharge papers and prescriptions. He would be receiving another week's worth of antibiotics just for good measure, the doctor had told them, as well as some pain pills in case he should need them. Skinner already knew they were a waste of time, but rather than argue with Mulder's physician he had agreed gracefully. If Mulder wanted to flush the medication down the toilet when he got home that was his choice.

Skinner had tried desperately to convince Mulder that returning to his own home, alone, was a bad idea, but Mulder would not be dissuaded. He could take care of himself, he insisted, and would be more comfortable in his own surroundings. Skinner had finally agreed, with the condition that Mulder's house be guarded 'round the clock--by trained law-enforcement officers this time--and Mulder had finally, reluctantly agreed. He ignored the tightening in his stomach at the thought of someone in a police uniform approaching him; he knew he was being silly, but the memory of being marched out of his apartment in handcuffs and having years of his life stolen was as fresh as the day it had happened.

Having lost the battle to have Mulder convalesce at his apartment, Skinner was doing all he could to ensure Mulder's comfort and safety. He had visited Mulder's house the day before, checked out his pantry and first-aid supplies, and made a quick trip to a nearby market to restock those things he thought Mulder would need. He had also determined to make a daily visual check to see for himself that Mulder was coping, but he hadn't felt the need to share that decision with his obstinate friend just yet.


A voice at his elbow drew his attention and he turned to find Scully at his side, hesitant, uncertain.

"What is it, Scully?" he asked brusquely, pretending not to be surprised at her sudden appearance. For the last week she had not called, apparently having gotten fed up with Mulder's constant refusals to speak with her, and Skinner hoped she had given up the chase. That, apparently, was not the case.

Scully glanced nervously toward the door to Mulder's room, then back to him. "I want to see him," she said.

Skinner turned fully toward her now, leaning on the nurses desk and regarding her deliberately. She flushed under his scrutiny, but held his gaze steadily.

"Why?" he asked. "Did you find a piece of him you hadn't ripped to shreds yet?"

Her mouth tightened in anger, but she clamped down on her temper. "I just want five minutes," she said levelly. "If I don't see him now, I'll find a way to see him later. There's something I need to say to him, Walter."

He stood, unspeaking, for a long minute, then finally gave a single nod and turned away, dismissing her. Scully swallowed the lump in her throat and headed for Mulder's room, hoping Skinner wouldn't change his mind and call her back.

The door was slightly ajar, and she pushed it open slowly. Mulder was up, fully dressed, sitting on the bed. He was shoving a few personal belongings into his bag, and looked up, startled, when he saw her.

"You're back," he said in a toneless voice. "Somehow I knew you would be."

Scully shut the door behind her, ignoring his cold reception, and pulled up a chair. Seating herself before him, she reached out for his hand. He didn't pull away, but he didn't return her gesture either--he simply let her take his limp fingers in hers. Passive. Unresisting.

"I needed to talk to you," she began, and then stopped. How could she convince him of all the emotions in her heart? He had said he didn't trust her--did he still have enough trust to believe her when she told him how she felt? He waited, his eyes glittering green, while she gathered her thoughts.

"A lot of things have gone wrong between us," she said in a low voice, "and most of them are probably my fault."

She waited for him to jump in and accept blame for the situation--it was what he would have done in the past--but the man before her was a very different Mulder from the man she had known for so long. He sat silently.

"I know I didn't handle the threat Zachary made very well," she confessed. "I was confused, and I was so frightened for you. I didn't know if you would try to take him on alone, or if it would send you over the edge into a panic. And I knew, we both knew, that Zach was perfectly capable of following through."

She glanced up at him then, and he nodded for her to go on. Lowering her gaze back to their clasped hands, she searched for the words to continue.

"I came here to ask you for one more chance, Mulder." Angrily she felt the tears attempt to manifest, and forced them to remain dormant. Tears would not sway him now, tears would only make her feel weak and foolish.

She hadn't expected him to speak, and when he did his words were like the flog of a whip.

"One more chance at what?" he whispered. "Destroying me?"

Her lips tried to form the word 'no', but he didn't give her a chance.

"You've already finished the job, Scully," he said, his voice trembling with sadness and barely held fury and something else--disdain? "You were the one, after all that's been done to me, who finally made me give in and cry 'uncle'. You broke me when nobody else could. How many times do I have to lose you? God, Scully, how many times do you think I can?"

The tears ran unchecked down her face now, his tormented words making it impossible to stop them.

"I don't want to give you another chance. I couldn't survive another chance." He shook his head, and the sad smile on his face was her undoing. "I just can't do this anymore, Scully."

With that, he gently removed his hand from hers and stood, turning to zip up the canvas duffel bag. He ignored the choked sobs she tried to suppress.


"I can't do it anymore," he repeated, tossing the bag over his shoulder and wincing slightly at the tinge of pain it brought.

She turned around when she heard the door open. Skinner stood waiting, ignoring her as well, and Mulder followed him out the door and down the hall without a second glance her way. Scully remained where she was for several more minutes, gathering her scattered thoughts and composing herself, before rising and walking stiffly from the building. She held herself in check all the way back to Baltimore, forcing thoughts of Mulder angrily from her mind. The loneliness she felt when she thought of the two men who had been her allies and friends for so long excluding her from their lives was crushing. With determination born of years of struggle, Scully forced her mind to organize itself. She had much thinking ahead.

Her choices were clear, her decision impossible--keep trying, or move on?

Chapter Seven

Mulder waited patiently while Skinner settled him onto his couch, pain medication and antibiotic within easy reach, remote control in hand, telephone nearby. He agreed to rest, and to call if he needed anything, anything at all. He obediently responded that yes, he would eat something soon. He thanked Skinner for his help, and his offer of still more assistance, but assured his friend that he would be all right alone and didn't need a babysitter. When Skinner finally departed, reluctantly, Mulder breathed an enormous sigh of relief and hauled himself to a sitting position. He had a plan and he intended to carry it out before the numbness protecting his heart could fade.

Skinner had pressured, had almost insisted that Mulder stay at his apartment for a few days, but Mulder had dug in his proverbial heels and remained adamant. He wanted to go home. He would be fine. Skinner's jaw had tightened a little at that word, but Mulder didn't care. He was tired of being treated like an invalid by his friends, and was determined that nobody should deter him from the course upon which he had decided.

Life, Mulder told himself as he gathered the supplies he needed, had no business being so painful. He found his old gun cleaning kit packed in a box in the bedroom and carried it back to his couch. Then he visited the kitchen, where he dug half a bottle of Scotch from beneath the sink, hidden behind the cleaning supplies and extra dishtowels. He considered a glass, with ice even, and then shrugged his shoulders carelessly. There was really no need.

The last object he retrieved had belonged to his father, and Mulder held it with a kind of reverence when he had removed it from its storage case. The bedroom light glinted off its blue-steel exterior, and Mulder held the wooden hand-grip in his palm comfortably. He and his father had been about the same height and build, although Bill Mulder had shrunk a bit in his later years, as older people will do. Still, the gun fit Mulder's hand perfectly, and he hefted its weight with confidence driven by experience. He hadn't handled a firearm in years, but the time had melted away the moment he flipped open the revolver. Properly unloaded. He had known it would be, but habit dictated he check. 'Always treat every firearm as if it were loaded', he remembered his father's voice telling him once. How many years ago had that been? Thirty? Thirty-five? At least one hundred, he decided at length.

The weapon appeared surprisingly clean in spite of long disuse, but Mulder carried it back to the couch, along with the accompanying ammunition, and purposefully set about the task of cleaning the gun. He had no intention of having his plans upset by a dirty firearm. There would be no room for mistakes tonight.

Scully reached her Baltimore apartment and immediately headed for a hot bath. Her only concession to the fact that Zachary was still on the loose and dangerous was to lock the front door behind her. He could come and get her now, she thought with a creeping sadness. He could hurt her, kill her even, and it wouldn't matter. Nothing mattered any longer. She sneered at herself, realizing her thoughts mirrored a gothic romance novel, but life had become quite gothic lately, she defended. And romance does not always have a happy ending.

For all the past they had between them, Scully had never really believed Mulder would stop caring. His eyes, when he'd told her he wouldn't give her another chance, had been chillingly dead. She had always been able to read his true feelings in those eyes of his, but not today. Today they had only conveyed indifference, and that, more than anything, frightened her. If Mulder had said he hated her, she might have had more hope. Hate, at least, was an emotion, and a strong one. There was always the possibility of turning hatred into love, especially when love had once been strong. Indifference was so...final.

She dropped her clothing in a heap on the floor, neatness be damned, and slipped gratefully into steaming water. Usually the aroma of the oil she used in her bath soothed her frayed nerves, but nothing so simple would ease away today's problem. She gasped aloud when the memory of Skinner and Mulder walking away from her hit, and actually brought her hands up to cover her heart in a vain attempt to block out the pain. Forcing herself to breathe deeply, and shoving the memory away, she blinked back hot tears. Tears would gain her nothing now. She had to figure out a way to recapture Mulder's heart. 'Tomorrow is another day!' her inner sneering voice quoted, and she quelled it immediately. Though Rhett Butler he was not, Mulder was meant for her, and she for him. Nothing could change that fact. He needed her too thoroughly to be able to simply set her aside like a boyhood hobby now forgotten. Deep within, beneath the layers of denial and self-protection, he must still love her. He simply must.

Skinner paced throughout his apartment restlessly; a Mulder habit, he thought wryly as he sipped at the coffee that had become his sustenance in past weeks. He held little hope that Mulder had kept the numerous promises Skinner had extracted. Lie down, rest, eat, take your medication, don't overdo...

"Damn!" Skinner swore aloud. "I'm acting like his mother!" Well, maybe not *Mulder's* mother, he corrected himself, but *a* mother. Teena Mulder had not been one to fuss over her son, and it was a damned shame, because had Mulder had a little more motherly hovering in his childhood, he might not think so little of himself today.

The crux of the matter, he finally admitted to himself, was that he didn't trust Mulder completely. He knew the tendency toward self-flagellation that his former agent carried, and the scene at the hospital this morning with Scully had been much more damaging emotionally than Mulder had let on. To tell the woman he had loved for years that he no longer trusted her, that he didn't want to try one more time to make their relationship work--it had to have torn Mulder to pieces, but in true Mulder fashion he had simply swallowed his feelings and put on a mask. And then turned his back on her and walked away.

It seemed to always be this way with Mulder and Scully, he mused as he stood on his balcony and stared at the traffic seventeen floors below. When one was ready to jump in with both feet, the other held back, reluctant to commit or even admit to the feelings. Eventually, in a sad and bizarre dance of self-destruction, they would change places, and so the dance continued as the world played its discordant background music. They would die for each other, he realized, but they refused to live for each other.

Saddened at the waste of a perfectly good love affair, Skinner examined the jump he'd been afraid Mulder was going to make not so very long ago. Maybe it would have been better all around. Maybe the most merciful thing now would simply be to let Mulder put himself out of his misery. He shook his head. He remembered a book he'd read in his early twenties--"The Exorcist" by William Peter Blatty. In it, the author had compared (evil) to EVIL!. Mulder's life struck him the same way. It wasn't even misery with Mulder. Where most people suffered misery, and sometimes only (misery), with Mulder it was Misery, and sometimes MISERY. Pain and suffering of one type or another had been that man's constant companion since he was twelve years old. How many instances of joy had there actually been? Few and far between, and most of them centered on the woman he'd turned his back on this morning, Skinner decided, and wondered briefly how Mulder's life might have turned out without the benefit of outside interference. No use thinking about that now, he told himself at last. Everyone's life had outside interference. It was just that Mulder seemed to have it in spades. At that thought, Skinner laughed shortly. Hell, Mulder had *everything* in spades.

The first sip of scotch, taken directly from the bottle, had burned going down. Drinking was something Mulder had never been terribly fond of, the occasional beer with friends being his usual limit, and straight hard alcohol from a bottle was an entirely new experience. He'd only bought the bottle in a fit of depression one day, had made himself a couple of mixed drinks to loosen up, and then decided if he didn't stop he would find himself on a road he had absolutely no intention of traveling; his father had been an alcoholic, and Mulder recognized the aspect of his personality that could easily be taken in by the same demon. His defense against such an occurrence had always been avoidance, and it had worked well. In keeping with that decision, he had shoved the bottle to the back of the cupboard and forgotten about it until today. He'd managed to get through crisis after crisis without numbing his brain artificially (although he had to admit that the automatic self-defense-numbing his body had recently treated him to had been appreciated and wonderful), but today required more. If he was going to carry out his plan, he would need a little courage of the liquid persuasion, he told himself as he took another drink. His swallow was larger this time--bigger than a sip but not yet qualifying as a swig. He had no doubt that before the evening was through he would have passed through the swigging stage and possibly even progressed to gulping.

It was going to be a long night.

He reached for the pen and notepad that he kept beside the telephone. It simply wouldn't do to put a bullet through his brain without explanation, he decided. Walter, at least, deserved more than that from him, as did Frohike, Byers and Langly. Scully deserved nothing.

He'd called Senator Matheson's office not long after his release from prison to express his thanks and had been told the Senator was out of the country. His letter of gratitude had gone unanswered, and Mulder had sadly decided that his friendship must be a political liability to Matheson at this point. He had made no further efforts at contacting Matheson, having decided in late childhood that one-sided relationships were not his forté‚ (they always hurt), and Matheson himself had been silent. Apparently his efforts to obtain a new trial for Mulder had been one last favor for an old friend, one with which he no longer wished to be acquainted.

He wrestled with how to begin Skinner's letter. 'Dear Walter', though generally accepted, seemed too sticky for Mulder's taste. Skinner was much more than 'dear', and nothing of what the word might imply. It was a feminine word, one that women could use easily to address one another and not be thought less of, but men were required to exhibit more manly emotions--or lack thereof. 'Dear' seemed to indicate someone for whom you had loving, even intimate feelings, and it simply didn't apply. On the other hand, Skinner had been so much more than his friend in the past few years.

Mulder had been surprised at first by Skinner's completely unexpected dedication to his cause once he'd been convicted. He had never imagined the level of support he had received, and had certainly not allowed himself to hope that Skinner, or anyone else for that matter, might actually try to help him. He anticipated each visit with dread, hoping Skinner would arrive on schedule and fearing the day he didn't, until finally he had become convinced that whatever his reasons, Skinner would not desert him. After a time he had, little-by-little, given Skinner the trust that the older man craved, and a friendship had been forged the depths of which Mulder had never experienced with another man. Having had only Samantha, and having her taken from him, he couldn't describe his relationship with Skinner in sibling-like terms, but he sometimes thought this might be what it would be like to have an older brother. Someone to depend on, trust in, fight with, hang with, and most of all someone to bring you back into line when you let your life get so far off track that you were lost. Skinner had always been all of those things to Mulder, only Mulder hadn't recognized it until recently.

Finally deciding on a simple 'Walter', Mulder scrawled the word across the top of the notepad. Then he sat, staring at the empty page wondering how to explain to the man who had been, in an almost literal sense, his savior, why he was throwing it all away.

The bath water began to cool before she finally pulled herself from the tub and wrapped a large fluffy towel around her body. Some of the tension from the day had drained away, but Scully still was unable to rid herself of the creeping sensation of worry she had begun to feel. Something was wrong. Mulder had been so unlike himself this morning, and when Mulder set his mind to it, he could be quite unpredictable. She sat on the edge of her bed, staring cautiously at the telephone. Should she risk calling him to make sure things were all right? What good could it really do her anyway--Mulder would only tell her he was 'fine', if he answered at all.

Fine. Scully winced, thinking of all the times she had shut him out with that very phrase. She'd never realized until recently how much it could hurt to be on the receiving end.

At first Mulder had been mildly irritated, even somewhat amused, that she should attempt to feign strength behind a word. He had held her in his arms once and allowed her to cry, whispering words of comfort in her ear, seconds after she had uttered them. He had never believed her when she used the phrase, even when she was telling the truth. In later years he had become angered by that sentence, and had even turned it on her a time or two, more as a revenge than a desire to conceal his feelings from her, she thought. Now, though, it was a desire to conceal. Mulder had erected walls within walls around himself, and Scully feared that by now, even if she spent the rest of her life tearing down bricks, she would never reach the man behind the fortress. And the man behind the fortress was in such pain...

Resolutely, before she could change her mind, she reached for the telephone. The worst thing he could do was hang up on her, she decided, but she had to at least try to talk to him.

The telephone rang six times before his answering machine picked up and his voice rattled off the characteristically brief message. With a sigh Scully put down the phone. He might be out, but chances were good he simply didn't want to talk to *her*. After a few more minutes of inner debate, in which she assured herself that Fox Mulder was a grown man and could take care of himself, she reluctantly grabbed up the phone again. Fox Mulder might be a grown man, but there were days when he most definitely could *not* take care of himself, and she suspected this was one. Even though Skinner might rip her up one side and down the other, at least he was guaranteed access to Mulder, access she was apparently to be denied.

Skinner didn't want to take her call when it came in, but he knew he had to; he couldn't leave her hanging. He was angry at Scully, and angry at Mulder as well for the way they had acted lately, but he didn't have the heart to ignore her. He'd rather she called him than Mulder anyway. He had more power to resist her.

"Skinner," he barked into the telephone when he answered after the fifth ring. He heard her breathing for several seconds before she finally worked up the courage to speak. He knew this must be difficult for her after what had happened at the hospital, but that didn't mean he had to make it easier.

"Have you talked to him?" she asked at last, and Skinner could hear the weariness in her voice. Somewhere on the edges of his mind he realized they all sounded the same these days. Tired. Worn out.

"Not since I left him at home this afternoon. Why?"

She sighed heavily, as if reluctant to continue. "I know this is going to sound stupid--maybe it is stupid--but something he said today has got me worried."

He sat up at that statement; he still didn't know details of the exchange between Mulder and Scully that morning and Mulder had absolutely refused to discuss it with him.

"What did he say that worried you?" he asked quickly, feeling around with his feet for the shoes he had discarded earlier in search of comfort. Somehow he knew this call was going to result in a trip to Mulder's house.

"He said--Walter, did Mulder tell you what we talked about?"

"No. What did he say that worried you?" He was getting tired of endlessly repeating himself with this woman. Somewhere in the last few years, Scully had acquired a remarkable ability to approach topics from a perspective that he thought of as 'sideways'. Quite a change from the former, straight-to-the-point woman he had known in the past. He wondered if her marriage to Zachary Morrow was responsible for the switch.

"He said he couldn't do this anymore. Those were his exact words, Walter--'I can't do this anymore'. It didn't sound like you'd expect. It sounded...creepy."

He rolled his eyes at that. "Creepy?" he asked in a disbelieving tone. "Do I need to remind you that this is *Mulder* we're discussing?"

"I *know* it's Mulder, Walter, but there was something about his voice...and his eyes," she retorted. "Something was going on in that brain of his and I wasn't able to figure it out. That alone frightens me. I tried calling him, but naturally he refused to pick up."

"Good. I don't mean to be unkind, but right now you're the last thing he needs."

She was silent for a long time, and he could almost hear the pain his words had caused her. He couldn't bring himself to care much.

"Maybe you're right about that," she said at last, "but I would appreciate it if you'd just check on him. At least he'll probably answer your call."

Skinner rubbed his eyes wearily. "Fine," he told her abruptly. "I'll check on him."

"Thank you," she said in a tone that was just this side of icy. He heard the distinct click and knew she had gone away angry, but again couldn't bring himself to give a damn. Mulder might have recovered from his stay in that hellhole fairly quickly with her support--Skinner had never seen him so happy as in the brief time Scully had stayed with him--but the additional agony she had put her ex-partner through had sealed his fate. He was still a somewhat broken man, only partially repaired, and Skinner feared Mulder would be this way always.

He stretched, shaking the kinks out his tall frame--napping in a chair at his age was never a good idea, he reminded himself. He reached for the telephone, intending to give a quick check-in call to Mulder, and hesitated. Scully may be at the root of a lot of Mulder's problems, but nobody understood his psyche like Mulder's former partner. If she believed he could be up to some ill-conceived action, it might be better to surprise him by arriving unexpectedly. A telephone call would only give Mulder a chance to lie, provided he answered at all. Checking his pockets for his wallet and keys, Skinner made for the door.

Mulder, he told himself, you'd damn well better be sitting quietly watching television when I arrive.

Mulder didn't stir when the doorbell rang; he already knew who it would be. After all this time he'd sort of developed a SkinnerSense, the ability to discern when his friend would worry most about him and when that worry would get the better of Walter. The SkinnerSense had been going off loud and clear for the last hour, ever since he'd ignored Scully's phone call. It hadn't taken brilliance to deduce her next step. He sat in the same position he'd held for twenty minutes, his father's gun lying loosely across his lap, barely grasped in his fingers. His thoughts had taken a meandering route during the afternoon, but had at last, with the help of some unexplained force that still rocked him, reached a conclusion. One he could live with.

After a few minutes he heard Skinner fumbling with the lock. As the door slowly opened, the last bit of daylight crept across the room to partially illuminate his form on the couch. Still, silent, he waited for Skinner to approach. Skinner did so cautiously, as if afraid Mulder might raise the gun to his head at any second. When his friend stood quietly before him, obviously searching for words, Mulder took pity on him at last.

"It's all right, Walter." He gently placed the gun on the coffee table, then lightly shoved it toward Skinner. "I already decided not to do it."

Skinner tried unsuccessfully to hold back a small sigh of relief, seating himself in a chair to Mulder's left. He waited for the other man to go on.

"I can live without her," Mulder continued after a moment. "I know that now."

Skinner stared pointedly at the nearly-empty bottle of Scotch, and Mulder gave a short laugh. "I had to get drunk in order to think clearly, can you believe that?"

Skinner didn't answer, just sat back and let Mulder talk.

"But I am thinking clearly now. For the first time in a very long time I'm thinking clearly. And I realized something this afternoon, Walter. I realized that I've always lived without her. She was never really mine at all. From the very beginning I wanted her, and I opened myself up to her, and I *gave* myself to her, heart and mind and soul and eventually even my body, but she was never, *never* mine. I wanted to believe, and I told myself she returned my feelings, but it was a lie."

Skinner accepted this information wordlessly. Mulder was speaking more now than he had in weeks, and even though he knew it was partially the liquor talking, Mulder needed to unburden himself. Curiously he nodded toward the gun. "What changed your mind?"

He thought he saw a look flit across Mulder's face, but before he could fully identify it (wonder? fear? awe?), it was gone. Mulder smiled and settled back on the couch. "You. Mom. Dad. Samantha. I realized I owed all of you more than this. And you know, Walter, I'm the very last one. The last of the Mulders, at least from this branch of the old family tree. There won't be any after me. This is not the legacy of my family I want to leave the world."

He stared up at Skinner, his smile gone and his face totally serious. "All of you deserve better than this from me. You, especially, deserve more."

"You don't owe me anything, Mulder," Skinner said uncomfortably.

"But I do. I never would have made it this far without you, did you realize that? Hell, I never would have made it through those four years in purgatory if I hadn't had you to lean on, only I didn't realize it at the time. You've saved my life, Walter, more times than I can count."

"Bullshit. You'd have done the same thing for me, and you'd have done it for the same reason. Because you're my friend. Because it was the right thing to do."

Mulder smiled again, a real smile this time, his first one in days if not weeks. "Maybe. All I know is, it's time to move forward. I'm in the process of making some decisions. I don't want to tell you about them until I'm sure, but they do involve leaving the past behind."

"What about your schooling, Mulder?" Skinner asked curiously. "You were so determined--"

"I'm still determined. It's something I've always wanted to do, and I intend to finish. I refuse to let Scully, or my past, take anything else away from me." He grew very quiet for a moment, as if gathering his thoughts for explanation, and then said simply, "Today I wanted to die. I changed my mind. From now on, I live."

Profound, Skinner thought. Profound, and so much easier said than done, for at the heart of the matter was still a small red-haired woman from Mulder's past, present and future.

"Do you still love her?"

Mulder didn't seem surprised at the question. "I suppose I do, on some level. At least, the part of me that my common sense hasn't yet been able to reason with still loves her. But I can't have her. I never had her. I'm not sure anyone ever will. I can live with that now." He ran his fingers idly around the rim of the liquor bottle. "Scully is not the kind of woman any man can have."

"There are other women, Mulder," Skinner told him mildly, knowing all the while that it was untrue, that for Mulder there would never be another woman. Mulder had given his heart away--it was no longer in his possession, and any woman who involved herself too deeply in his life in the future could only face disappointment.

"There are," Mulder agreed, unable to meet Skinner's gaze. "There's a whole country full of them."

"Well," Skinner said at last, rising and stretching. "Get your shit together, Mulder. You know the drill."

Mulder threw back his head and laughed. "You've got to be tired of having me as a houseguest, Walter!" he argued, knowing it was useless and taking comfort in the familiarity. A portion of himself despised the fact that he'd turned into such a needy, pathetic individual, but he had seen the improvement he'd made, he had to admit. Rising, he grabbed the bag he had dropped beside the couch when Skinner had brought him home earlier.

"But when you have a change of heart, Mulder, it's a big one," Skinner replied, closing the door to Mulder's house firmly behind him. "You've already had one today, thank God, I'm not about to leave you here alone to have another."

Mulder laughed again. "Let's go, boss," he said, grinning, and Skinner rolled his eyes as he followed Mulder out the door.

It would get better. It had to get better. There was nowhere to go but up.

"Bill!" Scully's voice was delighted when she answered her brother's call late that evening. She'd been moping around her apartment for hours, afraid to leave lest Skinner should call, certain his lack of contact meant Mulder was safe and sound, and resentfully wondering if he would call her even should Mulder be in danger. After watching the two of them walk away together that morning, nothing would surprise her. They'd closed ranks against her.

She'd considered calling the round of hospitals Mulder usually frequented, and finally decided against that action. Besides, she argued to herself, what could she do if she found him listed as a patient somewhere? Mulder certainly wouldn't welcome a visit from her, and Skinner would never let her in the door of Mulder's room anyway. Surely if anything was wrong he'd have called her. He had to know she still cared for Mulder, even if the whole affair had gone horribly wrong.

With these thoughts on her mind, Dana had jumped when the telephone emitted its shrill ring, hoping against hope that it would be Skinner, or Mulder, with *any* news.

She should have been disappointed to find her brother on the other end of the connection instead, but her heart was so raw tonight that any friendly voice was welcome. Bill still hadn't completely accepted the situation, but he was trying, she had to give him credit. And he had been appalled at Zach's brutal attack on Mulder's life.

"I just wondered how you were doing," he told her. "I heard from Mom that Mulder was released from the hospital today. I thought...part of me thought you might be with him tonight."

She bit back the tears that tried to invade, and forced her face into a stony facade. It was the only way to get through the situation.

"He wasn't very receptive to me this morning," she admitted truthfully, although leaving out the part where her heart had been ripped to shreds by Mulder and his professed lack of trust.

Bill made a noise of disgust and she found herself growing angry.

"Bill, you don't understand the situation," she said sharply. "You never have."

He was quiet for a minute, and in her mind she heard his voice saying the words she hoped he wouldn't actually verbalize. After a long minute he agreed, "You're right, and I never will. But it's your life, Dana, and all I want is for you to be happy. If Mulder is the man who makes you happy, I'll do my best to be civil."

She almost laughed then, at the thought of Bill willing to be civil to Mulder now that it was years too late.

"He didn't want me, Bill," she said quietly. "He turned his back on me."

"He was probably hurt and confused."

She pulled the phone away from her ear and stared at it in shock. Was this really her brother, or one of Mulder's 'clones'? She couldn't believe he'd utter a word in support of Mulder, much less an entire sentence.

He seemed to sense her incredulity. "Dana, you two have been on a roller coaster lately, always either up or down. It's been this way since he was released--hell, since before then. You know, I never thought I'd hear myself say this, but I really wish now I hadn't urged you to marry Zach. Maybe if I had kept my nose out of your life, you and Mulder would be together and you'd be happy."

Now it was definite--this could not be Bill Scully.

As if seeing her face, he laughed. "I know what you're thinking, Dana, but I've had a lot of time to go over this whole situation in my mind. Also, Tara has done a lot of talking to me. I know I've been selfish and over-protective of you...it's been hard for me to let go. I'm not saying I'd embrace the idea of Fox Mulder as a brother-in-law, I'm only saying I'd try to endure it."

"Well, Bill," Dana told him, wondering sadly at the changes in life that always came too late, "nothing of the kind is likely. He won't even talk to me. He told me we were through."

Bill swore under his breath. "You can't let him leave it like that--unresolved. You have to make him at least talk it out."

"Bill, I can't *make* Mulder do anything! He's a grown man, and besides, he has Walter Skinner behind him. If Skinner doesn't want me to contact Mulder, he'll make sure I can't."

"Go see him, Dana," he urged suddenly. "Tomorrow morning, go see him. Show up unexpectedly. Corner him if you have to. Do you still have those handcuffs?" Only half joking.

She had to laugh. "Bill! Of course not!" Then, "Do you really think I should just arrive unannounced on his doorstep?"

"I think it might be the only way," he said, his tone serious again.

She was silent for a long time, thinking, imagining the scenario. Mulder might slam the door in her face. He might hurt her even more than he already had with his vicious words, words that knew exactly where to aim and just how to wound. Or, and it was a possibility albeit a remote one, he just might listen to her. Suddenly a phrase her father used to use when she was a child ran unbidden through her mind. She shivered, hearing his voice as clearly as if she were still ten years old. 'You're only beaten if you give up.'

"Ahead of twilight...reach the farthest shore ahead of twilight..." she murmured, recalling Mulder's half-remembered poem.

"What?" asked her confused brother.

"Nothing," she told him quickly. "Just something Mulder said to me once. You know, Bill, I think you're right. I believe I'll do what you suggested. Tomorrow."

"Good for you, Dana," he applauded. "You've always been the kind of person who took life by the horns. Don't give up now."

"Maybe I'll stay with Mom tomorrow night," she went on. "That way, if Mulder throws me out on my ear, she can fix me hot chocolate and chicken soup, and 'mom' me to death."

Bill laughed. "I don't think he will, Dana, I really don't think so."

She hung up, crossing her fingers and telling herself, 'God I hope you're right for once, Bill!'

Down the block a man sat quietly in a nondescript four-door sedan. He alternately glared and smiled at the small piece of machinery lying on the passenger seat--a hand-held scanner, capable of decoding cellular and cordless telephone calls within a rather large radius. He marveled that the woman, who had been an FBI agent for so many years, would be so careless as to hold personal conversations over a piece of equipment that could so easily be turned into the equivalent of a public address system. His face darkened when she revealed her plans for the following morning to him, but it really didn't matter what she intended, for he had a plan of his own. There would be no room for mistakes tonight.

He watched, casually observant, as the lights in the woman's small apartment went out, one by one, until only a dim glow was left shining from the front window. It was the light beside her bed, its rays barely making their way out the open bedroom door to glimmer, oh-so-faintly, from the living room window. He knew the layout of her apartment intimately, having visited it many times while she was away. He knew that she slept with her bedroom door open because once, in a fit of daring fortified by the Jack Daniels that was his preferred source of nutrition these days, he had visited her while she was home, asleep in her bed, confident of her own safety. He had stood in the living room darkness watching her through the open door, near enough to see the rise and fall of her chest as she breathed steadily, not quite near enough to touch, and on that night he had begun to formulate his plan.

His plan. He had been considering it in great detail--discarding some ideas and adding others--for days now, examining it in his mind like a fine work of art, a visible thing, something to be savored and perfected. When finally he had been pleased with the finished product, he had mentally stood back and admired it, both in awe of his ability and in acceptance that it was a natural talent. He had hesitated in putting the idea into action, however, concerned that, should he inadvertently choose the wrong moment, all his careful craftsmanship would be destroyed. Now it appeared she had made his decision for him, and there was no more time to savor, no more moments to wonder and worry that perhaps *this* tiny detail, or *that* one, should be changed. The moment would quickly be upon him, and he would go forward with determination, and he would win. No room for mistakes tonight.

Mulder paced. Again. Skinner watched him silently, holding his patience, until he began to have visions of drugging Mulder's food in order to make him stay down. At that point he decided talk, rather than action, might be the proper course.

"Mulder, *sit down!*" he growled in a low voice, and Mulder, taken by surprise at the suddenness of it, obeyed immediately.

His face was sheepish as he realized what he'd been doing for the past hour.

"Sorry," he muttered, staring at the carpet. "Guess I didn't realize."

Skinner went to the refrigerator and extracted two bottles, then returned and pressed a beer into Mulder's hand.

"Drink, Mulder," he commanded, and Mulder again obeyed, twisting the cap off and downing a swallow.

"Good," he commented, surveying the label. Imported stuff. He grinned. Somehow he'd known Skinner would be a snob when it came to alcohol.

The Scotch he'd had to drink earlier had worn off, and the meal Skinner had practically forced on him had done its job as well. Mulder settled back into his chair comfortably, taking another sip of the amber liquid, and stared at the wall. He knew Walter wanted him to spill his guts, but there was really nothing to say. Nothing he wanted to say out loud, anyway.

It was obvious a trip to Jess Coslow's office was in the cards for the following morning--he'd be there now if she hadn't been out of town for the day--and Mulder knew it would probably prove to be a long and painful session in which he would have to say many things he'd prefer to keep bottled up inside. There was simply no way to describe to either Walter or Jess the emotional epiphany he'd undergone that afternoon.

He'd had every intention of doing it--the gun was clean, the note to Walter written (brief but to the point, as with every note Mulder had ever written to those important to his life), the bottle all but drained...all that had remained was for him to raise the gun and pull the trigger.

He'd gotten halfway there, gun inside his mouth, pointing upwards, ready to blow what was left of his poor, confused brain all over the wall, when he'd heard her. Samantha. Her voice, as clear as day, saying, "Don't, Fox!"

Of course, he knew it was a memory from his childhood come back to haunt him--it wasn't *really* Samantha's voice speaking to him from the grave, or wherever she may be. He even recalled the exact day she'd said the words. It had been her sixth birthday, and his mother had invited several of her friends over for a small party. He'd smiled when he remembered Emmie's birthday party not long ago--little girls were the same no matter what their generation. Of course, Sam's friends hadn't knocked him down on the floor and tickled him, in fact, they'd found him to be quite a pest, as older brothers can be on occasion.

They had teased him unmercifully that day, making jokes about his hated name, drawing caricatures of him on the disposable tablecloth with the crayons his mother had provided (certainly not for the purpose of her son's humiliation), and generally making his life miserable. Finally, in a fit of rage, the ten-year-old Fox had grabbed Samantha's favorite present, a beautiful doll with a long blue dress and yellow curls, and made as if to twist her head from her body. Samantha, believing her coveted toy was about to be destroyed, had put her hands to her face and cried, in the very same voice he'd heard today, "Don't, Fox!"

And he hadn't been able to refuse the sister he adored, even when she and her friends were being brats. He'd felt his heartstrings tug when she smiled her childish, trusting smile at him, and given her back the doll. Turning to leave the room, he had heard one of her friends start to giggle, and had felt gratified when Samantha immediately shushed her. That evening, after the guests were gone and the mess cleaned up, she had brought him a drawing she'd done herself. It was each of the friends who had teased him that day, all pictured with uncomplimentary facial features or clothing, and the two of them had sat on his bed and laughed about the drawing for a long time. When finally their mother insisted they go to sleep, Sam had kissed him on the cheek and said with the complete guilelessness that only a very young girl can achieve, "Thank you, Fox."

Now, remembering, he unconsciously rubbed the cheek Samantha had kissed all those years ago, and heard in his mind, "Thank you, Fox." He'd surrendered to her then, as he always did. As he had today.

There was absolutely no way he could tell Skinner or anyone else that his long-missing sister had convinced him to live. They'd lock him up and throw away the key for sure.

He'd finished the beer almost without realizing it, and soon found Skinner handing him another.

"You trying to get me drunk, Walter?" he asked, surprised. Usually Skinner did all things in moderation, but he was well into his second bottle as well, and Mulder had the impression it was going to be a long evening.

"You said yourself you think more clearly when you're drunk," Skinner reminded him with a grin. "I don't want your judgement muddled again before we get you into Jess' office tomorrow."

Mulder sighed. He was so tired of being treated like a helpless child, and yet at times he knew he gave the appearance of one. Aside from that, he was just...tired. Of everything. Of life, of the constant battles he seemed to be waging, both physical and emotional. As much as his ego may rage against it, there was a good deal of comfort in sitting back and letting Skinner take care of things for a while. It was an iron rod to cling to--that there was one person who hadn't betrayed his trust and who he could, so far, believe would not.

He drank the second beer even more slowly than the first, the alcohol causing a comfortable cloud to gradually descend over his brain. Kicking off his shoes, Mulder put his sock-clad feet up on the ottoman and leaned back even farther in the soft chair, and before he knew it was asleep.

Skinner watched him, grinning, as Mulder slowly lost his grip on consciousness, and when Mulder's fingers loosened around the bottle he took it from the sleeping man's grasp. Throwing an afghan over Mulder's still form, he quietly left the room. It wouldn't hurt Mulder to doze there for a while. No doubt during the night he would wake up and make his way to his own bed, but for now Skinner didn't want to disturb the hard-won slumber. Mulder's entire body looked worn and tired.

Scully read until long past midnight, unable to still her jangling nerves every time she thought of facing Mulder in the morning. Finally, around two, she turned off the light beside the bed and forced herself to lie still, concentrating on taking deep, relaxing breaths and willing herself to, if not fall asleep, at least bring her body to a restful state. Every time an image of Mulder turning away from her tried to enter her mind she pushed it forcibly aside. Each time she thought she heard his voice telling her he no longer trusted her, she reminded herself that he had been hurt, and had simply intended to lash out at her in the most painful way possible. After forty-five minutes of making a conscious effort to block the day from her mind, she eventually relaxed and fell into a light sleep.

The man in the car smiled when the dim ray of light from the woman's window faded to black. He would give her another hour and then make his move. It was time.

Mulder awoke in the morning when a foot nudged his own. Eyelids popping open, he stared up into Skinner's face. He realized, as he glanced around to get his bearings, that he'd slept in Skinner's living room all night.

"Sorry I didn't wake you," Skinner apologized when Mulder stretched aching muscles. "I didn't think you'd sleep for long."

"'S'okay," Mulder muttered through a yawn. "What time is it?"

"Almost nine. I called Jess and made an appointment for ten, so you need to get moving."

Mulder nodded grumpily and started for the bathroom, telling himself if there wasn't fresh, hot coffee when he emerged he might have to hurt Walter. Slipping into the tub as the warm water coursed over him, Mulder once again felt the knot in his stomach begin to take hold, and moments later found he was shaking all over. With a curse, he kicked up the heat of the water and made a concentrated effort to calm himself. He couldn't afford a panic attack--not this morning. Not when he had to face Jess and make up some plausible lie about why he'd decided not to off himself the day before. He wondered what reason he could give that wouldn't land him in even more trouble with her.

When he finally emerged, Skinner threw coffee and toast at him and ordered him to eat fast. With a glance at the clock, Mulder began to wolf down the toast, carrying the coffee cup with him as they left the apartment. It was only a ten minute drive to Jess' office, but they were going to be cutting it close.

Half an hour later, sitting on her couch and sipping at yet another mug of caffeine, Mulder stared mutinously at the floor. They weren't getting anywhere, and the only thing keeping him from walking out was the sure knowledge that he'd have to get through Skinner's massive marine persona first. He shuddered at the thought. Walter was his friend, but he could be damned scary at times, and Mulder had worn Skinner's patience quite thin lately.

With a sigh he tried to focus on what Jess was saying. He tuned back into her words in the middle of a sentence, and stared in amazement when he realized what she was doing.

"...and it's obvious to me, Mulder, that your father abused you horribly as a child and that you resent the hell out of your mother for not protecting you. This recurring tendency of yours to act out in order to gain attention, even to the point of placing yourself in the hands of a known enemy just so he can shoot you, speaks to the deep psychosis from which you are suffering."

He held her eyes for as long as he could keep a straight face and then snorted laughter, covering his mouth to avoid spewing coffee all over himself. Swallowing his mouthful with difficulty, he broke down into helpless laughter, his eyes tearing, until finally he had to put down the coffee mug and hold his aching ribs.

"Oh God, Jess, that was great!" he gasped in between spasms of laughter.

Jess sat back in her chair with a satisfied grin on her face. "I thought if you were going to just sit there and ignore me for the whole session, I might as well have a little fun."

Mulder wiped his eyes, still breaking out with a laugh now and then. "I haven't heard that much psychobabble bullshit in one paragraph since I was in school," he told her. "How'd you do that?"

She shrugged. "Just something I read on the internet one night," she smiled. "And if you're still planning to finish your studies, you have a lot more of that psychobabble bullshit in your future, Mulder, but getting back to the topic at hand..." She stared at him meaningfully and sipped at her own coffee.

Mulder's eyes dropped and his fists clenched involuntarily.

"What is it that's so hard for you to talk about?" she asked gently.

"You'll think I'm nuts," he muttered.

It was her turn to snort. "After all this time, what could you possibly tell me about yourself that I don't already know, Mulder?" she demanded. "If something happened yesterday to convince you *not* to commit suicide, don't you think that's a good thing?"

He nodded, obviously ill at ease with her questions.

"But you still feel uncomfortable talking about it."

Another nod.

"Does it have something to do with your childhood? Your sister?"

At that he raised his head sharply, his eyes probing hers. "How...how did you know?"

Jess shook her head slowly. "I didn't know, I just guessed. You've had a lot of pain in your life, Mulder, and so much of it is centered on what happened when you were twelve. Was it something to do with Samantha's abduction?"

"No," he said slowly, "it was something that happened a few years earlier. Sam had a birthday party..."

She waited a minute. "How old were you?"

A brief smile crossed his face. "I was ten. I was a brat, you know? Always teasing her and her friends, and that day they decided to get back at me. They called me names, drew pictures of me...little kid stuff."

"That must have hurt you," Jess observed, and Mulder nodded again.

"It did, some, but looking back on it now it seems so insignificant. Anyway, I took all of it I could stand and then I grabbed a toy of hers and threatened to destroy it."

"And did you?"

"No," he whispered. "I couldn't. I could never really hurt her. I adored her. She was all I had..."

"So what happened?"

Mulder rubbed a hand across his face, feeling a light sweat breaking out there. Damn, he told himself, after all these years it shouldn't be so hard to talk about. It was only a birthday party.

"She asked me not to." He smiled fondly. "Actually, she *ordered* me not to. She could be a bossy little thing when she wanted. And I took one look at those trusting eyes of hers and knew I couldn't do it. And afterwards she came up and...she thanked me. Jess, she was so innocent, and she trusted me so much, and I--"

He stopped. Mulder knew if he continued the tears would come and this was one session in which he was determined to remain dry-eyed.

"So your sister thanked you for not breaking her toy, and that made you feel guilty?"



"Because I shouldn't have threatened to do it in the first damn place!" he exploded. "I was her older brother, I was supposed to take care of her and protect her, and she couldn't even trust me not to-- What kind of a brother does that?"

He stopped again.

After a minute, Jess leaned forward until their knees were almost touching.

"What I hear you describing is the same kind of behavior ten year old boys have been exhibiting since the dawn of time," she said gently. "You seem to be expecting an awful lot from yourself."

He wiped surreptitiously at the corner of one eye. "What do you mean?"

"Well," she said, leaning back again now that she'd gotten his attention, "you think badly of yourself for an action that any child could be expected to engage in, and you miss the point entirely."

He glanced up at her serious face, seeing no trace of the joking that had gone on a few minutes earlier. "And what is the point?"

"That you didn't break the toy. You didn't betray her trust. And later--that other time she needed your help so badly--you did everything in your power to help then, as well. You didn't betray her trust that day either."

Mulder looked stunned, as if this had never once occurred to him. He'd been blaming himself for not being able to save Samantha for such a long time that it had never occurred to him to give himself points for trying.

Jess let this settle for a moment, and when his face didn't exhibit too much distress decided to move in for the prize.

"What was it about that memory that stopped you from killing yourself, Mulder?" she asked in a voice that was as calm and gentle as a snowflake.

A wondering smile crept slowly across his face. "I heard her," he confessed at last. "I heard her voice, the same voice, telling me not to do it. And I still can't refuse her anything." He gazed up at Jess to make sure she understood.

"I couldn't save her, Jess, but *she saved me*. She saved me--"

Jess handed him the tissue box and he grabbed blindly at a handful, turning away from her and wiping at his face. Exhaustion hit him without warning and he slumped back against the couch.

"It's really okay, isn't it?" he asked, seeking her reassurance. "That I couldn't help her and she helped me?"

"If she'd tried everything she could to help you and still failed, would you have held her accountable?"

A look of revelation passed over his face and he slowly shook his head. "No."

She nodded, satisfied. "It works both ways, Mulder."

Scully stared dully out the window of the station wagon. They'd started out with her car, then ditched it at the airport and stolen this one from a long-term parking lot. It was unlikely that the owner would miss it for days, and by then it would be too late. Zach's plan would be completed.

She'd awakened in the early morning hours to a hand pressed tightly over her mouth and a gun at her throat, Zach's unmistakable voice whispering in her ear exactly what she would do unless she wanted Mulder to die first. Thinking longingly of the gun she kept in the night stand drawer, only a foot away yet totally unreachable, she had nodded to indicate her cooperation. Zach had kept the gun trained on her carefully while she rose, dressed, and walked ahead of him to her car. She had followed his instructions to drive to the airport and watched impassively as he easily broke into the station wagon.

He had tied her hands tightly at her back and fastened the seatbelt around her, then driven from the parking lot leaving no one the wiser. He'd assured her that as long as she did what he said, Mulder was out of danger, and she had clung to the hope that he'd been truthful. If she endured all of this and Mulder were to suffer in spite of her efforts--

She shuddered when she remembered Zach's hands on her. Nothing had prepared Scully for the revulsion she'd felt at her ex-husband's touch. To think that she had once been fond of this man, been intimate with him, now sickened her and she swallowed hard to keep the bile from rising in her throat. She could still taste his tongue in her mouth.

It seemed they'd been driving for hours, watching city turn to country, then turn to dull, dry prairie sparsely broken up by a small town here and there. Zach had kept to the back roads and less-traveled highways, and every mile they continued took one more ounce of her hope away.

He'd said she would die with his name--she was beginning to believe him.

Mulder was silent on the drive back to Skinner's house, refusing to fill his friend in on anything that had transpired in his session, but Skinner sensed a new relaxation in the younger man. Something had certainly happened behind that office door, he told himself, something good, and if Mulder wasn't ready to talk about it he could wait. When they'd gotten home, Mulder headed immediately for his bedroom, and when Skinner looked in on him an hour later he found his friend sleeping soundly. Skinner retreated quietly, knowing Mulder must be near exhaustion, and closed the door.

When the telephone, which had been silent all morning, rang suddenly around three, Mulder was still out. Skinner checked the name on the Caller ID box and grimaced. Bill Scully? What could that man possibly have to say to him?

"Skinner," he barked gruffly into the handset.

"Mr. Skinner, this is Bill Scully, Dana's brother." His voice sounded worried, and didn't contain the cockiness that Skinner remembered from his previous meetings with the man.

"Yes?" He kept his tones clipped. Worried or not, at this point Skinner couldn't imagine any situation in which he would welcome conversation with any member of the Scully family.

"I was just wondering...have you seen my sister today?"

At that Skinner sat up straight. "No, why? Should I have?" he questioned carefully, with a glance down the hall toward Mulder's room.

"Is--is Mulder there with you?" Bill's voice was still hesitant, as if he knew his questions were unwelcome but felt compelled to ask them anyway.

"He's here. He's sleeping. He had a rough day yesterday."

Bill sighed quietly. "Dana told me last night that she was going to pay him a visit this morning, then go to our mother's. Mom hasn't seen or heard from her, and I got no answer when I called Mulder's house."

"Mulder spent the night here."

"But if Dana didn't find him at home, wouldn't she come to your place next? Mulder's spent a lot of time there lately, hasn't he?"

"What are you trying to say?" demanded Skinner, working to keep his voice down against the rising anger.

"Look, Mr. Skinner, I'm not implying anything. I know you've been a great help to Mulder--Dana's told me. It's just that I'm having a little trouble locating my sister, and with her madman of an ex on the loose, forgive me if I'm a bit concerned!" Bill's voice started out in apology and rose steadily, betraying his deeper fear.

"All right, Scully, just calm down," Skinner said.

"Scully? What the hell does she want?" demanded Mulder's voice from behind him, and Skinner closed his eyes in frustration.

"Not Dana. Bill." The instant he mouthed the words at Mulder, Mulder held out his hand for the phone, a look of raw determination on his features.

Skinner shook his head and Mulder took the telephone from him, shaking his hand off with a warning glance.

"Bill? What's the problem?" he asked when he had the phone to his ear.

"Mulder, is that you? It's Dana. She seems to be...well I can't...I can't find her, Mulder."

Skinner watched the color drain slowly from Mulder's face and cursed under his breath. Putting his hands on Mulder's shoulders he forced his friend down to sit on the couch.

"What do you mean, you can't find her?" Mulder demanded harshly.

"She said she was going to Virginia this morning to talk to you and then to Mom's house, and she never showed," Bill said in a rush. "She hasn't called Mom, she's not answering her cell phone, she's not answering at home, and the secretary I talked to when I called her at work said Dana never called in this morning, and never showed up."

"Shit!" Mulder whispered, looking up at Skinner. "Zach has her."

Skinner nodded and grabbed his cell phone, already dialing when Bill responded, "That's what I'm afraid of."

"Look, Bill, Skinner's on it. Don't worry, we'll find her." He thought for a moment. "He's your friend, do you have any idea where he might have gone?"

"He's not my friend any longer, Mulder," Bill replied grimly. "And no, I don't, but I can call his parents and see if they know anything."

"You do that, and call me back."

He hung up and stared at Skinner.

"I've got a call in to the Baltimore PD," Skinner told him. "They're going to have someone go out and check her apartment and call us back."

Over the next hour Skinner knew there was no point in telling Mulder to stop prowling the apartment like a cat--he did a good bit of prowling himself. When the telephone sounded, Mulder grabbed it up before the first ring was completed.

"Yeah?" he asked tersely. "He did? Well that's just great. Okay, thanks, Bill. We'll let you know if we get any more information." He dropped the phone and slumped over it for a moment, then straightened up. "Zach left Emmie with his parents last night. He said he was attending a convention in Los Angeles. Something about dermatology."

"Morrow's a dermatologist?" Skinner asked curiously.

Mulder shrugged lightly. "I don't know," he said in a distracted voice. "I guess so. I know he's some kind of doctor. Scully never talked about him much and I didn't ask questions."

"Hang tight, Mulder," Skinner said as his cell phone began to ring. "Chances are good she's still alive, and we'll have time to find her."

He spoke to the Baltimore PD and then wandered into the kitchen to make his next call. He kept an eye on Mulder from the other room, but the dark-haired man on his couch never moved, just sat with his head bowed and his hands between his knees, almost in an attitude of prayer or meditation. When he disconnected the call, he went back to stand before Mulder quietly. Mulder looked up at him then, and Skinner saw the terror in his eyes, the certainty that his feeble luck had run out, that this time would most surely be the last time.

"There is no convention of dermatologists or any other doctors in Los Angeles this week," he reported flatly, and Mulder's head gave a brief nod, as if the information was expected, and bowed again.

"They didn't find anything at Scully's apartment, but her car is missing. Mulder," he said carefully, sitting down beside his friend on the couch, "have you considered the possibility that Scully may have simply taken off again?"

Mulder turned to stare at him, surprised. "Why would she? What could she be running from now?" he questioned.

Skinner pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Maybe she's running away from Zach."

"But she wouldn't worry her family like this," Mulder protested. "She'd tell them where she was going. No, Walter, Zach threatened to get her, and now he has. I just know. I can feel it."

"Well, Mulder, as I recall you used to be a hotshot criminal profiler. I suggest you draw on those skills now, because if your suspicions are true, Scully needs to be found as quickly as possible."

Mulder felt his stomach turn over at Skinner's words, but he knew they were right. He used to be able to do this. In fact, he used to be damned good at it.

"I think he'll ditch her car," he said slowly. "They need to find Scully's car, and check whether or not there are any vehicles missing from the area where it's located. That will be one of the first things he does; in fact, he's probably already done it."

Skinner was already dialing. "Then what?" he asked, holding the phone to his ear.

Mulder stood very still, trying to draw on his memory. "He left the little girl here. That means either he's still in the area, or he's planning to come back."

"Where would he go?"

Mulder sighed. "I don't know. It would help if we had some idea of his motive."

"I thought his motive was to kill her," Skinner said, one eyebrow raised, then turned his attention to the phone. "Yeah, this is Walter Skinner again, I need to speak with Captain Penn."

Mulder continued when Skinner was placed on hold. "If all he wanted was to kill her, he could have done that in her apartment. Instead he chose to kidnap her, steal a car...he wants something else, Walter. I just don't know what."

Scully raised her head and looked around sleepily when the car rolled to a stop. They were at a small gas station, tucked away on the side of a dusty highway in the middle of...was it Iowa now? She wasn't sure. She looked over at Zach and gave him a tentative smile. When he'd wanted her last night, Scully had realized that she had a choice. She could fight him and quite possibly be injured or killed in the struggle, or she could pretend to still have feelings for him and maybe, just maybe, find a way out.

With lead in her stomach and a lump in her throat, she had whispered words of endearment to him, words of apology, telling him how she'd missed him, how she'd been wrong to leave him, and Zach, being the man he was, had believed it all. It had been exactly what he wanted to hear. When they had pulled out of the deserted rest stop where they'd spent the night, she had managed to convince him to leave her untied.

She'd asked him, earlier, where they were going, and he had flashed her a brilliant smile and said, "Las Vegas."

"To get married," she confirmed, and he nodded.

"Zach," she had said, placing her hand on his thigh and ignoring the revulsion she felt, "you said something about me dying with your name."

He glanced down at her hand, then over at her, a serious expression on his face. "I intended to kill you, Dana," he said.

She'd managed to look shocked, as if the idea had never occurred to her, and he'd taken her hand from his leg and raised her fingers to his lips briefly. "That's how badly I wanted you to be mine," he told her quietly, and Scully had felt tears sting her eyes.

Blinking, for once forcing them to come, she had given him a look of pure understanding. He didn't need to know the tears were from fear and anger and frustration. Let him think they were tears of sorrow, tears of empathy--tears for him.

"Oh, Zach," she murmured. "Wouldn't you rather I *lived* with your name?"

He smiled and stepped on the gas, taking them ever more quickly toward their destination, and eventually she had dropped off to sleep.

Now she gazed around at the station, all but deserted, only the neon 'open' sign giving any impression of life.

"Wait here," Zach told her as he climbed out. "I'll pump the gas."

"I need to use the restroom," she told him, and after a long, searching look at her he nodded his permission.

She went around back and tried the door, knowing it would be locked, and she was not disappointed. Glancing at the open field surrounding the station, she clamped down on her natural instinct to run. Not yet, she told herself. There was nowhere here to hide. She came back around and started for the door of the station when she was stopped by his voice.

"Where are you going?" he demanded, and she could hear the note of distrust that still remained.

"Key," she said, gesturing toward the door.

"I'll get it," he told her, screwing the gas cap back on the car and entering the station, leaving her to wait outside for him. He returned a moment later and escorted her around back, opening the restroom door for her, and Dana realized, chagrined, that he intended to stand outside until she was finished.

"I won't be long," she told him, caressing his cheek lightly with her hand, and he smiled as the door closed behind her.

Quickly she pawed through her purse, hoping she had some stray scrap of paper there. Finding nothing suitable, Scully ripped a deposit slip from the back of her checkbook, tore off the part that contained her bank account number, and searched frantically for a pen. At last she located one and, after scrawling a hasty note on the paper, returned it all to her bag. She flushed the toilet, washed her hands and positioned her purse over her shoulder so that the paper was within easy reach should she have a chance to deliver it to someone who could help.

"I'll take the key back inside, honey," she told him when they reached the front of the station again. "I'd like to get something cold to drink anyway."

He stared at her again for a long moment, then said, "You wait for me in the car. I'll get you a cold drink."

Swallowing her disappointment, Scully smiled and squeezed his hand, then walked to the car without looking back once. Zach watched her climb inside and arrange herself in the seat, then entered the station.

Knowing he was probably watching her from inside, she slid her purse to the floor, carefully extracting the paper as she did, slipping it down between her seat and the car door. When Zach returned, handing her a bottle of water and a bag of pretzels, she smiled and thanked him as if there was nothing amiss. He started the engine and began slowly pulling forward.

"Oh, my door's not closed tight," she said suddenly, and opened it a bit. The elation she felt when the paper blew out onto the clean pavement was quickly hidden as she slammed the door tightly and turned a bright smile to her captor. "All set," she told him cheerfully, and as they sped away he reached for her hand.

"Damn nasty city people," grumbled the attendant as he watched the woman open the car door. A piece of paper fell out when she did, blowing a little and lodging against the concrete stand where the pumps were located. Still complaining to himself, the little man walked outside to pick up the scrap. He liked to keep his station and the grounds surrounding it clean; people often wouldn't stop if they thought your restrooms might be dirty, and trash lying on the ground didn't give a good first impression.

He snatched up the paper and wadded it into a ball, intending to toss it into a nearby trash can, when he realized it was a bank deposit slip. Damn fool woman probably didn't know her bank account number was blowing all over Iowa, he thought disgustedly. Out of curiosity he smoothed the paper, heading inside to dispose of it in a less public receptacle, when his eyes caught the writing on the back.

'Please help! I've been kidnapped. Call police!'

"What the hell...?" He flipped it over and read the name--Dana Scully. Baltimore, Maryland. Lady sure was a long way from home. Could this be for real? That man she was with had seemed like an arrogant sonofabitch, but she didn't appear to be held against her will.

Finally deciding it wasn't his job to put two and two together, he picked up the telephone. It was a slow afternoon here, it was probably a slow afternoon down at the police station too. Might as well let Bob Jacobsen deal with this.

Chapter Eight

It was a simple matter, being rescued from a madman, if you contacted the right people, Scully soon found. Minutes after they had driven away from the gas station she had realized with a surge of anger at herself (how could I be so *stupid*?) that she had neglected to write their license number or any description of the vehicle on the note, but to her immense relief it hadn't mattered. Less than an hour after managing to drop her desperate plea out the car door, praying the gas station attendant would see it, read it and take action, red and blue lights had flashed in their rearview mirror.

"Shit!" Zach muttered, and Dana put a calming hand on his arm.

"Don't worry, Sweetheart, it's probably nothing. I do think you might have been going a little fast, I'm sure he just wants to talk to you about speeding." She gave him a reassuring smile and waited until the uniformed police officer knocked on the window before unbuckling her seatbelt. The minute Zach had opened his window to talk to the officer, she had jumped from the car.

"Officer, I need your help," she said firmly, pointing at Zach. "This man is my ex-husband and he's kidnapped me."

Zach turned a bewildered face to her. "Honey?" he questioned, and only she could detect the warning in his voice.

The policeman, having been told to be on the lookout for any cars with license plates from Maryland or surrounding states, quickly drew his weapon.

"Step out of the car, Sir."

"Officer, my wife is distraught, it's been a long--"

"Step out of the car, *now*," the officer repeated, moving back a step and training his gun on Zach.

With a heavy sigh that showed just how put out he was by this whole affair, Zach complied. Before he could protest the officer ordered him against the car and cuffed his hands behind his back.

"Are you Dana Scully?" the officer questioned her tersely.

"Yes I am," she replied in a voice that was beginning to quiver a bit now that safety seemed imminent. "And his name is Zachary Morrow. He stole this car."

The policeman, whose name Scully still hadn't learned, ushered Zach into the back of his car and picked up his radio. Within minutes he had confirmed that the car they were driving had, indeed, been reported stolen the day before, and that an APB had been issued for Dana Scully and Zachary Morrow.

"Ma'am, I'm going to have to ask you to get into my car. I'll need to take you down to the station to get a statement."

Reluctantly Dana climbed into the police car, ignoring Zach, still cuffed in the back seat. With silence broken only by his threats of a lawsuit and demands to see an attorney immediately, they drove back to the small town of McCart. The police station was a small building of tan brick sitting on one corner of the town square, and as they entered Scully welcomed the coolness of the dim interior after the blinding sunshine bouncing off the prairie. Blinking as her eyes adjusted, she watched while Zach was marched into a holding cell. His eyes, when he took a last look at her, were livid. Scully shuddered and turned to the officer who was preparing to take her statement. There wasn't time to break down now. She had to draw on her years of training and experience as an FBI agent and give a clear, concise account of her abduction, leaving out nothing. Nothing.

"He wants her," Mulder said positively as he played with the pieces of his destroyed styrofoam cup. "He wants her and he won't kill her, not yet. Not until he can be certain she belongs to him again."

"Meaning what, Mulder?" John Alberts, the agent in charge of the case, was growing impatient. Spooky Mulder had been a legend--hell, he was still a legend--around the Bureau for years, but he was sitting here now making cryptic comments and generally not being much use.

When Mulder had first entered the room, all eyes had been on him, as well as the Assistant Director who stood just behind him, and Alberts had been sure he saw Mulder's face go from nervously pale to a sickly gray. Mulder had taken a long look around, then settled himself in a chair and kept his eyes mostly on the tabletop, as if he could feel the stares of the agents and wanted to pretend they didn't exist. Well, Alberts couldn't blame the man. Like everyone else, he'd heard the story of how Mulder had been framed for murder and sent up, spending four years behind bars before his innocence had been proven and his release obtained. Even now there were those in the Bureau who still believed Mulder had been guilty of that crime, but the way Alberts saw it, Mulder had been a good agent (even if he had some odd beliefs) who had run afoul of some very powerful people.

Now, seeing Mulder slip back into the mode of profiler as naturally as if he'd been doing it for the last ten years, Alberts was amazed, and felt more than a little sorry for the guy. It had to be tough on Mulder, sitting there in a place he knew he really no longer had the right to be, feeling the scrutiny of dozens of eyes, knowing he was probably better at their job than most if not all of the owners of those prying eyes. He took a seat across from Mulder.

"Meaning what?" he asked again.

Mulder glanced up at him as if grateful that Alberts gave a listening ear. The reactions of the agents on the case had been mixed when Skinner brought Mulder in, most leaning toward the negative.

"I think he's probably heading for Reno or Las Vegas," Mulder said in a low voice. "A place where they can get married easily, without a lot of fuss or attention."

"That's the stupidest thing I ever heard, Mulder!" retorted Agent Brown, and ignored the glare he received from Alberts. "Why would he think he could force her to marry him? Wouldn't the lady just refuse?"

Trying to overlook the sarcasm in Brown's voice, Mulder replied, "The *lady* is a former FBI agent, and a damn good one. She wouldn't lose her head in this situation. I think she's probably cooperating with him, trying to gain his trust until she can find a chance to escape."

"Maybe she went with him willingly, did you ever think of that?" Brown responded, and Mulder felt Skinner's firm hand on his shoulder, holding him in his seat.

"We happen to know that isn't the case, Agent Brown," Skinner answered levelly, keeping his grip on Mulder's shoulder until he felt his former agent relax. "She was planning to visit Mulder and her mother the next day. She would not have simply disappeared with a man who abused her, a man she had divorced because of that abuse. There's no question in my mind that a crime has been committed."

He pulled out the chair next to Mulder and dropped into it wearily. "So we should check Nevada?" he asked hopefully, and Mulder nodded.

"I think that's where he's taking her. My only fear is that after--"


"I'm afraid that afterwards--he might try to kill her. We have to find them soon, Walter, Scully may not have much time."

Skinner had already opened his mouth to suggest Mulder get some rest, a suggestion he knew would be rejected, when his cell phone rang. Fishing it out of his coat pocket he flipped it open and was astonished to hear Maggie Scully's voice on the other end.

"Walter, she's all right!" He could hear the tears of happiness in Maggie's voice. "The police found them in Iowa, she's all right."

When Mulder saw the smile that broke out on Skinner's face he knew it had to be good news about Scully. He was reaching for the phone even before Skinner held it out to him.

"Maggie," Skinner told him, as Mulder grabbed the small telephone eagerly.

"Maggie? What is it?" he demanded, hope coloring his voice.

"Oh, Fox, they've found her and she's all right!" Maggie was beginning to cry now, and Mulder slowly and gently pried the details out of her, his eyes also glittering suspiciously. When he finally hung up, Skinner stood, gathering papers, and informed the agents that the victim had been located, apparently unharmed, and that he would get together with them later to complete the report. Then he and Mulder hurried from the room.

"We've got to go out to Iowa and collect her," Mulder said as they made their way to Skinner's office. "She doesn't have any way to get home."

Skinner stopped short and swung around to face Mulder.

"*We've* got to collect her?" he asked, his eyebrow raising a good inch. "Don't you think this is a job for her family, Mulder?"

Mulder blushed but held his ground. "I'm going," he said steadily, looking Skinner in the eye. "I have to. You can come if you want, Walter, but I have to make sure--"

Skinner threw back his head in defeat, eyes closed, one hand massaging the knot of tension at the back of his neck. Finally, after an eternity, he nodded to Mulder. Then without a word he entered his office. Mulder watched him go warily, wondering if he had finally pushed Skinner too far, but followed after a moment and took a seat while Skinner rearranged his day. After canceling all appointments for the afternoon as well as the next day, Skinner said gruffly, "Let's go."

Mulder looked surprised. "You're going with me?" he asked. "You don't have to babysit me, Walter."

"Well somebody damn well has to!" Skinner exploded suddenly. "If you took my advice you'd never go anywhere near that woman again, but you don't ever take my advice, do you, Mulder? You run off and do whatever you want to, just as you did when you were working for me, and just as then, I'm always available to pick up the pieces. Of course I have to go with you. I can't let you meet up with her on your own. Who would pull you out of your depression and back to some type of sanity after she breaks your heart yet again?"

He stopped after this tirade, breathing heavily, when he saw that Mulder looked scared to death. The younger man sat in the chair, almost huddled, hands clenched together in his lap, face pale, lips pressed firmly together. It was only the glint of fire and determination in his eyes that made Skinner realize that the old Mulder--set on his course no matter what--was still inside.

"Look, I'm--I'm sorry," he said apologetically, rubbing at the back of his neck again. "I didn't mean to imply that you can't take care of yourself, it's just--well, it's only been two days, Mulder."

He didn't say more, but Mulder knew the words Skinner had left unspoken. Only two days since he'd turned his back on Scully, presumably forever. Only two days since he'd said he no longer trusted her. Only two days since he'd been ready to blow his head off. Without warning he melted, his entire body seeming to turn liquid as he sank back into the chair and covered his face with his hands.

"Mulder?" It was hesitant, as if Skinner was afraid he'd burned bridges with his previous comments.

Mulder shook his head lightly, and when he lowered his hands, the AD was proud to see that the fire had not diminished from the hazel eyes.

"I understand, Walter," Mulder told him softly. "But I still have to go. I can't explain it--maybe I'm fooling myself when I say I won't have anything to do with her any longer. All I know is, Scully needs me and I have to go. But you don't. I'm sure Maggie and Bill Scully will keep me from doing anything stupid."

Skinner made a noise of derision. "Maggie might try, but I wouldn't put it past Bill Scully to hand you a weapon," he retorted, and Mulder had to smile faintly.

As it turned out, the four of them flew to Iowa together, landing in Des Moines and renting a car for the two hour trip south to McCart. To his horror, Mulder had found himself wedged between Maggie and Bill on the flight, while Walter was safely ensconced three rows behind them. He'd glared at Skinner when the older man confiscated the single seat, but Skinner had merely smiled back at him blandly, and Mulder decided Skinner considered this his proper punishment for his running after Scully yet again. With a silent groan he had taken his seat and tried to retreat within himself. It was not to be allowed.

Bill started it off.

"So," he'd said, not quite facing Mulder but leaving no doubt as to who he was addressing, "I suppose you'll be my brother-in-law soon." There was only a hint of derision in the words, and Mulder was impressed; it had probably cost Bill a lot to sound moderately civil.

"No, I don't think so," he'd answered evenly, inwardly praying Bill would drop the subject.

Instead, Maggie took his right hand in hers and forced him to face her.

"Now Fox," she admonished, and it was clear where Scully got her steel personality, "I don't want to hear any of that nonsense. I know Dana has hurt you, and I know how very, very sorry she is. She only did what she thought was best for you, and although she might not have made the smartest of decisions, you mustn't forget that at the time she was also hurt, and very frightened. She wanted to guarantee your safety no matter the cost. You can't hold that against her."

"I'm not holding anything against her--" Mulder began, but it was soon evident that he was outnumbered. The Scully family was counting on a marriage, and it seemed easier to simply let them talk than to protest. Although, he assured himself, he had absolutely no intention of giving in to pressure. Not this time.

"Then why don't you drop the attitude?" growled Bill. "Dana still loves you. Obviously you have some sort of feelings for her, or you wouldn't be on this plane."

There seemed to be nothing to say to that, so Mulder settled back with a resigned look on his face and let them go on at him until he fell asleep. Even if he did marry Scully someday, he told himself drowsily, it certainly wouldn't be the wedding about which Maggie was fantasizing. No way would he stand for that. For once, he decided, he was going to maintain control over at least one aspect of his life.

He awoke when they were about to land, and managed, thankfully, to avoid more than the simplest of conversation while they made their approach and finally slowed to a stop. In the bustle of people retrieving carry-on luggage and exiting the plane, Mulder was able to hang back enough to intercept Skinner.

"Save me, Walter!" he whispered as they followed several paces behind the Scullys. "They've already got me married to Scully and living in a cottage with a white picket fence!"

Skinner grinned. "With Maggie in the picture, you may not have a choice, Mulder!" he retorted, but seeing his friend's consternation he took pity. "Just stand your ground," he said quietly, giving the other man a reassuring smile. "No one can make you do anything you're not ready for."

"And if they try?" asked Mulder, his voice managing to convey that he was only half-joking. He felt a bit like a kid asking his big brother to protect him from the neighborhood bully.

Skinner shook his head. "Uh-uh. You're on your own with this battle," he said easily. "Don't worry, Mulder. You're tougher than you think you are. After all, you didn't let me bully you into staying back in Virginia, so why should you let them," nodding toward Maggie and Bill, "bully you into a marriage you're not ready for?"

Mulder grimaced. "It's different, that woman is relentless!" he hissed as he followed Bill Scully into the front seat of their rental.

The ride to McCart was mostly silent, with Bill doing the driving and Mulder pretending to nod off again. Conversation between the two Scullys and Skinner was sparse, each of them lost in their own thoughts. When they located the police station a couple of hours later, the four of them stared silently at the front of the building for a moment before Mulder finally worked up the courage to open his door. He stepped from the car, stretching and looking around, and tried to ignore the ball of apprehension in his stomach.

Mulder held back and let Maggie and Bill take the lead into the station, and when the door shut behind them he turned to Skinner. He opened his mouth to speak, but to his dismay no words would come. Skinner took one look at his drained face and shocked expression and reached for his arm.

"You okay?" he asked quietly, noting the slight trembling throughout Mulder's body.

Mulder nodded, swallowed, and found his voice at last.

"I can't believe this," he said, his tone conveying his own lack of patience with himself. "I saw her just a couple of days ago and it was nothing, so why do I feel like a nervous teenager today?"

"Probably because showing up here indicates a level of commitment to Scully that you've been trying to deny," Skinner observed. "You can't come all the way to Iowa to fetch her and still pretend you don't care, Mulder. You can't have it both ways."

Mulder closed his eyes, leaning his head back and exhaling heavily. He rubbed his fingers across his forehead as if to banish a headache.

"I know that," he admitted. "But just because I still have feelings for her doesn't mean I have to act on them. This is a favor for someone I've cared about for a long time, nothing more. That woman is poison to me, Walter."

Before Skinner could answer, the door to the police station opened and Bill Scully emerged, his arms wrapped around his sobbing mother. Mulder rushed to her side.

"Maggie, what?" he demanded, trying to keep his voice gentle. "What is it?"

"Oh, Fox!" she cried, pulling away from Bill and wiping angrily at the tears on her face. "Dana's at the hospital. Zachary, he--" She stopped and shook her head, overwhelmed.

"The bastard raped her," Bill ground out, his face red with barely controlled rage.

Mulder lost any color he had retained and his eyes burned; he felt himself growing dizzy. Groping blindly, he was gratified to feel Skinner's supporting grip on his arm again.

"Is she badly hurt, Maggie?" he heard Skinner ask, and felt a rush of relief when Maggie shook her head through her tears.

"They took her to the hospital for observation, but apparently she wasn't hurt, at least not physically, just that he--"

"Where's the hospital?" Mulder heard the voice and dimly recognized it as his own.

Bill jerked his head to the right. "County hospital. Two blocks down this street."

"Let me drive."


"Let me drive!" he insisted, allowing the sharpness in his heart to creep into his voice. "You need to take care of Maggie now."

Reluctantly Bill withdrew the keys to the rental from his pocket and handed them to Mulder, who lightly shook off Skinner's grip on his arm and climbed into the driver's seat. He navigated the sparse traffic easily, somehow feeling detached from the situation, and within ten minutes they had entered the hospital and been directed to Scully's room. A nurse met them outside her door, and while Bill, Maggie and Skinner stopped to talk to her, Mulder slipped inside, focused only on the woman in the bed. Scully turned her head toward the door when he entered, and for a moment he almost thought he saw a tear in one eye, but she quickly blinked it away.

"Thank you for coming," she said calmly, but her hand was shaking when Mulder took it in his.

"Are--are you all right?" he asked, forcing the question past his lips.

She nodded grimly. "I suppose they told you?" she asked, looking up at him from beneath wet lashes.

Mulder cleared his throat painfully of the lump that wanted to settle there. "They told your mother and brother that Zach...that he..."

Scully squeezed his hand. "He didn't hurt me, Mulder," she assured him with a small smile. "And while it's true I didn't like what he did, 'rape' seems too vicious a description. He didn't really force me, he just...coerced me to have sex with him. Technically it was rape, but it certainly wasn't on par with some of what we've seen in the past."

"Scully, it was against your will!" he said through gritted teeth. "Don't try to diminish its importance!"

"I'm not," she denied. "I'm just telling you he didn't hurt me."

Their conversation was interrupted when the door opened to admit her family and Skinner, and Scully smiled a weak greeting at them, holding out her hands for her mother and brother to grasp.

"I'm okay, I'm okay," she kept repeating, and was finally able to convince Bill and Maggie that Zachary's attentions, while unwelcome, hadn't left her with any lasting scars.

Mulder knew better. A veteran of emotional scars, he could only imagine what such a thing might do to her. Inwardly he vowed to make certain Scully visited Jess. She would resist, bravely insisting she could handle this on her own, and he resolved not to tolerate her evasion. He might have to promise her anything, but he would get her into Dr. Coslow's office, and soon.

Scully was released from the hospital the next morning, and Mulder had already booked tickets for them back home. This time, since he was in charge of the flight arrangements, he made certain he and Scully were seated toward the back of the plane, with Bill, Maggie and Walter up front. He wanted privacy in which to discuss a few things with Scully. Also, he thought with a grin as he gleefully assigned Skinner the center seat, it was his chance to get revenge for the uncomfortable trip out here the day before. Although it might backfire on him, he realized, for while it would give him the time alone with Scully that he desired, it would also give the three of them a chance to conspire against him.

"Do you think they'll be all right up there?" Scully questioned uncertainly as she buckled herself into the window seat.

"They'll be fine," he grinned, happily stretching his long legs out into the aisle. "They've probably got their heads together, planning our entire future together."

She stared at him for a long minute, then turned to the window, and Mulder could have kicked himself. He hadn't meant to scare her.


"Do we have a future together?" she asked bluntly, turning back to him with the determined expression he remembered so well from their years of partnership.

He swallowed hard. Now was the moment of truth. How could he explain his confused emotions to her and make her understand?

"Scully," he began, choosing his words carefully, "I'd like to offer you a bargain."

Her eyes grew slightly suspicious. "What kind of bargain?"

"One where you get to set your own terms," he said lightly, and when she held his gaze firmly he dropped his eyes for a second. "I want something from you," he confessed. "And I want you to tell me what it'll cost me to get it."

At that, Scully turned fully in her seat to face him, astonished.

"Mulder, you've never been this straightforward in your life," she commented. "You must be planning to ask something serious."

"It is serious." He bit his lip, still unsure of how to broach the subject, then, on impulse, took her hand in his. She stared at their fingers laced together and waited for him to finish.

"I want you to go see Jess," he blurted out at last. "I know you want to pretend this didn't have any effect on you, but it did, Scully, and I won't let you keep it all inside and do yourself more harm than good, and I know that you think you can handle it alone, but--"

"Mulder, you're babbling."

He paused, flushing guiltily. "Sorry," he mumbled, his head bowed. "I tend to do that when I'm nervous."

Scully squeezed his hand. "I remember." She settled back into her seat as the plane began to taxi down the runway. "So let me clarify this," she said as the wheels left the ground. "I agree to see your therapist, and I get to name my price? You'll do whatever I ask?"

"Wi-within reason," he stammered, beginning to feel a little jittery at leaving himself wide open like this. Scully was a creative person, she never went for the obvious solution. There was no telling what payment she might demand of him.

She sat quietly while they gained altitude, and when the pilot had finally settled into his course and they had removed their seatbelts, she turned to him again.

"All right, I accept."

Mulder opened the bottle of water the flight attendant handed him and took a nervous sip. "So?" he asked when he'd re-capped the bottle. "What do I have to do?"

"Let Emmie and me move back in with you," she said promptly.

He stared at her for a minute, surprised at her request, then averted his eyes with a small sigh. Actually, he told himself, he wasn't really all that surprised. Somehow he'd known it would be something like this.

"Mulder." She touched his arm lightly and he tilted his head toward her. "I'm not asking for any commitment from you, and I won't try to force you into...anything you're not ready for. I'm only asking for that other chance we talked about." He didn't answer, and after a pause she added, "You agree to give it to me, and I'll go to therapy." A longer pause. "For as long as you and Dr. Coslow think I should."

He gaped at her, truly astonished now; this was much more than he'd expected. He had been afraid that she would grudgingly endure one visit, then back out of the therapy, insisting she'd kept her part of the bargain because she'd attended a single session. His hope had been that she would recognize her need and continue without his coercion.

Taking her chin in his fingers and turning her face to his, he asked softly, "Is that a promise?"

"Promise," she answered, honesty in her clear blue eyes.

"Then I think we need to seal the bargain," he said, and before she could retreat he leaned over and captured her lips with his own. Sliding his fingers from her chin to the back of her neck, he held her in place while what was intended to be a light kiss deepened, and then deepened some more. Her hand crept up to stroke through his hair, and suddenly she was kissing him back, and Mulder realized that, no matter what else he may feel, no matter how much confusion there was in his mind or his heart--this was right.

The sound of a familiar throat being cleared interrupted them, and Mulder drew back guiltily, glancing up into the face of Walter Skinner. Skinner's expression was stern as he met Mulder's gaze, then wordlessly continued on his way to the restroom.

"Shit!" Mulder muttered under his breath.

"He hates me now," Scully said sadly, and Mulder took her hand again, squeezing it comfortingly.

"He doesn't hate you, Scully. He's just not sure whether to trust you." He laughed a little. "Although I'm in for an extreme lecture once he gets me alone."

She had gone very still at his words, and sat silently for a few seconds. "Can you ever trust me again, Mulder?" she eventually asked, so softly he could barely make out the words.

He turned and kissed her again, lightly and quickly this time, and then settled back against the headrest.

"I want to, Scully. I do want to."

By the time several weeks had passed, Mulder was ready to die. He was doing more running now than ever before, mostly in an attempt to maintain his sanity. He and Scully had kept a safe distance from one another since she and Emmie had returned to the house, and the effort to pretend indifference toward her was slowly killing Mulder. They hadn't kissed since the flight home, although Mulder sensed that Scully was available for kissing, or anything else he might choose. Knowing she was willing, his for the taking, made it worse. He refused to allow himself to be drawn into an intimate relationship with her now--Mulder knew if anything happened to destroy that again, it would truly be the end of him. As a result, while they gave every outward appearance of being a happy family unit, inside the Mulder home things were somewhat tense.

Scully had forced herself to give Mulder the distance he seemed to desire, hoping that someday her continual proximity would prove too much for him and he would crack under the pressure, but so far Mulder had exceeded her expectations on the willpower front. At first she had jealously wondered if another woman might have captured his attention, but careful observation of his routine proved that theory invalid. He left for classes in the morning, spent the afternoon in the campus library (as witnesses could attest), and returned home in time for a friendly 'family' dinner around six. The three of them often spent the evening in front of the television or playing games, and at promptly ten, after the evening news, Mulder retired to his own bedroom. If he was squeezing in a relationship with another woman, she decided, he was cutting class to do it, and the absurdity of that made her smile. Mulder was thoroughly enjoying his schooling, throwing himself into his studies with the same determination and zeal with which he'd always tackled projects that interested him.

He was also turning into a wonderful surrogate father, she mused as she watched him now, teaching Emmie to play baseball. Emmie had started school the same week as Mulder, and had come rushing home that afternoon excitedly waving a permission slip that would allow her to participate in a fall tee-ball league. She'd known just who to approach with it, too, Scully thought with a little laugh. While she might have been concerned about possible injuries, or the fact that Emmie, to her knowledge, had never even held a baseball, Mulder had immediately grabbed his glove, bat and ball and managed to improvise a batting tee. As she watched Emmie gaze up at Mulder adoringly while he instructed her in the fine art of swinging a bat, Scully felt her throat tighten. She'd once stood where Emmie was now, and it had been one of the sweetest experiences of her life. What would have happened, she wondered, all those years ago, if she'd acted on her instinct and turned to embrace Mulder as she'd been tempted to do? Would it have led to the kiss she'd been craving for so long, or would he have skittered away like a shy animal, afraid to give up the years of foreplay in which they'd been engaged for something more substantial? For a moment she could still feel his arms around her.

Shaking it off, Scully opened the back door and strode determinedly into the yard.

"Hips before hands!" she called, and felt her heart stop when his eyes met hers, glowing with an intensity that told her the memory was uppermost in his mind as well.

Emmie squealed. "That's what Fox said!"

"Your mom's an expert," Mulder grinned. "I taught her everything she knows."

"Want to play, Mommy?" Emmie asked, holding out the bat to her, and before Scully had a chance to think she had taken it in her hands, feeling the familiar grip, achingly familiar after nearly six years even though she had only held it on one occasion.

Running her fingers over its cool smoothness, Scully swallowed hard.

"I--I might need a refresher course," she said, afraid to look at Mulder.

He instantly took the cue, pulling her close and positioning her before the batting tee, his arms encircling her, his warm breath in her ear.

"Do you remember?" he whispered, and she could only nod, afraid to attempt speech.

"What's the rule?"

"Hi-hips before hands," she answered softly, drinking in the nearness of him, and the scent of him, and the comforting feel of him.

He placed his hand lightly on her hip, as he had before, and pulled her back snugly against his body. With a rush of heat Scully realized how affected he was by this exchange. She could feel him pressing into her, and wished fervently that they were alone, and that things between them were different. Then Mulder placed his hands on the bat above and below hers and they swung.

"Mommy!" Emmie exclaimed delightedly. "I think you hit a home run!"

The little girl ran to collect the ball, which had settled beneath a tree about fifty feet away, and Scully craned her neck to look at Mulder.

"I never forgot my birthday present," she confessed to him, watching his eyes soften. "It's one of my most treasured memories."

"Mine too," he whispered, and as Emmie placed the ball back on the tee Scully thought she felt him kiss her lightly beneath the ear.

"Let's do it again," he said, and for the next few minutes Emmie ran happily after the baseball as together Mulder and Scully hit it again and again. Each time Emmie replaced it, Scully felt the light touch of his lips on her neck, and finally she was unable to endure the torment any longer.

"I think that's enough," she announced briskly, pulling away from Mulder and handing Emmie the bat. "You're the one who needs the practice, Nymph. I expect to see some home runs before supper."

"Okay, Mommy," Emmie promised, and returned to her batting stance.

Scully felt Mulder's eyes follow her into the house, but she refused to look back. When she reached the kitchen she began blindly assembling ingredients for their dinner, paying scant attention to what she was doing. Absently she reached her fingers to her neck, stroking the skin his lips had touched repeatedly. She could still feel him pressed against her, and the knowledge that he did still want her was exhilarating. She'd been afraid his interest in her as a woman was gone, but Mulder's body had betrayed him. Perhaps the time was right to approach him again.

They sat together on the couch in the family room after dinner, the three of them, Emmie in the middle, watching a Disney movie that the child had chosen. Mulder stretched his right arm along the back of the couch, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world for Scully to extend her left, behind Emmie's back, and lightly stroke his fingers. Then it seemed the most natural thing in the world for Mulder to take her hand, and the two of them remained, surreptitiously holding hands, until the movie was over. Mulder took Emmie to bed, supervising her toothbrushing and reading her a story, and when she was safely tucked in it was the most natural thing in the world for him to return to the couch and the most natural thing in the world for Scully to move closer to him and be scooped up into his strong, comforting arms.

She lay her head against his shoulder and sighed in contentment as Mulder's left hand came up to stroke through her hair. When she felt his kiss on top of her head she pulled back a little to stare up at him.

"Where are we going with this?" she asked bluntly.

Mulder looked surprised. "I--I don't really know," he said carefully. "It just seemed--right, somehow."

"It is right," she told him, snuggling against his chest once more, and they stayed there, quietly watching television until the news broadcast ended. When it was over, Mulder clicked the remote to turn the TV off and was about to stand up when he felt Scully's hand slide down his shirt toward his waist.

He froze, waiting to see what she would do, and when he didn't protest she ran her fingers along his inner thigh, lightly stroking over his growing arousal before bringing them up to caress his chest again.

"Scully--" he began, but before he could complete his sentence she captured his mouth and he was taken prisoner by her kiss. He felt himself weakening, and as he relaxed beneath her assault he slid slowly down until she was laying atop him, her mouth ravaging his without remorse, staking her claim. He gave himself up to the sensation, moaning lightly as she pressed against him and stroking his hands over her back and her smooth, firm buttocks.

In the back of his mind Mulder wanted to protest, but a part of him knew it would be useless--he couldn't fight her *and* himself. He slipped his hands up under her shirt and ran them over her warm skin, and as her mouth left his and began to travel downward he gasped and pulled her closer still.

'Stop!' screamed his brain, and his mouth tried to articulate the words.

"Sc--st--" But her tongue found his ear, one of his most sensitive areas, and soon he was writhing beneath her, pleading incoherently. He knew this was a bad idea, he knew he would regret it later, and he also knew there was absolutely no stopping the erotic freight train that was Dana Scully. He had nothing left to fight with.

As if the gods had finally decided to smile on Mulder for once in his life, a voice from the shadows broke through their passion.


Scully immediately drew back, breathing heavily, and stood up before Emmie could enter the room and see her mauling Mulder.

"Yes, Nymph?" she asked, her voice catching a little as her eyes roved hungrily over the man who still lay, weak and trembling, on the couch.

"Can I have a drink of water?" Emmie asked, coming through the door in her blue satin nightgown, stuffed puppy held firmly in her grasp.

"Of course you can, Sweetie," Scully replied promptly, ushering Emmie toward the kitchen without risking a backwards glance for Mulder. Inwardly she was screaming her frustration at the interruption, but it would do no good to voice it to Emmie--she was only a little girl.

By the time Emmie had been returned to bed, goodnight kisses bestowed upon both her and her favorite toys, and the light turned out, Mulder had managed to compose himself somewhat. Scully returned to the family room, hoping against hope that they could pick up where they'd left off, but instead found him standing before the fireplace, his back to the door.

"Mulder?" she asked uncertainly, and he turned to her with a tight smile.

"Scully, no."

"No?" she repeated, astonished.

He shook his head wordlessly.

"But you were just as involved as I--"

"No." He said it quietly but firmly, and Scully stood, waiting for him to elaborate.

He'd hoped she would simply accept his pronouncement, but when she didn't he turned to face her, putting his hands on her shoulders for emphasis.

"I can't do this," he told her seriously. "I want to, but I just--I can't. If I do, and it all falls apart again..."

"It won't fall apart, Mulder," she interrupted. "Zach's in jail, he's going to prison. He can't hurt us anymore. Nobody can hurt us now."

"You can hurt me."

She gasped at his words, feeling them impale her heart sharply. She hadn't expected him to be so cruel.

"I'm sorry, Scully," he went on gently, his eyes determined. "I do want you, but I won't let you do this to me again. If you want to have--that kind of relationship with me, you'll have to make a commitment."

"A commitment?" she echoed in disbelief.

He nodded.

"What kind of commitment are you talking about, Mulder?"

"A lifetime commitment."

Scully felt her head begin to swim, so unexpected was this response. Shaking it a little to clear her thoughts, she blinked a couple of times.

"Mulder, are you asking me to marry you?" she said at last.

He gave a short laugh. "No, Scully, I'm not *asking* you to marry me. I'm *telling* you that if you want an intimate relationship with me, you'll have to marry me."

She pulled away from his hands, crossing her arms and staring up at him unwaveringly.

"After all we've been through, you're actually demanding a *commitment* from me now?" she repeated. "Don't you think the very fact that I'm here, given our past history, implies a commitment?"

He shook his head slowly. "Not one I'm willing to rely on, Scully," he answered, his voice sad. "We've been here before, remember?" She flushed delicately. "Where we were a few minutes ago on the couch?" he continued, pointing at the guilty piece of furniture, "We've been there before too, remember? It almost destroyed me completely to lose you before. I won't risk it again. Not with my life at stake. It may not be worth much, but I've actually come to value it in the past few weeks. I've finally reached the point where I feel I have something to lose, and I won't risk my life again, Scully."

He stopped, out of breath, and waited for her answer.

"So you're telling me that you, a man in his forties, a man who has certainly had intimate relationships with women in the past, will not sleep with me until we're married?" Incredulity dripped from her words but Mulder ignored it, standing his ground firmly. Finally she turned on her heel and started for the door, but halted before she walked through.

"Fine," she said in a clipped tone, her back to him. "If that's the way you want it, Mulder, that's the way it will be." Then she disappeared, stalking down the hallway toward her bedroom, and Mulder slumped into a chair, his bones suddenly feeling like jelly.

"Good God, I must be crazy," he muttered to himself as he shakily wiped the sweat from his brow. He'd appeared calm on the outside, he hoped, but his inner self had been a nervous wreck throughout the confrontation. "Walter, I finally decided to take your advice," he whispered with a tremulous laugh.

He'd had lunch with Skinner just the day before, and as always, Walter had been blunt with his questions.

"Are you sleeping with her yet?" he'd demanded of his friend, and Mulder had started guiltily before honestly telling him no.

"But you'd like to," Skinner had observed, watching Mulder's reaction with a keen eye.

Mulder, poking away at a shrimp salad, had blushed but refused to respond.

"Mulder, if you take my advice only once in your life, take it on this," Skinner had said, gripping Mulder's wrist firmly for a moment to get his friend's attention. "Don't give in to the temptation," he said when Mulder raised his eyes. "The results might be disastrous, as I'm sure you're aware."

Mulder dropped his eyes again, nodding. He'd smiled nervously at his plate, confessing, "I do a lot more running these days."

"Take a lot more cold showers, too, I'll bet," Skinner commented, and Mulder had agreed with a self-conscious laugh.

"I'm trying, Walter," he had finally admitted, turning serious. "It's difficult, but I'm doing my best. I try to spend most of my time either studying or with Emmie planted firmly between us."

"How's the kid doing?" Skinner asked, mercifully changing the subject.

"She's doing okay, considering." Mulder gratefully picked up the ball Skinner had tossed and ran with it. "She asks about her father occasionally, but for the most part she seems all right."

Skinner nodded. "What did you tell her about Morrow?"

Mulder shrugged. "Told her the truth, scaled down to a five-year-old's understanding. Her daddy did something he shouldn't and now he has to go away for a while, sort of like getting sent to his room for a very long time, and that her mommy and I would take care of her, that type of thing."

"Let's see, kidnapping, rape, attempted murder...and that's just for starters. I'd say Morrow will be 'sent to his room' for quite a few years."

"I sure hope so, Walter," Mulder had answered uneasily. "I can't shake the feeling..."


Mulder shook his head quickly. "I'm not sure. Just a feeling. Probably nothing."

After a minute Skinner returned to his meal. "After everything you've been through, it's only natural that you should feel some apprehension, I suppose," he observed, and let the subject drop, but silently resolved to keep a closer eye on what was happening with Morrow. He was being held in the McCart county jail awaiting trial, which was still several months away. The AD knew Mulder and Scully would both be called upon to testify, and he could be as well. He hoped their stories, coupled with those of the gas-station attendant and the arresting officer, would be enough to send Morrow away for a very long time, possibly even life. He feared the only way Mulder would ever find true peace was in knowing Morrow was securely locked away forever.

Mulder awoke with a start when something sticky and heavy landed in his lap without warning.

"Mmph!" he groaned as Emmie's jelly-spotted hands pawed his shirt and her sweetened lips found his for a quick smack.

"Mommy says it's time for you to wake up," she stated matter-of-factly as she snuggled into his lap more comfortably. "Can we play baseball some more today? It's Saturday. You don't have to study, do you?" she asked, turning her deep brown eyes up to his, and Mulder gave her a quick hug.

"Maybe this afternoon," he replied, positioning her on his left leg. "Baseball comes first, of course."

"Do you think Mommy will want to play some more?"

Mulder rubbed the stubble on his chin thoughtfully. "I guess we'll have to ask her that question," he said, and looked up as the subject of their conversation leaned against the doorframe.

"I have breakfast ready," Scully told him, her voice even. No trace of their previous confrontation was evident in her demeanor, but she looked tired, and Mulder wondered if she'd slept at all. He hadn't thought he would, certain his mind, not to mention his body, would torment him for the rest of the night, but apparently he'd dropped off in the chair at some point.

Mulder placed Emmie on her feet and followed the two women in his life to the kitchen. Scully waved him toward a chair when he made a move to assist her, and he obediently took a seat, silently enjoying the domesticity of the situation. His eyes widened in appreciation when she placed a stack of steaming pancakes before him.

"Wow, Scully, you went all out," he observed as he reached for butter and syrup, and Scully nodded, taking her chair beside him.

"Emmie, if you've finished your breakfast you can go and get dressed," she told the little girl. "I'm sure Fox will play with you once he's had something to eat."

She watched fondly as the child ran happily toward her bedroom, and when they were alone she reached a hand tentatively toward Mulder's arm. He looked up, surprised, when she touched him.

"I accept," she said quietly, and Mulder felt his heart stop momentarily.

"You're willing to--"

"I'll marry you," she interrupted. "On one condition."

Mulder bit his lip briefly. Here it came. "What condition?"

"We do it quickly and quietly," she told him in a serious tone. "I don't mind having my mother and Walter there, even the guys if you want them, but I refuse to go through another formal ceremony with cakes and bridesmaids and fancy dresses. Once was enough."

He smiled. "Is that the way it was before?"

Scully nodded. "It was mostly for my mother's benefit," she shrugged. "I never have cared about all that exhibition."

"No, you're too practical for that," he agreed as he took another bite of the delicious breakfast she'd served him. "Can I ask a question?"

"Go ahead."

"Are you going to keep cooking me these wonderful meals once you have me snagged, or is this just to soften me up?" His eyes twinkled as he waited for her response.

She laughed. "I expect you to do your share, Mulder, since I'm the only one with a job at the moment!" she retorted.

"Ah, but I'm independently wealthy," he countered teasingly. "Maybe I'll hire someone to do all this when it's my turn," he went on, waving his hand about the kitchen airily.

"Oh, and expect me to do it all on my days? I don't think so!"

"But Scully," he protested, "I'm the one with the money!"

She stood over him, tilting his head back to look up at her. "But after we're married it'll be mine too. Better be careful I don't put you in the poorhouse."

He snorted, going back to his food. "Not likely," he commented. "Mom's attorneys had that money so well invested that I could never work a day in my life and still my net worth would continue to increase."

"Good," she said seriously, returning to her seat. "I don't want to sound avaricious, Mulder, and I truly don't care about the money, you know that, right?" She waited for his nod before continuing, "It won't hurt my case to have a rich husband when I seek custody of Emmie."

His heart skipped another beat. "Is that why you want to marry me?" he asked with forced casualness, and was gratified to see the surprised look come over her face.

"Mulder, you know me better than that!" she said, slightly offended at his words. "I wouldn't do that--to any of us."

He nodded his apology. "I know that, Scully. Sorry," he told her sheepishly. "So when do we do this thing? Any day in particular you have in mind?"

"Well," she said, thinking quickly, "obviously we can't do anything before Monday. I suggest we go take out the license on Monday, and make whatever arrangements need to be made, then get married on Tuesday, or Wednesday at the latest."

"Tuesday," he said promptly. "No reason to wait."

She smiled. "I agree." Scully reached over for his hand and squeezed it, feeling her heart swell when he squeezed back. "I do love you, Mulder. I hope you know that, in spite of everything. I always have."

Mulder stiffened for an almost imperceptible second, his eyes darting up to meet hers and read the emotion there. "I know you do, Scully," he responded simply.

Scully felt another sharp stab of pain at his words--and at the words she wanted him to say but he had not. Before they had time to pursue the subject further, Emmie bounded back into the room, washed and dressed, Mulder's New York Yankees cap perched backwards on her head.

"Play ball, Fox!" she crowed, climbing once more into his lap, and Mulder pushed away from the table in laughing resignation.

"All right, give me ten minutes," he promised, starting for his room, and Scully smiled as she watched the two of them together.

"Want to help me sort laundry while you wait?" she asked, winking at Emmie. "I guarantee, he'll be longer than ten minutes."

"I heard that," Mulder called back, and mother and daughter giggled at his offended tone as they started for the laundry room.

"Mommy?" Emmie asked seriously as she threw her dirty clothes into appropriate piles.

"Yes, Nymph?" Scully absentmindedly dumped detergent into the washing machine, her back to the little girl, but turned around in surprise at the child's next words.

"Will you be my mommy forever?"

Her eyes filled with tears when she saw Emmie's solemn expression, and Scully sank to her knees and drew the girl into her arms.

"Of course I will, Emmie, what makes you ask a question like that?"

"Jacob said Daddy's going to a bad place and they'll send me away to live with strangers."

The uncertainty in the little girl's voice broke Scully's heart, and she wiped away the tears that had crept down the delicately sculpted cheekbones.

"Now you listen to me, okay? Not Jacob. All right?" Emmie nodded. "I'm afraid your Daddy is going to have to stay away for a long time. He did a very bad thing and he has to be punished for it. That doesn't necessarily mean your Daddy is a bad person, do you understand the difference?" A sniff and another slight nod. Scully smiled reassuringly and hugged her again.

"Well, while Daddy's away you have to live with someone who can take care of you, and a man called a judge gets to decide who he thinks will take the best care of you. Fox and I will go to the judge and tell him that we love you very much, and we want you to be with us, and Grandma and Grandpa told me they will tell the judge that as well. And when we're all finished the judge will tell us whether you get to live with us or not."

"Why would he say I couldn't?" Emmie asked, her clear eyes honestly puzzled, and Scully wondered at the bittersweet innocence of childhood.

"No reason," she assured her daughter lovingly. "There is no reason at all for him to say that, and I'm sure he won't. Now, hadn't you better go see if Fox is ready to play?"

Emmie sniffed again and nodded, happiness restored at the confident words from the woman she regarded as her true mother, and ran out of the room with the energy that only five-year-old children can possess.

Sinking down on a pile of Mulder's shirts, Scully grabbed one and buried her face in it, inhaling the scent that clung to the fabric.

Could they really, finally, have it all?

Chapter Nine

Mulder opened his eyes and blinked sleepily, glancing around the unfamiliar room as he tried to get his bearings. The warm body pressed against his stirred, and memory came back in a rush. After all the years of waiting and wanting and hoping, it had finally happened. Yesterday, he had made Dana Katherine Scully his wife. It had been a fairly simple process, really. They had gone out on Monday during her lunch hour, after his classes were finished for the day, and obtained a marriage license, and the next morning, after Scully informed her supervisor that she would be missing a couple of days work, they had called friends and family with the good news. Byers, Langly and even Frohike had been delighted. Walter and Maggie had both reluctantly, although good-naturedly, arrived at the office of the Justice of the Peace to which they had been directed promptly at eleven o'clock that morning. To Mulder's surprise, Skinner had Jess Coslow in tow.

"Jess?" he'd questioned, kissing her cheek lightly. "Don't you have appointments?"

"The great part of being your own boss, Mulder, is that you get to make your own hours," she responded, smiling happily at Skinner. "I just re-scheduled everything for the rest of the day, and here I am. I wouldn't want to miss the joining of my two favorite patients."

Scully had grimaced a bit at Jess' statement--she still hadn't quite come to terms with the therapy Mulder had insisted she receive, but she had kept her end of their bargain faithfully, and Mulder thought she might be making progress. She'd been a good sport about it, he had to admit, never complaining or missing an appointment. Soon after Walter and Jess, Maggie had breezed in, pulling first Dana, then Mulder into her arms for a hug.

"I'm so happy you've finally made it to this," she whispered in his ear, and Mulder squeezed her tightly for a second.

"Me too," he told her, kissing her cheek as well.

"Mr. Mulder, Miss Scully, we're ready for you," a voice said from the doorway to the inner office, and Mulder sought out Scully's eyes.

She met his gaze steadily, a smile firmly affixed on her face, and reached for his hand.

So it was that they had made their vows to one another, legal and moral vows that Mulder knew he, at least, intended to keep forever. There could never be another woman for him, he was certain of that now. He'd drawn the attention of more than one of his female classmates, and had he been inclined to amuse himself with women who were smart, attractive, and half his age he'd have found the field wide open. Instead, with Scully always in his heart, he had firmly but politely declined their advances and returned home to the woman who had held his loyalty from day one. Even if he could never have her, he had decided eventually, nobody else interested him.

Now not only could he have her, he *did* have her, he thought wickedly as he rolled over to trap her deliciously naked body beneath his. She opened her eyes fully and looked up into her husband's unshaven face. It was the most beautiful sight she had ever seen.

"What am I supposed to call you now?" he questioned, and she stared at him, confused.

"Huh?" she asked stupidly, blinking sleep from her eyes and trying to ignore the swelling heat in her lower body.

"Well," he continued, shifting slightly in order to press himself more fully between her thighs, "your name isn't Scully any longer."

"No, I suppose it isn't."

"But calling you 'Mulder' would be confusing," he went on, dropping a couple of soft kisses on her chin.

She wriggled beneath him and he settled himself more firmly on top of her, forcing her to be still.

"I could call you 'Dana', he mused as his finger began to lightly caress the side of her breast, "but then, everyone calls you that."

"Uh-huh," she gasped as his lips found the delicate skin of her throat.

"Morrow?" he teased, and her eyes flew open.

"Not if you want to live," she said with deceptive mildness, and he laughed.

"I agree, 'Morrow' is out of the question," he told her, wringing a moan from her when his mouth found her left nipple.

Her hands roamed up and down his back, cupping the swell of his behind firmly as he continued to bring her to a level of almost incoherent arousal, and Scully wanted to scream when he released her nipple and spoke again, as if not at all affected by her nearness.

"So I suppose it's 'Dana'," he continued thoughtfully, moving his hips slowly back and forth as he mimicked the act he knew she craved. "Is that all right with you?"

"If you--call me 'Dana', I get--to call you 'Fox'," she managed, pressing herself upwards in an attempt to drive him as crazy as he was her.

"Call me 'Fox' and we're through," he grinned, at last giving her what she ached for. "I'll make allowances for Emmie, but that's where I draw the line."

"Fine," she muttered with her last logical thought. "Guess we'd better stick with 'Mulder' and 'Scully'. Seems to have worked so far."

She soon forgot the entire conversation as his lips, hands, and body gently assaulted her, and within moments she was focused only on him, on what he was doing to her, and on exactly why she loved him so.

They spent the rest of the day and night secluded in their hotel, ordering room service when hunger struck, making love when the mood struck, and spending the rest of the time in quiet conversation or peaceful sleep, nestled in each other's arms. It seemed, after the ten months since Mulder's release from prison, that they still had much catching up to do. Each found it was less painful to speak of the past now that the future was within their grasp, and besides the catching up, many hours were spent reminiscing over the years when they were partners.

"Do you ever miss it?" Scully asked him, tracing lazy circles on his chest with her fingernail, and he pulled her as close as he could, wrapping her firmly in his arms.

"No," he answered positively, and she raised her face to him in surprise.


"Well, let me see," Mulder said thoughtfully. "I could be running myself ragged, working myself to death, chasing down aliens or bad guys who, if they happened to catch me could hurt me or even kill me..." She smiled. "...enduring increasing sexual tension between myself and my lovely partner..." She kissed him. "...always fearing something horrible might happen to her or to myself..." Now he kissed her when her face clouded over. "Or, I could be where I am today, lying here naked in bed with the woman I adore, who is *finally* my wife, knowing when the honeymoon's over I can go home to a nice house, a little girl I also happen to adore, a bright future in a field I enjoy, coaching a bunch of kids in the fine art of baseball, a dog..."


"...dog, minivan..."

"Mulder, we don't have a dog or a minivan."

"We'll fix that situation immediately. If I'm going to do the All-American Father routine I'm determined to do it right."

"So you're telling me that you're satisfied? You don't miss the excitement?"

"...crazed serial killers..."


"...killer kitty cats..."

"...green goop..."

"...*yellow* goop..."

"...or the chance to get chewed out by Skinner and shunned by your peers on a regular basis?"

He laughed. "Well, Skinner's not above chewing me out still, but other than that little detail I'd say I'm pretty satisfied with the way things have turned out."

"Are you really?" She raised up on her elbows to look directly into his face. "You don't ever wish we were--"

"Do you?" he interrupted seriously.

"Not at all," she answered immediately. "I was always so concerned about you in those days. The only thing I regret is that we both had to endure so much to get here."

"But they never made us cry 'uncle', did they?" he asked, hugging her tightly, and she shook her head against his warm skin.

"What was that poem again, Mulder?"

"What poem?" he asked, momentarily confused. "Oh, that one. I'll have to look it up for you someday, let you read the whole thing."

"I'd like that."

"But right now," he continued, allowing his fingers to creep tantalizingly down her silken skin, "I think I'd rather research something else."

Mulder stood, hands on his hips, surveying the little girl at the batting tee. One more run and their team would take the championship, and it was obvious the pressure was getting to her. Her five-year-old face was set in concentration as she swung the bat, missing the ball entirely. Mulder, who had been easily persuaded to coach Emmie's team, signaled to the umpire for a time-out and walked toward the plate, smiling reassuringly as the child regarded him with a hint of fear on her face. His own expression revealed no sign of the anger he felt, not at the child, but at her mother and father. Little Jennifer's parents always criticized their daughter's efforts and never praised when she did something well. He had tried, politely, to encourage them to be more supportive of Jennifer, but they had been extremely obtuse about the situation.

Now was no exception. Jennifer's father stood in the bleachers, calling to his daughter, "Come on, Jennifer, don't freeze up. If you don't hit that ball, you'll lose the game!"

Scully glared at Mr. North's back, and watched as Mulder leaned over and whispered something in Jennifer's ear. The little girl giggled, wriggled her hips, and nodded, and Mulder went back to the dugout with a satisfied smile on his face. He reflected, as she prepared to swing again, that he had never been happier in his life, and watched, not at all surprised, as Jennifer made contact with the ball, sending it through the first baseman's legs and bringing home the run they needed to win the game.

The entire dugout erupted in screams and Mulder found himself on the ground almost before the runner touched home plate, mobbed by the members of his team. He had promised them that if they won the championship they could dump ice water on him, just like they did on television, but he hadn't envisioned being trapped on the ground when it happened. Unable to lift the water jug, the girls quickly dragged it to where he lay and tipped it over to spill on their coach. Mulder yelled as ice and freezing cold water poured over his chest, stomach and groin.

As the girls eventually drifted off, still giggling, to find their parents, Mulder opened his eyes to stare up into Scully's grinning face.

"Enjoying yourself, Mulder?" she asked, nudging him with her toe and causing some of the ice to slip beneath the hem of his shirt and find his bare stomach.

"More than you realize," he gasped, slapping it away frantically. "You know, you could be more supportive," he grumbled as he struggled to a sitting position, brushing ice cubes to the dirt.

Scully laughed. "I am supportive. Who do you think told Emmie how to take the lid off this jug?" she gloated and he glared at her.

"Coach?" came a voice from behind, and Mulder turned, wringing water from his shirt, to face its owner.

"Thanks for all you've done," said the father of Mulder's center fielder, sticking out a hand. "The kids have had a great time this season. Shelly just adores you, and I can see why. You're really good with them."

"Uh, thanks," Mulder stammered, shaking the man's hand and watching in wonder as he walked away. "Scully, isn't that--?"

"Yep," she said, slipping an arm around his soaking wet waist. "The husband of the woman who was so rude to you at Emmie's party last spring."

"So Shelly is--"

"Jessica's sister. And apparently the father doesn't share the mother's view of your sordid past."

"Be careful," he said, leaning down to kiss her lightly. "You're a very large part of my sordid past."

"And of your sordid future," she said good-naturedly. "Uh-oh, I'd better nip this in the bud," nodding toward Emmie and a couple of the other children who showed every sign of planning to jump in the mud puddle left by their celebration.

Mulder started for the car, hoping to find something he could use to dry himself, when another voice stopped him, this one more sinister, the very timbre of it a threat.

"Mr. Mulder."

His breath caught and he swung around, clenching his hands automatically to stop the shaking.


The other man inclined his head in greeting.

"What do you want?"

Ever still, ever slow to come to the point, the elderly man gave a serene smile.

"I came to issue you a warning."

Mulder made a gesture of impatience. "Look, don't worry about me," he began. "I have no intention of involving myself in your affairs ever again. Not only do I not know what you're up to these days, I don't even care."

"You'll care about what I've come to tell you," the old man said mildly, ignoring Mulder's anger.

"What?" Mulder demanded, hands on his hips, eyes blazing. "What could you possibly have to say to me now?"

"Zachary Morrow has escaped from jail."

Mulder stood stock-still, heart racing as the words registered. The man turned and began walking calmly across the parking lot before Mulder found his voice.

"Wait!" he called. "How do you know? Why are you telling me this?" he asked, but the visitor gave no sign that he had heard, stepping into a waiting car and disappearing before Mulder could say anything more.

"It can't be true," he muttered to himself as he turned back toward the ball field. "They'd surely have notified us."

"Notified us of what, Mulder?" Scully asked as she and Emmie approached, and noted his frightened start with worry. Something had happened, obviously; Mulder was pale as a ghost.

"Nothing," he replied brightly. "So, Emmie, you ready for that ice cream I promised you?"

"Yes!" she cried, jumping up and down in excitement. "I want the big banana split, Fox, remember, you promised."

"I did," he agreed, opening the door and waiting while she buckled her seatbelt. "The biggest they have."

Scully caught his eye over the top of the car, her face a question, and he shook his head slightly. After a second's searching look she gave a tiny nod and climbed into the car. It would have to wait.

"How can this have happened?" she demanded hours later, standing in front of the fire Mulder had built in their family room. Scully shivered, glancing around the room as if expecting Zach to emerge from a shadowy corner at any moment.

"Scully, you need to calm down," said Skinner from the couch. They had called him, and after a brief but volatile conversation with the McCart County Sheriff's department he had confirmed the information the smoking man had given Mulder--Zachary Morrow had escaped from jail three days earlier during a prisoner transfer, and so far there had been no leads as to his whereabouts.

"Calm down?" she demanded angrily. "There's a madman on the loose who may intend to kill my entire family, and you want me to calm down? The jackass Sheriff of some jerkwater town doesn't think this is important enough to warrant a phone call to any of us, and you want me to calm down?"

"Scully," Mulder interrupted, "Walter's right and you know it. Losing our heads now isn't going to help anything."

She clutched her arms to herself protectively, breathing heavily, but said nothing more.

"Maybe he's not coming here at all," Byers commented from the corner he was occupying, trying to stay out of the line of fire. Mulder had called the guys to come over and install their latest and greatest security devices the second they had arrived home, and now the six of them had gathered in this room, nobody willing to go home and leave the Mulder family unprotected.

"Of course he's coming here!" Scully snapped.

"Maybe not," Mulder said gently. "If he's been on the loose for three days and hasn't made an appearance, it could be he isn't planning to."

"But you don't really believe that, do you Mulder?" asked Frohike, and Mulder gave up the pretense, rubbing his forehead wearily.

"No," he admitted at last. "I don't."

"So why hasn't he shown up yet?" Langly weighed in with his own question. "And for that matter, why did this guy tell you about it? I thought he was your enemy."

Mulder shook his head, too tired to think anymore. "I have no idea why that man ever does anything, but I am certain of one thing--he only does a thing if it will benefit himself in some way."

"Zach may be on foot, in fact he probably is," Scully said, seeing her husband's exhaustion and putting her own mind into gear. "If he'd stolen a car it would be too easy to be caught--he made that mistake once already, he's not likely to make it a second time."

"How long would it take him to walk from Iowa to Virginia?" asked Frohike.

"Depends on whether or not he's hitchhiking, or keeping off the roads entirely...there are so many variables at work. If his intention really is to come here, he won't risk getting caught before he's able to carry out his plan. So the question is, what do we do about this?"

Mulder sighed and rubbed his head again, and Scully came around behind his chair to massage the back of his neck. Leaning into her touch, he allowed his mind to wander.

"We have to keep on about our lives," he said finally. "I can't miss my classes, Emmie can't miss school--"

"I'll contact the school tomorrow and explain the situation to them, make sure they know Emmie isn't to leave the grounds with anyone except me," Scully interjected, and Mulder nodded.

"Wouldn't it be safer to hole up here, if only for a few days?" asked Byers, confused and a little frightened at the thought of Mulder or Scully out alone, unprotected, should Morrow appear.

Skinner shifted in his seat, finally speaking. "How long is a few days? They can't go into hiding indefinitely, considering the fact that we don't know if or when Morrow might appear. I can have someone watch the house, and Mulder and Scully are both trained agents. Nobody can guarantee their complete safety, but we can do our best."

"I suppose you're right," Byers murmured, not entirely convinced.

"We'll be on heightened awareness until he's caught, Byers, but other than that, and alerting the local police to the threat, there's really not much we can do," Mulder told him, suddenly glad he still had his father's gun. Legal or not, he intended to carry it with him everywhere until Morrow was taken back into custody, and Scully was going to do the same, he vowed to himself. As for Emmie...

"Maybe we should see if Emmie can stay with your mom for a while," he suggested, leaning his head back to look up at his wife.

"I'm sure Mom would love to have her," Scully agreed, and went to make a call to her mother. She returned a few minutes later to report that Maggie would pick Emmie up after school the next day and keep her until they decided it was safe for her to come home.

Finally they all dispersed, Skinner being the last to take his leave. "You know to call me if you need me."

"Yes, Walter."

"You know I'll kick your ass if you don't."

Mulder grinned. "Yes, Walter. And thanks," he said just before the door shut behind Skinner. "For everything."

Skinner nodded once and walked away. Mulder locked the door, engaged the deadbolt, and turned back to Scully. Without a word being spoken they began to make their way through the house, checking each door and window to be certain it was secure.

"I won't sleep a wink tonight," Scully declared. "I don't even want to go to bed. What if he manages to break in? What if he tries to hurt Emmie?"

"I don't think he would bother her," Mulder argued, but seeing her face he relented. "But I see your point. I'll make the coffee."

They kept vigil in his study, which was situated across the hall from Emmie's bedroom, and all night their ears were attuned to any noise that might signal a potential threat. Toward dawn Scully went to replenish the coffee supply and Mulder crept quietly into the master bathroom to clean up and get ready for his early class. He wanted to cruise the neighborhood before heading for the university, to see if he could spot anything suspicious.

After leaving the house he drove around for a short time, seeing nothing out of the ordinary, and finally made for his class. Scully had delivered Emmie to school with instructions that nobody but herself, her husband or Maggie Scully was to have access to the little girl until further notice. When Mulder called her between classes, she reported that she had seen nothing unusual. Everything seemed normal, and for a moment Mulder almost allowed himself to hope that nothing would come to pass, that Morrow had made for Mexico upon his escape rather than Virginia, but in his gut he knew it wasn't true. With a twinge of sadness he felt the reassuring bulge of the revolver in his coat pocket; he hadn't thought he'd ever need to carry a gun again.

For the next few days things were incredibly tense, both of them knowing the crisis was coming but unable to predict when it would strike or from which direction. Because of the highly emotional situation, and the way her nerves were stretched to the breaking point, in a way it was a relief, Scully thought, to finally return home from work and find Zach waiting for her.

He stepped from behind the door when she entered the house, quickly relieving her of her weapon and ordering her down the hall to the bedroom. She stared at him for a long moment, complying with his demand when she saw him bring the gun in his hand a little closer to her body. The look on his face was frightening, and Scully had no illusions about his intent. He would, no doubt, rape her again, then kill her. Then he would be waiting when Mulder returned and finish him off as well. Her mother might be next if Zach tried to retrieve his daughter. The only hope Scully could see was to try and stall him. Mulder should be home soon. Perhaps between the two of them they could manage to overpower or outsmart him.

Her hopes of stalling him were quickly dashed when, as soon as they reached the bedroom, he ordered her to remove her clothing and lie on the bed.


"I said *do it*!" he hissed, jamming the gun into her chest, and with a hard swallow she reached for the buttons of her blouse, wondering where the hell the police officers were that should be guarding the house.

With trembling fingers she slowly unfastened the buttons, one by one, as he watched, his expression hungry. Fighting back the bile created by the thought of Zach's hands on her, Scully slowly let the blouse drop to the floor.

"Now the skirt," he told her. "And take it slow. I want to enjoy this."

She was happy to follow that command, knowing that every second she could delay brought Mulder that much closer to home. Inwardly she prayed he wouldn't get tied up in traffic or otherwise detained. Risking a quick glance at the clock, she noted that, with a little luck, he should be coming through the door in ten minutes. Give or take a few.

Reaching behind herself, Scully felt for the zipper to her short brown skirt, inching it down little by little, taking as much time as she dared. Zach's eyes grew wider and his grin more carnal as she released the zipper and ever-so-slowly drew the skirt down, past her thighs, over her knees, below her calves, stepping out of it deliberately, one foot at a time. He relaxed a bit, leaning against the wall, and gestured for her to continue. Running her hands slowly and sensuously from her waist to her knees and back again, Scully finally allowed one shoe to come off. She managed another glance at the clock as she bent over.

Seven minutes to go.

Repeating the action to rid herself of the other shoe, she wondered what garment should be discarded next. Definitely the pantyhose, she decided quickly. Maybe she could avoiding exposing too much of herself to this pervert. Sliding her hands languorously up her legs again, up and down her thighs, she eventually hooked her thumbs inside the elastic waistband of her hose.

"You've still got it, Baby," Zach said, and she noted his obvious erection with disgust. Careful not to allow her feelings to register on her face, she gave him a slow, sexy wink and began rolling the hose down over her hips, inch by painfully slow inch.

Four minutes.

At last she removed the hose, running them lazily through her fingers before tossing them atop the growing pile of her clothing. Now she stood before Zach clad only in her bra and panties, and with a sinking feeling Scully realized she was going to have to remove at least one more article of clothing. There were still three minutes before Mulder could be expected, and if he happened to be late--

"Dance for me, Dana," Zach instructed, and she stared at him for a moment, startled at his request. Then her mind latched onto the command, recognizing it as a reprieve, and she began to sway slowly back and forth to imaginary music, allowing her hands to roam over her body much like Mulder's did when they made love. Closing her eyes, she tried to will away the fear she felt, imagining the strong hands of her husband touching her, soothing her, hearing his voice in her head as he told her how beautiful she was, how sexy, how much he wanted her.

"Turn around."

Reality slammed back at her at the sound of his voice, and with another swallow she turned her back to him, continuing her seductive motions. Seconds later she felt his arms come around her, trapping her while his body pressed against hers.

"You still belong to me, Dana," he whispered, caressing the side of her face. "And you still want me too, I can tell." His left hand rose from her waist to cup her breast, fingers sliding beneath the satiny cup of her bra, and she suppressed a shudder.

"I know you think you love him," Zach's gravelly voice continued in her ear, "but he can't possibly make you as happy as I do. Can he?"

She didn't answer, and his fingers tightened on her nipple painfully.

"Can he?" he insisted, and she shook her head, relieved when the pressure on her sensitive skin lessened.

She took another quick look at the clock and closed her eyes briefly in despair. Mulder was two minutes late.

"I think this needs to go," Zach murmured against her neck, his free hand sliding to the bra clasp at her back and unfastening it with one quick twist. He pulled the garment down and off her arms, dropping it casually to the floor, and Scully trembled.

"And now..." he said, his fingers beginning to make their way beneath the elastic of her panties, when they were both startled by a sound from behind.

"Get your hands off her."

Scully almost sagged in relief at the welcome sound of Mulder's voice, but Zach gripped her tightly around the waist again and spun around to face Mulder as if he'd been expecting his enemy to arrive. Mulder's face tightened when he saw Scully's state of undress, but he didn't allow his hands to waver. Now was no time for modesty.

"Move away from her," he ordered again, his gun pointed directly at Zach's head.

Zach laughed, bringing his own gun up to rest against Scully's temple.

"It appears we're at a stand-off," he commented mildly, regarding Mulder with amused eyes.

After a long, tense second, Mulder replied, "If you hurt her, I'll kill you anyway."

"Then my torment will be over, but yours will go on forever, Mulder," Zach gloated. "How do you think the police will react to the fact that you've killed *another* man? Will they let you off again? Or will they take one look at you, renegade FBI agent turned ex-con, and throw you back in prison so fast your head will spin?" He noted the twitch to Mulder's jaw and knew he'd hit the right nerve. "I think we both know the answer to that question."

"Mulder, don't listen--"

"Shut up!" Zach hissed, tightening his grip painfully around her and driving the barrel of the gun roughly against her head. "You just let the men handle this situation, Baby."

Scully's eyes narrowed at Zach's words, but she had the presence of mind to remain quiet. She was unable to fight him, and arguing now would gain her nothing.

"So what's it gonna be, Mulder?" Zach taunted, his grin widening at the other man's obvious uncertainty. "Do you shoot me and go back to prison, or let me take what belongs to me and go?"

"She's not yours," Mulder stated tersely. "You weren't man enough to keep her."

Zach's grin faded at the words, and he thought quickly for a response that would throw Mulder even further off-balance. "You have it all, man," he commented, capturing Mulder's eyes with his own piercing gaze. "Money, a nice house, a future...are you really willing to risk it all for this little tramp?"

He gave Scully a shake as he spoke, and Mulder's finger tightened on the trigger.

"She slept with me, you know," he went on, his tone confidential, as if he was imparting a great secret. "On our way out west, she let me fuck her. More than once. She's nothing but a--"

Whatever vile name Zach had been about to assign to his ex-wife was cut off as Mulder fired. The report was deafening in the closed room, and Zach stared at Mulder, a confused expression on his face, a face which was rapidly turning bright red as blood poured from the wound in his forehead and his body was driven backward.

Mulder sagged against the wall, carefully placing the gun on the dresser, and covered his face with his hands as Scully bent to examine the man at her feet.

"Scully, please tell me he's not dead," Mulder moaned from behind his hands, and Scully glanced up to see him sliding slowly down the wall.

She rolled Zach over and felt for a pulse, feeling a combination of sorrow, rage and joy when she found none. Standing up and wiping the blood from her fingers, Scully grabbed her robe off the nearby chair and slipped it on, leaving the pile of her clothing for evidence.

"Mulder," she said, squatting beside him and pulling his hands from his face. "Mulder, come on back to me."

"He can't be dead," Mulder whispered over and over. "Please tell me he's alive, Scully. He can't be dead."

"Mulder, he is dead. He can't hurt us ever again."

Mulder gave a strange laugh, and the sound of it frightened Scully. It was the sound of a man about to fall over the edge.

"But don't you see, Scully," he said, choking back a sob, "he was right. I didn't want to kill him. I didn't mean to kill him, but I couldn't let him-- Scully, he was right!"

"What? Mulder, what are you talking about?" she asked, confused, as she began tugging him to his feet.

"He was right, Scully!" Mulder practically yelled as he shook off her hands. He stood, and retreated toward the bedroom door, refusing to turn his back on her, and Scully's blood froze when he picked up the gun.

"Mulder--" she began, stretching out a hand in what she hoped was a soothing manner.

"No! I won't go back there!" he insisted, and she was astonished to see tears making their way down his cheeks. "I can't, Scully." His eyes pleaded with her for understanding.

"They won't send you back to prison, Mulder," she said reassuringly, but wasn't certain if he even heard her.

"They will," he insisted, still slowly backing away as she approached him with an equally slow pace. "They'll take one look at me, see what I've done, and throw away the key, and I *can't*, Scully, I *can't* let them do that."

"You had no choice," she argued. "They'll see that you had to do it, that you were only defending your family," she asserted, but he was beyond reason. In Mulder's mind he was already back behind bars.

He shook his head determinedly, raising the gun again, and just as she was about to rush him, hoping to prevent his death if not injury, Mulder was grabbed from behind by a pair of strong arms and instantly relieved of the weapon he'd tried to turn on himself. Scully breathed a long sigh of relief, and quickly took the gun that Skinner extended to her.

Mulder struggled briefly in the other man's grasp, but quickly gave up as if realizing the futility of attempting to fight against both of them. He stood stiffly, silently, as Skinner released him.

"Sir, how did you happen--?" Scully began, and was interrupted again by the entrance of Officers Waylon and Scott.

"Damn!" Scott exclaimed. "First we get called away on an emergency, then we're ordered to head back here because a neighbor reported a gunshot coming from the house. You people certainly get your share of excitement."

Scully explained the situation as the two policemen examined the scene, and the body, and called for assistance. Mulder stood, still as a statue against the wall, with Skinner nearby for support.

"How did you happen to arrive just in time?" she was finally able to ask him.

"I was on my way home from work and just had a funny feeling I should check," he shrugged. "It's only a couple of blocks out of my way, so... Imagine my surprise when I found the front door wide open and Mulder about to do himself in."

"Walter, he's convinced they're going to take him to jail over this," Scully told him quietly. "You've got to make him see that won't happen. He's so frightened now that I doubt he's taking any of this in."

Skinner turned to Mulder, who had fear-widened eyes glued to the two police officers. "Mulder," he said, and received no response.


Mulder turned a startled gaze to his friend.

"Nothing is going to happen to you," Skinner told him, and Mulder shook his head vehemently, eyes closed in terror.

"They'll take me back, Walter," he muttered. "I can't go back. You should have let me--"

"No, Mulder, nobody is taking you to jail," Skinner insisted firmly, and Officer Waylon raised his head.

"I'll need all three of you to come down to the station to give a statement," he commented to Skinner, and the AD nodded.

"I understand that, Jack," he replied, "but Mulder here is afraid he's going to be arrested."

Jack Waylon surveyed the scene before him, and the man who stood white-faced and visibly shaking as his bathrobe-clad wife attempted to comfort him.

"I don't think so, Mr. Skinner," he answered positively. "Some guy who escaped police custody, who was in jail for kidnapping this woman, someone who was expected to come here, someone who had threatened this man and is accused of shooting him breaks into his house, tries to rape his wife, holds a gun on her...I think most people would agree that what Mr. Mulder did here was justified."

"Did you hear that, Mulder?" Skinner demanded, turning to face his friend. "We're going to the police station to give them a statement, but you *will not* be arrested, do you understand?" He gave Mulder's arm a little shake for emphasis.

Mulder nodded, barely perceptibly, but remained unconvinced. He fully expected to be slapped into handcuffs at any moment, and was relieved when, as they loaded him into the police car half an hour later, he was sandwiched between Scully and Skinner. Scully's hands captured one of his and held on comfortingly, and he squeezed her fingers lightly. He felt ice-cold, and welcomed her warmth. Skinner didn't touch him, but the man's reassuring presence was a slightly calming influence. At least, he decided, when they did arrest him, Skinner could put in a good word for him, maybe make things go a little easier.

They pulled away from his house as an ambulance and two more police cars were arriving. Mulder watched the flashing lights as they disappeared from view, then turned around and settled, his heart beginning to break, between his wife and his friend. He'd had it all, he reminded himself sadly. For once in his life, for a painfully brief time, he'd had everything he desired.

Until twilight had fallen.


Journal of Fox Mulder

It's been a year now. One year to the day since I walked out of that place with Skinner having to practically drag me every step of the way. One year since I was afraid to meet anyone's eyes, since I was convinced every person I saw wanted to hurt me in some way--one year since my life began anew. Sometimes I can't believe I've come so far, and yet I still have, to coin a phrase, miles to go before I sleep.

If life is the sum total of all our experiences, I must have lived enough for ten people in my forty-odd years. Experience has become a dirty word in some ways, and yet, I have no choice but to continue pushing forward, meeting challenges and gaining more of those experiences. Scully assures me if I even consider any other option she will make me pay, and that woman in a temper is something to be feared. If I were to kill myself now, I have no doubt she'd find a way to track down my ghost and exact vengeance.

Luckily I no longer have the desire.

I was almost catatonic with fear as I rode in the back of that police car the night I killed the bastard sonofabitch who tried to destroy our lives. The last time I'd ridden in a car like that, it had taken me toward a hell that no innocent man should ever have to experience. Certain I was on my way back to that life, feeling resentful of Skinner and Scully for preventing my sure escape, I sat like a stone between them, afraid that any word or movement would send me into a fit of screaming, insane terror. I held myself in that detached state right up to the time they sat me at a table across from the officer who was to take my statement. I opened my mouth to speak, praying to God, any god who would listen, that they would believe my story. I meant to explain to them, coldly and dispassionately, why I had put a bullet into Morrow's deserving head, but to my horror the only thing that emerged was one choking sob after another. Finally I gave up, burying my head in my arms, and let it come. There was no way I could stop that wave of emotion anyway. They ended up having to call Jess, drag her away from her dinner, to calm me down. After half an hour of her gentle, soothing reassurances, I was able to reconstruct what I knew of the events that had transpired, and Scully and Walter filled in the blanks. And then they told me I was free to go. They had to tell me that three times before I believed them.

We never did figure out how Morrow was able to get past all the security the Gunmen had set up at our house. They've gone over it several times and are still mystified. Now I suppose we'll never know. I hope nobody else is ever able to breach the system, but then, as far as I know, no other madmen are out there stalking us. Unless someone I once had a hand in putting away manages to escape or be released and comes after us. Hey, it's happened before, but I'm not losing any sleep over it. Life is too short for that.

Scully asked me, after we'd returned home that night, when I was still looking over my shoulder expecting the police at my door with a warrant at any moment, how I'd known to enter the house silently with my gun drawn. She was amazed when I told her, because it was such a little thing, but it's one of those details my mind has always noticed. It was the mail. Scully, every day when she gets home from work, opens the door, hangs up her coat, puts away her briefcase, then goes back outside to get the mail from the box. When I got home that night, her car was in the driveway, but the mail was still in the box. I knew something had to be wrong, although I must admit, finding Zachary Morrow with his arms around my nearly naked wife wasn't really what I expected. To be honest, I expected to find her gone again--gone or lying dead on the floor with the next bullet meant for me. Finding them in that position was a bit of a shock, but I had already learned to trust her again--if I ever truly stopped. Scully was angry and embarrassed at the situation, of course, but once again she had gone along with Morrow in order to save her own life, for which I am extremely grateful. The life she saved is very important to me.

As for me, well, life is good. Now there's a phrase I never thought I would use in reference to myself, and while certainly not every wrinkle is ironed out, they're all well on the way to blessed smoothness. Emmie is almost legally ours now, with nothing standing in the way except formalities, which our attorneys assure us are nothing to worry about. Money does talk after all, it appears, and the fact that Scully was married to Emmie's father gives a lot of points to our side. The other couple who tried to adopt her out from under us won't win, and another issue in our favor is that the courts granted us temporary custody until the final decision was made. She's settled here, and I'm determined she's not going anywhere. Now she wants a dog.

Morrow's parents were a bit reluctant to see their granddaughter with us at first, but eventually reason won out and they threw their support behind us. Better the Mulder family than strangers, I suppose. They are actually quite nice, in spite of the fact that their only son was a lunatic, and while they loved him they were never blind to his weaknesses. And they just happen to adore my wife.

Scully has scaled back her working hours to twenty a week so she can do, as she puts it, 'the mommy thing', since this is the only chance she'll ever have. Emmie started kindergarten this fall, and it is with an extreme lack of modesty that I announce she is already miles ahead of the rest of her class. Personally I think they should skip her forward to at least the second grade, but Scully refuses to talk to Emmie's teachers about it. She thinks I'm overly proud and perhaps she's right. I do love that little girl as if she were our own, and soon, I hope, she'll carry the Mulder name for the rest of her life. That was something we approached her grandparents with cautiously, afraid that they might want Emmie to remain a Morrow, and in spite of our rights we would never have gone against their wishes. As I said, they're very nice people, and they mean the world to Emmie. We finally settled on Emmaline Renee Morrow Mulder. After all, we can't pretend her father never existed.

Mr. Morrow looked at us both a little sadly when we broached the subject, and with visible tears in his eyes told us finally that he'd prefer Emmie not be saddled with the name that her father sullied. He said the Mulder name seemed like a good one to him, and he'd be proud to have his granddaughter known by it. Well, I got choked up at that, of course, and my always-understanding wife stepped right in and took charge, thanking them sweetly, then got me the heck out of there before I could embarrass myself. God, I love that woman.

Amazing, isn't it, how many scenes of catastrophe had to play out in both our lives before we could finally admit we loved each other? At the same time even, rather than one loving and the other running away, which Skinner says is a game we've been playing ever since he's known us. He told Jess that and she just laughed and said nobody in her universe was more skilled at game-playing than the Mulder family, and that we would be working on that in our next session. Jess, by the way, is well on her way to becoming Mrs. Walter Skinner, if you ask me, although Walter insists they're only dating casually. They do an awful lot of that 'casual' dating--he went out with her at least three times last week that I know of, and since I believe he's holding out on me, I'm guessing the true number was closer to five. He may protest outwardly, but Jess has plans for that man. I can see it in her eyes. It's nice to finally see him happy with someone--he's had a lonely existence since his divorce all those years ago.

All those years...no. I absolutely refuse to get sucked into maudlin memories today. Scully has been walking around as if on eggshells, seemingly afraid to say or do anything that might make me remember what this anniversary means--as if I could forget. As badly as I wanted to ignore those memories, I can't. Jess has managed to convince me of something I knew all along--I have to master the memories rather than letting them master me.

This morning I finally got up the nerve to drive past Scully's old apartment building, then in a fit of self-confidence I paid a visit to Mr. Perrino, my former landlord. He was cheerful, as always, and I was proud of the fact that I barely felt a twinge of painful emotion. Those days seem so far removed from the man I am now that it's almost like I dreamed them.

I met up with Old Smokey again a couple of weeks ago when I dropped by the Hoover Building to have lunch with Walter. He was leaning against the wall outside the office Kersh used to occupy--I'm not certain of the new AD's name--and as I passed he gave me one of his trademark sinister smiles. With my new-found self confidence I strode right up to him and asked him a question that had been bothering me for weeks.

"Why," I asked, "did you warn me about Morrow's release? What benefit did you receive?"

He stared me down for a long time, and at first I didn't think he was going to answer. I was about to walk away when he reached into his coat pocket for his packet of smokes, lowering his gaze as he spoke.

"I'm an old man, Fox," he said softly, a faraway look in his eyes when they again met mine. "I've done things I'm not necessarily proud of, but everything I did, I did for a reason. I've known you since you were born. Your father was a friend of mine, back when we were young men." He shrugged his shoulders casually. "I saw no reason to let Morrow ruin your life, now that you were settled. And happy."

He took a puff of the damned cancer stick in his mouth and I think my jaw hit the floor at his next words.

"There's too little happiness in this world. You should grab yours while you can."

He winked at me--that's right, actually *winked* at me--and walked away, leaving me staring after him like some kind of brainless wonder. I was still there several minutes later when Walter found me.

"What are you doing here, Mulder?" he asked, sounding puzzled. I'd been supposed to meet him in his office and he'd come looking for me.

Shaking my head in confusion, I just laughed a little and told Walter that I thought I must have seen an apparition. It struck me that although the smoking man had nearly destroyed my life five years ago, in a way he had been instrumental in saving our lives. We might have still come out all right if he hadn't warned us about Morrow's escape, but probably not. I'd have walked into the house that day, perplexed about the mail, yet unsuspecting, and Morrow might have killed us both.

I took particular delight in the way Walter tried not to roll his eyes when I made the apparition remark. He always used to do that to me when I worked for him.

I've decided I don't care about any of it any longer--the smoking man, the Consortium, even colonization. Let someone else fight the good fight. After all, they've been doing it for years. According to Skinner, they might be making headway in their efforts to resist the aliens that wanted to take over Earth, so perhaps there is hope for the future; the difference is that now the hope doesn't rest with me, and that's the way I want it. I want no part of any of it any longer--all my energy goes into caring about things close to home now.

It's funny, you know. One year ago today, I had lost everything. Cancerman had taken me apart completely, but in putting myself back together I've ended up happier than ever. I've found the only thing that really matters is being with those I care about. I may not be pursuing high ideals any longer, but for once in my life, I'm finally *living* my life, however many days or years of it I have left, one minute at a time. Enjoying my wife and my daughter and my studies and hell yes, my money.

It's good to be the king.


MAJOR thanks to my long-suffering beta-reader, Julie, who makes the stories intelligible and who practically wrote the scene with Mulder, Byers and Skinner singlehandedly but would not let me give her co-author credit.

Book Cover was created by the talented Galia, visit her website at http://members.xoom.com/galias/ MAJOR thanks to my long-suffering beta-reader, Julie, who makes the stories intelligible and who practically wrote the scene with Mulder, Byers and Skinner singlehandedly but would not let me give her co-author credit.

Book Cover was created by the talented Galia, visit her website at http://members.xoom.com/galias/

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