Title: Damaged Goods
Author: Dawn
Written: March 2000
Archive: MTA, Xemplary, Gossamer - others are fine, just let me know
Spoilers: Up to and including Amor Fati
Rating: R - for disturbing imagery
Disclaimer: Mulder, Scully, and Skinner belong to Chris Carter and 1013 Productions. Agent Doug "Digger" Costanza is my own creation.
Additional disclaimer: Warning! This story deals with the topic of abortion. It is simply used as an element of the plot, and is *in no way* meant to express the author's personal views on the issue. Please don't send me nasty emails about this - if you are sensitive and think you may be offended, don't read!
Classification: xa
Keywords: Mulder/Scully UST, MT

Summary: Mulder returns to work after the events of Amor Fati. His attempt to profile a brutal serial killer, however, reveals that he has not fully recovered. Unfortunately no one, including his doctor, seems to know why.

Author's notes: I can't help feeling some ground breaking stuff happened between Amor Fati and Hungry - but maybe that's just my lil shipper heart! This story, while not MSR, does allow them to move in a direction that might explain why they looked so comfortable with each other early this season. Thanks to the wonderful Shirley Smiley, you can eventually find the story in its entirety on my Website at http://members.tripod.com/~dawnsunrise/index.html More notes at the end.

Feedback: Yes, please. It makes my day!


The X-Files Office
Monday
7:53 a.m.

She knew he hadn't yet arrived the moment she set foot off the elevator. Mulder emitted an aura, an edgy intensity that crackled in the air like static electricity. Scully hadn't realized how accustomed to that energy she'd become until forced to spend the last several weeks without it - and cold turkey, at that.

The staccato click of heels on tile echoed the rapid beat of her heart as she slid her key into the lock and let the door swing slowly open. Dark, silent, stagnant. Scully turned on the lights with a flick of her finger, squinting a bit against sudden fluorescence, and laid her briefcase down on the small table that doubled as her desk. She shed her trenchcoat, started the coffee maker, and sat down to boot up her laptop. While the computer hummed and beeped its way to consciousness, her eyes drifted to the empty desk across the way and her lips curved in the suggestion of a smile.

For nearly three weeks now she'd performed this same routine and today was no different, but for one notable exception. Instead of a sharp stab of fear, or even a bittersweet pang of longing, today the sight of that desk filled her with a rich and dizzying blend of emotions that defied translation. Today Mulder returned to work, chained to a desk for now -no forays into the field to hunt sea monsters and mothmen - but back where he belonged nonetheless. Cracking sunflower seeds and spitting shells into the wastebasket with an annoying "ping." Propping his feet up and trying to engage her in a deep discussion of why Gilligan and his friends could never seem to get off the damn island. Rifling through folders filed according to a system comprehensible only to himself, and whistling annoying little tunes under his breath until it set her teeth on edge.

Driving her crazy.

Thank God.

Unbidden, the image of Mulder as she'd discovered him, pale and still as death, assaulted her senses. Left to die, abandoned like an old appliance - no longer useful but too troublesome to dispose of. Grief and rage nearly overwhelmed her, and she'd longed to surrender to her own tears, to gather Mulder into her arms and just hold him. Damn his mother and her passive complicity. Damn Smokey and his butchers. And damn Diana and her too little, too late. Then the weak rise and fall of his chest captured her eye and survival instinct kicked into high gear. She'd get them both out of the wolves' den no matter what it took. And Mulder would live to fight another day.

"Our tax dollars hard at work."

Every muscle in her body tensed and Scully narrowly avoided a girly scream. Mulder lounged in the open doorway, one eyebrow lifted quizzically and lips pursed in an amused smirk. Scully flushed, realizing he'd caught her woolgathering - and while staring vacuously at his desk. He moved slowly into the office, stripping off his coat and sinking into his rickety chair with a contented expression that quickly snuffed Scully's spark of irritation.

He tipped back at an impossibly precarious angle and laced his fingers behind his neck, sending her a blissful smile.

"I'm baaaack!"

"I'll alert the media," Scully replied dryly, but couldn't help grinning at his happiness.

"Coffee?"

Mulder looked at her cautiously. "Depends. You going to foist some of that foul tasting sludge on me? Or do I rate the good stuff now?"

Scully rolled her eyes, collecting his mug and heading for the pot. "It's called decaf, Mulder. And yes, in celebration of your return I've made the good stuff. In fact, I even brought you breakfast."

Setting the full mug carefully on his desk, she reached over to retrieve a small white paper bag and plopped it down beside the coffee. Mulder eyed the sack like a man afraid to hope he's won the lottery.

"A bagel?"

Scully sat down and treated herself to a long sip, hiding her smile with the rim of the cup. "Live dangerously, Mulder. See for yourself."

Mulder unfolded the top and peered inside, then with a crow of delight pulled out an enormous Boston crme donut. "Ooo, Scully. You *know* what I like!"

Scully watched him consume the pastry with gusto, unable to tear her eyes away when he began popping each finger into his mouth and sucking off the frosting while making little sounds of ecstasy.

*That mouth should be registered as a deadly weapon*

Her thoughts turned to the day she'd gone to Mulder's apartment, rocked by the knowledge of Diana's death. She'd convinced Skinner to allow her to break the news, determined that he be told not over a cold, impersonal phone line but by a living, breathing person who cared for him. Despite her own cocktail of confused feelings towards the woman, she'd braced herself for Mulder's pain, prepared to offer support and comfort as she had so many times in their history together. How ironic that it was Mulder who wound up consoling, she grieving.

*You're my touchstone*

She'd heard the words, seen their truth in his eyes, and teetered on the brink of insanity. Of throwing caution and six years of repressed desire to the four winds and just.letting go. Then the despicable Scully reserve reasserted itself and the moment passed. But she could still feel the softness of his lower lip under the pad of her thumb...

The phone rang, shaking her out of the memory and into the heat of Mulder's gaze. Keeping their eyes locked, he scooped up the receiver.

"Mulder."

His feet left the desktop with a thud and he leaned forward to brace both elbows in their place, finally releasing Scully from scrutiny. With an undetectable shiver, she straightened her suit jacket and tucked a wayward piece of hair behind one ear. That made two times Mulder had caught her daydreaming in the span of fifteen minutes. What on Earth was going on in her head these days?

"Much better, thank you, sir...More like bored out of my mind, actually...I know, I know, I've read the paperwork...Yes, she's here...We'll be right up."

Anxious to short circuit any questions about her preoccupation, Scully struck first.

"Skinner checking up on you?" she asked as Mulder hung up the phone.

A soft snort. "More like laying down the law. He made a point of reminding me that I'm flying a desk this week until Palermo signs my release. Sounded like he thought I might run off half cocked after the first mutant that strolls by."

"Can't imagine where he'd get that idea," Scully mused breezily.

Mulder made a face. "Ha, ha. Speaking of running off, where have *you* been this morning, Agent Scully? Before the phone rang you had totally zoned out on me. Not to mention the way you were catching flies when I walked in this morning."

Scully willed herself not to fidget, to calmly return his gaze. "Just tired I guess, Mulder. It's been a rough month."

The teasing glint in his eyes vanished, replaced with a tender concern that never failed to move her. "You all right, Scully? Have you been sleeping okay?"

Scully allowed a slight smile as she stood and walked over to lean her hip against his desk. "I still have the odd nightmare or two - nothing compared to yours, I'm sure," she added ruefully. "I guess I just have a lot to process. It's going to take a little time."

Mulder traced one long finger over the back of her hand. "You still haven't told me everything that happened while I was... When I was sick."

"Neither have you," Scully replied, knowing she sounded defensive but unable to stifle the reluctance to open Pandora's box and disrupt the fragile peace she'd found.

Mulder's eyes darkened and his jaw tightened. "I know. Guess I still have some processing to do myself."

Displeased by the melancholy turn in the conversation, Scully ducked her head to look directly into his eyes. "When I work it out, you'll be the first to know, Mulder. Scout's honor."

Like quicksilver, the mischief was back. Mulder stood, crowding into her personal space. "Scully, I just got this incredible image of you in a little green dress, selling cookies," he said in a low voice, waggling his eyebrows.

She pursed her lips. "You might be surprised to know I had quite the gift for sales, Mulder. In fact, I sold more boxes of cookies than anyone else in my troop."

Mulder held open the door and ushered her through, his hand warming the small of her back. "Doesn't surprise me a bit, partner. I'd personally buy anything you were selling."

Scully rewarded him with a full-throated laugh. "I'm going to remind you of that, Mulder. Probably when it's least convenient."


A.D. Skinner's office
Monday
8:30 a.m.

"Agents. Have a seat."

Skinner didn't bother to rise when they walked into his office, in fact, barely looked up from the file folder he was reading. He looked worn, as if the events of the past month had leeched away his sense of purpose, leaving only dogged determination in the wake.

"Sir," Scully murmured, lowering herself cautiously into her usual seat.

Mulder heard the subtle note of uncertainty, knew that Scully still wrestled with doubts where Skinner was concerned. She'd shared only a little of her dealings with their boss during the time he was drooling in a padded cell, but it was enough for Mulder to realize that she'd guessed Skinner's duplicity.

Skinner evidently heard the hesitation, because his head snapped up and his dark eyes regarded her intently for a moment before sliding over to rest on Mulder.

"You're looking much better than the last time I saw you, Agent Mulder."

"Catatonic was never my look," Mulder replied, tilting his head a little in assent. "But then, I don't have to tell you that."

Something very like gratitude flickered in Skinner's eyes, assuring Mulder that his message had been received. He held no grudge against the man - on the contrary, he'd experienced his boss' remorse and self-loathing up close and personal. Though a small portion of him resented Skinner's betrayal, he understood the agony of being caught between a rock and a very hard place. And ultimately, when push came to shove, Skinner had risked everything to help him.

"I called the two of you up here because..." Skinner broke off, glancing back down at the file folder with an expression of distaste.

"Sir?"

Scully's question communicated the confusion Mulder felt at Skinner's uncharacteristic lack of direction. Normally, meetings between the three of them proceeded in an orderly, almost militaristic manner with Skinner moderating to keep them in line with his agenda. Seeing him at a lack for words was unnerving.

Skinner sighed, folded his hands, and looked up with a furrowed brow. "I wanted to reiterate, with both of you present, that Agent Mulder is on light duty and strictly forbidden to involve himself in any ongoing investigations. No one but myself has the authority to countermand that directive - is that clear?"

Scully's eyes darted to Mulder's before returning to Skinner, her expression mystified. "Yes, sir. You've made that perfectly clear to both myself and Agent Mulder."

"And I believe I've sufficiently assured you that I intend to abide by those restrictions," Mulder added, voice tight with irritation. "Now if you want, I could do 'cross my heart, hope to die...'"

"Knock it off, Mulder," Skinner growled. "Your word is sufficient."

"Is there a problem, sir?" Scully asked, her blue eyes boring into Skinner's. "Does it have something to do with that folder you were reading when we came in?"

Bingo.

Skinner's jaw clenched and the small muscle near his cheek twitched in agitation. Mulder uncrossed his leg and sat forward, resting his forearms on his knees.

"If there is, I think I have a right to know about it."

Another sigh, this one more explosive, and Skinner pinched the indentations left by his glasses on the bridge of his nose. "I assume you've both heard of the Pro Choice murders?"

Mulder and Scully conferred silently with their eyes before nodding. "Someone has been butchering women who have scheduled abortions," Scully said smoothly, emotionlessly. "They haven't been able to tie the deaths to a specific clinic or doctor. So far four women have died."

"Five," Skinner corrected tersely. "The first murder occurred four months ago - the bureau's been involved for the past two. Involved but unable to make any real headway on the case. So far all leads have turned into dead ends, and the media has turned this into a political nightmare. Public outcry is increasing with every murder and the director is under tremendous pressure."

"They want me on the case," Mulder said quietly. "Is that it, sir?"

Skinner grimaced, the muscle twitching furiously now. "I have unequivocally informed Jeffreys that you are on restricted duty and will not be able to assist VCS at this time."

"But you think he might not abide by your wishes?" Scully pressed.

Skinner eyed her shrewdly. "Just covering all my bases."

"Sir. I'm not disputing the imposition of restricted duty, I freely admit I'm not ready for anything physically strenuous. But we're talking about profiling here, essentially a desk job, and..."

Mulder's voice evaporated when he realized that Skinner was staring at him with a look of outrage and Scully just looked pissed. "What?" he demanded defensively.

Skinner slowly shook his head, but his words were not unkind. "I've seen you profile, Mulder. Multiple times. I think it's safe to say that it would not be in line with your limitations."

"And I was there for the Mostow case," Scully added sharply. "For you, Mulder, profiling *is* a strenuous activity. Speaking as your doctor, you aren't up to it."

Mulder glanced away, guilt darkening his features. "Women are dying, Scully."

"As you nearly did yourself. Mulder, we still don't know exactly what was done to you in that operating room. Let it go."

The passion in her voice reached out and drew him gently back from the darkness, reminding him that Scully bore her own wounds.

"Okay," he conceded, unable to look at her. "You've made your point."

"If anyone - *anyone*- tries to contact you about this case, Mulder, I want to be the first to know," Skinner said vehemently. "That includes casual cafeteria conversation and anonymous emails. Have I made myself clear?"

"Yes, sir."

"That's all. Consider this the perfect opportunity to catch up on that backlog of paperwork the X-Files seem to generate."

They left the office in a silence that continued down the hallway to the elevator.

"I think I've just been sentenced to hell," Mulder grumbled as he punched the button. When the doors slid open he quirked an eyebrow at Scully and made a sweeping gesture with his hand. "After you, Dante. Going down."


Georgetown
Wednesday
9:43 p.m.

"No, Mulder. It's absolutely out of the question, even if Skinner signs the 302 - which he won't!"

"Sculleee! You're being completely unreasonable about this!"

Scully sank back into a striped cushion, took another swallow from the amber bottle in her hand, and glared at her partner. "I've been extremely reasonable, Mulder. I allowed you to bribe me into sifting through potential casefiles tonight, sacrificing my free time, with nothing more spectacular than a pizza and a six pack. I've endured the way you pick out the green peppers and leave them on the lid of the box without complaint. And I've ignored your pointed remarks about the inferiority of iced tea from a bottle. I've got to draw the line somewhere."

Mulder scowled, his lower lip protruding in a classic pout. "You know I hate green peppers. And I wouldn't be criticizing the tea if you'd just let me have a beer."

Scully rolled her eyes. "Please, Mulder, you know the drill. Until Palermo takes you off the Dilantin both alcohol and fieldwork are out of the question. And I hardly think that looking into a...an alleged *werewolf* is appropriate for your first case back! We investigate X-Files, Mulder. Not tabloid headlines."

Mulder smirked. "There's a difference?"

When Scully refused to appear even slightly amused, he sighed. "What is it about this case that you find totally improbable - as opposed to the other cases that you find only highly improbable?"

That actually earned him a small grin. "Mulder, look at the facts. Some cattle wind up dead under suspicious circumstances outside a sleepy little town and the locals are understandably shaken. Add to that a tall tale by the resident drunk..."

"Eccentric, Scully."

"An eccentric who likes to consume homemade brew," she countered dryly. "My point is that looking at this file I see little or no hard evidence to support the kind of creature you postulate."

As she spoke, Scully noticed Mulder rubbing the thumb of his left hand over the knuckle of the fourth finger. It wasn't the first time she'd observed the gesture, which seemed to be a carryover from his recent trauma, a nervous habit he'd picked up in the hospital. She knew he wasn't aware he did it, and had elected not to comment on the little idiosyncrasy. After all he'd been through it seemed an insignificant side effect.

"I disagree," Mulder replied stubbornly, oblivious to her scrutiny. "Besides eyewitness testimony, there's the matter of the recovered footprints and the bitemarks on the remains. Both defy standard classification, neither human nor animal as we would normally categorize them." His left hand ceased its fidgeting and his right came up to cup the back of his neck.

"I'll admit the forensic evidence is a bit strange," Scully replied a little impatiently. "But that doesn't warrant the kind of extrapolation you're making, Mulder, that some kind of wolf-human hybrid is responsible."

Mulder huffed out an explosive burst of air. "Why is it so hard for you to consider, Scully?

We've certainly had experience with nature gone amuck. Tooms, the Jersey Devil - - hell, what about the Manitou! We *saw* it in the Parker house? Remember?"

"Mulder, it was too dark to see anything! And when all was said and done we had a dead *man* on our hands, not some werewolf! The Manitou was a legend, a story concocted to tell around a campfire."

"Scully, shapeshifting, lycanthropy - these concepts aren't simply baseless fabrications crafted by adults to g...give the kiddies a good scare! There are documented c...cases of l...lycanthropy that d...date back to...to..."

Mulder's voice trailed off into silence. The tiny line that creased Scully's forehead, which had appeared when he began to stutter, deepened while he stared blankly into space and the nervous motion of his thumb resumed. His hazel eyes looked muddy, slightly out of focus.

"Mulder?" she prodded. Then, when he didn't respond, more forcefully, "Mulder."

Though her pitch remained low, Mulder startled as if she'd uttered a blood-curdling shriek. Scully laid her hand over his, disturbed by the chilled flesh and the thin sheen of perspiration on his brow.

"Hey, partner. Who's catching flies this time?" she gibed gently. "Where were you just now?"

Mulder met her questioning gaze and Scully was relieved to see that most of the vagueness had disappeared from his eyes. "I... I can't... Scully, I *know* that information, I've done extensive reading on this subject. Lycanthropy was first reported in...in India. No, that's not right, it was in...in... SHIT!"

He jerked his hand from her grasp, lunging to his feet and pacing back and forth.

"Mulder..."

Mulder silenced her with a scowl and a furious flick of his wrist. Scully watched him wear a groove in her carpet for several minutes, his agitation growing, until he abruptly stopped, wincing in pain, and massaged his forehead. He then passed the trembling hand down his face until his fingers pressed his lips.

"I can't remember, Scully. I... It's like it's there, but...out of reach. The harder I try, the more it slips away."

Scully rose, weaving her way around the coffee table to stand in front of him. "Headache?" she asked. When he reluctantly nodded, she continued, "Mulder. This is your first week back to work. It's been a long day, it's getting late, and you're tired. Under the circumstances I'd say it's perfectly understandable that you would forget..."

Mulder glanced away, his jaw thrust stubbornly forward. "I have an eidetic memory, Scully. I don't just forget things."

Scully pressed one hand to his chest, the slightly elevated beat of his heart vibrating beneath her palm. "What you have, is a body that is still struggling to throw off the effects of an extreme trauma. Cut yourself a little slack, Mulder."

She deliberately returned to the couch and began gathering up files, hoping to ease Mulder's tension by behaving as nonchalantly as possible. After a moment Mulder joined her, stacking folders and placing them into his briefcase. Scully took the opportunity to surreptitiously observe him, noting that his hands were steady and his demeanor calm, though fatigue darkened the skin beneath his eyes and etched lines around his mouth. Her stomach twisted uneasily at the thought of him driving home alone.

"Why don't you just crash on the couch, Mulder?" she asked, trying to make it sound natural, keeping her voice light and conversational. "I'll set the alarm so that you have plenty of time to go home and clean up before work."

Peripherally, she perceived him falter in his motions, felt the razor edge to his gaze. "Thanks for the offer, but I think I'll drive these traumatized bones home. I sleep better in my own bed."

Scully arched an eyebrow. "Half the time you don't sleep in a bed, Mulder. Come on, it's late and you look beat."

He snapped the briefcase shut with more force than necessary and straightened, hands on hips. "I am not an invalid, Scully. I am perfectly capable of getting myself home. I'll be taking a cab, so you won't even have to worry I'll fall asleep and wrap the car around a tree. I don't need you to take care of me."

Though she understood, even shared Mulder's fear of dependence, his rebuff drew blood. Scully felt the coaxing smile on her lips turn brittle as she gathered up empty bottles and headed for the kitchen. When she'd finished rinsing them in the sink, Mulder was propped in the doorway, looking both irritated and contrite.

"Scully, I didn't mean that the way it sounded. I'm just tired of being treated like a child. I know my own limitations and I don't need you or Skinner deciding what I can and cannot do!"

The annoyance faded and he stepped through the doorway, leaning against the counter near her left elbow. "The worst thing about being in the hospital, before that cigarette smoking bastard took me, was the complete lack of control," he said softly, his focus leaving her face and turning inward. "Not only did I have no say in the tests, the treatments, I couldn't even command my own body. I'd lie there and piss in my pants because I couldn't connect enough with the outside world to ask to use the bathroom. I was trapped on the other side of a void, a chasm, watching while they pumped me full of drugs and tied me to the bed. I just couldn't find the bridge."

Mulder blinked, eyes tracking slowly to her stricken face. "You were the bridge, Scully. You showed me the way. And I will never, *never* be able to thank you enough. But it's over now, and I need to move past it. To take back what they stole from me. Can you understand that?"

Scully braced her hands on the sink, looking down at a crack in the porcelain that resembled a fish. Wondering, not for the first time, if her days in Africa had been misspent. And if Mulder had paid the price. Shrugging off the niggling sensation of guilt, she lifted her eyes to study his face.

"Mulder, do you remember what you said to me after Payton shot me? When you drove me home and refused to leave?"

He grimaced at the barb and shook his head.

"I do. It went something like this, and I quote, 'For God's sake, Scully, I thought I'd lost you. Just indulge me and let me take care of you - for my sake, if not yours. I promise I'll respect you in the morning.'"

"And your point is?" Mulder said, deadpan. When she folded her arms and eyed him narrowly, he sighed. "All right, all right. I get the correlation. Just don't give me that itchy blue blanket - last time I scratched all night."

"Deal," Scully replied, unable to completely mask the hint of triumph in her voice. "There's aspirin in the medicine chest. And those ratty old sweatpants you left here are in the bottom drawer of my bureau."

"Ratty?" Mulder feigned outrage as he ambled out of the kitchen and down the hallway. "I just got those broken in!"

Scully pulled sheets and a spare comforter from the linen closet and set about transforming the couch into a bed. Mulder padded out of the bathroom just as she unfolded the blanket.

"Do you have your meds with you?" she asked, then mentally kicked herself. Mulder was right, she was fussing, but he looked young and vulnerable clad in the gray sweats and sporting bare feet.

"Yes, Mom," he replied, rolling his eyes exaggeratedly.

"Sorry." She flopped down on top of the comforter and he joined her, his shoulder resting companionably against her own. "I know you don't need me hovering, Mulder." She shook her head ruefully. "I certainly haven't forgotten how annoying that can be. Between you and my mother I thought I'd lose my mind! I was afraid to inhale for fear that one of you would offer to breathe for me."

"Hey, that bell idea was your mom's," Mulder protested, referring to the small brass chime her mother had insisted she use to spare her tender abdominal muscles the strain of calling out for assistance.

They snickered quietly together for a moment, then Mulder sobered.

"I haven't forgotten what it's like to be in your shoes, Scully. Every time I looked at you, even after you'd been home a few days, all I could see was the way you looked in that hospital bed. So pale and fragile. Part of me wanted to wrap you up in cotton and never let anything, or anyone, hurt you again."

His declaration touched her deeply, but she pursed her lips. "I'm trying not to be offended by that, Mulder," she said dryly. "What about the other part?"

Mulder broke into a simply diabolical grin. "Wanted to kick Payton's ass."

Scully chuffed a little laugh. "You would've had to wait in line, partner." She leaned her head against his shoulder. "I must admit I've conjured up some pretty graphic images of what I'd like to do to our friend CGB."

Mulder didn't respond at first, but the silence was a comfortable one. Scully was just beginning to feel sleep tugging at her eyelids when his words jerked her awake with all the finesse of a slap.

"He called himself my father."

Scully leaned forward and snapped her head around to regard him intently. "He *what*?"

Mulder shrugged, wearing the blank, detached expression she knew he reserved for especially painful emotions. "He showed me a different life. One where Deep Throat was alive and my sister and her family lived right down the block."

Some of the tension seeped out of Scully's shoulders. "It was a dream, Mulder. A hallucination, probably caused by the drugs."

He nodded, thumb stroking his knuckle again and expression pensive. "My mother handed me over to him, Scully. Now, why do you suppose she'd do that?"

She didn't like the implication, or his overly calm, resigned demeanor. Especially since she'd wrestled with similar concerns.

"You were dying, Mulder. She was desperate and the doctors had run out of options. You've already established Spender was a family friend and we both know how persuasive he can be. I don't think you should jump to conclusions."

Another nod and a strained smile. "You look tired, Scully, and I seem to recall the purpose of this little slumber party was for me to get some sleep. That is, unless you have some ulterior motives?" The leer was a bit forced, but suitably lecherous.

Scully patted his knee, affecting an expression of regret. "Sorry, G-man. No strenuous activity, remember? Check back with me when you're in peak physical condition and we'll talk." She waggled her eyebrows in a shameless parody. "Good night, Mulder."

Mulder watched, mouth agape, as she sauntered over to turn out the light. "*Talking* is not exactly what I had in mind," he muttered, flopping down on his side and drawing the comforter up to his chin. "Night, Scully."

**The X-Files Office
Friday
12:16 a.m.

Mulder squinted at the computer screen, one hand kneading the flesh between his eyes and the other clutching a pen poised impotently over a yellow legal pad. With a frustrated growl, he dropped the pen so that both hands could cradle his aching head. The harder he tried to focus, the more the words on the screen blurred into alphabet soup and the sharper the pain that pulsed through his skull like a cerebral heartbeat.

Three hours poking through data - normally enough time for him to grasp the pertinent details and begin formulating a preliminary theory. Today he felt as if he were wading through a bog, each step sluggish and achieved with great effort.

*Maybe that's because you aren't supposed to be doing this,* his conscience whispered furtively, to which he sourly replied with a mental flip of his middle finger.

It was funny, really. Before the meeting with Skinner, the Pro-Choice Murders had been just another headline on the front page of the newspaper. He hadn't exactly kept up with current events over the last month - first isolated and catatonic in the hospital, then struggling to cope with the aftermath. About the only newsworthy occurrence to spark his interest was watching his beloved Yankees win the World Series.

Then Skinner warned him off the case, and suddenly it was in his face everywhere he went. Snatches of conversation from agents in the hallways and cafeteria, heated discussion between passengers on the Metro as they perused the Washington Post, news broadcasts popping up every time he lay on his couch hoping to channel surf his way into the oblivion of sleep... Images, facts, and idle speculation bombarded his senses, and though at first he tried hard not to succumb, eventually the inevitable occurred. The insatiable Mulder curiosity was piqued.

Inevitable because Mulder was bored. Not the "Ho, hum, what am I going to do with myself now?" kind of bored. This was the "If I don't get a case to sink my teeth into soon I'll go stark raving mad" kind. Though he still suffered from the odd headache and tired easily, he had nearly recovered physically. Until Palermo signed his medical release, however, he was prohibited from really doing his job. Writing reports, crunching numbers, attending meetings - it was all just going through the motions. And if he were brutally honest, what else did he have but his work? The World Series was over. He'd already spent one too many evenings with the boys consuming cheese steaks and listening to them spout their latest conspiracy theory. And Scully... Well, he sensed Scully struggling with her own issues and was loath to intrude.

So instead of heading back to the office when Kramer and Lundstrom sat down at a nearby table and began debating the case, Mulder lingered. Instead of aimlessly flipping channels, he tuned to CNN. And he started buying his own copy of the Washington Post. All innocent acts, all incapable of drawing censure. Until this morning when he'd grit his teeth, told the little voice in his head to shut up, and crossed the line.

Scully was at Quantico autopsying the granddaughter of a congressman. According to Skinner, the girl's death had all the earmarks of an OD, but the man's controversial stance on several upcoming bills warranted a thorough investigation to rule out foul play. Scully had donned her coat and packed her briefcase with a minimum of grumbling and repeated assurances that she'd be back in time to drive Mulder to his 2 p.m. doctor's appointment. She'd exited the office with a spring in her step that betrayed her relief at escaping the tedium of their enforced inactivity. Obviously Scully was just as bored as he was.

After a short but heated debate with his conscience, Mulder had made a discreet call to an old friend in Violent Crimes. Soon, he was downloading data and pouring over copies of the casefile. He'd managed to shrug off the rapidly escalating headache, immersing himself in reading through case reports and studying copies of crime scene photos. Finally the pain in his head could no longer be ignored and he surfaced, feeling slightly nauseous and disoriented.

When he'd squinted at his watch in annoyance, his mouth had dropped open in surprise. His phone call to Costanza seemed just minutes ago, yet somehow the entire morning had slipped by without notice. He folded his arms on top of the desk and dropped his head onto the makeshift pillow, closing his eyes.

Missing time while profiling was not a new experience. During one exceptionally bad case while he was with VICAP he'd gone nearly seventy-two hours without sleeping or eating, so far down he'd suppressed the need for basic physical necessities. Mulder knew that by delving into the Pro-Choice case he was playing with fire, but his frustration and boredom had the effect of transforming it into a siren's song he could not resist. Still, he'd been confident that with a little extra effort he could exercise self-control and avoid losing himself completely.

So much for that theory.

Mulder opened his eyes and lifted his head, drawn once more to the photos lying beneath his fingertips, one thumb rubbing absently at a knuckle. Five young women, ranging in age from nineteen to thirty-seven. Abducted from home, from car - even the mall in the most recent murder. No signs of forced entry. No signs of struggle. The bodies meticulously displayed, the fetus removed with surgical precision and taken from the scene. As yet, none had been recovered.

Something about those missing babies bothered him and he couldn't seem to pin it down. It reminded him of the way Sam would vie for his attention when he tried to read a book, tickling the bottoms of his feet and then dancing away, just out of reach. The more he stretched his mind, grasping for the elusive idea, the farther it slid away.

Mulder returned his head to its resting place on his arms, breathing through his mouth in an effort to ride out an abrupt wave of queasiness that had him feeling for the wastebasket with his left foot. The headache was blinding - he was certain that at any moment his skull would crack open and spill his brains onto the desk like gray jello.

He was so far gone he never heard the rattle of elevator or the approaching footsteps. The door swung open and Scully swept into the office, cheeks tinged pink from the cold air and a very fragrant brown paper bag clutched in one hand.

"Hey, partner. Hope you haven't eaten yet. I stopped at that great little Thai place down the street..."

Mulder bolted. He was out the door, down the darkened hallway, and into the men's room before she'd finished speaking, his stomach demonstrating just what it thought of the takeout by trying to exit his body through his mouth. Crashing to his knees in front of the toilet he clutched the sides of the bowl and retched, moaning softly as each spasm shot agony through his head.

When the dry heaves subsided he hauled himself unsteadily to his feet and staggered to the sink, rinsing his mouth and splashing cold water on his face. He ran damp fingers through his hair and stared at his reflection in the mirror, squinting against the harsh fluorescent lighting. His skin looked too pale, his eyes sunken.

Mulder swore softly under his breath. "Scully sees you like this and next thing you know she'll be telling Palermo you need desk duty for another month," he muttered.

Letting his eyes slip shut, he focused on taking several deep, cleansing breaths and relaxing clenched muscles. The headache refused to be pacified, but the churning in his gut did ease up a bit. With a final grimace at the mirror, he squared his shoulders and headed back to the office.

"Sorry about that, Scully, I just..."

*Shit*

Scully turned slowly to face him, her back rigid and her face dark with fury. She silently extended her right hand, two of the crime scene photos clenched between her fingers.

"So, did I hear you mention lunch?" Mulder asked weakly, taking the pictures and brushing past her to sit down at his desk. He quickly gathered the remaining photos and reports and stuffed them into the folder, feeling her eyes burning holes in the back of his neck.

"Mulder, what in the hell do you think you're doing?"

He looked up at her, trying for innocence but flinching when the lights shone in his eyes. "Clearing off a space to eat?"

"Stop it! This is serious!"

Unreasonably, his own anger flared, a reaction to being caught with his hand in the cookie jar. He deliberately flipped the folder open to a photo of the most recent victim and gazed up at her. "It is? Gee, Scully, thanks for setting me straight!" He slapped it shut and leaned back in his chair, arms crossed defensively over his chest.

Scully pressed her lips so tightly together they appeared bloodless. She pushed the door shut with a bang and stalked around to the front of his desk, where she braced both palms on the wood and leaned forward.

"Skinner gave you explicit instructions to stay away from that case, Mulder. I heard you give him your word. Did that mean anything to you?"

Mulder gaped at her. Of all the accusations Scully might have made, she'd chosen the only one for which he had no defense. Rules, regulations, the chain of command... Those things meant nothing to him, never had. But honor, trust - they were the building blocks of his identity. By calling his integrity into question she'd bypassed the armor and gone for his tender underbelly. And she'd drawn blood.

"Scully, I... Of course, it meant something to me! I just... I couldn't seem to get it out of my mind! I kept seeing the reports in the papers and on the news and it got me thinking and asking questions and...and I just..."

"You're tired of the scut work, and you figure you know more than me, Skinner, or the doctors, so why not do whatever the hell you want and just screw the rest of us! Is that right?"

"NO! No, that's not right!" Mulder snapped, shoving the chair back and springing to his feet. "I need something, Scully, and I think this is it. I was bored, yes, but that's only a small part. I told you I have to get past what happened to me, to move forward - well I can't do that creating budgets and reviewing policies! I kept thinking about what Skinner said, about how no one can get a handle on the case and that Jeffreys approached him, and... Five women have *died*, Scully! Whatever the hell else I am, I'm good at this - you know that! If I can stop it from happening again, can save even one life... How can I hide down here and do nothing?"

If anything, his words seemed to stoke her anger. "Here we go again! Fox Mulder, the last great hope! Single-handedly responsible for solving the unsolvable, for catching a murderer and saving countless victims, heedless of the cost to himself! Doesn't that God complex ever get tiresome, Mulder?"

Another barb, unerringly finding its mark, and Mulder struggled to keep the hurt from showing. Opted for anger as an effective camouflage. "I told you already that I don't need you to take care of me, Scully. This is *my* decision."

Her eyebrows lifted. "Oh really? Did it ever occur to you that I have my own obligation to Skinner? He made it very clear that you were not to be involved in an active case, particularly this one. He asked to be informed immediately if that directive was ignored."

"He asked *me* to tell him if I was approached," Mulder argued stubbornly. "I haven't been. This was my own initiative."

Scully threw up her hands and gazed at the ceiling in disbelief. "Semantics, Mulder. You *knew* the intent." She wandered over to sink into her chair, shaking her head. "I don't know what I'm more pissed off about, your total disregard for your health or the compromising position this little stunt puts me in."

He pitched his voice low and seductive. "Scully, I've been wanting to put you in a compromising position for six years now."

He realized humor was the wrong choice the moment the innuendo left his lips. Scully's eyebrows plunged and her hands curled into fists.

"This is all a game to you, isn't it?" she asked tightly. "Break the rules, manipulate the system, lie to Skinner, to me..."

Mulder's stomach did a long, slow roll, but he couldn't tell if it was the headache or the disappointment on Scully's face. "I didn't lie," he protested weakly, slumping back into his own chair.

"A lie of omission," she said, averting her eyes. "You waited until I left the office to pursue this, didn't you? Are you honestly going to tell me that you would've gone ahead with me present?"

The truth in that assessment effectively doused the residual spark of anger, leaving only misery and regret. "I'm sorry, Scully. So much has happened, I... I needed to work. To have something else to think about, someone else to concentrate on. I never intended to hurt anyone, least of all you."

Something in his voice pulled her eyes back from contemplating the stapler. The anger faded just a bit and she appeared to really look at him for the first time.

"You look terrible."

Sensing firmer ground beneath his feet, Mulder clutched at his heart. "Scully, you wound me! I wore this tie because I thought it was your favorite."

Scully's disapproving frown was marred by a barely perceptible curve of her lips. "You know what I mean. Are you feeling all right?"

"Just a headache - probably from reading without my glasses. I'm fine," he replied, meeting her appraising gaze while fighting the urge to scrub at his forehead.

The little line between her brows deepened. "You seem to be having an awful lot of those, Mulder. Are you sure that's all it is?"

"Scully," he growled.

She relaxed at the warning tone, smiling sheepishly. "Okay, okay." Sobering, she indicated the folder with a tilt of her head. "We haven't finished with this, Mulder."

"Are you going to Skinner?" he asked quietly.

She shrugged and dropped her eyes. "I have to think about it."

"I've been through the folder and I've got some ideas for the profile..."

Her tone sharpened. "Don't push it, Mulder," she sighed. "Let's see what Dr. Palermo has to say."

Not much of a concession, but more than he deserved. Mulder nodded and propped his head on one hand so that he could unobtrusively rub his temple.

"I'm sure you never thought of lunch while you were buried in those reports," Scully continued, pulling the paper bag closer and lifting out a carton. "Maybe some food will help that headache."

The pungent aroma of meat and spices filled the air. Mulder swallowed hard and quickly switched to breathing through his mouth. "I had a snack from the vending machine. I'm not really hungry," he replied.

Scully's eyes narrowed. "It's not like you to turn down Thai, Mulder. Sure you're not interested?" She punctuated the question by extending the carton so that it hovered within a foot of his nose.

He couldn't avoid jerking back as if she'd offered a live snake, tasting bile at the back of his throat and feeling a cold sweat pop out on his forehead.

"It's tempting, but I'll pass," he said, teeth clenched.

Scully mercifully removed the container, but a moment later her hand, small and cool, was pressed to his forehead. "You were sick, weren't you, Mulder? That's why you ran out of here like your ass was on fire when I walked through the door."

Mulder pulled back from the questing hand. "I did not," he said petulantly. When she folded her arms and said nothing he peered up at her. "Alright, maybe I did. I'm just a little queasy from the headache, that's all. Maybe you can save some and I'll have it for dinner?"

Scully relented. "Have you taken anything?"

Subterfuge no longer necessary, Mulder put both hands to work soothing the pain. "Some Tylenol. Hasn't helped much."

Scully sighed again, walked over to her desk, and rummaged around in her purse. A moment later she pressed two tablets into Mulder's palm. "Here. Empirin 3's. I take them when I get a migraine. I'll get you a Sprite."

Relief, gratitude, shame. Mulder curled his fingers around the pills and watched her walk to the door.

"Scully?"

She turned, one hand on the knob.

"Thanks. I..."

The apology - trite and unworthy after all she'd done, all she continued to do - deserted him. Somehow, though, Scully understood. She gave him wry but affectionate smile.

"Accepted, Mulder."


Alexandria
Friday
7:12 p.m.

Obviously, ignoring her insistent knocking was not going to achieve the desired effect.

The sledgehammer in Mulder's head picked up the beat and he let his eyes slip shut, the pad of his thumb absently stroking the fourth finger of his left hand. He was tired, pissed, and his head hurt like a son of a bitch. Scully was the last person he wanted to see right now, but he knew her well enough to realize he didn't have a choice. She'd put up with him disregarding her rapping for only so long and then she'd...

A faint jingling, the grate of metal to metal, and the snick as his deadbolt disengaged.

"Hey, Scully. Don't stand on ceremony. Come on in," he tossed sarcastically over his shoulder.

He kept his eyes fixed on the computer screen, not really seeing the words he'd just typed. His ears detected her quiet footfalls crossing the room, his nose the subtle fragrance of her perfume. She stopped just behind his right shoulder and in his mind's eye he could picture her regarding him critically, evaluating the tense set of his spine, the nervous bouncing of his leg, the slight increase in his respiration. Ever the doctor, his Scully.

When she understood that Mulder did not intend to turn around, Scully released a gusty sigh. "Mulder, I know you're angry about this afternoon..."

"Angry?" he cut her off before she could continue, still showing her his back. "I'm not angry, Scully. I'm disappointed."

"Bullshit."

Scully stepped around his chair, forcing her way into his field of view. Contrary to the impatience in her tone, her face was calm. Mulder met her gaze squarely, almost belligerently for a moment before his eyes scooted back to contemplate the monitor.

"You sold me out, Scully. Palermo would have cleared me for fieldwork - I nearly had him convinced. Thanks to your *professional opinion* I'm benched for another week."

Rather than rise to his bait, Scully let her eyes map the contours of his face, taking in the slight squint and the lines around his mouth. "You have another one, don't you?" When he remained sullen and unresponsive she pressed harder. "You told Palermo that the headache was gone, that you were feeling good. Was that a lie, Mulder?"

His slammed both hands onto the arms of his chair and glared furiously at her. "NO! Why would you ask me that? I felt fine all afternoon - betrayed, maybe, but fine. And before you ask, yes, I ate dinner tonight without any difficulty at all."

"But you're having trouble now."

Her soft statement, sympathetic rather than accusing, took the fight out of Mulder and his shoulders curled forward. "It didn't start until I sat down at the computer," he said, and she could see how much the admission cost him.

Scully opened her mouth to point out that this time he was wearing his glasses, but swallowed the words before she could speak them. Though still angry, he was speaking to her - a big improvement from the afternoon. He'd been so upset after the appointment with Palermo he'd actually called a cab, refusing to get into her car.

"Go ahead, say it," Mulder growled, tugging her back from the silent reverie.

"Say what?"

"What you were going to say. What you're dying to say. 'You're pushing too hard, Mulder,'" he mimicked bitterly. "'Your body is telling you to slow down and you aren't listening.'"

Scully supposed she should be irritated by his impersonation, but found it hard since Mulder was right. She *was* thinking along those lines and the rebuke could easily have fallen from her lips. And given that just three weeks ago he'd been completely unresponsive and strapped to a hospital bed, a part of her reveled in his irascibility. These days, even fighting with the man seemed a precious gift.

"Did you take anything?"

He pulled off his glasses and blinked at her owlishly. "Not yet, Doctor. I was *trying* to get a few thoughts down first. Course, it's hard to concentrate when someone's beating the hell out of your door."

Scully ignored the dig, pulling a small white bag from her pocket. "You stomped out of the clinic before Palermo returned with your prescription. I filled it on my way over."

Mulder's lip thrust forward. "I did not stomp." He stood up and accepted the sack, fishing out the amber container and scanning the label. "Thanks," he mumbled, veering towards the kitchen.

Scully followed, hip resting against a cabinet as she watched him pour water from a bottle in the refrigerator. At his upraised eyebrow she nodded, and he filled a second glass. Thrusting it silently into her hand, he slid up onto the counter and tossed back one of the painkillers.

The silence stretched long between them until she rested one hand on his knee and looked searchingly up at him. "Mulder, it's not that bad. You may not be cleared for the field, but at least you're off the Dilantin and you can drive again."

When he simply glared at her, stone faced, she turned and walked away, pausing in the kitchen doorway. "I'm sorry you're angry, Mulder," she said quietly, "but I had to be straight with Palermo. If I hadn't, and anything ever happened to you..." She let the sentence trail off, walking briskly to the coffee table to collect her keys.

Mulder's hands cupped her shoulders and spun her gently around. He ducked his head so their eyes met, contrition in his to offset the hurt in her own. "I know you want what's best for me, Scully. But don't you think I'm more qualified to decide that?"

Scully reached up to lay her hand on his cheek, tenderness and resignation in her smile. "Honestly, Mulder? No."

He released his grip and stepped back at that, eyebrows drawing together in consternation. "What?"

She wandered over to brace her hand on the desk chair, gesturing at the fledgling profile on the monitor screen. "You were banned from working on this case, Mulder. You defied Skinner's orders and wound up with a nearly incapacitating headache for your trouble. Yet here you are again, right back at it in spite of the physical repercussions. Would you call that someone who knows what's best for himself?"

Mulder's mouth worked impotently for a moment before he gave up and ran fingers through his hair until it stood in spikes. He rubbed the back of his neck and stared at his bare feet for a moment before looking back up at her.

"Would you do me a favor, Scully? Would you just listen to me for a few minutes? Not as my doctor, and not even as my friend. As my partner."

Scully bit her lip, then nodded, feeling somehow guilty at the gratitude and relief that transformed his face. He sank into the chair and she shifted to peer over his shoulder.

"You remember the basic facts as I outlined them this morning?" He plunged on, unable to hide the eagerness in his voice. "Something about the crime scene photos kept bothering me, and I finally realized what it was. All of the women's bodies showed visible evidence of their pregnancies - additional weight, fullness in the face, and even some swelling of the ankles in one case."

When he paused, looking up at her expectantly, Scully frowned. "So?"

"So that means that the pregnancy had progressed, probably into the second trimester. I made some phone calls to the clinics and discovered that in each case the abortion had been scheduled only after the mothers received test results indicating a genetic abnormality."

"What kind of abnormality?"

Mulder's hand crept up to massage his forehead. "Three cases of Down's Syndrome and two of Spina Bifida."

Scully tapped her lip with her index finger. "It does seem significant."

"It has to be more than coincidence, Scully! The normal percentage of genetic abnormalities is... is..." Mulder's face contorted and he squeezed his eyes tightly shut against a sharp burst of pain.

"Mulder?"

He waved her off, panting a little but continuing. "Anyway, I think it's worth checking out the labs that processed the test results."

Scully watched him grimace again, took in the agitated movement of thumb brushing finger, the light sheen of sweat on his brow. "I agree."

"There's more. I was interested to learn that this was a first pregnancy for each of the victims - not unusual for a twenty-one-year-old like Nicole Eddings, but definitely out of the ordinary for someone pushing forty like Elizabeth Brentwood. It may have no significance at all, but once again, it's worth keeping in mind."

His eyes lost focus and he began speaking more to himself than to Scully. "I need to understand what's driving the UNSUB. The working profile the police are using is all wrong. They're looking for a cold, brutal killer, someone with a complete disregard for the sanctity of human life. I disagree. There's no sign of gratuitous violence here. The only cuts on the bodies are those that were necessary to remove the baby. Blood tests show a sedative, though not enough to cause the victim to lose consciousness. He drugs them and removes the fetus with a minimal amount of physical trauma." Mulder's smooth tenor became strained, each word forced. "The m...mother is then simply left to bleed out, and the UNSUB leaves with the fetus."

He propped his elbows on the desktop and dropped head into hands, thumbs moving over his temples in hard little circles. "He's dispassionate, emotions under t...tight control. The murders are necessary, a task that must be performed but n-not enjoyed. He's p-precise, c...cl...clinical, and he could b...be, could b...be..."

He nearly plowed Scully over in a headlong dash for the bathroom. She listened to him be noisily sick for several minutes before heaving a sigh and following.

Mulder spat twice in a pitiful attempt to clear the foul taste from his mouth, leaned over to flush the toilet and hauled himself up on wobbly colt's legs. He snagged his toothbrush from its holder and the paste from the medicine chest, ignoring trembling fingers. Scully leaned in the doorway, worry and disapproval vying for dominance on her face as he eyed her in the mirror while he brushed .

"You okay?"

He pulled the brush from his mouth and bared his teeth in a foamy and insincere smile. "Just peachy."

Scully rolled her eyes and retreated, leaving him to finish in relative peace. Mulder drew himself a tumbler of water, startled when her hand materialized under his chin, another pill in her palm. He eyed it distastefully, making no move to accept the offering.

"Two's going to make me fuzzy."

"Oh for God's sake, Mulder, you just spent the last five minutes throwing up your toenails! Take the damn pill!"

Stubborn, but not stupid, Mulder recognized that he'd just run out of rope. He meekly accepted the capsule and washed it down, rode out a smaller wave of nausea, and decided it would stay in place. He wandered over to his couch, unable to suppress a soft grunt of relief once the familiar leather cushions cradled his aching head. Scully perched on the coffee table, her knees just brushing his.

Mulder flung one arm over his eyes, a shield to the light and Scully's probing stare. "You going to out me to Skinner?"

He didn't need to see her face; the disbelief colored her voice. "You intend to continue? Mulder, can't you see what this is doing to you already? It's only going to get worse! How much more do you think you can take before you wind up hospitalized?"

"I hope you're referring to medical treatment and not five point restraints," he replied, one eye peeking out from the crook of his elbow.

Scully dug her tongue into her cheek - annoyed, not amused. "Once again, Mulder. Not funny."

Mulder dropped his arm and sat forward. "You're right. It isn't funny. Five women are dead, Scully. I can stop it, I know I can."

"Can you honestly tell me that you think you're physically capable of handling this case?" Scully demanded.

"Were you listening to me tonight? Can you honestly deny that I'm needed? Scully, they're stalled, at a complete standstill. I've made more headway in the last six hours than they've made in the last six months! I'm not capable of making any other choice."

She sighed and slipped her hands over his restless fingers, tilting her head back to regard his face. She read no arrogance, no bravado, in spite of the words. Just iron determination and a plea for her support. Almost seven years now, and in some ways she'd grown to know this man better than she knew herself.

In others, he would always remain a mystery.

For better or worse, come hell, high water, or Skinner, Mulder would pursue this case to its conclusion. Nothing short of a bullet or those five point restraints could stop him now. Like a driverless car careening downhill at full speed, he'd only gain momentum. Her options were twofold - stand in the road and be run down, or hop aboard and try to steer.

Maybe even judiciously apply the brakes when necessary.

"Okay," she acquiesced. She quickly lifted her hand, palm out, to freeze his smile. "On my terms."

Wariness replacing triumph, she could feel him stiffen.

"Go on."

"You stick to profiling. That means deskwork, not legwork."

Mulder scowled. "What if I need to follow up a piece of information? Or to interview someone?"

"If you need a lead run down you get me or one of the other agents on the case to take care of it. If you need an interview, you conduct it over the phone or at the Bureau," Scully's reply was smooth and hard as steel.

Mulder withdrew his hands and slumped back on the couch. "Okay," he sulked. "What else?"

"You call Skinner first thing tomorrow morning to confess what a naughty boy you've been and to update him on your progress."

"Are you crazy? You want me to out *myself* to Skinner?"

"That's the idea," Scully said calmly.

"Scully, he'll not only chew my ass for ignoring his directive, he'll forbid me from continuing!" Mulder whined.

"You underestimate the power of my promise to keep you in line, Mulder," she replied, a smirk turning up the corners of her mouth. "He'll come around."

Mulder opened his mouth to argue, but snapped it shut and nodded instead. "Is that it?" he asked unhappily.

"Just one more," Scully said gently. "I will not stand back and let you sacrifice yourself. Not for the victims, and certainly not for the UNSUB. If I think you've crossed the line, if I believe for one minute that you're jeopardizing your health, I will go to Skinner and convince him to pull the plug. I'll make sure you're hospitalized, suspended - anything to keep you from continuing. I can live with your anger, Mulder. What I can't live with is the knowledge that I stood by and let you self destruct."

Mulder's hard gaze softened, the resentment melting under her warmth and affection. "I'll try not to give you either one. You drive a hard bargain, G-woman, but you've got a deal."

Scully shook her head ruefully, rising to her feet. "If I drive such a hard bargain, why do I get the feeling I've been snookered?" she asked wryly.

Evidently the second pill had kicked in. Mulder's eyes were heavy-lidded, the hazel dominated by oversized pupils. "Guess I coulda sold a few boxes myself, huh Scully?"

It took a moment to make the connection. Scully struggled against the grin, heading for the door. "Maybe so, Mulder. But the real question is, how would you have looked in the skirt?"


A. D. Skinner's Office
Saturday
9:03 am

Skinner finished reading a sheet of Mulder's handwritten notes and set it aside, flipping slowly back through the photos and finally closing the folder. The palm of one hand smoothed the manila surface while the fingers of the other drummed against the blotter, his jaw clamped tightly shut. The angle of his head and the reflection of light off his glasses conspired to lend him an air of inscrutability that defied Mulder's best attempts to discern his mood.

Mulder smoothed an invisible piece of lint from his tie, willing himself not to fidget. Sitting on this side of the massive mahogany desk, delivering news he was certain Skinner wouldn't want to hear, remained an unpleasant, though certainly not unfamiliar experience. He hated feeling like a recalcitrant ten-year-old sent to the principal's office to give account for his errant behavior, Mom in tow. He snatched a quick sideways glance at his partner, not sure whether to be reassured or annoyed by her patience and attentiveness as she awaited their supervisor's response.

When Skinner finally raised his eyes from the file it was to pin Mulder with an icy stare. When he spoke, his voice was low and dangerously mild.

"Agent Mulder, do you recall our conversation about this case?"

Mulder licked his lips, fighting the urge to evade Skinner's eyes. "Yes, sir."

"Did I fail to communicate my directive regarding your participation in the case, in any capacity?"

"No, sir."

Skinner planted his elbows on the desk and leaned forward, giving Mulder the uncomfortable impression of a mouse being stalked by a cat. "Did I leave you with the misconception that your capitulation with that directive was optional?"

Tendrils of resentment and rebellion entwined with the honest regret he felt, tainting it. "No, sir. You were perfectly clear," he replied sullenly.

Skinner leaned back in his chair, fingers steepled under his chin but gaze never breaking from Mulder's face. "So what you're saying is that you were willfully insubordinate."

Mulder's eyebrows plunged. "I just... I knew that if I..." He folded his arms across his chest. "Yes, sir."

Skinner retrieved Mulder's notes and let his eyes wander up and down the page, one thumb stroking his jawline. Mulder chewed the inside of his cheek, the resentment expanding within him like a hot air balloon until it burst.

"I realize that I ignored your instructions to steer clear of this case. But you can't deny that I've made progress. I've uncovered some leads worth pursuing and developed some insights into the UNSUB. You and I both know the team has just been spinning its wheels for months. I've begun to construct a profile, and I intend to finish it. So if you're planning to suspend me, *sir*, just get it over with and put us both out of our misery."

Mulder felt the daggers of Scully's eyes but stubbornly refused to acknowledge them. Skinner, who had kept his gaze on the paper throughout Mulder's tirade, met his challenging glare coolly.

"A lot of people besides Bill Patterson were sorry to see you leave VICAP, Mulder. Myself included. I don't dispute the talent, just the cost."

The concern, rather than the expected anger, completely bypassed Mulder's defenses and he floundered for a reply.

"I'm fine, sir. I can do this."

Irritation seeped back into Skinner's face. He turned to Scully, who stiffened under his scrutiny.

"Agent Scully, I know you've kept in contact with Agent Mulder's physician. What is his current physical status? In your professional opinion, is he capable of undertaking this assignment?"

Mulder shifted slightly in his seat so that he could see her face. Her blue eyes flicked briefly toward him before locking onto their boss. She sucked in a deep breath and cleared her throat.

"Agent Mulder had a follow-up visit with his neurologist yesterday and everything appeared to be healing normally. Dr. Palermo took him off the Dilantin and lifted the driving restriction." She hesitated, then continued. "He did suggest that Agent Mulder confine himself to desk duty for an additional week, mainly as a precaution."

Skinner absorbed her words, studying her facial expression carefully. "Thank you for the update, Scully, but you haven't answered my question. Do you recommend that Agent Mulder be allowed to continue working on this case?"

Scully's eyes darted to Mulder's once more, the warning clear. *Don't make me regret this*

"I don't see any reason why Agent Mulder can't continue to work on the profile and participate in the investigation, provided he respects his limitations and doesn't overdo."

"That's the real issue, isn't it?" Skinner sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger. "All right. I'll notify SAC Jeffreys that you both have joined the team. I expect you to keep us informed of your progress. And Mulder..." Skinner's eyes narrowed and he pointed a finger for emphasis. "Just because I'm choosing to ignore this (he waved the sheet of notes) blatant disregard for orders doesn't mean I won't step in if I think for one minute that you're abusing this agreement. You are still restricted from venturing into the field and you will keep reasonable hours. If I hear from Agent Scully that you aren't eating or sleeping to her satisfaction you'll be off this case so fast you won't know what hit you." He leaned closer with a predatory smile. "I hear SAC Burgess in Wiretapping is short a few bodies. I'm sure he'd be eager for the help."

Mulder blanched at the image Skinner's threat conjured. Reassuming his mask of indifference, he nodded. The important thing was that he'd been cleared to complete the profile. He felt confident that he could work around Scully.

As if she could sense his thoughts, Scully suddenly turned so that her eyes bore into his. "Don't worry, sir," she said, her voice deceptively calm. "If it comes to that, I'll call SAC Burgess myself."


South Suburban Clinic
Saturday
11:14 a.m.

Scully crossed her legs and smoothed her skirt, glancing out the window. A beautiful Saturday, temperature a little cool but plenty of sunshine in a clear blue sky. A day for strolling the mall, window shopping, maybe even a drive to Baltimore to visit Mom. The last place she wanted to be was a stuffy little clinic, waiting to speak to Elizabeth Brentwood's doctor.

*You owe me for this, Mulder. Big time.*

"Agent Scully?"

Scully stood, pasting on a smile and extending her hand. "Dr. Lathrop. Thank you for seeing me."

Dr. Lathrop was cartoonishly tall and thin, his skin stretched tight over the bones of his angular face. His dark eyes were deep set but kind, and his answering smile transformed his features from dour to pleasant.

"I'm not sure I can add anything to the statements I've already given, Agent Scully, but I'm certainly willing to try." The smile winked out of existence and his face darkened. "These murders have cast a pall over this clinic that has affected us all - doctors, technicians, and certainly patients. This lunatic has got to be stopped."

He gestured for her to follow him down a long corridor and into a spacious office filled with books and plants. Scully accepted the proffered chair, grateful for the softness of the cushions after the hard plastic of her waiting room seat. Lathrop surprised her by collecting a folder from the desktop and sinking into the companion chair in front of his desk.

"This is Elizabeth Brentwood's file," he said grimly, "though there's not much for you to see. She came to me strictly for the abortion; her OB and all her prenatal testing were from a different clinic. I performed the obligatory pre-exam and ran some blood work. She was murdered less than twenty-four hours before the scheduled procedure."

Scully accepted the file folder and flipped through it as she listened to Dr. Lathrop. "Did she confide in you the reason she'd decided to abort?"

"Frankly, Agent Scully, that's none of my business. I don't make it a practice to pry into my patient's personal lives, nor would I betray any confidences they might share. Abortion is an extremely emotional decision and I would never presume to question the patient's right to make this choice."

The cool, barely concealed anger in Lathrop's tone pulled Scully's eyes from the file to study his tense, slightly flushed face.

"I understand patient confidentiality, I'm a doctor myself. I assure you I didn't mean to call Mrs. Brentwood's decision into question, doctor. I'm just trying to establish areas of commonality between victims."

Lathrop refused to be mollified. "Perhaps. But I can't help but sense disapproval in the question. We both know this is an extremely volatile and controversial issue, and many people have a hard time maintaining an unbiased attitude. Would *you* ever consider abortion, Agent Scully?"

Somehow, she managed to keep her professional mask intact, though Lathrop's question, uttered with more than a trace of sarcasm, pierced the most fragile portion of her soul. Closing the folder she set it back on the desk, the simple mechanics allowing her to catch her emotional breath.

"This interview isn't about me, Dr. Lathrop," she answered quietly. "But I will tell you that since I am unable to conceive a child, I will never be faced with such a decision." Scully was proud that her voice remained level, pleased to see Lathrop squirm at her response. Neither feeling, however, assuaged the dull ache somewhere between her stomach and her heart.

"I'm sorry, Agent Scully. Please forgive my impertinence," he said, the remorse on his face genuine. "I'm afraid it's difficult not to become rather thin skinned in this profession. Passions run high, and there's a lot of hate out there."

"Do you receive many threats?"

Lathrop shrugged. "What constitutes many? The clinic has certainly borne its share of negative publicity. The Right to Life groups picket us periodically, try to get patients to change their minds."

"But has anyone ever crossed the line? Openly threatened .harm for you, your staff, or the patients?"

Dr. Lathrop scowled. "There's only one man I've ever feared would follow through with his words."

Scully leaned forward. "Go on."

"His name is Ike Dalton. He's a genuine crazy - even the Right to Life groups won't have anything to do with him. He's vandalized the clinic on more than one occasion and openly threatened the doctors and nurses. I honestly wouldn't put it past him to do something like this, but."

"But?"

"We were able to file a restraining order on him about a month ago to keep him off the property. Haven't seen or heard from him since."

Scully jotted the name down on the small spiral notepad she kept in her jacket pocket, then stood and offered her hand.

"Thank you for your time, Dr. Lathrop. You've been very helpful."

Lathrop's hand was dry and smooth, his expression relieved. "As I said, Agent Scully, I'm only too glad to help. I just hope you catch the killer soon."

"As do we," Scully murmured, following him back to the lounge area.

Lathrop paused, contrition back on his face. "I apologize again for my harsh words earlier," he said. "As a doctor I'm sure you realize that some patients get under your skin more than others. Elizabeth Brentwood was one of those for me. You might be interested to know that she had been attempting to have a child for many years. This was to have been her miracle baby. She was devastated when the Alpha Fetal Protein indicated Spina Bifida, and she and did not reach the decision to abort easily."

He shook his head sadly. "So many from both sides see this as a black and white issue, Agent Scully. Truth is, there's an amazing amount of gray."

Stepping out into the crisp autumn air, Scully couldn't seem to shake the oppression of the clinic and Lathrop's words. She leaned against her car and turned her face to the sun for several minutes before pulling out her cell phone.

"Mulder."

His voice was tense, distracted, with just an edge of annoyance, a clear indication that he'd been deep in the profile.

"Mulder, it's me. I just finished speaking with Elizabeth Brentwood's doctor and I'm heading out to the clinic where Janet Garson and Eve Roberts were patients."

"Did you find out anything new?" The irritability vanished and his voice softened. Scully smiled, warmed by the knowledge that her voice had provoked the change.

"Not much. That a man named Ike Dalton has a history of vandalism against the clinic. And that Dr. Lathrop can be a bit touchy on the subject of his chosen profession," she said, screwing up her face at the memory.

He chuckled softly. "Guess it's just as well you handled the interview, Scully. I'm not exactly known for my tact."

She rolled her eyes, even though he couldn't see. "Big revelation there, Mulder."

"Anything else?"

Lathrop's disclosure of Elizabeth Brentwood's infertility crossed her mind, but since it had no bearing on the case she decided not to mention it. Mulder would only vacillate between worry over her mental state and his own guilt, both unwelcome emotions.

"'Fraid not. How's the profile coming?"

She could almost hear him grimace. "Slow."

Scully knew him too well not to hear the undercurrent. "Headache?"

"Scully, I'm fine. Don't let me keep you from that interview." Defensive. Dismissive.

She deliberated only a moment before letting it go. "I'll see you back at your place when I'm done. You're buying dinner."

Amusement displaced the guardedness. "I am, huh?"

"Definitely. The way I see it, I'm worth egg drop soup, shrimp fried rice, and an eggroll. From Bamboo Garden."

Ripe with affection rather than humor, his reply took her by surprise. "You're worth more than that, Scully. Much, much more."


Alexandria
Saturday
6:43 p.m.

Warm air and the spicy aroma of Kung Pao Chicken drifted through the open door. Scully pocketed her keys and stepped inside, letting the door snick closed at her back.

"Mulder?"

No answer, so she moved into the kitchen. Two brown bags emblazoned with the logo from Bamboo Garden sat on the counter, unopened. She pressed her fingers to the paper, frowning a little at the lack of warmth. He'd obviously ordered the food some time ago - why hadn't he unpacked it or put it in the oven to stay warm?

"Mulder? You here?"

Cold fingers of unease skittered up and down her spine. Scully moved into the living room, investigator's eyes taking over. The computer was on, still logged onto the Net. She peered at the screen, a web page on genetic testing, specifically the Alpha Fetal Protein test. Frown deepening, she grasped the mouse and logged off. The ever-present yellow pad sat to the right of the monitor, an uncapped pen lying on top. A half-filled mug of liquid, now stone cold. Scully sniffed - chamomile. Her eyes narrowed. How many cups had he brewed for her during her cancer to ease nausea from the chemotherapy? Mulder was a caffeine and sugar kind of guy. If he'd switched to tea, there was a definite reason.

She turned, gaze sweeping over the empty couch to rest on the bedroom door, hanging slightly ajar. She walked quickly over but hesitated once her fingers touched the wood.

"Mulder, it's me," she called softly, then pushed gently.

The room was shrouded in near total darkness, blinds drawn and lamps off. A swatch of light from the living room spilled over the foot of the bed to illuminate Mulder, sprawled in a loose tangle of long limbs atop the comforter, face slack in slumber. A glass of water and the bottle of painkillers, cap off, sat on his nightstand. Scully's eyes crinkled in amusement. Mulder had a terrible time manipulating childproof caps, a fact she found endearing.

Moving cautiously to the side of the bed, she watched him sleep for a moment, trying not to admit to herself how much pleasure she derived from the simple act. An image of him strapped down and defenseless, the marks of Cancerman's violation fresh on his pale skin, appeared before her with such clarity she felt her eyes burn. He'd come back to her, but changed. Like metal refined by the fire, strengthened in his resolve and his purpose. Not that he was alone - the experience with the etching and Mulder's illness had irrevocably left its mark on her. And, perhaps more importantly, left its mark on their relationship. The difference crackled in the air between them, she could see it in the warmth of his gaze, hear it in the cadence of his voice. And, God help her, she could feel it in the suddenly irrepressible smile on her lips.

They were poised on the precipice, and she sensed Mulder waiting patiently for her to jump. She hadn't quite gathered the courage yet, but she was close. Very close. Her feet might not have left the ground, but her toes were hanging off the edge...

Giving herself a mental shake Scully sat carefully on the edge of the bed, mindful of Mulder's hair-trigger reflexes. He didn't awaken, however, just mumbled something unintelligible while his right hand moved restlessly as if searching for something.

*Probably dreaming he lost his gun.*

Scully smirked at the thought even as she gave his shoulder a gentle shake.

"Mulder, it's me. Wake up, I'm starving."

His eyes fluttered open and stared at her blankly for a moment before comprehension seeped in. He propped himself up on his elbows and ran one hand over his face, squinting in the light.

"Timizzit?"

Two pills, not one. Mulder hadn't been exaggerating when he said they made him fuzzy.

"Six o'clock." She couldn't seem to control the hand that touched the back of its fingers to his forehead and then brushed back a spiky strand of hair.

Chagrined, she stood quickly and turned back toward the door, hearing the rustling sound of Mulder swinging his legs off the side of the bed, then the popping of tendons as he stretched.

"I picked up the food around five," he said, following her back to the kitchen. "Sorry - guess we'll have to nuke it."

Scully shrugged, pulling plates from the cupboard and sniffing appreciatively as he opened the carton of fried rice. She took in the slight tremor of the hand that spooned some onto her plate, nibbling on her lip to keep from commenting.

"What good is the miracle of modern technology if you never use it?" she asked lightly.

"Spoken like a true scientist," Mulder replied, grinning as he popped her plate in the microwave and then prepared his own.

They stood in silence but for the hum of the oven, Mulder slouching comfortably against the counter while Scully stared sightlessly at the rotating plate through the little window. Finally she could stand it no longer.

"It must have been bad if you broke down and took two of those pills," she said, never breaking eye contact with her revolving rice.

To her amazement, Mulder chuckled. "I wondered how long you'd last. I could see how it was killing you not to bring it up." He leaned over to insinuate his face between hers and the microwave. "Go ahead, Scully. Come right out and ask me - you know you want to."

Only the playfully affectionate tone to his voice kept her from smacking him. "Okay, Mulder. How ba..."

"Very bad. On a scale from one to ten I'd give it a nine," he cut in, smiling smugly.

She folded her arms, pursing her lips. "And did you..."

"Nope. No instances of tossing my cookies. Blowing chunks. Worshipping the porcelain god."

"Mulderrrr."

He desisted, though mischief still sparkled in his eyes. "Not that I didn't come close."

Scully shot him a longsuffering glare. "How do you..."

"Great. Never better. And I'm starving."

Scully sent him her most dangerous scowl. "You know, Mulder, sometimes you can be a real..."

BEEEEP

"Your food's ready, Scully. Why don't you take it in by the coffee table and I'll bring your soup," Mulder said brightly.

Settled on his couch, the rice melting in her mouth, Scully allowed herself a smile. Hard not to be won over by Mulder in a good mood. It was almost enough to make her forget her worry over the fact that his headaches, rather than disappearing, had increased in frequency and intensity.

Almost.

Mulder deposited a Styrofoam container of hot soup in front of her, then returned to fetch his own food from the kitchen. When he'd seated himself on the floor across from her, legs folded pretzel-like, his expression turned serious.

"Bring me up to speed, Scully. What did you find out?"

Scully blew gently on her soup before putting the spoon into her mouth, thinking.

"The most obvious, I guess, would be that our friend Ike Dalton has vandalized and generally harassed the staff at all three clinics. In fact, two out of three have filed restraining orders to keep him away. This is not your average Right to Lifer, Mulder. At the very least the man has poor impulse control, if not downright psychotic tendencies. At the moment he's the police's number one suspect."

Mulder took a bite of chicken and chewed slowly, his eyes far away. He shook his head. "Uh-uh."

Scully leaned forward, brow creased in annoyance. "What?"

"He's not the one, Scully," Mulder replied dismissively. "What else do you have?"

Scully could feel her fingers curling into fists, consciously flexed them. "Do you mind sharing with me how you can reject Dalton so easily? Have you heard some of the things the man has done? Read what he said to the police when they questioned him?" She congratulated herself on her own impulse control - Mulder could have wound up wearing her soup.

"As a matter of fact, I have read the interview, Scully. It doesn't mean anything," Mulder said, using the patient tone that made her want to scream.

"It doesn't mean anything? Mulder, he threatened to eviscerate the doctors! You don't think that's significant?"

Mulder looked at her a little blankly and his thumb began the familiar motion over his finger. "Scully, the guy is a nutcase, there's no doubt about it. But he doesn't fit the profile. In fact, he's about as far from the profile as you can get. He's enraged, irrational. I'm not saying he isn't capable of murder. But I guarantee that he wouldn't confine himself to the methodical cutting we've got here. And he'd never use drugs, he'd want her to feel every slice."

Scully blanched at his cool recitation. It was always disconcerting to hear someone as inherently empathetic as Mulder discuss brutal crimes with such detachment. Though she recognized the defense mechanism, it still bothered her. Mulder continued, oblivious to her discomfort.

"Our guy is a professional, someone who knows what he's doing. Could even be a doctor, a veterinarian. He's comfortable wielding the knife, unaffected by the blood, the mess." His leaned an elbow on his knee and dropped head into hand, fingers scrubbing the flesh just above his eyebrows. "He doesn't hate them, probably even feels he's helping them in some warped way. He believes in what he's doing, Scully," he sighed. "What else? You mentioned the doctor at South Suburban was pretty defensive. Did he give you a hard time?"

Scully kept her eyes on her soup. "He accused me of showing disapproval for Elizabeth Brentwood's choice to abort. After a bit he calmed down and apologized."

Mulder raised his head, scrutinizing her face. "Scully, I hope you'll tell me if you have trouble with this case. It's understandable that it might push some buttons for you."

She looked up, eyes hard. "Why, Mulder? Because I'm Catholic, or because I'm infertile?"

His jaw tightened and he glanced away. "I'm not worried you'd act unprofessionally or fail to do your job, Scully," he said softly. "Quite the opposite. I'm worried you'd continue to do the job, even if it was killing you."

Scully's expression was incredulous. "Said the pot!"

Mulder's jaw dropped, then snapped shut. "Guilty," he said ruefully, then wriggled his eyebrows. "I throw myself on the mercy of the court."

Scully snorted, but the flint left her eyes. "Mulder, I'm fine. Yes, as a Catholic I have to admit that I find the idea of abortion repugnant. And I'd be lying if I said it didn't hurt to know that women are terminating their pregnancies when I'd give my right arm to be in their shoes. But none of that really matters, does it? What matters is that we catch whoever is perpetrating these horrendous crimes and put him someplace where he can't hurt anymore women. That's my job, and I intend to do it."

Mulder reached across the coffee table to squeeze her hand, then nodded. "Okay. Anything else turn up at the clinics?"

"I stumbled onto something very interesting when I was at Dreyer Medical Clinic," she replied, excitement driving away her tension.

"That's the one for both Eve Roberts and Corrie Jenkins?"

Scully nodded. "During my interview with the doctor he mentioned that both Eve and Corrie had undergone genetic counseling at Copley Hospital after receiving their test results. I made a few calls and guess what?"

Mulder's head returned to the cradle of his left hand, pressing the heel hard against his temple. "All the women received counseling there?"

"Not only that, all five spoke to the same counselor! A woman by the name of Miriam Richardson."

Mulder's brows drew together and the motion of his thumb quickened. "A woman?" he muttered absently. "It would explain a lot of things. Th...the precision, the n...neatness of the scene. The alm...most gentle approach t...to the m...murders. Even the a...absence of a struggle. A w...woman would be m...more likely t...t...to trust another woman."

When he began to stutter, Scully dropped her spoon and reached over to snag his arm. "Mulder, stop. You're going to make yourself sick."

He shrugged her hand off impatiently, though his eyes were reduced to mere slits from the pain. "They have the p...preliminary test, the Alpha F...Fetal Protein, at the re...recommendation of their OBs. Then, w...when the r...results are positive there's an amniocentesis. Right, Sc...Scully?"

"Yes, that's right," Scully snapped, shoving her plate aside and standing. "We'll talk about this later, Mulder, I want you to lie down. *Now.*"

Mulder ignored her, wincing at a particularly sharp stab of pain and swiping distractedly at the beads of perspiration on his upper lip with his index finger. "I'll j...just bet you th...those amnios were d...done at Copley, Scully. Sh...she could h...have access to the r...results and...and..."

At his low cry of pain Scully darted around the table but she wasn't quite fast enough. Mulder's eyes rolled back in his head and he tumbled to the floor, muscles twitching in small spasms eerily reminiscent of the seizures he'd experienced as a result of Goldstein's treatments.

"Mulder!"

She sank to her knees, barely refraining from touching him until his body went completely boneless. Blinking hard, she carefully pulled his head into her lap and cupped his jaw, her thumb caressing his cheek.

"Mulder, come back to me now," she murmured, hating the tremor in her voice. "Come on, partner, wake up."

To her immense relief his eyelids quivered and then slipped open, though his gaze was vague and unfocused. "Scully?" he rasped.

The fact that he didn't immediately try to get up bothered her almost as much as whatever colonic event he'd just had. "I'm right here, Mulder. Just take it easy and lie still, okay?"

"Wha..."

The word trailed off to a moan, his whole body tensing with agony, his breath coming in rapid pants. "H...hurts. Wha's happening?"

Scully shushed him, her fingers smoothing back his sweaty hair. "I don't know, Mulder. But I think it's past time we found out."


Georgetown Medical
Saturday
11:52 p.m.

Scully hopped to her feet and strode quickly across the waiting area. The nurse, a middle-aged woman with curly brown hair and a nametag identifying her as Donna, maneuvered Mulder's wheelchair back into the cubicle and parked it beside the gurney.

"All right, Mulder, up you go," she said, nodding to acknowledge the hovering Scully.

Mulder, who had been splayed in the chair with his head propped on one fist, got unsteadily to his feet and placidly allowed her to situate him on the bed.

"Thanks for the lift, Donna. You can drive me anytime," he said, the words slurring lazily on his tongue and a loopy grin on his face.

Donna gave Mulder's arm an affectionate squeeze and Scully a surreptitious wink. "My pleasure, hon. Just rest now and the doctor will be with you in a bit."

Scully took one look at her partner's eyes, lids already sliding down to shroud dilated pupils, and plucked Donna's elbow as she passed.

"What did you give him?" she asked bluntly, keeping her voice low. "He left here for a CAT scan, why does he look like a refugee from a Grateful Dead concert?"

Donna smiled and patted Scully's fingers reassuringly. "Doctor Palermo ordered a pretty stiff shot of Dilantin to be administered once the scan was completed. Coupled with the Demerol it packs a pretty powerful punch. Don't worry - he'll sleep it off once you get him home tonight and be back to normal in the morning."

"Hey, Scully, c'mere. 's a stain on the ceiling tha' looks jus' like Fluky!"

Scully rolled her eyes but the corners of her mouth twitched. "You did say *sleep*, didn't you?"

Donna chuckled and looked over to where Mulder was lying, glassy-eyed, with his head cranked back. "Personally, Honey, if I were taking *that* home, sleep would be the farthest thing from my mind! Doctor Palermo will be in shortly with the test results."

Scully stood, slack-jawed and pink-cheeked while Donna collected the wheelchair and left the room, still chortling softly to herself. Shaking her head bemusedly, she walked over to her partner's side. He'd ceased his contemplation of the ceiling and was sorting through his keys, tongue protruding from the corner of his mouth and nearly cross- eyed with concentration as he tried to manipulate clumsy fingers.

"Mulder, what do you think you're doing?"

His gaze meandered to her face and he blinked, processing her question. "Les get outta here, Scully, I feel fine. I'll drive."

Scully pursed her lips to camouflage the grin. Nothing riled Mulder more than the idea you weren't taking him seriously. "Sorry, G-man. I'm afraid you're grounded. Besides, we have to talk to Dr. Palermo, remember?"

Mulder's face twisted into a stubborn pout, complete with protruding lip. "Don't need Palermo, Scully. I'm tellin' ya, I feel really good!"

"That's because you're stoned, Mulder."

He affected a shocked expression, all wide-eyed innocence. "I am?" When Scully nodded he looked at her slyly from beneath his lashes. "Wanna take advantage of me?"

Scully pocketed his keys. "No, but I think Donna might take you up on that offer."

Mulder allowed his head to drop back onto the pillow with a small yawn. "Donna likes me," he pronounced with satisfaction. "She said 'm very catip...capti...very charming."

Scully's lips curved. "You have your moments. Now just sit tight for a few more minutes until Palermo gets here and I promise we'll go home. And *I'll* drive, Mulder."

He yawned again, giving her a heavy-lidded smirk. "Sure those lil feet can reach the pedals?"

She pulled over a chair and sank into it. "I'll manage," she replied dryly.

By the time the doctor stepped into the room ten minutes later Scully had kicked off her shoes and Mulder was snoring softly and drooling on the pillow. Palermo regarded him quizzically for a moment before turning to Scully.

"How's he doing?"

She slipped on her loafers and stood, arching one eyebrow. "Feeling no pain, for the moment," she said with a wry grin.

"And, for once, the picture of cooperation," he observed, deadpan.

Scully chuffed quiet laughter, pleased to realize that she genuinely liked Dr. Palermo. Frantic over Mulder's mysterious brain surgery, his calm, professional demeanor and willingness to treat her as a colleague had assuaged her feelings of helplessness and eased her fears. But what had really won her over (in addition to a thorough background check by the Gunmen) had been his skillful handling of her frequently cantankerous partner, with patience and dry humor.

"I have the analysis of the CAT scan," Palermo continued. "Shall we have the guest of honor join the party?"

"The guest of honor can barely form a coherent sentence," Scully replied. "I'll catch him up when the street value of his blood drops."

This time Palermo chuckled, but his expression quickly turned serious. "Doctor Scully, you're not going to be happy about the results."

Her stomach twisted painfully and her throat constricted. "What did you find?"

The doctor frowned, shaking his head. "Nothing."

"*Nothing*?" Scully felt a giddy sense of euphoria for a full ten seconds before the real implication of Palermo's words hit her. "Wait a minute. How could you find nothing?"

Palermo lifted one shoulder, looking a bit perplexed. "I went over it with a fine toothed comb, even got a second opinion. It is completely normal."

Scully nearly trembled with frustration. She strode to the gurney and clamped both hands onto the rail, staring into Mulder's peaceful face. Whirling around so that the metal dug into her back, she crossed her arms tightly as if to avoid fragmenting into pieces.

"The man has been enduring headaches so intense he vomits. Tonight the pain got so bad he actually experienced a kind of seizure and briefly fugued out. How can the scan possibly be normal?"

She knew she was misdirecting her anger and frustration toward Palermo, but couldn't seem to stop herself. None of this was supposed to be happening. Mulder had survived the psychosis, and even brain surgery. How much more could either of them be expected to take?

"The residual effects of the seizure are evident, of course," the doctor conceded, not taking offense at her words. "But there is no sign of swelling, intercranial bleeding, or tumor. Nothing to explain why Mulder should be experiencing any of the symptoms you've described."

Scully pressed the backs of her fingers to her lips, closing her eyes. "What do you propose we do now?"

"Nothing."

When her eyes flew open he raised a quelling hand. "For tonight. Take him home and let him get some sleep. You and I both know that's key right now. As recovered as he may look on the outside, his body is still healing and needs plenty of rest. Who knows? Maybe these headaches are simply a manifestation of his inability to handle stress right now."

"*Stress*? Doctor, I'll admit we have an extremely demanding occupation, and that Mulder is a very driven individual. But these headaches are way beyond what you'd expect from stress, and they seem to pop up out of the blue. One minute he's feeling great and then as soon as he even attempts to work..." Her eyes widened and she felt abruptly lightheaded. "Oh my God," she whispered.

Palermo reached out to steady her. "Easy, there. I know it's frustrating, Dr. Scully, but we have to take this one step at a time," he said soothingly. "Bring him back tomorrow morning. I'd like to do an MRI and possibly an RN scan. Until we figure out exactly what's going on, I want him back on the Dilantin. Does he have any left or do I need to write you a scrip?"

Scully focused on the question with effort, still reeling from her epiphany. "Um, yes."

Palermo chuckled. "Yes, he has some at home or yes, you need me to write a scrip?" he pressed.

Scully blinked, then shook her head. "I'm sorry. Yes, he still has the pills at home."

Palermo gave her arm a squeeze before releasing it. "Get some rest, Dr. Scully. You look like you could use it. And try not to worry about your partner - we'll get to the bottom of what ails him."

Scully forced herself to concentrate on smiling and nodding convincingly, though she felt as if she were falling down a deep, dark hole. Once Palermo had left she collapsed back into the chair beside Mulder's bed and stared sightlessly at him, her mind replaying each time he'd suffered a headache in her presence. The result only fed her alarm.

*At her apartment looking over casefiles, Mulder trying to pull information from his normally infallible memory only to draw a blank. Reading over the casefile in the office, beginning a preliminary profile and identifying possible avenues of investigation. Taking information she'd gathered and executing what Skinner called "The Leap" - that uncanny ability to pull together pieces of seemingly- disjointed information and assemble them into a coherent whole.*

All examples of Mulder being uniquely...Mulder. Exercising the genius of his eidetic memory paired with his "out of the box" thinking. In each case, he'd felt fine until he'd engaged that complex brain and attempted to do what he did so well.

She'd called the headaches crippling - was that statement truer than she'd realized?

On the surface it seemed a ridiculous idea, the stuff of fairy tales. The evil wizard casts a spell on the handsome prince, turning him into a helpless toad.

Helpless.

Useless.

Had the headaches ever struck while they were filling out expense reports? Or in one of those interminably long and tedious budget meetings - God knows, they certainly gave *her* a migraine. Scully wracked her brain, looking for something, anything to disprove the awful suspicion that had taken root and wouldn't seem to go away. Just one instance when they'd been in the middle of a totally innocuous activity and he'd whined about his head or popped some Tylenol.

She came up empty.

She buried her head in her hands, no longer able to look at the serenity in his face. Again, the image of him strapped, Christ-like, to a stainless steel table assaulted her senses, Palermo's baffled voice a counterpoint.

*Frankly, Dr. Scully, I'm at a complete loss. It's clear he was subjected to surgery and there are indications that something was excised and removed near the brain stem. I just can't tell you what.*

They'd been so concerned, so absorbed by what that cigarette-smoking bastard might have taken from Mulder. But what if the question they'd failed to ask was far more important?

What damage could he have done while he had the chance?


Georgetown
Sunday
8:53 a.m.

Mulder drifted slowly back to consciousness, comfortable but with the nagging sensation that something was amiss. The sun was wrong, he decided, studying the flickering pattern of light and dark on the insides of his eyelids. Lying on his couch, the rays usually spilled over the top of his head - this illumination originated somewhere past his right shoulder. And speaking of his couch, the smooth, slightly worn leather beneath his cheek had been replaced by soft flannel. He sniffed. Flannel that smelled of soap, the faintest hint of vanilla, and... Scully?

Mulder's eyes flew open and he sat bolt upright, clutching the sheet. His gaze darted around the bedroom while he ran the fingers of one hand through tousled hair. A towel and the spare pair of his sweats that normally resided in the bottom drawer of her bureau lay beside his clothes and shoes, neatly piled on a chair. His clothes...

For the first time Mulder registered that not only had he awakened in Scully's bed, he'd done so clad only in boxers. He felt the heat rise in his cheeks, uncertain whether to be worried by the gap in his memory, embarrassed that Scully had witnessed such vulnerability, or turned on that she'd undressed him.

He swung his legs gingerly over the side of the mattress and stood, relieved by the absence of pain and dizziness. His last coherent memory was bright shards of agony pulsing relentlessly through his brain and obliterating all thought. Beyond that he had only a collection of vague impressions. Scully cradling him as he writhed on the floor. His forehead pressed hard against cool glass and the rhythmic drone of rubber on pavement. Hands guiding him into a long, dark tunnel echoing the rumble of a freight train. The sting of a needle that banished the pain, leaving him first giddy with relief and then heavy-limbed with lethargy...

Mulder scrubbed his palms over his face. He desperately needed a shower, coffee, and help filling the blanks - in that order. He picked up the towel and sweats and padded into the bathroom.

Scully looked up from her computer at the groan of water through pipes. She worried her lower lip with her teeth, then logged off and went to the kitchen to start a fresh pot of coffee. Her hands completed the simple tasks of drawing water and measuring grounds (decaf - Mulder was sure to bitch and moan about *that*) while her mind spun in useless circles like tires on ice.

By the time she'd hauled her semi-conscious partner up to her apartment, stripped off his clothes, and deposited him in her bed, Scully's body ached with exhaustion. Her mind, however, had other ideas. She'd tossed and turned on the couch, finally admitting defeat around five-thirty. Once she'd determined Mulder was sleeping like a rock, she'd brewed a pot of coffee, logged onto the Internet, and begun searching for information on neurological disorders.

Three hours later she possessed a broadened knowledge base but no facts that would back up her theory about Mulder's headaches. Yet she knew in her heart that she was right. Each time Mulder tried to work, to put his mind to solving the case, the headaches struck with a vengeance. Not while they were filling out old expense reports. Not during Skinner's weekly staff meeting for department heads. Not even when they'd fallen into an intense argument over an old case and he'd been tight-lipped with frustration. Coincidence? As Mulder often pointed out, if it's coincidence, why does it feel so contrived?

"When you're done staring at it, I'd love a cup."

Scully jerked back from where she stood, palms propped on either side of the coffee maker and eyes fixed on the trickle of brown liquid. She glanced at Mulder in irritation - slouched in the doorway with damp hair and a teasing grin. How many times in the past week had he caught her daydreaming?

"Sorry, didn't mean to startle you," he said in a voice that indicated he was anything but. "I just never knew you could absorb the benefits of coffee through osmosis."

"You're a real riot this morning, Mulder," she said sarcastically, reaching into the cupboard for a mug. "Almost as funny as you were last night."

It was hitting below the belt, but he deserved it, she thought smugly. His eyes slid away to contemplate the cross stitched picture that hung on the wall near her table, lower lip caught between his teeth.

"Uh...Scully? That reminds me of a question I wanted to ask you," he said, shifting his weight from right foot to left.

Scully poured the coffee, grinning while her back was to him. She turned, offering him the mug and a wide-eyed look of innocence. "Yes, Mulder?"

She was extremely amused to see a flush spread across his face and his respiration quicken. "Um. My recollection of last night is pretty poor. I mean, the last clear memory I have is of sitting around my coffee table and discussing the case. How exactly did I wind up in your bed?"

How could she possibly resist when he'd just handed her the perfect opening, all laid out on a silver platter? Scully thrust her own lip out in an exaggerated pout and lowered her voice to a sultry level.

"You told me you'd never forget last night, Mulder."

His shock was comical. His jaw attempted to scrape the floor and his eyes blinked dazedly. To his credit, he recovered quickly and mustered a passable leer.

"Oooh, Scully. Was I good?"

Scully snorted at that. "You were in rare form, Mulder. What *do* you recall?"

Mulder frowned, wandering over to the table and sinking into a chair. She sat across from him, studying the faded lines of pain around his eyes and mouth. He stared into the mug, swirling the liquid in a gentle circle.

"Pain," he said simply. "Possibly more intense than any I've ever felt, more than the gunshot in North Carolina. I think I remember being in your car?" When Scully nodded he continued. "Then... It doesn't make any sense. I have this image of being trapped in a tunnel with a train coming."

Scully's lips curved but her eyes were sad. "The CAT scan," she murmured. "You were pretty out of it when they took you down to radiology." She released a small puff of air, not quite a laugh. "And high as a kite when they brought you back."

Mulder dropped his head into his hands and groaned. "I suddenly got this vague impression of flirting with a middle-aged woman in blue scrubs. Please tell me I'm exhibiting false memory syndrome."

Scully grinned. "That would be your nurse, Donna. Don't worry, she thought you were very captivating."

Mulder wrinkled his nose and mouthed, "Ha, ha," then shook his head, puzzled. "Demerol doesn't usually affect me that strongly."

"Palermo gave you a shot of Dilantin, Mulder. On top of the Demerol, you could say it was a one-two punch. Once the euphoria over being pain-free wore off you were out like a light. I barely got you back here - at one point I thought you were going to curl up on the front step and camp out for the night."

Mulder's eyebrows knit together. "Dilantin? Why?"

Scully sucked in a long draught of air, releasing it slowly. He really didn't remember.

"Mulder, you seized on me. Not full blown, but enough to scare me. Palermo wants you back on the Dilantin full time, at least until we can figure out what's going on."

The scowl deepened. "Nothing's going on, Scully! I just must've overdone things a bit, that's all. I'll slow down, take more breaks when I'm working and..."

Something in her face, an expression he wasn't sure he recognized, made the words dry up in his mouth. Until that very moment he would have said he knew every possible combination of Scully's features - fury, scorn, sorrow, guilt, joy, affection. That he couldn't put a tag on this one left Mulder's heart thumping unevenly in his chest.

"Scully?"

"Mulder, you don't have a seizure from working too hard," she said slowly. "You admitted that that the pain from this latest headache was excruciating. Those are symptoms, partner, the body's way of warning that something is wrong. Palermo was correct to put you back on the Dilantin, a more severe seizure could be the beginning of the end of your career as an agent."

Mulder leaned back in his chair, studying her intently. Something was wrong, all right - the way she was acting. Words spoken too gently and carefully, tiptoeing instead of marching. She should be angry with him, reprimanding him for his stubborn refusal to acknowledge her concerns for his health. One thing he could count on from Scully - she never pulled her punches.

"What are you not telling me, Scully?" he demanded bluntly. "What do you know that I don't?"

Scully spread her hands on the tabletop, tracing the wood grain with a finger. "I don't *know* anything, Mulder." When he uttered a small grunt of impatience she held up a constraining hand. "But I do have some suspicions."

He frowned. "Go on."

She met his eyes, choosing her words carefully. "Mulder, we never really figured out what was done to you when you were with Spender..."

"Besides the fact that he had them cut my head open, you mean?" he interrupted acidly. "Gives the term 'playing doctor' a whole new meaning, doesn't it?"

"Are you listening to me or not?"

The rebuke came out more sharply than Scully had intended and she sighed inwardly when Mulder folded his arms and nodded sourly. She knew he didn't like talking about this, that he still suffered from nightmares in which he was forced to relive the surgery, restrained but completely conscious of every slice of the scalpel. The biting sarcasm was his method of deflecting the horror and convincing himself he'd regained control. Understanding it didn't mean she had to like it.

"As you know, we ran the gamut of neurological tests. We could see that something had been removed near the brain stem, largely due to minor trauma of the surrounding tissue. Even that diagnosis made no sense, however, since the CAT scan also indicated your brain was essentially intact. All our discussions, our suppositions, have focused on that anomaly and what it might mean."

Mulder jerked his eyes free from hers, teeth grinding in frustration. "You aren't telling me anything I don't already know, Scully. What's your point?"

The flash of anger his words inspired died as Scully caught a slight tremor beneath the fury in his tone, naked fear concealed by the insolence in his gaze.

"My point, is that we were distracted by the clear link between your surgery and loss of telepathy, and never adequately considered the other possible ramifications." She reached across the table, plucking one hand from its chokehold on his ribs. "It was an ideal opportunity for Spender - you were completely defenseless, Mulder. What if the surgery entailed more than just removing the alien element from your brain? What if he saw the chance to slow you down? To ensure you'd no longer be a constant thorn in his side?"

Mulder pulled his hand back as if scalded, his face pale. "You think these headaches are engineered? That they're the result of something that black-lunged bastard did to my brain?" he asked, his voice thrumming with a combination of fury and panic. "I... Maybe I'm just a slow healer - you said there was visible trauma from the surgery! I just need a little more time."

Scully's stomach churned at his desperation but she resolutely shook her head. "Mulder, you're getting worse, not better. And I think I know the reason. Last night, talking to Palermo, I realized that each of the headaches I've witnessed has occurred while you were working. The first time occurred while we were arguing over that case involving lycanthropy. It happened again when you began delving into the Pro-Choice murders, and has escalated each time you've attempted to work on the profile. Last night, just as we'd begun to make some real headway towards identifying the killer, you had the worst attack yet. You'd have to be blind not to recognize the implications."

Mulder swallowed hard and licked his lips. "Are we talking permanent brain damage, Scully? Is that what you think? Then why was the CAT scan normal?"

"No test is infallible, Mulder," she answered gently, then grimaced. "Maybe what they did won't show up on conventional tests. Maybe it's not really damage at all, but some sort of...of chemical rewiring accomplished with drugs."

A trace of amusement seeped into the bleakness of Mulder's eyes. "Rewired? I'm supposed to be the one with the wild theories, remember Scully? Next thing I know you'll be suggesting that little green men did this to me."

The humor was forced but Scully credited the effort by mustering the shadow of a smile. "Gray, Mulder. And I wouldn't start picking out china patterns just yet."

Mulder blew out a harsh breath of air and lifted both hands, palms up. "So...what do we do?"

"We take it one step at a time. Palermo expects us back at the hospital this morning for some additional tests. I also want a more complete tox screen run on your blood. They can draw it at the hospital but I want it analyzed at the Bureau."

"And if we come up empty?"

Scully's words were as soft as the brush of her fingers on his hand. "One step at a time, Mulder." She collected his empty mug and walked over to the counter. "Coffee?"

"I'd love some. Where are you hiding it?"

Scully masked the smirk with an arched brow, taking obscure comfort in his predictability. "Just for that, you can pour your own. I'm taking a shower."

When Mulder didn't jump on the obvious opportunity for a lewd remark, she paused and turned back. He was sitting very still, shoulders hunched and eyes distant.

"Mulder, try not to worry. We'll do everything in our power to find out what's wrong."

He didn't move, didn't shift his gaze, his voice barely above a whisper. "I'm not worried we won't figure out what they did, Scully. I'm worried we won't be able to do anything about it."

For that she had no answer.


Georgetown Memorial
Sunday
12:42 p.m.

Scully leaned her head back until it thumped against plaster, watching Mulder pace with slitted eyes. The rollercoaster ride of the past twenty-four hours had finally caught up with her and she felt bleary and thickheaded with exhaustion. She watched her partner make another circuit of the waiting area and had the sudden impression of a panther on the prowl - in black jeans and a black v-neck sweater Mulder looked just as sleek and dangerous.

"Mulder, sit down. You're scaring the other patients," she groused.

He shot her an annoyed glare but returned to flop onto the couch beside her, propping an ankle on one knee and settling back with a discontented grunt. A moment later his foot was wriggling restlessly until the entire piece of furniture vibrated from the motion.

Past the point of simple annoyance and headed rapidly for homicide, Scully opened her eyes and drilled them into the side of his face. When Mulder remained oblivious she sat forward, clamped her hand onto the toe of his sneaker, and squeezed.

"Mulder, I will hurt you if you keep this up. As my godson would say, take a chill pill."

Amazing the intricacies you learned about someone after seven years. Order Mulder to do anything, especially with anger, and you'd get only stubbornness and rebellion for your trouble. Yet a little humor, injected in just the right place, seemed to bypass his defenses and achieve results. He broke into a rueful grin that failed to mask the worry behind it.

"You got it, girlfriend," he wisecracked, but the foot did stop jumping.

"Look, Mulder, I know you're anxious for the test results. But Dr. Palermo said he'd come and get us as soon as he knew anything, so try not to wear a groove in the linoleum."

He sighed deeply and let his head fall onto the back of the couch. "I'm so tired, Scully."

Knocked off balance by the uncharacteristic admission, Scully tried to read his expression. His closed eyes and blank features, however, revealed nothing about his state of mind.

"It was a rough night, Mulder, and you're still not 100 percent. It's only natural you'd feel exhausted," she said carefully.

He shook his head, eyes still tightly shuttered against her. "Not that kind of tired, Scully. Tired of the same old, same old. Of endlessly running the race only to find I'm on the hamster's wheel, right where I started. They took away my sister, and they murdered yours. They abducted you and stole your children; they kidnapped me and took...whatever the hell they ripped from my brain. They gave you cancer, and now I sit here waiting to find out what little present they've seen fit to bestow on me. Why do we do it, Scully? Why do we play punching bag and keep popping back up for more?"

"Mulder. Look at me."

His lids dragged open reluctantly and hazel wearily melded with blue. Scully reached out to lace her fingers with his.

"We do it for your father and our sisters. We do it for the millions of innocent families out there that have no awareness of the darkness that exists just outside their front doors. We do it because we have the knowledge and ability to fight these bastards." She smiled a bittersweet smile. "And most importantly, Mulder, we do it because if we quit now, they win."

He looked down at their joined hands, spellbound. So very different - his large and rough, hers tiny and pale - but they fit together so perfectly. A bond that neither aliens nor flukemen, conspiracies nor serial killers had been able to break. Did she understand just how integral to his life and his quest she'd become? Without her, his passion would have burned itself out, consuming him in the process.

He stroked his thumb across the soft skin. "Scully, I want you to know..."

"Agent Mulder? Dr. Palermo will see you and Dr. Scully in his office now."

His body reacted to the nurse's cheerful pronouncement by abruptly turning to ice. Mulder watched Scully rise and graciously thank the nurse, assuring her that yes, they could find their way without assistance. She turned, brows lifting in puzzlement when he failed to join her.

"Mulder, five minutes ago you were so impatient to speak with Palermo you could barely sit still. Now he's ready to see us and you're doing a mean impersonation of a rock. Are you coming or not?" The exasperation in her query was tempered by the slight curve of her lips and a glint in her eye.

It thawed Mulder enough that he could drag himself to his feet and follow down the hallway. He guided Scully through Palermo's doorway with one hand pressed to the small of her back and waited politely for her to seat herself before settling into his own chair. They sat in silence, but for the ticking of the wall clock, until Palermo bustled in a moment later.

"Sorry for the wait, but things are a little backed up around here today," he apologized, laying Mulder's chart on the blotter and dropping into his chair. "We're shorthanded thanks to the flu bug that's been making the rounds."

"We understand," Scully replied, while Mulder offered a curt nod.

Palermo laid his folded hands atop the folder. "I've got good news and bad news," he said, eyes darting between their faces before finally coming to rest on Mulder's. "The good news is that the tests all came back normal."

Mulder licked his lips, frowning. "And the bad news?"

Palermo's smile was rueful. "The bad news is that all the tests came back normal," he said dryly.

Mulder chewed his lip, considering before speaking. "In other words, you can tell I'm not dying of a brain tumor but you don't have a clue what's causing the headaches."

Palermo blew out a long breath of air and shook his head. "I wish I could tell you differently. The MRI, RN scan, and EKG were textbook, Mulder. I confess I'm at a loss to explain how you could be experiencing the level of pain you were in last night. I'm simply unable to find a biological basis for it."

The little line between Mulder's brows deepened. "So what are you telling me? You're going to run more tests?"

Scully shifted uncomfortably beside him, drawing his attention from Palermo. "No more tests, Mulder. Dr. Palermo has already used all the appropriate diagnostic tools at his disposal."

"The brain is an extremely complex organ, Mulder, and there's so much we still don't understand," Palermo said solicitously. He hesitated, as if debating whether to continue, then said, "You've been through an extremely traumatic set of circumstances, both physically and emotionally. As a psychologist, I'm sure you're aware that the repercussions from such events can exhibit themselves in unusual ways. You might consider talking to someone about your experience."

Mulder leaned forward, hands clamping reflexively on the arms of the chair. "You think I need to see a *shrink*, that this is all in my *mind*?" he growled, white with outrage.

Scully reached over to lay a restraining hand on his arm, but he shrugged it off. Palermo's voice remained calm and firm, a fact that only fanned the flames of his anger.

"Don't discount the impact of your ordeal, Mulder. There's no shame in admitting the possibility that you need help dealing with it. Post Traumatic Stress..."

"I'm intimately acquainted with PTSD, Dr. Palermo, in ways you'll never understand," Mulder snapped. "My headaches are not the manifestation of a repressed psychological breakdown, and the last thing I need is some Freudian headshrinker tracing them back to my toilet training! Now if you'll excuse me, I think I've damn well heard enough of your insights for one day."

He shoved the chair back with enough force that it nearly toppled and stalked from the room. Halfway down the hallway his rage and frustration reached critical mass and he turned and slammed his fist twice against the wall, ignoring the startled, apprehensive glance from a passing nurse.

Scully found him still standing there a moment later, cradling bloody knuckles and swearing softly under his breath. Gentle fingers probed the split skin, an apologetic wince when he hissed in pain.

"Oh, Mulder," she murmured, peering up into his eyes. "I can't take you anywhere, can I?" When he didn't respond to the joke she sighed. "Go sit in the lounge. I'll get something to clean those up."

She returned with antiseptic pads and some gauze. Resuming her spot beside him on the couch, she tugged his hand into her lap and carefully dabbed at the oozing blood.

"Mulder, given his limited knowledge, Palermo's suggestion was not unreasonable. He can't find a physiological cause for the headaches and he realizes they're triggered by your work. He has no understanding of Spender, the Consortium, or the kind of technology they're capable of wielding."

"I'm not crazy," he muttered through clenched teeth.

Scully paused, cupping his jaw with her free hand. "I know that. Why is this bothering you so much, Mulder?"

Mulder kneaded his forehead with the fingers of his free hand, then dragged the palm down his face. "Scully... I haven't told you much about my time with VICAP."

"No. You haven't." Scully kept her gaze on the work of her hands, wrapping gauze around his swollen knuckles. She could sense the effort that dredging up those days required, and wanted to give him some emotional space.

"By the time I transferred out, I...I was in pretty raw shape. I'd been approaching burnout for nearly a year, but the last six months I began to seriously lose it." He chuckled bitterly. "Not that my job performance was suffering. I'd gotten very, very good at crawling into the minds of serial killers and making myself at home. The problem was, the easier it became to slip in, the harder it got to drag myself back out. And even worse, each time I did I felt as if a little more filth stuck to me and wouldn't brush off." In a gossamer thin voice he added, "It got so I couldn't find myself anymore. I was buried alive."

Scully tied off the bandage but retained possession of his hand. "But you found the strength to dig your way out."

Mulder flashed her a grateful smile, then huffed, "I had no choice, it was killing me. I couldn't sleep, couldn't eat - I'd dropped twenty pounds. I had an almost constant headache. Popped so much aspirin I nearly wound up with an ulcer."

She understood, now, where he was headed, but allowed him to reach the destination at his own pace.

"I know the difference between physical and psychological, Scully. I've been there. There was nothing physically wrong with me back then, I was my body's own worst enemy. This is different."

Scully lay her hand over his, deliberately making eye contact. "I believe you, Mulder."

The utter relief that washed over his face was heartbreaking, and she ruefully shook her head. "Does that really surprise you?"

To her delight, a glint of mischief lit his face. "Scully, you gotta admit you have a long history of doubting me."

She cocked an eyebrow, then smiled. "Only your theories, partner. Never you. Besides, look at the evidence." She held up his hand, knuckles swathed in gauze. "You lost your temper back there in Palermo's office. You became so angry you punched the wall - have I mentioned how stupid that was, Mulder? Now, speaking pragmatically, just how stressed out do you suppose you were at that moment?"

Mulder grinned sheepishly. "Pretty stressed."

Scully snorted. "I'd venture to say your blood pressure was off the charts. Do you see where I'm headed with this?"

"I didn't get a headache. I'm with you, Doc." He pulled at his lip, the laughter gone. "Still leaves us back at square one. How do you treat an illness you can't even find?"

Leave it to Mulder to cut right to the hard question. Scully pursed her lips and considered.

"I'm not sure what to tell you, Mulder. Palermo was right when he said that the brain has a lot of uncharted territory."

The chirp of a cell phone aborted her response. After a moment of fumbling through pockets the culprit was identified as Scully's. She flipped it open and turned, pointedly ignoring the disapproving glare of a nearby nurse.

"Scully."

Mulder absently picked at his bandage, snapping to attention when Scully's voice turned sharp and businesslike.

"When?"

She propped the phone between cheek and shoulder, fishing a spiral notepad and pen from her coat.

"Just like the others?" A brief pause and her eyes slipped shut, then popped open. "Where?"

Mulder watched her scribble madly on the pad, occasionally nodding and injecting "Yes, sir." After several minutes more of the one-sided conversation she disconnected and eyed him grimly.

"There's been another murder," Mulder guessed, scanning her face.

"They found the body about an hour ago. SAC Jeffreys has been calling both our apartments, trying to reach us. They'd like me to do the autopsy on this one."

"I want to see the scene."

Dead voice. Flat and uncompromising. Scully's expression turned thunderous. She lunged to her feet and spun to face him, hands on hips.

"Are you out of your mind?"

Mulder put on his patented smartass smirk. "I thought we'd already answered that question."

"Mulder, putting aside the fact that we had an agreement that you'd stay out of the field, have you actually forgotten last night? You can't continue to work this case."

"I *can*, Scully. I have to. I'm getting close to catching this bastard and you know it!"

"Mulder, we have *no idea* what's triggering these headaches or what the consequences might be! You could have an aneurysm, stroke out..."

He looked up at her calmly. "You admitted I was in a bad way last night. Was there any damage?"

He had her, and Scully could feel her own blood pressure skyrocketing.

"No. This time. Who's to say what will happen the next?"

Still cool and composed. "I'm willing to take that risk."

"Well, I'm not. I'm recommending to Skinner that you be removed from this investigation, Mulder."

She turned on her heel and headed for the double doors to the parking lot, gasping when a hand clamped roughly around her upper arm, fingers biting into the soft flesh. Mulder spun her around to face him, and she caught her breath at the sight of his face.

Raw, untempered fury, yes, but something else. Something unexpected that pierced her defenses and softened her resolve.

Desolation.

"You can't *do* that to me, Scully! Not now, not when I'm so close I can taste it! This is part of what I do, who I am!" His voice broke and he abruptly released her, turning his back. One shaking hand came up to scrub at his eyes, his voice barely audible. "They've taken everything from me, Scully. Don't let them take this too."

Scully closed her eyes against the burn of tears, resignation flooding her body until she could barely stand. Dr. Lathrop's words unexpectedly echoed through her head.

*So many people see this as a black and white issue, Agent Scully. Truth is, there's an amazing amount of gray.*

Some days she felt that summed up her entire existence. Could nothing in her life remain a comforting shade of black or white? How many times would this man ask her to compromise what she felt with such certainty?

"All right," she said dully. "I'll take you by the scene. You've got ten minutes. One minute longer and I *will* have that talk with Skinner, Mulder. Don't push me on this."

He didn't turn around, but his head bobbed in acknowledgment. The hand swiped at his eyes again and he drew a long, shaky breath of air.

"Thank you."

The urge to weep was nearly overwhelming. "Don't thank me, Mulder. I don't think I've done you a favor. This goes against my better judgement."

Mulder's voice was soft with gratitude. "I know, Scully. That's why I said it."


Arlington
Sunday
2:21 p.m.

Camera flashes and the babble of hastily shouted questions assaulted them the moment they exited Scully's car. She stole a quick glance at her partner, reassured by the cool, professional mask that had settled over his features. They flashed their badges at the uniformed cops in charge of crowd control and ducked under the yellow tape that cordoned off the opening to a narrow alley. A small dry cleaning business flanked one side of the passageway, a second-hand clothing store the other.

Midway down the dingy, litter-strewn street a large metal dumpster squatted beside the back door to the cleaners, surrounded by more cops, members of the forensics team, and several VCS agents. One of the agents, tall with a neatly trimmed beard and horn-rimmed glasses, looked up at their approach, brown eyes narrowing and a frown twisting his thin lips. He detached himself from the group and met them halfway.

"Agent Mulder, Agent Scully," he greeted cursorily. Pinning Mulder with the full weight of his stare, he demanded, "Mulder, what in the hell are you doing here? I was under the impression you were still barred from the field."

Mulder's head swiveled toward the man but his gaze, riveted by the dumpster, took a little longer to arrive. "It's nice to see you too, sir. No time to chat, though, I'm here to view the crime scene."

Scully's lips compressed to a thin line as she watched him amble over to the dumpster. She turned her attention to the red-faced SAC, acutely aware of her blue jeans and Doc Martens beside Jeffreys' power suit and feeling vulnerable as a result.

"Sir, we're well aware of his restricted duty status, and we won't be here long. Agent Mulder feels he can get a much better picture of the UNSUB by examining the scene first hand, rather than through photos. He can absorb the details, get a feel for the killer's motivations..."

Jeffreys snorted and rolled his eyes. "Patterson's mumbo jumbo," he said disdainfully, following Mulder's movements with sharp eyes.

"Yes, Patterson," Scully replied coolly. "Whatever else he may be, the man is legendary for his groundbreaking contributions to VICAP. And using just such 'mumbo jumbo' gave Agent Mulder the highest solve rate of any profiler to date. If I'm not mistaken, sir, that's why you wanted him on this case."

Jeffreys' jaw clenched in annoyance. "Just goes to show how desperate we are," he muttered. He waved a hand dismissively. "Carry on, Agent Scully. And see that your partner is out of here ASAP. Skinner will have my ass if anything happens to him."

Scully bit back any further response and headed over to the hub of activity. Mulder stood next to another agent, head bent in deference to the man's shorter stature, immersed in conversation.

"...saw anything, just like all the others," the agent was saying.

When Scully joined them Mulder straightened, flashing her an almost guilty smile. "This is my partner, Agent Scully," he said. "Scully, this is Agent Doug Costanza, better known as Digger around the VCS."

Digger, olive-skinned and dark-haired, huffed at the introduction. "Thanks to you, Spooky," he replied sarcastically. He extended his hand, regarding Scully with black eyes that twinkled good-naturedly despite his words. "Agent Scully, it's a pleasure to meet you. Anyone who could survive six years with Mulder here as her partner must be pretty special."

"Not to mention a candidate for sainthood," Scully said dryly, offering Mulder a slanted grin.

Predictably, Mulder clutched his chest and adopted a mournful expression. "Scully, you wound me!"

She ignored his theatrics though her lips quirked just a bit. "Why do they call you Digger, Agent Costanza?"

"Let's just say I'm...ah...proficient in the art of gathering information through electronic means," Digger said, shooting Mulder a quelling glare when he made a choking sound.

Scully raised an eyebrow. "You mean you're a hacker," she said shrewdly.

Digger's mouth dropped open, then he shrugged with a Cheshire cat grin. "I find the term rather crude, but I guess you could put it that way."

"Don't let him fool you, Scully. Once he gets his teeth into a case there's no stopping him. He's got moves that would make the Gunmen weep," Mulder chimed in. "But don't tell them I said that," he added hastily.

A lightbulb went on in Scully's head and some of the amusement left her face. "You're the one that passed Mulder information on this case. *Before* he'd been cleared to join the team," she added pointedly.

Digger looked properly ashamed. "I felt we were at a standstill," he admitted sheepishly. "And I've seen Spooky pull plenty of rabbits out of his hat. I was sure he could help us." He looked over at Mulder, a line appearing between his brows. "I didn't realize how sick he'd been, or..."

"*I* approached *him*, Scully," Mulder broke in, a touch of irritation in his voice. "Digger just gave me what I asked for. Now, if you two will excuse me, I'd better take a look at the body so we can get out of here. Jeffreys looks like he's ready to shit a brick and I'd rather not be here for the big event."

Digger spluttered at Mulder's irreverence, unable to contain his mirth. He watched Mulder prowl around the dumpster for a moment before returning his focus to Scully. "He hasn't changed a bit," he mused, shaking his head. "Still three steps ahead and pissed off about waiting for the rest of us."

Scully's mouth curved at the insightful assessment. "What made you think he'd be any different?"

Digger shrugged. "Haven't seen much of him since he took on the X-Files, but...well, I've heard things now and then." He shifted uncomfortably under Scully's sharp glare, squinting up at the cloudless sky. "Mulder's always generated plenty of talk, Agent Scully. Once I got to know him I realized that a good ninety-percent of it comes from people too narrow-minded to understand his genius or too jealous to acknowledge it."

Scully's eyes softened. "You can call me Dana, Digger." She grinned. "Any friend of Mulder's, and all that."

Digger's shoulders relaxed and he returned her smile. "All right, Dana. And I meant what I started to say earlier. I'd never have let Spooky finagle that information out of me if I'd realized he was in such rough shape. Are you sure he's ready for this?"

Scully's eyebrow soared again. "You said you know him, Digger. Have you ever tried to stop him from doing something, once he's put his mind to it?"

She could see memories scroll across the man's face. "Ah...yeah. I see what you mean. Kinda like standing in the path of a steamroller and trying to direct traffic."

She chuckled. "Good analogy. Now I think I'd better join him before he mows down any unsuspecting pedestrians."

Scully wove through the milling agents and police, her feet leaden as she peered over the edge of the trash container. A pale wash of wheat colored hair fanned around a stark white face, blue veins prominent under nearly translucent skin. She was young, no more than twenty-five, at most, clad in faded maternity jeans and an oversized tee shirt. The inscription leaped out at Scully, a cruel joke whose punchline rested in the bloody incision on the woman's stomach.

Baby On Board.

Scully squeezed her eyes tightly shut, swallowing thickly. When she forced them open, mindful of the nearby agents, the woman's ravaged abdomen drew her gaze like a magnet.

*We're alike, you and I. Both of us forever barren, cursed with an empty womb*

The fingers, curling gently but firmly around her arm just above the crook of her elbow, startled her from her reverie with a physical jolt. Mulder's body shielded her from curious eyes, his breath warm on the shell of her ear.

"Scully? You all right?"

The concern and compassion nearly undid her, putting spiderweb cracks in her self-control. She forced herself to stare straight ahead. "I'm fine, Mulder."

His fingers tightened almost imperceptibly, and she could sense him push down the frustration those two words provoked. "Scully, after six years together I hope you would tell me if..."

She spun to face him, tilting her chin upward and fixing him with a steady gaze. "Mulder, I said I was fine and I am. Now, are you almost finished here?"

Forehead creased, Mulder opened his mouth as if to argue. Something in her expression must have stopped him, however, for he merely sighed and bobbed his head.

"Yeah. Let's go."

Scully walked to the car at a brisk pace, lips thin with annoyance. She couldn't shake the unmistakable feeling that she'd hurt him, let him down somehow by not admitting just how raw this case left her emotions. The annoyance flared to anger. Yes, their personal relationship had been undergoing a subtle but steady shift, and yes, part of that shift included an increased willingness to honestly express feelings. This was different. This was business, there was a killer to be caught. It was essential that Mulder trust her ability to cover his back, she couldn't afford to let him become mired in concern for her.

To think she was weak.

Just because he was inclined to wear his heart on his sleeve, to let others watch him bleed over every case that reminded him of his sister, that didn't mean he should expect the same from her. She was stronger than that, able to put aside her own anguish for the good of the investigation.

Scully reached the car and slipped in behind the wheel, waiting for Mulder to join her. One look at his studiously blank face and her heart sank, the truth blindsiding her.

Mulder wasn't the only one disappointed.


Alexandria
Sunday
4:36 p.m.

"Mulder, you need to take a break, maybe eat something."

No response. Scully watched him, well aware that for Mulder, she'd ceased to exist. He was in the zone, the soft focus, surreal place where he could crawl inside the mind of a killer and try it on for size. The heel of his right hand served as a prop for his forehead, the thumb of his left engaged in that compulsive movement over the fourth finger. To all appearances he was studying the yellow pad resting on the desk beneath his chin. Scully knew better. His eyelids were still, no flicker of movement from the orbs beneath.

It was beginning again.

She could see it in the slight motion of his hand just above his left eye, in the fine lines that magically reappeared around his mouth, and in the rigid set to the planes of his back. A headache, intensity building along with the depth of his concentration. Scully could feel the relentless pounding in her own skull, the pain expanding and growing as he fed it with his own stubborn determination.

Her empathy for his pain spawned fear for his health, which in turn led to fury with his refusal to back down. She didn't want him to admit defeat, just call a truce for the rest of the evening. But Mulder, fueled by a broken, violated body atop a mound of garbage, simply dug in his heels and declared war.

Scully strode to the desk, bent over, and grabbed his chair in both hands, swiveling it until his face was mere inches from her own. His reaction, eyes wide and arms flung out, might have been comical if not for the violence of her feelings.

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

"Mulder, you need to take a break. It's time for another dose of the Dilantin and you need to eat something," she said, hating the bossy sound to her own voice.

Mulder's scowl deepened. "Couldn't you have just said something? Why'd you have to sneak up on me like that?"

The term "blowing a gasket" suddenly held a whole new meaning. Scully spoke through clenched teeth, her words clipped. "Sneak up on you? Mulder, I called you three times! What do I need, a P.A. system?"

"Fine, I'll eat something. Just let me get a few thoughts down..."

He swiveled back toward the desk and she could feel him slipping away from her, back into the hole.

"No, Mulder! Right now," she insisted, snagging the chair once again so that he couldn't complete the turn.

Mulder's irritation blossomed to anger and he actually struggled to break her hold. "Scully, leave me alone! I've got to get a bead on this, it's not adding up."

"Mulder, later! I can see you're..."

"It doesn't make sense. I can't get the pieces to fit together," he continued as if she hadn't spoken. The veil had dropped back over his gaze and she had the uneasy feeling he was talking to himself. "It seemed reasonable to think that the genetic counselor - what's her name? - could be our killer. But after viewing the crime scene today, I'm not so sure. The b...body had obviously been handled indiscriminately, she was tossed on top of the garbage, no thought taken to the position, s...simply dumped inside. Yet there's a precision to the actual w...wounds and care in the manner with which they're inflicted. I don't understand the dichotomy."

"Mulder."

The hand was actively rubbing his brow now, fingers trembling slightly. "Could there b...be more than one person involved in these m...murders? One kills and the other disposes of the r...remains? It would explain the m...mixed messages I'm getting. And could the counselor be one of the two, this - what was her name?"

"Mulder!"

Sharp, commanding, it drew his gaze outward but failed to derail his train of thought. "What was her n...name, Scully? Why c...can't I remember her name?"

His face contorted in pain and he curled forward, raising knees to his chest and burying his face in them. "God, God, God, it hurts," he chanted. "Why can't I remember? What did they do to me? What did those bastards do to me?"

Scully rushed to the bathroom to collect Dilantin, painkiller, and a tumbler of water, tears clogging her throat and stinging her eyes. She longed to hang onto her anger at his stubbornness, but compassion and pity were already swallowing it. Grabbing his arm she maneuvered him, nearly blind with the excruciating pain, to the couch. She guided the pills and water to his lips, then tugged him down so that his head rested on her lap. He submitted to her ministrations without protest or suggestive remarks, the agony robbing him of the ability to connect with anything outside himself. He simply curled into a ball and shivered.

Scully ran her fingers through his hair, gently massaging his scalp and the flesh at his temple, palm smoothing up and down the curve of his spine. All the while she kept up a patter of low, soothing words while one eye watched the clock. After nearly twenty minutes she felt a subtle loosening of the muscles across his back and shoulders and his breathing slowed from harsh pants to a more normal level of respiration. By the time thirty minutes had ticked away, his eyes were fluttering, his body slack and heavy against her as he fought the pull of a drugged sleep.

Immediate crisis past, Scully's ire reasserted itself. "Mulder, this is ridiculous," she said tersely, though her hands continued to soothe. "You have to back off, take things at a slower pace."

He blinked, struggled against an unwieldy tongue. "Can't, Scully. Don't know how."

Worry and frustration honed her reply to a razor's edge. "Well, you'd better learn. You can't continue this way, it's going to kill you."

His mouth twisted into a bitter smile. "I think that's the whole idea."


X-Files Office
Monday
10:27 a.m.

"So this is the infamous X-Files division. Nice digs, Spooky."

Mulder looked up, pleasure replacing irritation at the sight of Digger lounging in the open doorway. Leaning back in his chair, he laced his fingers behind his head and grinned. "Home of the FBI's most unwanted. What brings you to no man's land, Digger?"

"Brought you a present," he replied, producing a tall cup of Starbuck's coffee from behind his back.

Mulder sat forward, one hand extended and a look of unbridled lust on his face. "Forget that crap about Greeks bearing gifts. Whatever you want, I'll do it," he promised fervently.

Digger's smile widened and he stepped inside, chortling when Mulder snatched the cup from him, downed several long swallows, and sighed blissfully. "Don't they give you guys coffeemakers down here?"

Mulder made a face, jerking a thumb over his shoulder to indicate a machine bearing a nearly full pot. "Yeah. Trouble is, Scully got sneaky and switched the regular for decaf - as if I wouldn't notice. Stuff tastes like the inside of my running shoes."

Digger quirked an eyebrow. "I'm not even going to ask." He looked suspiciously at Mulder and frowned. "Wait a minute - why did she do that? Are you sure you're allowed to drink that stuff?"

Mulder waved his hand, chugging more coffee as if fearing Digger would take it back. "Doc just said I should avoid caffeine, one cup won't kill me," he said airily.

Digger groaned and dropped into a chair. "Great, just great! First I slip you the case file and now I'm poisoning you. Your partner is gonna shoot me!"

For some reason Mulder found his words incredibly funny, nearly spewing the coffee out of his mouth with barely contained mirth. "Already been there, Digger," he gasped, swiping at his eyes with his sleeve. "Don't worry, she's a doctor, so at least she can patch you back up afterward."

Digger shook his head. "I'll say it again - I'm not even going to ask." He extracted a manila folder tucked beneath his arm and tossed it onto Mulder's desk. "The lowdown on Traci Pritchard, for what it's worth. There's not much to distinguish her from the others. Is Dana doing the autopsy?"

"As we speak." Mulder flipped the file open and scanned the first page. "Someone talk to the husband?"

"Yeah. Gentry is typing up the report now, he'll fax it when he's done. >From what I hear, you won't get much. The guy was pretty broken up. Evidently they'd been trying to get pregnant for almost five years. I don't think he'd adjusted to the idea of losing the baby, and now his wife..."

Mulder gazed up from the folder, one finger tapping his lower lip. "Did she have fertility treatments?"

Digger straightened. "I don't know. Why? Is it important?"

Mulder shrugged, then sighed. "Probably not. I just thought..."

The strident ringing of the phone interrupted his reply. He scooped it from its cradle while shooting Digger an apologetic look.

"Mulder... Thanks, Jerry, I'll be right up."

"Sounds like my cue to hit the road," Digger observed.

He stood and shoved both hands into his pockets, watching while Mulder donned his jacket and straightened his tie. "Got an interview with the woman who handled the genetic counseling for all the dead women," Mulder explained, picking up a notepad and heading for the door. "Scully and Skinner have me grounded, so I arranged for her to come here."

Digger clucked his tongue disapprovingly, so that Mulder paused and glanced back. His friend stood beside the desk with arms folded and a disappointed expression.

"What?"

Digger slowly shook his head. "Spooky Mulder, greatest criminal profiler of our time. He can tell you what a killer ate for breakfast, but he can't pull the wool over the eyes of his own partner."

Mulder's eyes narrowed. "What in the hell are you talking about, Costanza?"

Digger picked up the empty Starbuck's cup, strolled over, and waggled it under Mulder's nose. "Evidence, my friend. You can't commit the perfect crime if you leave behind irrefutable proof of your guilt. From what I've seen of your partner, she doesn't miss much."

Mulder grimaced, accepting the cup. "You have no idea, Digger. No idea."


Conference Room
Monday
10:40 a.m.

Mulder poured Miriam Richardson a cup of coffee, surreptitiously studying her profile. She was not at all what he'd envisioned, though he wasn't sure the implications of that discovery. Somehow the name Miriam had conjured up an image of a middle-aged woman wearing glasses and a conservative suit. The reality was younger than he, blonde, very pretty...and confined to a wheelchair. "I appreciate you coming all the way over here," he said, setting the cup by her hand and sinking into a chair directly across the table. "I'm afraid it was asking a lot, I didn't realize..."

"Agent Mulder, I haven't had the use of my legs since the day I was born. Despite that fact - because of it, actually - I have become quite adept at functioning in a world designed for two-legged people. I was perfectly capable of coming down for the interview. I'm here, aren't I?"

Mulder blushed a little at the hint of exasperation in her tone. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to offend you. Normally, I would have come to the hospital to talk with you, but as I mentioned on the phone, I'm on restricted duty while I recover from an illness."

Miriam sipped the coffee. "And as I told you, I'm happy to help any way I can. But frankly, I'm baffled as to how I could possibly provide information for a murder investigation."

"Murders, actually. Six so far." He pushed a small stack of photos across the table. "Ms. Williams, do you recognize any of these women?"

Green eyes returned his gaze intently before she bent her head to consider the photos. Mulder heard the sharp intake of breath, watched her fingers tremble as she sifted through the pile one by one. When she lifted her head, the horror distorting her face appeared genuine.

"I know these women - all of them! Are they...? These women were victims of the Pro-Choice murderer? Is that it?"

Mulder kept his expression carefully neutral. "You're saying you didn't know? I find that hard to believe, Ms. Williams, this has turned into a highly publicized case."

Miriam bit her lip and shook her head, eyes dropping to the photos. "I'm not one to watch television, and I don't get a paper, Agent Mulder. I'd heard about the murders, of course, but nothing specific. Even if I'd heard a name I'm not sure I would have made the connection. I see so many people every day, and I'm not good with names. But faces..."

Mulder leaned closer, arms braced on the polished surface of the tabletop. "So you do know them."

Her fingers moved restlessly, flipping through the smiling faces again. "Yes. I counseled them, along with their husbands." Her head snapped up, a line marring the skin of her brow. "But you already knew that. Am I...? Am I some kind of suspect, Agent Mulder?"

*You were before you came in here on wheels instead of feet. But maybe that just means you had help.*

"One of the best tools for solving a crime of this nature is to establish a common thread between victims, Ms. Williams," Mulder said smoothly. "So far, you are the only link to all six women. That makes you a key figure in this investigation." He gestured to the pictures. "Can you tell me anything about them? Was there something that stands out in your memory about your sessions?"

Miriam licked her lips, face pale. "It was all pretty routine. If I remember correctly, all of them had a positive AFP test and followed up with an amnio. I gave them an idea of what to expect if the child was carried to term, and statistics for reoccurrence in subsequent pregnancies. As you already know, all six women opted to abort."

Something in her voice caught Mulder's ear. "That simple? Was it a joint decision, did the couples agree?"

Miriam pursed her lips. "It's a very emotional issue, Agent Mulder. Of course they were devastated and in some cases agreement was not reached without some discord." Her frown deepened and she sorted through the photos yet again. "There was something a little...odd."

"Go on."

She hesitated. "As I said, this is a decision that is never reached dispassionately." She made a face. "Believe me, I've seen it all, right down to a knock down, drag out fight when one couple couldn't reach a resolution. But in each of these cases I sensed an additional emotion from the women. Something I'm not accustomed to seeing, at least not in such magnitude."

Mulder fought the impulse to rub the tense muscles at the base of his neck, settled for playing with the cap of his pen. "And that emotion was...?"

Miriam's eyes looked beyond him to memories inspired by the photos. "Fear, Agent Mulder. Now don't misunderstand, a certain amount of fear is completely normal and even expected in these cases. Parents are distraught not only over the fate of their unborn child, but those yet to be conceived. But this...this was different. Each of these women experienced an extremely high level of anxiety at the news of their child's defect and made a snap decision to abort, even if their husbands were reticent. In one particular case..." She rifled through the pictures, pulling one to the forefront. "This woman. Jane Gran...Gram..."

"Garson. Janet Garson," Mulder filled in.

"Yes. When her husband expressed doubt about going through with an abortion she became nearly hysterical. I thought she was going to have a panic attack." Miriam blew out a long gust of air, pressing two fingers to her lips. "I felt so sorry for him. They'd had a very difficult time conceiving and he couldn't understand why she would be so quick to terminate the pregnancy."

Mulder's fingers froze in the process of dismantling the pen. "She'd had trouble conceiving?"

If Miriam noticed the edge to his voice, she didn't show it. "Yes. I think her husband said they'd tried for over three years before finally having success."

Mulder reached out to tap Janet Garson's face with one long finger. "You're sure it was this one - Janet Garson?"

Now Miriam did look puzzled. "Yes, I'm positive. Why?"

Mulder ignored the question, filing this latest revelation away in a corner of his mind until later when he could examine it without interruption. "How long have you been doing this, Ms. Williams? Genetic counseling, I mean."

"Um...nearly seven years now, I guess. I started at the hospital in '92."

"Must be hard to just provide information without influencing the decision," Mulder mused, going back to destroying the pen but watching her from the corner of one eye. "What's your opinion on abortion, Ms. Williams?"

The query seemed to sandbag her. Miriam's hand jerked, sending several photos skidding across the table and nearly spilling her coffee. "What?"

"Your feelings about abortion - I assume you have them?" Mulder persisted.

For the first time he saw real anger sweep across her face, twisting her features into someone he barely recognized. "What does that have to do with anything? I do my job, my personal feelings are irrelevant."

"You, and your job, are the one thing six dead women have in common," Mulder replied coldly. "That makes it relevant. Please answer the question."

Miriam clasped her hands together until the knuckles were white, her eyes hard as flint. "*Personally*" - she emphasized the word - "I don't condone it. I hold life sacred, Agent Mulder, whether that be genetically imperfect babies *or* their parents. I think everyone deserves a chance. Does that answer your question?"

Mulder nodded as an idea slowly took shape. "You said you've always been paralyzed. Would you mind telling me the cause?"

She dropped her gaze, suddenly fascinated with the pattern of her entwined fingers. "I have Spina Bifida," she mumbled, the words barely audible.

"In other words, had your mother chosen as these women did, you wouldn't be here today," Mulder pressed.

Miriam didn't respond, but her nails dug crescent-shaped gouges into the backs of her hands. "Are we finished here? I need to get back to work."

"For now." Mulder took out a sheet of paper listing six dates and handed it to her.

She glanced at it briefly before fixing him with an impatient stare. "What's this?"

"The dates that each of those six women went missing," he replied, standing. "I'll need you to provide written confirmation of where you were in each case. Witnesses would be helpful. You can email it or fax it - I've listed the information at the top."

Miriam pushed herself away from the table and pivoted her chair to face him as he opened the conference room door. "You must be kidding! You can't honestly consider me a suspect in their deaths! I can't even walk, how would I possibly pull it off?"

Mulder shrugged. "You said it yourself, Ms. Williams. You've become quite adept at functioning in a world designed for two-legged people. Just get me that information, and we'll take it from there."

She wheeled past him angrily, brushing off his attempt to help her maneuver around a chair. Mulder followed her to the elevators, trying to ignore a faint throbbing that materialized just over his right eye.


Hoover Cafeteria
Monday
10:42 a.m.

"I've seen happier faces on a corpse - but then why am I telling *you* that?"

Scully left off her contemplation of a whole-wheat bagel and attempted a smile. It was weak and insubstantial, but considering her current mood she gave herself an 'A' for effort.

"You really know how to sweet talk a girl, Digger," she said dryly.

"Part of my charm," he agreed. "Mind some company?"

Actually, a large part of her did. Traci Pritchard's autopsy left her feeling disgruntled and out of sorts, emotions rubbed raw and too close to the surface. She couldn't tell Digger that, so she simply inclined her head and sipped her coffee.

"Rough morning?" he asked shrewdly, slipping into a plastic chair and studying her face.

"A bit," Scully replied evasively. "I was at Quantico by six to autopsy Traci Pritchard. Figured I'd give myself a jump- start before going over the results with Mulder. He's not supposed to have caffeine right now, so we've only got decaf in the office."

For some reason Digger looked extremely uncomfortable at that, shifting his gaze to take in a group of four agents at a nearby table. Figuring he was still feeling guilty over giving Mulder the casefile, Scully laid a reassuring hand on his arm.

"He's doing all right, Digger."

Black eyes leaped back to her face and a frown creased his brow. "Yeah. He acts like the same old Spooky that drove all of us in the VCS crazy. But I gotta admit, seeing him the other day threw me for a loop. He looked like..."

Scully tilted her head. "Like?"

"Like when he was Patterson's golden boy, working 90 hour weeks. Mulder was the Bureau's most valuable natural resource, and they exploited him every chance they got." Digger's fingers curled into a fist and he grit his teeth. "Patterson nearly killed him, shoving one case after another at him, nonstop. He got out just in time."

Scully traced a coffee stain on the table with her index finger. "He hasn't said much about those days. He did admit that by the time he found the X-Files he was close to a breakdown."

Digger huffed a humorless laugh. "Patterson was a cold, manipulative son of a bitch," he said tightly. "He knew once he brought out pictures of the victims Mulder could never say no. He'd drive himself, not eating, not sleeping, until he could barely function."

Scully nodded, remembering. "I can imagine. I've seen a glimpse of it, during certain cases." She hesitated, then continued. "It seems like you and Mulder were good friends, Digger. Why did you lose touch?"

Digger shrugged. "Kerri and I had him over for dinner once or twice after he transferred but it was... awkward. I think at first he was still healing and then he went through that hypnotic regression crap and..." he broke off, obviously embarrassed.

"Look, I don't mean to sound harsh, and what he does in his private life is just that - private. But afterward, he changed. It was like he'd found religion or something. Even though he'd always been driven, intense, at least he'd expressed it in ways I could understand. But this..." Digger shook his head ruefully. "Little green men," he muttered.

Scully's smile was less forced. "I understand, Digger. I must admit that when I was assigned to be Mulder's partner I wasn't sure what to expect." She chuckled. "A brilliant crackpot, I guess. It didn't take long for me to realize that crackpot was the best agent I'd ever worked with. And though his theories may be unorthodox, I've seen things during the past seven years that simply can't be explained by conventional means."

"I'll take your word for that. And I can't deny that the X- Files, and your partnership, seems to agree with him. I'm glad to have you both on this case. Maybe we'll finally be able to put an end to this nightmare."

Digger stood, placing both hands in the small of his back and stretching until his spine gave a satisfying crack. "Better get moving. Jeffreys has me running down some background info on Traci Pritchard."

"Good luck," Scully replied. "Maybe you can find another thread to tie these women together."

He saluted, grinning impudently. "I'll do my best. And by the way, you won't find Spooky in the office. Said he was interviewing someone - some kind of counselor?"

Scully sat up straighter. "He didn't leave the building, did he?"

Digger chuckled. "Take it easy, Dana. He's behaving himself. Said you and Skinner have him on a short leash so he asked the woman to come here."

Scully settled back into her chair looking a little bit sheepish and a lot relieved. "Trust Mulder to do the unexpected and follow orders," she muttered.

Digger laughed. "He wasn't kidding when he said nothing slips past you. I can see he's in good hands. Later, Dana."

She watched him saunter out of the cafeteria, still snickering to himself, before standing up and collecting her briefcase. She hadn't been entirely truthful about her motives for getting coffee. Yes, she'd felt gummy eyed and in dire need of caffeine, but that was only half the problem. Mulder was the second half.

Scully tossed her empty cup into the trash and made her way to the elevator, nodding now and then to a familiar face. Once inside she slumped against the far wall and blankly watched the glowing numbers count down to her destination. The office was blessedly deserted, as Digger had predicted. She sat at her desk and carefully took out the Pritchard file, laying it on the blotter and arranging the contents so that none of the papers protruded. That accomplished, she laced her fingers together and dropped her forehead on top of them.

*Get it together, Dana. He sees you like this and he won't let it go of it*

Autopsying the victim of a violent crime was never an easy task, but she'd developed a certain professional detachment over her years as a pathologist. Maintaining that detachment was as tricky as walking a fence - too much and you risked forgetting the humanity of your subject, too little and their faces haunted your dreams. Traci Pritchard's autopsy left her listing dangerously toward the latter, in spite of her best efforts to avoid it.

The total violation of the woman's body could only be likened to a rape, the brutal taking of something intimate and private with casual disregard. The fact that Traci exhibited no signs of struggle, of resistance, only increased Scully's discomfort. Could she have acquiesced so completely, so easily? The flesh of her wrists and ankles was smooth and unblemished, no ligature marks to suggest she'd been restrained. The preliminary tox screen was negative but for a mild sedative, no evidence of heavy narcotics or poison. Nothing that would have caused her to lose consciousness or left her defenseless. To all appearances, Traci Pritchard had willingly submitted to her fate.

Why?

The office door swung abruptly open and Scully jerked quickly upright, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear and flipping open the file folder. If he'd noticed her morose contemplation, Mulder gave no sign. He did a slight double take, as if surprised by her presence, and slid into his chair.

"Pretty fast slicing and dicing, Scully. Wasn't expecting you before noon."

Scully winced at his choice of words but chose to say nothing. "I ran into Digger in the cafeteria. He said you were interviewing Miriam Richardson. How did it go?"

Mulder snorted. "She was...not what I expected. But before I get into that, tell me about Traci Pritchard. Find anything we can use?"

"I wish I could say yes, but I'm afraid my findings won't differ from any of the others. The tox screen was clear except for a low level of Valium, and there was no trace evidence of any kind. From what I could see, she wasn't even restrained, Mulder. Frankly, I have no explanation for it."

Mulder rubbed both eyes with the heels of his hands, reclining in his chair until it wobbled precariously. "You're sure she wasn't given anything else? Maybe something that wouldn't show up on your average tox screen?"

"I'm having the lab run a few additional tests," Scully replied. "But I must admit I'm not hopeful. There were no needle marks on the body, and that would be the most efficient means to drug her without a struggle. The Valium was administered orally, there were traces in her stomach," she sighed. "Sorry I can't offer more insights."

Mulder dropped his hands and eyed her closely. "You can't find something that doesn't exist, Scully. I appreciate you conducting this autopsy, I know it couldn't have been easy for you."

His gentle tone made her inexplicably angry. "It was an autopsy, Mulder, just like any other. You've never thanked me before, why start now?"

As she'd hoped, his temper flared. "All victims are not created equal, Scully, so spare me the Ice Queen act! This woman had her unborn child ripped from her body, then was discarded like a candy wrapper! It bothers the hell out of me, so forgive me if I underestimated the depth of your ability to distance yourself."

They glared at each other for a moment before Mulder blew out an exasperated breath of air and turned to pick up his phone. He stabbed the buttons with his finger, then reached up to massage his brow.

"Digger? It's Mulder."

Scully glanced away, arms folded defensively across her chest and lips compressed to a thin line. She was aware that she'd deliberately picked a fight with Mulder to short circuit his concern, and was slightly ashamed of the tactic. Truth was, she could handle the anger - it pushed back her own feelings of horror and loss to a manageable level and sharpened her focus. It was his tenderness and solicitude that threatened to take her apart, piece by piece.

"...don't care what Jeffreys has you doing, I need you to drop it and check something out for me."

Scully frowned, turned to face Mulder more completely, but he'd swiveled in his chair to give her a view of his back.

"You remember what you said about Traci Pritchard? That she'd had difficulty conceiving? Well, according to Miriam Richardson, Janet Garson suffered the same difficulty." Mulder paused, listening intently. "Yeah, the genetics counselor. I need you to see if any of the other victims..."

"Mulder."

Scully was at his side, one hand on his arm. Mulder glanced back over his shoulder, brows dipping, and held up a hand to stall her off.

"See if any of the other victims had..."

"Mulder."

The urgency in Scully's voice broke through, but he scowled. "Hang on a minute, Digger." He covered the mouthpiece with his palm and turned impatiently to face her.

"Can't it wait a minute? I'm..."

"It took Elizabeth Brentwood years to conceive. Dr. Lathrop called this her 'miracle baby.'"

Mulder stared at her with narrowed eyes for a long moment, then removed his hand from the phone. "Digger? Add Elizabeth Brentwood to that list. Yeah, Scully just told me. I need you to check the others, see if they fit the pattern. And find out if they underwent fertility treatments."

He paused again as Digger rambled on the other end of the line and his eyes crinkled with amusement. "Just making sure you live up to the name, Douggie."

He hung up a moment later and regarded Scully without speaking.

"Mulder, there was no way to know that bit of information would turn out to be significant," she said heatedly. "It was an offhanded remark by Dr. Lathrop. He was trying to apologize for flying off the handle with me by explaining that Elizabeth Brentwood had been a special patient. Under the circumstances, I didn't feel it merited any further discussion."

"Scully, that is such bullshit and you know it! In any investigation, the most innocuous detail can turn out to be vitally important. That's why one person doesn't make that judgement. You had an obligation to include that information in your report, yet you chose not to. Why?"

Scully fixed him with eyes like blue ice. "I already explained that."

Mulder shook his head. "And I'm not buying it. Scully, you are too good an agent to disregard protocol for no reason." He softened, chuckling ruefully. "That's *my* job. You must have had a reason not to tell me." He reached out to snag her hand. "Despite what you say, I know how close to home this case hits you, and..."

She jerked her hand out of his grasp, tucking it under the other arm. "My problem is not this case, Mulder, it's *you*. I didn't mention Elizabeth's infertility because I knew you'd react just the way you are now - treating me with kid gloves as if I'm going to fall to pieces! Well, I'm not! I'm perfectly capable of putting aside any personal feelings I have and I'd appreciate it if you'd do the same."

She braced herself for a sarcastic retort that never came. Mulder blew out a long breath of air and shook his head, a bittersweet smile curving his mouth. "Seven years, Scully. Don't you know by now that to me, everything about you is personal?"

She hated it when he did that. Mulder could be an arrogant, self-centered bastard at times, but he could also speak the only words she needed to hear. Scully heaved her own sigh and let her eyes slip shut in resignation, her wrath neatly defused.

"I just want you to trust me, Mulder," she said quietly. "This case isn't about me. I'm not likely to lose sight of that."

When Mulder didn't respond, she opened her eyes. He was staring at her, but through her, an expression on his face that was both a grimace of pain and a frown of concentration.

"Mulder?"

He made a cutting gesture with one hand, then pressed both palms against his temples. "You said this case isn't about you, Scully, but maybe that's not completely true. Maybe..."

"Mulder, don't. Whatever it is, it'll come to you later. You need to step back..."

"NO! Scully, what if it's more than just a coincidence those women were infertile? What if the cause of their infertility links them together?"

His eyes were squeezed tightly shut now, and Scully saw moisture at the corners as if he were fighting back tears of pain. She was torn between insisting he stop and helping him follow the thread he'd uncovered.

"What do you mean?"

"You didn't start out infertile, Scully. They stole your ova during your abduction." Mulder's voice was low, almost guttural as he choked out the words.

"I don't see..."

"We need to check MUFON, see if any of the victims are registered. And we need to find out if they were ever missing, have absences they couldn't account for," he pressed on. He was gasping now, face buried in his hands as he rocked slightly back and forth in a hopeless effort to soothe himself.

Scully crouched down beside him, one hand cupping the back of his neck, the other resting on his knee. "Mulder, are you saying what I think you're saying?"

"Abductees, Scully," he gritted out between clenched teeth. "I think our victims may all have been abductees." His voice trailed off to a whisper and he shuddered helplessly against a fresh assault of agony.

Scully drew his head down to her shoulder and ran her hands over the bunched muscles of his back. Tremors broke through his body in waves as he rode out the pain. She comforted him as best she could, but his words swirled dizzily through her head and inside she felt strangely numb.


Alexandria
Monday 1:30 p.m.

Scully pulled her car smoothly to the curb near the front door of Hegal Place, grateful for the proximity. Mulder sat rigidly in the seat beside her, one hand wrapped around the plastic door handle in a white-knuckled grip, the other curled around his midsection. Though his eyes were hidden behind a pair of Ray-Bans, the tension in his facial muscles testified that they were tightly shut against even the filtered light.

When he didn't move, she got out of the car and circled around to open his door. The slight sheen of sweat across his forehead disturbed her, but not as much as his lack of comment when she unbuckled the seatbelt.

"Come on, partner. Almost there," she urged gently.

She could see him prepare for the additional discomfort that motion would bring - shoulders hunched, jaw set. He swung both feet to the pavement and pushed himself gingerly upright, biting down hard on his lip and swaying slightly before her arm around his waist steadied him.

"Take it slow," Scully murmured. "Quick, sudden movements will only provoke the nausea."

"Yeah. I've noticed," he said tightly.

Somehow she maneuvered him up the steps, into the elevator, and down the hallway. She could see him walking with cat feet as if the impact of every step went straight through his head. He draped himself against the doorjamb, brow pressed to the wood, as she fumbled for his key and let them inside.

"Where are they?" she asked shortly as he wobbled over to the couch.

"Bedroom."

Scully found the amber vial on the nightstand, cap still askew. She collected two capsules and detoured to the kitchen to fill a tumbler with water. Mulder was slumped on the couch, jacket off, tie undone, and one arm thrown across his eyes. When the cushions dipped as she lowered herself beside him, he extended one hand so that she could place first pills and then water into it.

Scully leaned back, studying his profile from the corner of her eye as she bit back the myriad of comments his suffering precluded her from making. Mulder was the only person she'd ever known who could inspire her to feel sorry for him and furious with him at the same time.

"Go ahead."

His voice startled her from her fuming. She glanced over at him, but he hadn't moved.

"What?"

"Go ahead. I know you're pissed off at me, so you might as well get it out of your system." Weariness and resignation, but not even a trace of the usual black humor.

"Mulder, I don't think now is the time to..."

"Fine. I'll do it. You should have stopped pushing yourself when you felt the headache coming on, Mulder. You should have let me drive you home after the first time you puked. You should have had the damn pills with you at the office, not sitting next to your bed. Have I left anything out?"

Scully rolled her tongue around the inside of her cheek. "No, that about covers it."

No sarcastic comeback. No razor-edged wit. Just silence.

"Mulder, I don't know what you expect me to say that I haven't already said. You know how I feel about you continuing to drive yourself over this case." Scully tried to keep her tone reasonable, to banish the frustration.

"It's easier to think of it that way, isn't it, Scully?" he asked, sotto voice.

She frowned. "What does that mean?" When he didn't answer, she tugged the arm from his eyes. "What did you mean, Mulder?"

Mulder blinked, reflexes already slowing down as the drugs hit his bloodstream. "Telling yourself that this case is the source of my headaches and everything will be fine once it's over. But we both know that's not true, don't we?"

Scully's eyes skittered away from his face. She didn't want to answer, yet realized her silence was all the reply he needed. Mulder shifted toward her, grimacing.

"We should have expected something like this, Scully," he said bitterly. "The note pointing you to the DOD, the card key, getting me out of there without a hitch. All just a little too convenient, don't you think?"

"You mean it was a set up. That they intended me to find you and get you out of there. Do you think Diana knew?"

The pain that flared briefly in his eyes had nothing to do with the headache. "Doesn't really matter. The point is, they allowed you to rescue me because they knew something we didn't. Namely that they were holding all the cards."

Scully sat up straighter, her eyes hard. "Then we'll show them they're mistaken. They've always underestimated you, Mulder, and this is no different."

Mulder leaned forward and scrubbed his face with his hands before raising bleary eyes. "Don't you see, Scully? They finally found a way to solve the Fox Mulder problem without drawing unwanted attention. Murder can be so messy. Better to just return me, broken. That way I'm still alive, but useless."

"Stop it," Scully said thickly. "That's defeatist talk, Mulder. You've never backed down from a fight, and now is no time to start."

A jagged laugh, and he shook his head. "How, Scully? How do I fight them when they've taken away all the tools? My memory is shot to hell; I can't seem to access the most basic information I know I possess. And every time I try to use inductive reasoning - logic, intuition, or whatever blend of both that somehow takes me to where I need to go on a case like this - I get a headache. And not just any headache, but the mother of all migraines. The kind that makes you want to bang your head on the floor just to make it stop. How do I fight that, Scully? Where am I supposed to start?"

"They did something to you," Scully replied stubbornly. "If we can understand what that was, we can begin to figure out how to reverse it."

"Palermo couldn't find it! You admitted he's run every diagnostic test possible. And what about that blood you sent to the Bureau? Did they come up with anything?"

Scully caught her lip between her teeth with a slight shake of her head.

Mulder slumped back into the cushions, eyes slipping shut to ward off the pity in her gaze. "This job is all I have, Scully. My only avenue for finding out what happened to my sister. God knows, my mother has never provided any answers." He pressed one palm to his forehead. "I have to be able to work."

Scully took in the slight slur to the words, the loose sprawl of his posture. "Are the pills working?"

"Yeah. Few more minutes an' I won' be able to tie m' shoe laces let alone catch a killer. Go back to work, Scully. Be fine."

Scully hesitated, unhappy with the despondency in his answer but at a loss to combat it. "You should be in bed," she said, then mentally kicked herself for providing such an opening.

Mulder was either too drugged or too depressed to follow through with the requisite innuendo. "'M comfortable here." He slid to the right and curled onto his side, bringing both feet up to brush her thighs. "Go see 'f Digger got lucky 'n stop hovering."

Scully huffed, exasperated. "I'll stop back after work to see how you're doing and give you an update," she said.

When he didn't respond, she collected the water glass and refilled it, setting it back on the coffee table in case he grew thirsty. His breathing had already slipped into the deep rhythm of sleep, so she tugged his blanket up from the foot of the couch until it covered his shoulders. He didn't twitch when she donned her coat and left, locking the door securely behind her.

Settled in her car, keys in ignition, Scully let her head rest against the cold plastic of the steering wheel. After seven years of seeing Mulder weather a plethora of life- threatening illnesses and injuries she'd come to view the man as practically indestructible. Despite enduring the very worst that life could throw at a person, he was like the Energizer Bunny - he kept going, and going...

But now, in the solitude of the government issue Ford Taurus, she admitted she was afraid. Her science, her medicine, had fallen short of this particular hurdle and she felt helpless to scale it. She could protest all she liked, but she couldn't deny the truth of Mulder's statement. He needed the work - like air, it was what sustained him. If the Consortium truly had found the means to cripple him, to take that away...

Maybe quitting now was a moot point. Maybe they'd already won.


Violent Crimes Unit
Monday
4:53 p.m.

"Spooky strikes again," Digger said, motioning for Scully to take a seat next to his desk.

Scully glanced uneasily around her before complying, bombarded with memories of time in the bullpen. She could vividly recall Mulder's face the day A.D. Kersh had assigned her to the case with Peyton Ritter. Bored and frustrated, his brilliant mind stagnating under a deluge of mindless, repetitive busywork, she'd seen just how much supporting her cost him. He'd belonged on that case as much as she, and in the end, his absence had nearly killed her.

"Dana? You with me?"

Flushing, Scully pulled herself back to the task at hand. "Sorry, Digger. What were you saying?"

He scrutinized her face, his own creased with worry. "Mulder is okay, isn't he? I know you said his going home was no big deal, but it isn't like Spooky to let a headache stop him, especially when he's hot on the scent."

She knew his concern was genuine, but hesitated revealing too much. Mulder could be an intensely private person, and he despised feeling weak or helpless. She wasn't sure he'd appreciate Digger knowing the extent of his illness.

"He'll be fine. He took his meds and was sleeping like a baby when I left him," she said, wishing she felt the certainty she projected. "Now, what do you have for me?"

Digger turned back to his computer, eyes lighting up like a chocoholic presented with a double fudge brownie delight. "Like I said, Mulder was dead on. I found out that Elizabeth Brentwood, Janet Garson, Traci Pritchard, and Eve Roberts are all registered with MUFON."

"What about the other two? Corrie Jenkins and Nicole Eddings?"

"Their names weren't on the roster, but Nicole Eddings subscribes to several magazines and newsletters that deal with the paranormal in general and focus on UFO sightings. And I found a police report for the Jenkins woman, from '89. She disappeared from a high school camping trip and was missing for 48 hours. They found her wandering in the woods, unable to remember where she'd been. It was chalked up to trauma and exposure, and after being checked out at a local hospital she was sent home. End of story."

Scully pressed her index finger beneath her nose. "Or not," she said dryly. "Any police reports on the others?"

"Still checking. Several have moved around quite a bit, which makes them harder to track. I'll let you know as soon as I have more." Digger shook his head ruefully. "Leave it to Spooky to get me involved with little green men."

"Gray," Scully muttered automatically, scanning the printout Digger had handed her.

"Huh?"

She laughed quietly to herself. "Nothing, Digger. You did a good job. No wonder Mulder gave you your nickname."

Digger shrugged. "Don't thank me. I just dig where I'm told. You and Mulder are the ones pointing out the location. How did you come up with this anyway?"

"The fact that the women were all infertile set off some warning bells," Scully replied. "It defies the odds and we've...run across something similar in the past."

Digger considered her words. "You think our killer has an axe to grind against this MUFON group, or people that believe in that stuff? Maybe someone close to him got involved and went off the deep end? I mean, you gotta be a little wacky to belong to a group like that, don't you?"

Penny Northern's pale, pain-ridden face and wasted body flashed through Scully's mind, tightening her throat and stealing the breath from her lungs. "You'd be surprised, Digger," she replied, tucking the printout into her briefcase to mask the emotion.

The hand on her arm startled her, and she looked up into Digger's apologetic eyes. "Did Mulder happen to mention that I frequently need assistance extracting my foot from my mouth?"

She couldn't help smiling at the genuine remorse in his voice. "It's all right. You develop a pretty thick skin working in the X-Files division."

"Just the same, I'm sorry. You two have gotten this investigation back on track, and I have no right to ridicule your methods or your experience. Now, what's our next move?"

"I'm going to stop by Mulder's to fill him in on what we've learned," Scully said briskly. "Could you update Jeffreys?"

Digger made a face. "Gonna make me suffer for that MUFON remark, hmm? Sure, I'll tell him."

"We're going to want to talk to all the families, both about any instances of missing time and the fertility treatment issue. I'll need to re-examine Traci Pritchard's body, and the other women as well."

Digger frowned. "You realize that'll require exhumation orders. The families won't be happy."

"Can't be helped," Scully returned grimly. "If what Mulder is thinking pans out, each of those bodies will bear an unmistakable mark that irrevocably links them together."

Digger lifted both eyebrows. "Which is?"

She shook her head. "When I find it I'll let you know, Digger. I'd rather not speculate."

He opened his mouth to protest, then sighed. "Spooky."

Scully stood and picked up her briefcase. "Welcome to the X-Files, Digger," she said wryly. "Nice to have you on board."


FBI Headquarters
Tuesday
2:39 p.m.

"I don't understand what this has to do with Elizabeth's murder."

The words were uttered sharply, with a tone of accusation. The subtext was obvious - *Why are you dragging me in here to ask stupid questions instead of catching my wife's killer?*

Mulder tapped the yellow pad with the eraser end of his pencil, mentally donning kid gloves. Elizabeth Brentwood was the second victim, dead nearly ten months now. Steve Brentwood's frustration, though inconvenient, was understandable.

"Mr. Brentwood - Steve - I realize some of these questions may seem totally irrelevant. Please believe me when I say that I would not have asked you here and dredged up painful memories if I didn't have good reason."

Brentwood sighed and ran the fingers of one hand through unruly auburn hair. "Agent Mulder, if I had a dime for every time..." He shook his head. "What was the question?"

"I asked if, to your knowledge, Elizabeth had ever experienced any episodes of missing time - that is, was absent for a period of time without any explanation or memory of where she'd been?"

Brentwood swallowed thickly. "I can't believe you're asking me this. Liz - she was embarrassed, never wanted anyone to know." He snorted bitterly, tugging at an eyebrow. "Guess she won't mind now, huh?"

Mulder waited silently, loath to exacerbate the man's pain.

"The first time was before we were married, before I even knew her," he continued. "She was attending college at the time, a freshman at GWU. Her family was from the Chicago area and she was going home for spring break. When her parents came to pick her up at the airport, they discovered she'd never made the flight. Liz showed up back at her dorm room two days later, dazed and disoriented but otherwise fine. The cops and her family chalked it up to excessive post-finals partying."

"And what did Liz think?"

Brentwood pursed his lips. "She went along with the explanation at the time. I guess it was easier than insisting that she'd never had more than a couple beers. I met her during her junior year, and she never mentioned the incident. Until the second time."

"Go ahead," Mulder encouraged gently.

Brentwood took a sip of coffee, then glared at the cup as if disappointed with the contents. "We'd only been married a little over two years. I was out of town on business for a couple days. Normally when I was away I'd call Liz every night around 9, it was a routine we'd fallen into. She liked to take advantage of my absence to go out with friends, do some shopping, but she always made sure she was home at 9 for my call."

"Only this time you couldn't reach her," Mulder guessed, studying Brentwood's face.

He nodded savagely. "Yeah. I cut the trip short, rushed home early certain something terrible had happened. I burst into the house only to find Liz sitting at the kitchen table, just staring at nothing. She didn't understand why I was home, in her mind I'd just left that morning. When I proved to her that two days had elapsed she nearly became hysterical."

Mulder chewed on his lip. "It's never happened since? That was the last time?"

Brentwood grit his teeth. "Wasn't that enough?"

Mulder let that slide, glancing down at his notes. "There's one more question I have to ask you, Steve. I know this is a personal and painful subject, but it may be very important in our search for your wife's killer. I understand that you and Liz had tried to have a baby for many years before conceiving."

Brentwood's brows plunged. "How in the hell did you...? This has gone too far, Agent Mulder. Are you finished?"

He made a move as if to rise but Mulder's vise-like grip on his arm halted it. "The man who murdered your wife and baby is still free, Mr. Brentwood, and perfectly capable of killing again. I'd say we haven't gone nearly far enough, wouldn't you?"

Brentwood slumped back into the chair, one trembling fist pressed to his lips. He raised dull eyes to Mulder's face, then averted them. "Yes," he said woodenly. "We tried for seven years."

Mulder released his grip, softening his voice. "Did either one of you go to a doctor?"

His tongue snaked out to moisten dry lips. "Yeah. They told us Liz was sterile. That it would be impossible for her to have a child. Liz was convinced that it had something to do with those two mysterious disappearances. She had some crazy ideas about what might have happened to her during those times."

"She thought she'd been abducted by aliens."

Brentwood flushed, eyes darting back to Mulder's face. "It was very traumatic for her," he replied defensively. "She couldn't remember where she'd been, but she'd have these really strange dreams. Then one day she saw a television show with people describing similar experiences. At the end there was a number to call for more information, and before I knew it she'd joined this off the wall group called..."

"MUFON," Mulder filled in. "I'm actually quite familiar with them, Mr. Brentwood. It's legitimate."

Brentwood eyed him suspiciously, but continued. "I think someone in the group gave her the name of the fertility specialist. I was skeptical, especially considering the source, but Liz was so excited and hopeful..." He buried his face in his hands, then dragged them down until they were steepled beneath his chin. "I was stunned when it actually worked, when Liz told me she was pregnant. Stunned and ecstatic. Our dream, the one we'd hardly dared to consider, was actually coming true."

On very unstable footing now, Mulder proceeded cautiously. "Then you discovered there was a problem."

Brentwood's eyes squeezed shut and his head moved slowly from side to side. "When they said Down's Syndrome, I couldn't believe it," he whispered. "I was sure it must be a mistake. But the amniocentesis confirmed it."

"So you and Liz went to see Miriam Richardson?"

"She presented our...options. Not that Liz would listen. From the moment the first test indicated a possible defect, she was a bundle of nerves. And when it was confirmed... Liz freaked. She insisted abortion was our only recourse, wouldn't even consider anything else."

Mulder ran his thumb along the side of one finger. "Did she tell you why?"

Brentwood's eyes were steel. "She was afraid. Convinced that something horrible had been done to her when she was *abducted* - he pronounced the word with distaste - "and that the baby would turn out to be some kind of monster. Are we done now, Agent Mulder?"

"Just one more question. Could you tell me the name of the fertility specialist you and Liz saw?"

"Paxton. Dr. Sean Paxton. His office is in Arlington."

Mulder jotted down the name, pressing the heel of his free hand to his temple. He took a deep breath, then met Brentwood's gaze. "Thank you for your patience, Steve. I have one more request before you get out of here, and it won't be easy to hear."

Brentwood's fire faded to weary resignation. "What is it?"

"We've made some headway on the case pursuing a new avenue of investigation. Doing so requires that we examine your wife's body again. I need you to sign the exhumation order."

For a brief instant, Mulder thought he was about to be the recipient of Brentwood's right fist. Lurching to his feet, the man lunged across the table until his nose was mere centimeters from Mulder's. Mulder stood his ground, though the headache ratcheted up a notch. Brentwood's fist tightened, then opened.

"Give me a pen and the damn form," he growled.

Mulder reached into his jacket for a ballpoint, then slid it and the form across the table. Brentwood signed with short, vicious strokes, piercing the paper in one spot. He slapped the pen down and straightened, stabbing his index finger toward Mulder's chest.

"You reopened a wound today, Agent Mulder. It had better be worth it."

A multitude of responses flashed through Mulder's head, but in the end, he said nothing at all.


Violent Crimes Unit
Tuesday
3:56 p.m.

"Just the two I was looking for," Digger greeted as Mulder and Scully stepped into the conference room. "Glad you could make it." When Mulder glanced at the three agents across the table and took a seat beside him he added quietly, "I was hoping you weren't planning on leaving me in the hot seat all by myself."

"I wasn't aware I had a choice," Mulder murmured sarcastically. Jeffreys' memo included words like 'mandatory' and 'disciplinary action.'"

Digger pouted. "You got a written invitation? Mine just consisted of him telling me to have my butt in the conference room at 4 p.m.!"

"You're just jealous cuz Dad likes me best," Mulder returned.

Scully leaned an elbow on the table to peer around Mulder. "Are you boys finished? Because Jeffreys is going to be here any minute and it might be beneficial to have our ducks in a row."

Digger cocked a thumb in her direction. "Have I mentioned I like her, Spooky?"

"Once or twice," Mulder replied dryly. "What's the word on Dr. Sean Paxton?"

Digger pulled out a spiral notepad and squinted at what appeared to be hieroglyphics. "Nothing unusual on the surface. Grew up with Mom, Dad and one brother in the teeming metropolis of Crawfordsville, Indiana -did you know that the guy who wrote Ben Hur was born in Crawfordsville?" At Mulder's blank stare and Scully's arched eyebrow he hastened to continue. "He did his undergrad at IU, then medical school and residency at University of Illinois, specializing in OB-GYN. Graduated with flying colors, magna cum laude. Then it gets interesting."

"Rather than going into practice like a good little doctor he gets recruited by a high tech, bio-research facility in New Jersey by the name of InterGen Labs. Instead of delivering babies, he's up to his elbows in all kinds of funky genetics research - cloning and trying to combine two existing species to create a new one."

One look at Scully told Mulder there was no need to vocalize the word reverberating through his head, it fairly crackled in the air between them.

Hybridization.

"Digger, we're going to need you to look closer at InterGen, see if..."

Digger held up one hand, a smug grin on his face. "Way ahead of you, chief. I had a feeling you might say that so I did a little snooping. There seems to be two distinct faces to InterGen, one public and easily accessible, and the other guarded like Fort Knox." He shook his head ruefully. "I take that back - Fort Knox would be a piece of cake to hack into compared to this place."

"We have no doubt as to the extent of your genius," Scully said. "What did you find?"

Digger flashed her an impudent grin. "Nothing to do with the research, that was locked up too tight. But I did manage to glean a little info on the company itself. InterGen is a subsidiary of a company called VR Scientific that dabbles in just about everything, from surgical instruments and complicated medical equipment to research on diseases like cancer and AIDS. And VR Scientific is owned by an even larger corporation called..."

"Roush," Scully said quietly. She looked at Mulder with haunted eyes. "What have we stumbled onto here, Mulder?"

Mulder gave a quick shake of his head, not bothering to hide his grimace. "I'm not sure, Scully. Not what we set out to find."

Digger's eyes narrowed in annoyance. "Would you two mind speaking in complete sentences for those of us that can't read minds?"

Before Mulder or Scully could respond, Jeffreys breezed into the room with the two remaining team members in tow.

"Everyone's here. How refreshing," he said acidly as he settled himself at the head of the table. He turned to the agent sitting immediately to his left. "Gentry, would you like to update us on your investigation of the most recent dump site?"

Agent Patrick Gentry was a heavyset man with dark skin and a mustache as thick as his hair was thin. He cleared his throat, paging through the contents of a file folder spread before him.

"I wish I could say I had something new to add. My team canvassed the neighborhood, hoping to come up with an eyewitness, without luck. According to Agent Scully, time of death for Ms. Pritchard was around 0100 on Saturday, roughly ten hours before the discovery of the body. Our boy musta dropped her off during the wee hours of the morning, before it got light. She was discovered by Jada Chin, an employee of the dry cleaners, when she tried to dispose of some garbage."

"The dump site itself fits the pre-established pattern - a rundown, urban neighborhood where everyone makes it a habit to mind their own business. I'm not saying positively there were no witnesses, but even if there were, I doubt they'll come forward. Traci Pritchard was an upper middle class white woman, not one of their own."

Jeffreys nodded sagely. "Agent Scully? You performed the autopsy. Any insights to dazzle us?"

Scully lips thinned but her voice remained unperturbed. "As a matter of fact, Agent Mulder and I have uncovered information that drastically changes the focus of this investigation."

Jeffreys turned chameleon eyes on her. "Do tell."

"During the routine questioning of various witnesses, we discovered that each of the six victims received genetic counseling from the same person, a woman by the name of Miriam Richardson."

"Not only a woman, but a woman confined to a wheel chair - hardly a credible suspect," Jeffreys sneered.

"I'm not convinced our UNSUB is a single person," Mulder spoke up calmly, though there was an unmistakable edge to his voice. "Richardson has definite issues with abortion compounded by the fact that she herself suffers from Spina Bifida - the very condition that prompted some of our victims to pursue terminating their pregnancies. But there's more."

When he indicated Scully should continue with a tilt of his head she turned her attention back to the SAC's thunderous face. "Our interviews also uncovered the fact that all of the women had been diagnosed as infertile prior to this pregnancy. And all received fertility treatment at the same clinic, from the same physician. Dr. Sean Paxton."

Gentry and Archer murmured excitedly among themselves but Jeffreys remained unimpressed. "You haven't shared it all with us, Agent Scully, Agent Mulder." He smirked. "You haven't gotten to the part about little green men."

Mulder braced both elbows on the table, tipping his forehead down until it rested in his palms. Scully sent him a worried glare, but he merely kneaded the flesh with a sigh. "I thought we were all on the same team here, Jeffreys. That we all wanted the same thing. Was I wrong?"

"That was when we were looking for a flesh and blood serial killer, Mulder. But you couldn't leave it at that, could you? You had to bring in crazy ideas best left in the basement where they belong."

"You're the one who mentioned aliens, Jeffreys," Mulder said tightly. "If it makes you feel any better, despite the MUFON connection, I believe whoever did this was very much terrestrial in origin." He moved his right hand up to shade his eyes, masking the involuntary wince. "We have a connection now. And Agent Scully and I have seen this before."

Scully watched him from the corner of one eye, disturbed to see him unobtrusively swipe beads of perspiration from his upper lip. "Yes, sir," she said quickly, anxious to divert Jeffreys' focus from her partner. "As Agent Mulder said, we've established an experiential tie between the women - all six have at least one episode in their past of an unexplained absence. All six had difficulty conceiving. We have an additional connection in the persons of Miriam Richardson and Dr. Paxton. And once I finish re- examining the women's bodies we'll have a tangible, physical link."

Jeffreys' brow creased in confusion. "What?"

"A microchip. Embedded in the flesh at the base of the neck. I've already found one in Traci Pritchard. I have little doubt the rest will have them too."

Gentry shook his head bemusedly. "I dunno. Sounds like something from a science fiction novel to me."

Jeffreys was less diplomatic. "You spend your time digging up dead bodies and chasing UFOs if you must, but I want this investigation focused on Dr. Paxton. Archer can go talk to him first thing tomorrow, since you're restricted, Mulder, and Agent Scully will be tied up with the autopsies."

"NO!"

Mulder's vehement protest caught the SAC midway in rising from his seat. He sank back down, his anger obvious.

"Agent Mulder, you forget yourself. I am the agent in charge of this department and this investigation. You have been invited to lend your expertise. I decide the assignments, and I want you at your desk as specified, refining your profile."

Mulder surged to his feet, blinking when the room dissolved into a mass of swirling colors. "If you blunder in there and start asking questions about the murders Paxton will disappear without a trace. And all the evidence and any hope of catching our killer will disappear with him. Didn't you hear anything Agent Scully said? We've had hard evidence against these people in our hands, only to wind up with nothing! I don't intend to get caught with my pants down this time."

Jeffreys stood. "I've given you an assignment, agent. You're in my backyard now, and you'll play by my rules."

"Then I'll just have to take my marbles and go home," Mulder replied insolently. "Seems to me this case now has all the earmarks of an X-File. Maybe it's time Scully and I filed a 302."

He ignored Jeffreys' splutter of outrage, regretfully leaving Scully to fend for herself. The pain behind his right eye felt as if it pierced straight through the back of his skull, and if he didn't reach the bathroom soon he was going to be wearing the ham and Swiss he'd eaten for lunch. He threaded his way through the desks on wobbly legs, bursting through the door and staggering to the toilet in time - just.

After what seemed an eternity of convulsions that left his stomach muscles on fire, he spat and dragged himself to his feet. All he wanted was to rinse the foul taste from his mouth and splash some cold water on his flushed face. Unfortunately, he wasn't prepared for the lightheadedness that washed over him after only a couple steps. He tried to put out a hand to steady himself, but there was nothing to grab. His vision blurred, his feet seemed to disappear, and the tile rushed up suddenly to meet him.


Violent Crimes Unit
Tuesday
4:57 p.m.

"That could've gone better."

Scully glared at Digger through her fingers but he refused to look repentant. Tilted back in his chair, twirling a pen between thumb and index finger, he reminded her so clearly of Mulder she couldn't help but wonder how she'd ever missed the similarities. Both blessed with double-edged wit and insatiable curiosity, both mavericks more likely to thumb their noses at authority than bow to it.

"Brilliant analysis, Digger. Now I see why they pay you the big bucks."

He grinned, delighted by her sarcasm, then sobered. "I hate to say it, Dana, but on some level Spooky is right. Jeffreys had mixed feelings about you two joining the team from the very beginning. He wanted the genius, but not the baggage that comes with it." When she sent him a sharp look he held up both hands. "Hey, he's my friend, but we both know he can be high maintenance."

Scully's pursed lips couldn't quite hide her smile. "What do you mean when you say Mulder was right?"

"Jeffreys' feelings may have been mixed in the beginning, but after today he'll be dead set against you two. I hate to say it, but I think you need to invoke Skinner."

Scully groaned and let her head drop onto the back of the chair until she was staring at a particularly spectacular cobweb on the ceiling. "I assume that means 'you' in a general sense that includes Mulder, especially since *I* was the one left to handle Jeffreys just now," she said dryly.

"Speaking of which - where is Mulder? He wasn't looking too good when he stomped out of here," Digger said, brow furrowed.

Scully sat up, glancing at the wall clock. They had been adjourned for at least five minutes, plenty of time for Mulder to cool down and return now that Jeffreys was gone. She recalled his behavior during the meeting, the now easily identifiable signs of a headache.

"Let's check your office," she suggested. "Maybe he's waiting for us there."

When Digger's cubicle proved to be empty, Scully picked up the phone and dialed the basement in hopes that Mulder had sought out privacy and his medication. After ten rings she replaced the receiver in its cradle, gnawing nervously on her lip.

"Digger, see if he's in the bathroom," she said a little tersely.

Digger looked as if he was about to ask a question, but her expression advised against it. He strode briskly across the bullpen to the washrooms, Scully just a few steps behind.

He hadn't taken more than four steps inside, mouth open for a smart remark, when he saw Mulder sprawled on the tile, his face chalk white. Backing up quickly he shoved the door open and beckoned frantically for Scully.

"Dana, get in here right now!"

Mulder lay on his side, right arm twisted beneath his body and face pressed to the floor. Intending to roll his friend onto his back, Digger knelt and carefully grasped his shoulder.

Scully barreled through the door. "Digger, stop!" When he jerked his arm back as if burned she circled to the other side of Mulder and crouched down. "Don't move him just yet," she explained more gently. "I need to check him over a bit first."

He watched as she pressed the pads of two fingers to her partner's throat, then laid the backs against his cheek. She ran both hands along his neck and down his spine. Seemingly satisfied, she nodded to Digger and they carefully maneuvered Mulder onto his back, revealing an already purpling bruise at his right temple. Mulder made a sound halfway between a grunt and a moan, eyelids fluttering.

"Mulder? Can you hear me?" Scully asked, her voice pitched a bit louder than normal. She loosened his tie and the first two buttons on his shirt.

"Oh God, I must be in hell," he groaned, licking his lips and squinting in pain.

"Nah, just the VCU bathroom," Digger said brightly, but his eyes were troubled.

"That clinches it." Mulder struggled to open his eyes completely, but the glare of the fluorescent lights convinced him to settle for halfway.

Scully, however, had other ideas. She leaned over and used thumb and forefinger to pry open each lid and study the pupil, ignoring Mulder's colorful protests. "Track my finger," she directed.

After he'd complied she sat back on her heels and regarded him solemnly. "What happened?"

"Scully, I'm lying on the floor of a bathroom used by a bunch of VCU guys. I don't even want to *think* about the implications there. Can I please get up?"

When he made a move to rise, Digger reached out to assist. Scully stopped the action with a firm palm to the center of his chest and a warning glare at Digger.

"Not yet. What happened?"

Mulder rolled his eyes, then sucked in a sharp breath and turned a bit green. He closed them and concentrated on breathing slowly through his nose for several seconds before speaking.

"Headache," he ground out.

"Now? Or then?"

"Both. Came in here and puked. Must have moved too quickly. Got dizzy."

Scully frowned at his degeneration from complete sentences to fragments. She wrapped her fingers around his wrist, then took a closer look at the lump on his head.

"Mulder, you know what I'm going to say."

Green eyes struggled open to fix her with a reproachful gaze. "Sculleee!"

"You have a huge lump on your head that's going an interesting shade of black and blue, your pulse is rapid, and your right pupil is slightly dilated," she said firmly, ticking off each point on her fingers. "You have to go to the hospital and get checked out. We can have Palermo meet us at the emergency room."

"Palermo!" Mulder whined, shielding his eyes in the crook of his arm.

"Mulder these headaches are getting worse. I want another CAT scan."

Mulder was silent a moment. "No ambulance," he said mulishly, voice muffled by the sleeve of his jacket. "I walk out. You drive."

"You walk out with help, if necessary, and let Digger get some ice for that bump. And I drive."

Mulder muttered something under his breath. "Deal."

Even though Scully and Digger helped him upright in small increments, Mulder was drenched in sweat and trembling by the time he stood on two feet. Scully left his side long enough to wet a couple of paper towels with cold water so that he could bathe his face.

"Thanks," he said tersely, handing them back to her so she could discard them.

"You ready to roll?" Digger asked.

Mulder's nod turned into a grimace. "Yeah. But I don't want a scene."

"No problem," Digger replied. "You and Dana can duck right around the corner to the elevators and I'll meet you at the car with the ice. Where are you parked?"

"Section F, not far from the stairs," Scully replied, taking hold of Mulder's elbow as unobtrusively as possible.

Mulder took several slow steps, swaying slightly, until he'd reached the door. "You don't think Scully coming out of the men's room is going to attract attention?" he asked sarcastically.

Digger snorted. "You *have* been away too long, Spooky. This is Violent Crimes, remember? Most of 'em will be so preoccupied with what they're working on, they wouldn't notice if she strolled out naked - no offense, Dana."

Mulder leaned against the wall for a moment. "Whatcha say we test that theory?" he panted, wisely foregoing the accompanying leer.

"Shut up, Mulder."

Digger's prediction proved accurate. They made their way to an elevator that was blessedly empty due to the advanced hour. Mulder propped himself in a corner with his head pressed against the metal, eyes screwed tightly shut.

"Talk to me, Mulder," Scully said quietly. "How are you doing?"

"Hurts. Feel like I'm going to be sick."

Her gaze darted around the interior as the doors slid open. Of course there was nothing, not even a trashcan in sight. Mulder opened his eyes, looking almost amused at her discomfiture.

"Don't worry. Nothing left."

Digger ran up just as Scully got him settled in the car, seat reclined. She accepted the makeshift ice pack with a grateful smile and laid it gently over the now swollen knot on Mulder's temple.

"Hold this, Mulder."

He did as she directed, with a slight grunt. Scully fastened his seatbelt and pulled back to shut the door. Digger peered inside, brow creased.

"You want me to come?"

Mulder's eyes, which had slipped shut, flew open. "NO! Gotta stop Jeffreys. Don't let him send Gentry to see Paxton. Talk to Skinner."

Digger looked at Scully, who reluctantly nodded. "He's right. Once Paxton figures out we're aware of his connection to the victims he'll disappear. Skinner will understand, tell him everything."

Digger hesitated only a moment longer before bobbing his head. "I'll take care of it, Spooky. You just hang in there."

They made the drive to the hospital in tense silence. Scully's fingers curled around the steering wheel in a white-knuckled grip as she pushed the speed limit and winced at every bump. Mulder's eyes remained shut, his lips compressed to a thin line and his responses to her occasional questions limited to monosyllables.

When they staggered through the electric doors into the emergency room, Mulder leaning heavily on Scully's left shoulder, Palermo was waiting for them. He took one assessing look at his patient, eased Mulder into a wheelchair, and turned to Scully.

"On the phone you said he had an accident - what happened?" he asked in a voice pitched for her ears only.

"The headaches have been more frequent and more intense. According to Mulder, he vomited and became lightheaded when he stood up. He hit his head on the bathroom floor and was unconscious when we found him."

"Did he lose consciousness before or after he hit the floor?" Palermo asked, bending to get a closer look at the lump on Mulder's head.

"I don't know. I don't think he does either."

"I'm not brain-damaged, and I'm sitting right here," Mulder growled.

Palermo moved to crouch in front of him. "Sorry," he said contritely. "I wasn't sure you were up to it. Track my finger."

Mulder pried his eyes open and locked them onto the indicated digit, following it first to the left, then the right.

"Good. Do you know what...?"

"Tuesday. 1999. Hillary's husband."

Palermo looked up at Scully, who folded her arms and lifted her shoulders. "Okay, let's get him in an exam room and check all his vitals. I already alerted radiology that we'll be bringing him up."

A nurse materialized and within minutes Mulder was settled on a gurney with a blood pressure cuff around one arm and a thermometer in his mouth.

"Temperature's normal," she said, making a notation on his chart after she'd removed both. "BP is a little high. Dr. Palermo will be back in just a sec."

Mulder settled more deeply into the small pillow, his eyelids drooping. "Can't let Gentry near Paxton," he mumbled.

Scully moved closer to the bed. "Digger will take care of it, Mulder. You just relax."

"Chips are key," he continued as if she hadn't spoken. "'s why they didn't struggle. Jus' like bridge, Scully. Were called."

Scully frowned at the slurring that crept into his voice and his rising somnolence. She watched as he slowly blinked, then let his eyes slide shut.

"Mulder, c'mon you know the drill," she said sharply, nudging his arm. "No sleeping with a head injury. Mulder?"

He levered his eyelids up with what appeared to be a superhuman effort. "'M tired, Scully. Hurts."

When his eyes started to close again she reached over and forced the right one open. The pupil had grown since her previous examination, threatening to swallow the green rim. Scully pulled aside the curtain to provide a view of the nurses' station.

"Get Palermo in here right now, he's losing consciousness!" she bellowed. Turning back, she pinched Mulder's earlobe viciously between thumb and forefinger. "Mulder, wake up, damn it! Mulder!"

His reaction was merely an unintelligible string of vowels and consonants coupled with a sluggish swat at her hand. Palermo tore the curtain all the way open and rushed to the other side of the gurney.

"What in the hell is going on?"

"Difficulty speaking followed by rapidly increasing lethargy. He's practically nonresponsive and his right pupil is completely dilated," Scully said curtly.

Two nurses had joined Palermo as he pulled out a penlight and examined both Mulder's pupils, then checked reflexes. "He's slipping into a coma, there must be a bleed somewhere. Get him up to CT right now," he barked.

In seconds the rails to the gurney were lifted and Mulder was being moved down the hallway. Scully started to follow but Palermo stopped her with a firm hand on her arm.

"Dana, you can wait for him in chairs on the second floor. I'll let you know what's happening as soon as I can."

With that he was off and running to catch up with the gurney, which had just been loaded onto the elevator. Scully stepped into the hallway just in time to see Palermo squeeze inside and catch a glimpse of Mulder's still face before the doors rolled shut.

**Georgetown Memorial
Tuesday
7:30 p.m.

"Agent Scully."

Scully's head snapped up at the familiar voice and she started to rise. A large hand on her shoulder interrupted the movement.

"Sit, Scully. You look exhausted."

Skinner took a seat in the chair to her right and she unconsciously shifted in the opposite direction. He was still clad in a crisp white shirt and conservative tie, though somewhere along the line he'd shed his jacket. Leaning forward with elbows braced on knees and hands clasped, he turned to regard Scully with compassionate eyes.

"How is he? Agent Costanza said it was just a bump on the head, but they told me in the ER he'd been sent up for an emergency CAT scan." His expression darkened. "Does this have something to do with what Cancerman did to him?"

Scully inhaled deeply and fixed blue eyes on his face. "He's been experiencing headaches ever since he returned to work. The frequency and intensity have been gradually increasing."

When she paused, intending to gather her thoughts before continuing, Skinner scowled. "I asked you to inform me if he couldn't handle this case, Agent Scully. Why didn't you?"

Scully closed her eyes and gave a sharp shake of her head. "There's more, sir. You need to hear the whole story."

"I'm listening."

"We discovered two important things about Mulder's headaches. First, that despite a complete battery of tests, Dr. Palermo could discover no physical cause. All the results came back completely normal."

Skinner's brow creased. "The stress from this case..."

Scully held up a hand. "They began that first week, sir, before Mulder and I took on this case. And they seem to have a very specific trigger."

"A trigger?"

She nodded. "Normal tension doesn't affect him, he had a...confrontation with Dr. Palermo and nothing happened. When he tries to work, however, to analyze the killer for his profile or access information from his memory." She shook her head. "It's almost instantaneous. It's like biofeedback. Are you familiar with the concept?"

"Vaguely," Skinner admitted. "The premise is that you can use the mind to positively influence physical responses - blood pressure, heartrate, pain. It's a cyclical process: relaxation decreases pain, which in turn increases relaxation."

Scully nodded again. "What I see happening to Mulder is like negative biofeedback. His mental process triggers the pain, which makes him work harder to concentrate and in turn provokes more pain." She looked at Skinner grimly. "It cripples him until he can't continue, effectively preventing him from working. Do you see the implications, sir?"

Realization seeped onto Skinner's face. "You think this was purposely done to him?"

Scully stood and began pacing. "They operated on his *brain*, sir. And we don't know how or why. This certainly achieves their purpose, doesn't it?"

Skinner pushed his glasses up to pinch the bridge of his nose. "They've shown they'll resort to just about anything if it furthers their own interests," he muttered. "What happened today? Costanza told me about the meeting with Jeffreys and I've already spoken to him. The investigation will proceed as you and Mulder advised."

The dangerous tone in Skinner's voice stilled Scully's restless feet. "Thank you," she murmured. "Mulder will be relieved to hear that."

Skinner shrugged off her gratitude. "Jeffreys is a pretentious loud mouth with a few friends in high places. He functions adequately under normal circumstances but this case is way over his head, and he knows it."

"I think Mulder had a headache before the meeting but didn't want to take anything that would make him fuzzy," Scully went on. "The argument with Jeffreys didn't provoke it, but I'm sure it didn't help. The pain became so severe he vomited and became dizzy. He fell and hit his head."

Scully resumed pacing. "He was unconscious when Digger and I found him but he came around soon after." She pressed two fingers to her lips. "I never should have let him talk me into driving here. I should have called 911 - screw Jeffreys and the rest of those VCU idiots."

Skinner's eyebrows climbed at her unaccustomed vocabulary. "Costanza said he just had a bad headache and seemed a little unsteady. Why did his condition deteriorate?"

"He suffered an intracerebral hemorrhage - that's bleeding in the brain," Scully explained tightly, sitting back down on the edge of her chair. "Dr. Palermo found it right away when he did the CAT scan. What he didn't expect was that it had nothing to do with the bump on Mulder's head. It occurred in a completely unrelated area of the brain."

Skinner clenched his jaw and glanced away. "The headache?"

"Seems the most likely explanation." Scully's voice wavered slightly. "The good news is that it was a small bleed and already appeared to be stopping. With any luck, they can treat Mulder with drugs and avoid surgery."

A figure in scrubs and a white lab coat rounded the corner and Scully sprang instantly to her feet.

"Dr. Palermo, how is he?"

Palermo cupped the back of his neck, eying Skinner questioningly.

"This is Assistant Director Skinner, our boss," Scully added impatiently.

Palermo shook Skinner's hand and exchanged the required pleasantries while Scully shifted impatiently from foot to foot. Finally he turned to her with a tired smile.

"We're getting him settled in the ICU, you can go on up as soon as we've finished talking. The bleeding seems to have stopped. I'm giving him Mannitol, 1.5 grams as a 20 percent solution over the next hour to reduce the swelling. We'll monitor him carefully and decide how to proceed from there."

Some of the tension left Scully's rigid shoulders. "Thank you."

He smiled, brushing his fingers down her arm. "My pleasure. Try not to worry, we'll have him complaining in no time."

When Palermo left, Skinner turned to Scully, who kept glancing down the corridor to the elevators. "Go ahead, Scully. Keep me posted on his condition."

He headed for the stairwell, only to stop and spin around. "Agent Scully?"

She turned back. "Sir?"

Skinner looked at a spot just over her head, uncomfortable under the force of her gaze. "He can't work like this, Scully. I'd be negligent in my position as his supervisor if I allowed him to continue."

Raw emotion flitted briefly across her face before the calm mask reasserted itself. "I understand, sir."

"If you'd like me to tell him..."

"No. I'll tell him, thank you anyway, sir. And thank you for handling SAC Jeffreys." Calm, resolute, but she couldn't disguise the pain in her eyes.

Skinner watched her disappear into the elevator before continuing toward the stairs. He hadn't attempted to contact that cigarette smoking bastard in months. Now seemed like the time to try.


ICU
Tuesday
10:02 p.m.

Scully sat close to the bed and played idly with the long fingers of the limp hand that rested in her own. It was just one of the few indulgences she allowed herself when he was asleep or unconscious - sad, really, that they'd been here enough times for her to be able to claim that.

She ran the tip of her index finger up and around each digit, watching his face, smoothed in sleep. The second CAT scan, performed less than an hour earlier, had already shown a reduction in swelling and Mulder had been exhibiting signs of waking for about the last fifteen minutes. A small sound that could have been distress, relief, or a combination of both slipped up her throat and past her lips as she bent over to lay her cheek against his palm.

*Why are you such a coward, Dana? How many times are you going to come within a breath of losing him without telling him how you really feel?*

"When this is over, Mulder," she murmured, pressing a kiss to the pad of flesh beneath his thumb before straightening up. "We're going to have a long talk."

"Mmm. 's nice, Scully. 'Bout what?"

Though his eyes were still shut, his head lolled in her direction and his lips curved. Scully stood and hit the call button, positioning herself by his head.

"Hey," she said, grinning like an idiot. "Welcome back, partner."

The nurse, Vickie, appeared a bit breathlessly. "Doctor Scully? Is there a problem?"

Scully managed to regain a little composure. "Yes. He's awake," she said wryly. "Could you page Dr. Palermo?"

Vickie inched a few steps closer, breaking into a smile when Mulder wrestled his eyes partially open. "Nice you could join us, Agent Mulder," she said, winking at Scully. "I'll get Dr. Palermo right up here."

Mulder swallowed thickly and licked his lips. "Water?" he croaked.

Scully poured a small amount into a cup and placed the straw at his lips. "Not too much, Mulder. You need to go easy on fluids for a bit."

He blinked, eyes panning slowly around the room. "Uh, Scully? Where am I?"

Her impulsive hand reached out to smooth back a wisp of his hair. "ICU. You had an intracerebral hemorrhage, Mulder. Fortunately it was small, and they were able to take care of it with medication. What do you remember?"

He frowned, lifting the hand without the I.V. to rub his eyes. "The ER, I guess. Laying on that gurney and feeling like my head was going to crack open," he sighed and lay his hand back across his chest. "Whatever they've got me on is gooood stuff."

"No headache?"

Mulder snickered. "'M not even sure I've got a head."

Scully grinned at that. "Get some sleep. If you continue to improve they'll be moving you to a regular room first thing in the morning."

He nodded agreeably and let his eyelids glide shut. Scully thought he'd dropped off to sleep, but he surprised her by speaking.

"Didn't think I hit my head that hard, Scully. Why'd I hemorrhage?"

Scully sank her teeth into her lip. This was territory she'd hoped to leave uncharted until the morning. When she didn't immediately reply, Mulder's eyes popped open.

"Scully?"

"Mulder, as far as we can tell, the bleed had nothing to do with the blow to your head."

She watched as his brows knit in confusion, then lifted in shocked disbelief. "The headache...?"

Scully sat down on the edge of the mattress and sandwiched his hand between hers. "It looks that way, Mulder. It's the most plausible explanation."

His gaze was too intense, boring into her face until her cheeks flushed and she averted her eyes. "You really need to rest now, Mulder. We can talk about this..."

"You're going to tell Skinner, aren't you?"

Not even a hint of accusation in the question, only weary resignation. Scully pulled her gaze back to his, troubled by the dull acceptance that waited there. She wanted him to be angry, to rant and rave about betrayal and insist on his ability to continue working. She wanted Mulder, not this stranger wearing his face.

"He already knew you were here, Mulder. Digger told him. He would never have settled for less than the complete truth."

*Nor would I*

"He's taking me off the case." It was a statement, not a question and Scully's throat closed up at the bleakness.

"Mulder, you can't afford another headache," she said thickly. "The work triggers the headache, and the headache caused the bleed. You might not be so lucky next time."

Mulder's eyes slammed shut and she was devastated when a tear squeezed out the corner and ran down into the pillow. "Lucky," he choked. "Right. I'll remember that, Scully."

"Mulder..."

"Hey, I hear you decided to rejoin the land of the living, Mulder," Dr. Palermo said cheerfully, breezing into the room with Vickie. "How do you feel?"

Mulder swallowed, and when he opened his eyes they were blank. "Just great, Doc. After all, I'm alive, right? I've still got a whole lifetime to look forward to."

Scully dug her nails into her palm, fighting back tears, as Palermo chuckled and set about examining his patient. Vickie, however, sensed her distress. While the doctor checked Mulder's pupils she moved unobtrusively to Scully's side. "Are you all right, Dr. Scully?" she asked softly. "Can I get you anything?"

Scully blinked rapidly, her shoulders straightening and her chin tipping up. "I'm fine, Vickie. But thanks."

Vickie lay a comforting hand on her arm and smiled. "Sometimes the shock of an ordeal doesn't hit until it's over. Don't worry, he'll be just fine."

Scully pasted on a smile that was strictly for show.

*I want to believe...*


Georgetown Medical
Wednesday 8:08 a.m.

Mulder watched raindrops slide down the slick surface of the window, feeling as gray within as the weather without. The Mannitol had done its job, significantly reducing the swelling in his brain, so he'd been relocated to a regular room around 6:00 a.m. His new nurse, a tank of a woman named Connie, had informed him sternly that he was not to set foot out of bed until Palermo made his rounds later that morning. Not even to pee. Mulder scowled at the urinal, placed none too discreetly on the bedside table, and wondered if he could hold it until then.

Stuck in bed, nothing to read, and a broken television to boot. Part of him longed for Scully to breeze through the door, smelling of rain and the real world. The other part wanted to crawl into a hole and lick his wounds in private, unencumbered by the need to reassure her that he was fine.

Because he wasn't fine. Not even close.

Last night he'd been numb with shock, staggered by the implication of his brush with death. He'd feigned sleep so that Scully would go home and let him think, but the drugs in his system turned his fabrication into reality. Now, in the enforced solitude of the silent room, he could do little but think. Thoughts that wrapped a black shroud around his heart and left a bitter taste on his tongue.

Disconnected - from the case, from the X-Files, and inevitably from the FBI. Ironic that the part of himself that had kept him going during his darkest hours, sustained him when everything he held dear crumbled to dust and slipped between his fingers, should ultimately turn against him. When his father's eyes laid blame more efficiently than words. When his mother cleaned out Sam's room, weeping over each item as she packed them into cardboard boxes. When he couldn't decide which was worse, the painfully polite silences at the dinner table or the mercilessly vicious recriminations once he'd gone to bed. His mind took him away from the misery of his day to day existence, reminded him that in spite of his father's condemnation and his mother's indifference Fox Mulder *was* special. He could think rings around his classmates, could achieve any goal he set his mind to.

One day, he'd promised himself, that mind would open a door that would set him free and start him on a journey - a

journey that held only one destination. His sister.

Twenty-six years into the journey, and some days he wanted it to be over so badly that he ached, body and soul. But not like this.

Never like this.

Mulder swiped angrily at his eyes with the back of his hand, pointing the remote control at the defunct television and punching the buttons fiercely with his thumb. Nothing, not even a spark of life. Worthless, Connie had pronounced disdainfully when she'd come by to check his vitals. Broken beyond repair when an overzealous employee sprayed it with cleaning solution and shorted out the picture tube, destining it for the junk pile. Not that you could tell by looking at it, mind you. >From the outside it appeared to be a perfectly functional piece of electronics - state of the art, even. But that illusion was stripped away, the truth revealed, once you held the remote in your hand. No matter how good that set looked, how good it might once have been, now it was nothing more than damaged goods.

Worthless.

Mulder squeezed his eyes tightly shut and hurled the remote at the wall. It impacted with a satisfying crack, splintering the black plastic case and leaving a gouge in the plaster.

"Good morning to you too, Mulder."

He opened his eyes and straightened guiltily, watching as Scully crossed the room and gathered up the pieces. She walked slowly over to the trashcan and deposited the evidence of his tantrum before coming over to perch on the side of his bed. Uncomfortable under the heat of her probing stare, he began fiddling with his I.D. bracelet, picking at the edge where it irritated his wrist.

"Stop that," Scully said mildly. "You're just going to make it worse."

She astonished him by slipping one of her small fingers under the plastic and rubbing it soothingly over the abused flesh. It felt wonderful, comforting.

And at the same time it burned. God, it burned.

"Thought you'd be at Quantico, examining the rest of the victims," he said, jerking his arm away and diverting his gaze to the rain-spattered window.

Even so, he could sense the hurt in Scully's voice. "I'm headed there now. I wanted to stop by and see how you're feeling."

*Don't go there, Scully. You won't like what you'll find.*

"I'm good," Mulder said with false heartiness. "Palermo should be stopping by soon to lift the restriction on getting out of bed. If all goes well he'll release me tomorrow."

Scully smiled. "That's great." But her gaze lost none of its intensity. "So why were you beating up on that poor, innocent little remote?"

Mulder swallowed, then looked her squarely in the eye. "Damn television doesn't work, and I'm bored. Guess I lost my temper."

Scully nodded, pursing her lips. "Going cold turkey is never pretty," she replied seriously, just the hint of a smirk in her eyes. "I'll talk to the warden on the way out, see what I can do."

He tried to give her what she expected - an irreverent remark about his nurse, a sarcastic observation about hospitals in general, even a bit of medical innuendo. Something to set her mind at ease, to convince her that he was the same man he'd always been. To preserve the illusion.

"Don't let me hold you up, Scully," was what came out. "Skinner is going to need hard evidence to convince Jeffreys we were right.

Once again a flicker of pain crossed her face, but she stood up and smoothed her slacks. "After yesterday, I don't think he'd be convinced even if the victims sat up and presented the evidence themselves," she replied sardonically.

Mulder snorted, amused in spite of himself. "To keep him on a leash, then," he amended. He shook his head. "The implants will be there, Scully, I'm certain of it. It explains one of the most troubling aspects of this case, the complete lack of a struggle on the victim's part." He rubbed absently at his finger, oblivious to Scully's sudden tension. "Those women didn't fight because they were programmed *not* to. No one witnessed their abduction because they weren't abducted. They were *called*, just like..."

"Mulder, STOP IT!"

Her reprimand was like a bucket of ice water, quenching his fire and plunging him back into darkness. Scully raised one trembling hand to tuck a lock of hair behind her ear, then lay her finger beneath her nose.

"Let this go, Mulder. You cannot continue to tempt fate," she said, voice deceptively calm. "Yesterday could have been so much worse. It could have cost you your life."

Something deep inside him, something that had been swelling and festering, burst and the poison spilled out, beyond his control.

"*Could* have cost me my life? What the hell do you think I have left to lose? It's *over*, Scully - the Files, our partnership, any chance I had of finding my sister! I am no longer capable of performing my job, I'm dead weight. They did something to me in that operating room, broke something inside of me, and if you're honest with us both you'll admit it can't be fixed."

"I will *not* admit that, because I will *not* give up!" Scully snapped, bracing her hands on the mattress and leaning into his space. "And even if you can no longer continue with the Bureau, even if you lose the Files, you will *never* lose me and I will *never* stop helping you look for your sister!"

Her voice softened. "Your life is not over, Mulder, because this job is no longer your life. It hasn't been for some time now. You have people who care about you, and other talents you can develop."

Mulder's expression remained stony. "What would you suggest I do with myself, Scully? Teach? Last time I checked, that requires using your memory. Use that psych degree, go into private practice? That takes reasoning, the ability to analyze the problem and formulate a solution. Or were you thinking I could employ my dazzling ability on the basketball court to give the Bulls a shot in the arm now that Jordan's gone?"

Scully shook her head stubbornly, refusing to be put off. "We will figure something out, Mulder. I will help you."

"The novelty will wear off," Mulder sneered. "Think of the stimulating conversations we *won't* have. Even an overdeveloped sense of Catholic guilt isn't going to keep you from growing tired of someone who's not quite all there anymore."

Scully clenched her jaw. "So that's it? You're just going to quit, take the coward's way out?" she asked coldly.

Mulder scooted down in the bed and turned to face the wall. His voice, rather than combative, was very soft. "No need to quit, Scully. Game's already over." When she didn't move or speak, stunned by his words, he murmured, "You'd better get going. Traffic's a bitch this time of day."

He nearly pulled it off, but after seven years she recognized every subtle nuance to his voice. "Mulder..." she said helplessly.

"Please, Scully. Just walk away."

Shell-shocked, her mind too numb to come up with an alternative, she did. It wasn't until she was in her car, pulling onto the highway, that it occurred to her he might have meant permanently.


X-Files Office
Wednesday
3:25 p.m.

The knock on the door startled Scully, her head snapping up from where she'd propped it on a fist, her hand jerking involuntarily into the row of small objects lining the desktop. One of the objects fell to its side with a small clink and she caught it just before it rolled off the edge.

"It's open," she called, setting the errant piece of glass back into place.

Six small vials, labeled and lined up like soldiers. Each bearing the name of a victim. Each containing a tiny metal chip closely resembling the one lodged under the skin of her neck.

"Hey," Digger said, sounding subdued as he circled the desk and dropped into a chair. "Thought I'd see how the other half of the X-Files was doing. See if you found what you were looking for."

Scully leaned back into the chair, indicating the vials with a sweep of her hand. "Judge for yourself."

Digger frowned, reaching around a stack of books to lift first one, and then another, until he'd cursorily examined all six. "Microchips. Just like Traci Pritchard. Just as you suspected."

"Yes," Scully agreed.

He looked up, one tube still between his fingers. "What does it mean?" he asked, a hint of wonder amidst the puzzlement.

How to answer *that* question? She suddenly felt ancient compared to a man who was supposed to be her peer.

"It means we've been deceived," she replied bitterly. "That these women were not the victims of a serial killer, as we were led to believe, but a failed medical experiment to which they were subjected without their knowledge or consent.

Digger searched her face with growing disbelief. "Are you saying this relates to their supposed abductions? That *aliens* did this?"

Scully's hand crept unconsciously to the back of her neck, fingers probing the tiny scar just beneath her hairline as distorted images of a train car flashed through her mind.

"Not aliens, Digger. *Men* were responsible for abducting those women, for performing the procedures that led to their sterility as well as the ones that later allowed them to conceive. And when the experiment didn't work, when it looked as if their dirty little secret was in danger of exposure, *men* killed them and disposed of the evidence."

Digger set down the vial. "So where do we go from here?"

Scully sat forward. "We get some people to keep an eye on Dr. Sean Paxton while I get hold of a search warrant. Then we see just what kind of practice he has been running," she sighed. "I'm not sure how much to tell Mulder about this. He'll want to know."

"Dana." Digger paused, looking uneasy. "That's another reason I stopped by. I took a late lunch and went to the hospital to see how Mulder was doing." He shook his head. "I'm worried about him, Dana."

Scully tensed. "He was off the Mannitol this morning and his doctor thought he'd be released tomorrow. Has he had a setback?"

"No, no, nothing like that," Digger said hastily. "Physically he looked 100 percent better than yesterday. It was the way he was acting that bothers me."

"You know Skinner didn't just pull him off the case," Scully replied quietly. "He's on indefinite medical leave. Mulder's not taking it too well."

"I wouldn't expect him to. It's the *way* he's not taking it that has me concerned. This is Fox Mulder we're talking about, the original rebel without a cause. I've seen him buck the system for reasons much less important to him than this. He should be ranting and raving about how it's his damn life and his place to determine what risks to take. But he's not. He's turned over the keys and gotten out of the car." He rubbed his chin. "I never thought I'd see the day when Spooky Mulder would give up without a fight. Until now."

Scully shoved back her chair and stood, walking slowly over to the poster on the wall. "I know. We argued about it this morning. I don't know what to do about it." She traced her finger over the word "believe." "We've been fighting these men a long time, Digger. They know Mulder, both what makes him strong and where he's at his most vulnerable. They adjust their aim accordingly."

"Are you saying that the men responsible for the deaths of these women are the same men that did this to Mulder?" At her nod he stood and joined her, placing a firm hand on her shoulder. "All the more reason to find them and take them down," he said harshly.

Scully reached up to give his fingers a grateful squeeze, then returned to the desk and began shoving papers into her briefcase. "I need to update Skinner and Jeffreys. Will you be a part of the search team? I'd like to have you along, I'm sure at least some of the records will be electronic."

"Couldn't keep me away," Digger replied, shoving hands into his pockets and hunching his shoulders. "Speaking of electronics, there's something I don't understand about all this. What is the purpose of those microchips?"

"Tracking devices, perhaps?" Scully said absently, setting aside a folder in favor of another and loading it into the case. "Mulder is convinced that the chip calls the woman to the murder site. That it creates a compulsion that she is powerless to ignore."

Digger scratched his head. "Gentry was right. This is like something out of an Isaac Asimov novel."

"I know how it sounds, Digger, and I'd feel the same if I hadn't experienced it for myself. Trust me when I say that tiny piece of metal can have extreme physiological consequences..."

Digger turned in time to see her blanch and clutch at the back of the chair. "Dana? Are you all right? Sit down a minute."

It was as if he hadn't spoken. She stared sightlessly through a spot on the wall, her mouth slightly agape in shock.

"Oh my God, could it really be that simple?" she whispered, her voice barely audible.

"You're losing me here, Dana. What's with the divine epiphany?" he prodded.

"Maybe nothing. Or maybe everything," she murmured. Giving herself a visible shake, she slid the last folder into her briefcase and snapped it shut. "Digger, I have to go to the hospital. I need you to take this report" - she thrust a file into his hands - "to Skinner. Have him set things in motion for the warrant and organize a team."

"The hospital? Won't you be going in with the team?"

"I have to take care of this first. I'll contact Skinner as soon as I can. Don't let him move without me." She swung the strap onto her shoulder with a slight grunt and headed for the door.

"Sure. I'll just order the AD to wait until he hears from you," Digger called dryly. "Mind telling me just what you're up to in case he asks?"

Scully paused with one hand on the doorknob and an air of barely contained hope. "Tell him I just may know what's causing Mulder's headaches," she said shortly. "And keep your fingers crossed."

**En route to Georgetown
Wednesday
4:36 p.m.

"What do you mean, he checked himself out?"

Scully signaled and took the next off ramp, pulling to the side of the road. She threw the gearshift into park and switched her cell phone to the opposite ear.

"I mean that he signed the AMA paperwork and left," Palermo replied in a voice that sounded as if he was working hard to be patient. "He's an adult, Agent Scully, and I can't hold him against his will. His condition was stable and I would have released him tomorrow morning anyway. He promised me he'd take it easy."

"Why didn't you call me? I asked you to notify me of any change in his condition. I think this qualifies," Scully snapped. Her rational self recognized that she was taking out her frustration on an innocent bystander. Unfortunately, her irrational self had stuffed the rational into a box and was sitting on the lid.

"I tried, believe me. You weren't answering your cell phone or the one at the office, and I did leave a message. I was called into emergency surgery and I've been tied up all afternoon. I just got out." Palermo took a deep breath. "I'm sorry."

Scully let her head thump against the headrest. "No, I'm sorry. You must have called while I was performing an autopsy. I haven't checked my voicemail."

"I released him about 1:30 or so. He said he didn't want to bother you, that he'd take a cab," Palermo offered.

Scully sighed. "What he didn't say was that he knew I'd be furious with him," she said shortly.

Palermo chuckled. "He didn't have to."

"I'm heading over to his place right now to pick him up," Scully continued, grinning a little. "I'll be bringing him back in as soon as we can battle the rush hour traffic."

"Bringing him back?"

"I think I may have figured out the origin of his headaches. I'm going to need some x-rays taken."

Palermo was silent for a moment. "O-O-kay. Mind telling me what you think you'll find with an x-ray that a CAT scan hasn't turned up?"

"A microchip. And I won't be looking at the skull. I'll need films of his neck and the apex of his spine," Scully replied, pointing the car back toward Alexandria and pulling back onto the road.

When her only response was dead silence, she took pity on him. "I know how this must sound. Just arrange for the x- rays and I promise I'll explain everything when we get there."

Palermo chuffed softly. "I'll be waiting with bated breath, Doctor Scully."

Scully pressed End and then dialed Mulder's number. The phone rang five times before the answering machine kicked on with its brief message: "This is Fox Mulder. Please leave a message."

"Mulder, it's me. Pick up the phone."

She waited, but received only silence. Eventually the machine disconnected and she redialed, swearing softly under her breath. After waiting impatiently for the message to play out, she tried again.

"Mulder, I know you're there and I know you checked out against medical advice. I'm coming over and I'm using my key so you damn well better be decent when I get there!"

She flipped the phone shut and stuffed it into her pocket, trying to ignore the unease that crept up her spine. Traffic was a nightmare, and she found herself hunched over the wheel, alternately cursing and biting her lip. The sight of Mulder's building, rather than assuaging her discomfort, seemed to exacerbate it. She took the stairs and nearly jogged down the hallway in her haste to reach his door. A perfunctory rap of knuckles to wood and she was slipping her key into the lock.

Near darkness blanketed the apartment, broken only by the soft glow of the fish tank and the flickering blue of the muted television. Scully's lips parted to call his name, but an overwhelming sense of foreboding washed over her and she felt the hairs on her arms literally stand up. One hand brushing the weapon at the small of her back, she moved quietly through the entryway and paused at the threshold of the living room.

Mulder was seated on the couch and appeared oblivious to her entrance. A near-empty bottle of scotch and a tumbler still bearing the residue rested on the coffee table. Rather than the television screen, Mulder's attention was captured by something in his hands, something Scully couldn't identify in the nearly non-existent light.

"Mulder," she said sotto voice. "Are you all right?"

He didn't react, didn't lift his eyes from their contemplation, so she walked cautiously closer, curiosity warring with apprehension. The illumination from the television abruptly flared, bringing Mulder into sharp relief from his surroundings. Scully caught her breath and jerked to a standstill, her heart pounding wildly.

The object of Mulder's fascination was his service weapon. The fingers of his right hand were wrapped around the grip and curled loosely over the trigger. He stroked the palm of his left hand slowly up and down the barrel as if hypnotized by the sensation of the cool steel.

"Mulder." Scully allowed some sharpness to bleed into her voice, desperate to steal his attention from the firearm but afraid to startle him.

When his gaze wandered apathetically to her face, she saw that his eyes were red and puffy, his face marked by dried tears. She decided to approach him from left field, hoping to throw him off balance.

"Have you been drinking, Mulder?"

The answer was plain in the sluggishness of his movements, the excessive time he took to process the question and formulate an answer.

"Yep. Jussa few. Hep yourseff, Scully."

She could see his focus slipping back to the gun; rushed to head it off. "Mulder, you know you aren't supposed to drink alcohol while you're on the Dilantin," she said sternly, suppressing all but the faintest quaver. "Come into the kitchen and let me take a look at you."

His head moved from side to side, slowly, dreamily, and his eyes dropped back to the gun. "Doesn' matter, Scully. 's all over now so it won' make any diff'rence."

Ice rushed through Scully's body and she could feel perspiration break out between her shoulder blades. With superhuman effort she kept a chokehold on the panic that bubbled up, insisting she should make a grab for the gun. Mulder was not just depressed but three sheets to the wind, a deadly combination.

"Mulder, give me the gun and we'll go in the kitchen. You can make us some coffee and we'll talk."

A spark of anger drove some of the vacancy from his gaze. "What'll we talk about, Scully? Th' case?" he sneered.

"'s nothing to say. Jus' go home."

Scully folded her arms. "I'm not going anywhere unless you give me the gun."

Mulder lifted his shoulders in a dismissive shrug. "Never figured you for th' type that likes to watch, but be my guest," he said, making as if to press the gun to his temple.

The meaning of his words struck her like a physical blow, tears of rage and grief flooding her eyes until he was reduced to a gray silhouette.

"You bastard," she choked.

Mulder huffed a small laugh that never touched his eyes. "Prob'ly."

"You want to give up, take the coward's way out? Go ahead. But don't expect me to make it easy for you. You damn well better look me straight in the eye while you do it, you selfish son of a bitch."

Mulder's carefully crafted faade splintered. Tremors ran through his hand until the gun jittered as shell-shocked, wide eyes locked onto her face. "I have to, Scully. 's no reason anymore, no purpose t' get outta bed in the morning." He blinked hard and his voice broke. "I gotta have a reason, Scully."

Scully took two quick steps forward until she loomed over him, one hand braced on each of his knees. "You want reasons? I'll give you reasons, Mulder. You've yet to go skiing in Chile or take a safari in Africa. You're the only remaining family of a woman who's suffered enough loss for three lifetimes. You're a good friend and steadying influence on three geeks whose paranoia might otherwise run rampant. And what's more, I happen to love you, damn it!"

Her rubbery legs gave out and Scully plopped down onto the coffee table, shoving the bottle of scotch angrily to the side. Mulder's head swung back and forth in denial, but the gun dropped back to his lap.

"You loved who I was, Scully. *I* don' even know th' guy in th' mirror now," he murmured, cupping her jaw and brushing aside a tear with his thumb.

Scully caught his hand and laced their fingers, the warmth of her skin leeching a bit of the clamminess from his. "I *know* you. Yes, I appreciate your intellect, your unorthodox way of solving a problem. But that's only *one* layer, Mulder, and like...like an onion, you've got an infinite number waiting just underneath. You can view this as an end, throw it all away. Or you can peel away your old life and begin to explore the gifts that it eclipsed."

Mulder brought the other hand up until Scully's was sandwiched between his own, leaning forward to press his forehead against them. "You make it sound so easy," he sighed.

Scully cautiously collected the forgotten weapon from his lap and placed it behind her, then drew his head against her shoulder. "Not easy, Mulder," she breathed, smoothing her fingers over his hair. "Just worth the effort."

Mulder shuddered and she felt the warm wetness of tears at her collarbone. She sensed him struggling to utter a single word, muscles coiled tightly beneath her arm.

"Samantha."

As always, she marveled that a name could contain such a wealth of pain.

Pulling back, she cupped his face in her palms and looked urgently into his eyes, blinking impatiently at the moisture that clouded her own. He mirrored her action, large hands cradling her jaw, and for a moment she was nearly overpowered by the feeling of dj vu.

"We will find a way," Scully said slowly. "I promise."

And just as she had in a previous moment of truth, she sealed the promise with a touch of her lips to his brow, then rested her forehead against his. They remained that way, in contented silence, until Mulder straightened and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. Ducking his head he peered into her eyes, lips curved in the smallest hint of a smile.

"An *onion*, Scully?"

She arched an eyebrow when all she really wanted was to collapse in a quivering puddle of pure relief. "It's called an analogy, Mulder." She frowned at his dilated pupils. "Exactly how many drinks did you have, anyway?"

Mulder scrubbed his hands over his face. "'M not sure. 'Nough to dull th' pain, not enough to puke."

Scully wrinkled her nose. "Go brush your teeth and change your shirt. We need to go back to the hospital."

The scowl was instantaneous. "I am fine, Scully," he said, annunciating each word with exaggerated care. "I promise I won' lapse into a coma. No more hospital."

"Not for that - though it was incredibly stupid," Scully replied. "Palermo neglected to take a couple of x-rays before you checked out. He knows we're coming, it will only take a few minutes."

Mulder eyed her suspiciously. "X-rays? What for?"

*Think fast, Dana.*

"He needs to be sure the swelling didn't compress the spinal cord. It'll just take a few films of your neck and upper back to be sure."

"Wouldn't I be in pain, have some kinda symptoms?" Mulder asked, but he did get rather unsteadily to his feet and head for the bathroom.

"Probably, but not necessarily. It's just a precaution, Mulder. I promise, we'll be in and out."

Scully could hear him muttering something like "that's what you always say" as the door started to swing shut. She'd picked up his gun and was about to slip it into her pocket when she realized he was watching from the doorway.

"Scully," he said softly. "Did you mean it? Or is *that* why you said it?"

She paused, taking in the disheveled hair, rumpled shirt, and wistful expression, and a knot in her stomach began to unravel. "Oh, I meant it, Mulder. Trust me."

He smiled, one of the rare, breathstealing ones she'd come to prize. "Only you, Scully." He gripped the door, then paused. "And Scully? Me too."

As soon as she heard the water running she pulled out her cell phone and dialed the hospital, pacing nervously until Palermo was located and put on the line.

"Dana, I've been waiting for you. Are you and Mulder coming or not?" he asked with a touch of impatience.

"Yes, we should be there in about twenty minutes. Dr. Palermo, I don't want Mulder to know why we're taking the x-rays - at least at this time. I told him they were just a precaution, to be certain the swelling he experienced didn't extend to the spinal chord."

Palermo snorted. "And he *bought* that?"

"His degree is in psychology, not medicine," she answered tartly. She didn't mention that a bottle of scotch had left his cognitive ability a bit substandard.

"Sorry, I realize that," Palermo said contritely. "I'm not sure I can go along with your request, though. Bad enough that I don't completely understand the purpose of these x-rays in the first place. I won't knowingly deceive my patient."

The water shut off, and Scully moved around the corner into the kitchen, lowering her voice still further. "Dr. Palermo, if I'm right about this we will be able to put an end to Mulder's headaches. But if I'm not... His emotional state is very precarious right now. I'm not sure he could handle being offered hope only to have it snatched away. Please. Do this for me, for him."

Palermo was silent, and she could almost see him debating with himself. Finally he heaved a long sigh. "I won't lie to him. But I will let you field his questions."

The bathroom door opened and she heard Mulder pad into his bedroom, then the sound of a drawer being opened. The knot in Scully's stomach uncoiled a bit further.

"Thank you, Doctor. I owe you."

He chuckled. "Careful, Dr. Scully. You two are running up quite a tab."

She'd just closed the phone when Mulder appeared in the doorway, still bleary-eyed but looking a bit more presentable. "Who were you talking to?"

"Palermo. Just checking to be sure he's expecting us."

Mulder snagged his leather jacket off the coat tree and slipped it on. "Let's get this over with."

Scully nodded and followed him through the door.

*I hope so, Mulder. I hope so.*

**Georgetown Memorial
Wednesday
7:03 p.m.

"I'm sorry, Dana. I know you thought you were on to something."

Scully stared at the films, the knuckle of her index finger pressed to her lips, and tried to fight off a crushing wave of disappointment. She scanned each of the four x-rays from top to bottom, despite the fact that she'd already done so at least three times. The results were the same.

Nothing.

"I was certain I'd find one," she murmured. "It would have explained everything. She blew out a small puff of air and shook her head. "Maybe the angle is wrong, maybe it's there and we're just missing it."

"You know as well as I do that these are adequate. If this...chip you're looking for were there, we'd see it." Dr. Palermo reached up to flick off the light box. "I wish I had more to offer, but I'm fresh out of ideas."

She mustered a half-hearted smile. "You've been more than helpful. I'm just glad I didn't mention this to Mulder. He's having a hard enough time coming to terms with everything."

"So I gathered. Mixing alcohol and Dilantin is dangerous as well as irresponsible." Palermo rolled his shoulders and rubbed the back of his neck. "What are you planning on doing with him?"

Scully glanced across the room, wry affection twisting her lips. "Good question."

Mulder's lanky form draped inelegantly across the bed, one arm suspended in midair and the other curled under his chin. Lips slightly parted, he snored softly, eyes darting back and forth beneath the lids.

"I'd *planned* on dropping him at his apartment before I went into the office - I have to work tonight," she explained. "I didn't count on him passing out cold while we were waiting for the films to develop."

Palermo pursed his lips and glanced at his watch. "I'm on call so I'll probably just crash on a cot in the lounge. As you probably noticed when you came in, there's not much going on around here tonight. You can leave him for now and pick him up in a few hours. I'll have the nurses keep an eye on him. Between the chemicals in his system and the behavior you described, I'd feel better if he wasn't left alone."

Scully sagged a little in relief. "Another one on the tab," she said ruefully. "Now you know why Mulder is a legend around here."

Palermo collected the x-rays, slipped them into a folder, and handed it to her. "Trouble does seem to follow in his wake," he concurred. "Have a nurse let me know when you take him home. He should be a lot less groggy once he has a few hours of sleep under his belt."

Scully caught his sleeve as he moved past her to the door. "Thank you."

He gave her a mock salute. "My pleasure. You know, in spite of the rumors regaling Mulder as the patient from hell, I *like* him."

Scully's lips quirked. "Sounds like an X-File."

Palermo laughed. "Just hit the lights on your way out. He'll probably never know you're gone."

Scully walked slowly over to the gurney and stared down into Mulder's face, features softened by sleep. She fingered a stray lock of hair, pleased to see it was growing out and losing what she privately referred to as the "weed whacker" look. When she'd bullied her way into Mulder's hospital room upon returning from Africa, the drastic deterioration of his condition had stolen the breath from her lungs. His lean, runner's body wasted to the point of gauntness. His expressive hazel eyes fixed and vacant. And the thick, dark hair she loved to touch cropped close to his skull. The only recourse, Skinner explained, because in the extremity of his pain Mulder would literally tear it from his head.

When she'd gone home that evening Scully had wept for the big things -Mulder's slide towards death, Skinner's duplicity and the knowledge she was alone in her fight to save him, and the crippling blow to her faith dealt by an alien craft. But she'd wept for the little things as well - eyes that revealed no pleasure at the sight of her face, limp hands lying apathetically in restraints, and the loss of that stubborn lock of wayward hair.

Scully trailed her fingers down the side of Mulder's face, brushing the backs against the rough stubble of his jaw. She could feel the weight of his gun in her pocket, a not so subtle reminder that the tranquil expression was deceptive. She'd arrived in time today, managed to tug Mulder away from the edge of the abyss. She wasn't nave enough, however, to believe he wouldn't slide back. Mulder could be excessively moody and introspective even at the best of times. With life as he'd always known it crumbled to ruins, what would emerge remained to be seen. There would be dark days ahead, for them both.

"I once said you keep unfolding like a flower, Mulder," she murmured. "Don't be afraid of what's underneath. I haven't been disappointed so far."

Mulder's fingers twitched and he mumbled something undecipherable before subsiding. Scully carefully tucked the dangling arm through the bedrail and pulled the sheet up to his shoulders. With a final caress to his cheek she dimmed the lights and stepped into the hallway.

As if on cue her cell phone trilled insistently, drawing disapproving looks from several nurses. Lifting a pacifying hand, Scully flipped the phone open while walking briskly toward the automatic doors.

"Scully."

"I have been stalling the Assistant Director for nearly three hours, Dana. My wife will be very unhappy if I come home a eunuch."

Laughter erupted from somewhere near her toes, and she could only give in to it. When she finally regained her composure, still snorting and wiping her eyes, it felt as if her heart had been released from a vise.

"Thank you, Digger," she gasped. "You have no idea how much I needed that."

Digger humphed, trying to sound irritated but too pleased by her reaction to pull it off. "Glad to be of entertainment. Where the hell have you been?" He caught himself. "Mulder is all right, isn't he?"

"That's a loaded question, Digger. Let's just say I think he will be. Did we get the warrant?"

Digger lowered his voice. "Of course we got the warrant - why else would I have Skinner breathing down my neck? Jeffreys is giving him some major grief about waiting for you. Paxton left the office over an hour ago and Watkins and Schneider have him staked out. The only thing keeping us from searching that office is the pleasure of your company."

Scully slid behind the wheel and turned the ignition. "I've said it before, but I'll say it again. You really know how to sweet talk a girl, Digger. I've got the address of Paxton's office. I'll meet you there."

"It's a date," he replied. "Just don't tell Spooky. We wouldn't want to make him jealous."

Scully sighed and rolled her eyes. "He's my partner, it's not like..."

She trailed off, feeling the heat in her cheeks. Which side of that line were they on again?

Digger made a rude sound of disbelief. "Uh-huh. Save the fairy tales for the kiddies, Dana. I'll see ya in fifteen."

He hung up while she was still desperately searching for a clever retort.


Office of Dr. Sean Paxton
Wednesday
8:24 p.m.

"Okay, I'm in. What exactly are we looking for?" Digger asked, fingers flying over the keys.

Scully leaned over his shoulder, hands braced on the back of his chair. "I'm not sure. I'll know when I see it."

Digger's hands stilled long enough for him to shoot her a venomous look. "That narrows things down."

She watched him open and close various folders, occasionally tearing her eyes from the screen to watch Skinner and Gentry as they searched a bank of filing cabinets. Skinner felt her scrutiny and held up some folders.

"Medical records on our victims. They seem pretty straight forward but you'll want to take a look."

Digger's low whistle distracted her from replying. He'd hunched further over the console, body posture communicating excitement.

"What is it?" Scully asked.

"One heck of a large file. And it's password protected."

"What's it called?"

Digger snorted. "Just 'Omega.'"

*The End*

Scully shivered, pulling her jacket more tightly around her shoulders. "That's it. I need to see that file, Digger."

"I'd love to oblige, but we have to get in first. I need a password -you having any of those Dana Scully epiphanies?"

Scully started to retort, then went very still. "Try 'Purity Control,'" she said tersely.

Digger frowned, but typed in the words. When the computer emitted the equivalent of a raspberry, he raised an eyebrow.

"Just 'Purity' then," Scully suggested, mentally crossing her fingers.

A staccato of clicks, silence, and then a soothing chime as the file opened, displaying a subdirectory that contained a list of about thirty names. Or rather, thirty variations of the same name - Mary - with a string of six digits attached.

Digger double clicked on one of them and the screen flooded with a jumble of characters that at first glance looked to be nothing more than gibberish.

"Whatever the hell this is, he's got it encrypted out the wazoo," Digger growled, sounding personally insulted. "This is way beyond the capabilities of some fertility specialist with a rinky-dink password like Purity."

Scully reached over and appropriated the mouse, scrolling down. She closed the file and clicked on another name with the same results.

"I think this is medical data," she murmured.

Skinner, noticing their intensity, walked over to peer at the screen.

"Can you crack that?" he asked Digger, eyes roaming over the collection of letters, numbers, and symbols.

Digger shrugged. "Won't know till I try."

Scully backed out of the file to the directory. She stared at the screen, lip caught between her teeth. Skinner's eyes darted back and forth between the display and her face.

"What is it, Agent Scully?"

"I think our victims are in there somewhere," she said thoughtfully. "This is a list of test subjects."

Skinner's brow furrowed. "What makes you say that? And why are they all named Mary?"

"I can recognize some simple medical data amidst the encryption," Scully replied, selecting MARY891026. "This looks like it could be CBC results." She pointed to a group of numbers. "And this is blood pressure readings. As for the name..." She trailed off with a short, bitter laugh. "They are so damn arrogant."

"What?" Digger demanded. "What does it mean?"

Scully rubbed at the dull ache that had settled just over her eyes. "If these women are the unwitting test subjects that Mulder and I believe them to be, they're an attempt to produce a new breed of human being." She looked at Skinner. "One resistant to the threat of the black oil and therefore invulnerable to the attempts of alien colonization."

When she saw Skinner's incredulous expression, she chuffed a small laugh and shook her head. "What can I say, sir? My trip to Africa was...enlightening."

"Hold it, hold it, hold it!" Digger snapped, waving a hand like a kid trying to grab his teacher's attention. "Time out. What in God's name is black oil, and what does it have to do with aliens taking over the planet?"

Scully glanced over to see Gentry frozen in the midst of a drawer of files, his jaw literally hanging open. At her glare, he swallowed hard and resumed his rummaging.

"The black oil is a virus of extraterrestrial origin," she said to Digger, lowering her voice. "Mulder believes the spread of the virus would lead to alien colonization of this planet."

"So you're saying that these women, and our victims, were carrying babies genetically manipulated to be immune to the virus?" Skinner said, jaw clenched.

Scully took and deep breath and let it out slowly, wondering just how she'd gotten here. Dana Scully, chief skeptic, saddled with the unenviable task of convincing others of the possibility of alien colonization. *That* was an X-File. Mulder would be so proud.

"Yes sir. That's exactly what I'm saying."

"So where does the name Mary come in?" Digger asked.

Scully folded her arms tightly across her chest, as if to contain the rage that simmered inside of her. "Don't you know your Bible gentlemen? Mary was the mother of Jesus - the savior of the world."


Georgetown
Thursday
8:30 a.m.

Mulder rolled onto his stomach and inhaled deeply. Scully always smelled so nice. Not artificial, drenched in expensive perfume the way Phoebe used to smell; but fresh and clean like the outdoors on a warm spring day. He'd wondered about that smell for a long time before going snooping in her apartment one night while she was out picking up Chinese for dinner. With minimal invasion of her privacy, he'd solved the mystery in her bathroom. Lined up neatly along the tub were small bottles of various oils, soaps, and lotions from someplace called "Bath and Body Works." He'd opened one to take an exploratory sniff, pleased to identify the familiar fragrance. Scully's key in the lock had sent him scrambling guiltily for the sink, where he'd covered his nosiness by washing his hands.

He sucked in another deep breath and snuggled his face a little more deeply into the pillow. It would probably be the end of his insomnia if he could find a way to make his sheets smell like Scully's, instead of...

Wait a minute.

Scully's sheets? Mulder's eyes cracked cautiously open. Yep. This was Scully's bed all right. He propped himself up on his arms and gazed blearily around the empty bedroom before flopping back down with a small groan. This made two times in less than a week that he'd awakened stripped to his underwear in Scully's bed with only a hazy recollection of how he'd gotten there. That wouldn't be a bad thing, except that he knew he'd done nothing more exciting than sleep.

Alone.

His eyes felt as if there were ground glass in the sockets, and the taste in his mouth defied description. Mulder shoved the blankets aside and sat up, running his tongue over his teeth and grimacing. Every time he drank too much he felt this way, and every time he felt this way he swore off drinking too much. Pathetic.

He found his jeans on the chair and pulled them on, then padded out of the bedroom, barefoot and barechested. The apartment was still and quiet, no clink of dishes in the kitchen, no tap of fingers on keys.

"Scully?"

No answer, but when he ambled into the kitchen he discovered three items awaiting him, displayed prominently on the counter - aspirin, a tall glass of water, and a folded piece of paper labeled "Mulder." Downing the tablets gratefully, he sipped the water and opened the note.

"Mulder, Went to work early today. The DC police brought in Paxton last night, and I'm scheduled to talk to him later this morning. I'll be back at noon with some lunch and to drive you home. Until then, take it easy and DO NOT get sunflower seeds in the couch cushions."

Unsigned, but that was oddly comforting. After all, they didn't even say goodbye when they hung up the phone. Mulder helped himself to Scully's wonderful, caffeine-laden coffee and a piece of toast. Still munching, he wandered into the living room, dropped onto the couch, and flicked on the television.

Oprah, The Price Is Right, and Blue's Clues - the rapidly flashing screen images couldn't distract him from his own dark musings. Mid-morning on a weekday, and here he was in ratty jeans watching bad television. Welcome to your new life, Fox Mulder.

Mulder closed his eyes, recalling Scully's face when she'd found him half-crocked and contemplating the benefits of a well-placed bullet. He was torn between embarrassment that she had witnessed him flirting with suicide and disappointment that she'd stopped him from carrying through. Her arguments, so persuasive in the warm circle of her arms, lacked conviction in the harsh light of day.

Scully could talk all she liked about layers and exploring his other gifts, words that sounded good until you pulled them apart to reach the heart of the matter. He'd always valued the truth - both in the telling and the receiving. So how could he be any less than honest with himself, even if the truth was particularly brutal?

Fox Mulder didn't *want* to "peel away the old life."

Crazy? Maybe. Who could possibly prefer a life of constant danger? Where an average day included murder, kidnapping, gunshots, snakebites and alien retroviruses? Liver-eating mutants, tentacled sea monsters, and The Great Mutato? Seedy motel rooms, cheap diners, and endless hours either hunched over the wheel of a car or crammed into an economy class airplane seat? What man in his right mind would give a passing thought to trading in that life for a new, and hopefully improved, version?

Fox Mulder.

Because for every abuse to his body there were Scully's small, capable hands to soothe and heal. For every impossible freak of nature, there was the roll of her blue eyes and the arch of a perfect eyebrow. And for every hour on the road there was the pleasure of her company - whether the rare treasure of a shared tidbit from her childhood or the grounding influence of her keen, logical mind applied to their work.

In spite of the pain and disappointment that frequently dogged his steps, he loved his job and he loved his life. Peeling it away opened a wound so deep he feared it might never heal.

Feeling the onset of another downward spiral, Mulder scrabbled for something else to occupy his mind. The thought of Scully interrogating Paxton without him only increased the moroseness of his mood. He silenced Oprah midway through a speech about the importance of childproofing your home and lunged to his feet. Pacing the circumference of Scully's apartment like a caged animal, his gaze happened to land on her laptop and a stack of file folders neatly piled on the corner of her desk. His good conscience lasted for about ten seconds before knuckling under to overpowering curiosity.

In a matter of minutes he was situated back on the couch, Scully's laptop booted up and the files spread across her coffee table. Dr. Paxton's medical records for each of the victims, he noted, and then hit the jackpot. A dark green floppy disk labeled "Paxton's computer files" in Scully's precise hand.

She'd jotted a brief page of notes mentioning the password and outlining her thoughts on the "Marys." Mulder's smile widened to a grin as he read the words "hybridization" and "colonization."

"That's my girl," he said, slipping the disk into the drive and punching in the password.

He couldn't do much with the encrypted data - that was Digger's department. But the code-names for the women... Mulder went back to Scully's desk and rummaged around until he located a pad of paper and pencil. He reclined comfortably on the couch with the computer propped on his legs and began playing with the number strings attached to the names.

MARY860512 provided the key that unlocked the puzzle. Between the steadily building headache and the capriciousness of his eidetic memory, Mulder might never have made the connection. But it just so happened that while reviewing the data Digger had compiled, he'd been struck by the date on the missing person's report for Corrie Jenkins. Struck, because it happened to be the exact same day that he received his doctorate from Oxford, just weeks before entering the FBI. May 12, 1986.

"Hello Corrie Jenkins," he muttered, scrubbing absently at the ache in his temple with the heel of one hand.

Fifteen minutes later the pain had become blinding but Mulder had managed to dredge the initial abduction dates for Liz Brentwood, Eve Roberts, and Traci Pritchard from his memory and match them to the corresponding Marys. He decided to let Janet Garson and Nicole Eddings slide until he could see their folders, returning instead to the encrypted files armed with the identity of their subjects.

Ironically, he'd almost decided to quit when he stumbled onto the realization that there was a subset of data on an additional individual within Corrie Jenkins' file. He'd already taken two breaks to splash cold water on his face and allow the nausea to subside to a manageable level. The symbols on the screen insisted on blurring together into a continuous green line and his head hurt so badly he no longer cared about anything but making it stop.

Until he saw the string of numbers and everything fell neatly into place. For a moment he could do no more than stare, confounded by the implications and disgusted with himself for not seeing it sooner.

Corrie Jenkins was the fourth murder victim, killed on June 6. Listed near the end of her file was a cluster of data under the code B990606. A boy. Delivered on June 6, 1999.

With trembling fingers Mulder shut the file and opened the one for Liz Brentwood. There, at the bottom, a similar string of numbers and a corresponding set of data. Liz was murdered at the end of January. The code number read G990127. A girl. Delivered on January 27, 1999.

Fingers tripping frantically over keys, eyes squinted stubbornly against the pain, Mulder opened the files he'd identified as belonging to Eve Roberts and Traci Pritchard. Two more boys, birth dates simultaneous with their mothers' deaths.

Mulder set the laptop carefully aside and buried his face in his hands, shivering with revulsion. How could they have been so blind? Those babies weren't failed experiments, evidence to be eliminated and forgotten.

Those babies were *successful* experiments, harvested and spirited away for further testing while their mothers, now expendable, were left to die.

Somewhere, those babies were *alive*.

His stomach, already churning from pain and dizziness, twisted painfully. Staggering into the bathroom, he barely had time to drop to his knees before losing everything he'd consumed since waking. The spasms were agony, but paled in comparison to his anguish over those tiny, helpless souls created to be nothing more than pawns in the Smoker's cosmic game of chess. Emily's sweet, pale face swam before his eyes and he retched again, helplessly.

He never heard the front door open or Scully's muttered curse as she viewed the evidence of his imprudence. Hunched over the toilet, throbbing head pressed to the porcelain, he was too far gone to even jump when she appeared in the doorway and let him have it with both barrels.

"What the HELL do you think you're doing? Are you just stupid, or is this another attempt to kill yourself?"

Mulder lifted his head, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "Figured it out," he croaked, blinking up at the fuzzy circle of her face. "I know what's going on, Scully."

She disappeared, and he heard the door of the linen closet slam open, then shut. She stormed back into the room and wrenched on the cold water, wetting the washcloth in her hand and thrusting it at him.

"Clean yourself up. I'll be waiting in the living room."

So that's how it was going to be. She was obviously well past the point of being furious, rapidly approaching homicidal. Mulder wiped his face and then pressed the cloth to the back of his neck, gathering himself for the task of rising. Somehow he was able to stand, flush the toilet, and rinse his mouth. Moving with all the speed and agility of a ninety-year-old, he navigated his way back to the couch and sank down with a grunt.

Scully sat rigidly in the chair, arms folded and expression furious. Mulder waited for her to speak, to continue the diatribe she'd begun in the bathroom, but she simply stared a hole through the carpet and remained mute.

"I'm sorry I went behind your back."

Her eyes flicked to his face, then quickly away and she chewed on the inside of her cheek. "No you aren't. You're just sorry you got caught."

What could he possibly say to that? It was true.

"I'm sorry I disappointed you. Sorry that I can't seem to be the person you think I can be." An edge crept into his voice, the physical pain and the psychological horror taking their toll. "This is who I *am*, Scully. You want me to give that all up, become a stranger. I don't know how to do that. I don't want to."

Scully leaned sharply forward her eyes blazing. "Then you will *die*, Mulder."

For the first time in nearly two days he felt a sense of peace. "That's right," he agreed gently. "I'll die Mulder. The person I know, the only one I want to be. If you really love me, Scully, you'll accept that."

She stood and walked to the window, and he could only watch the shifting muscles in her back. Her voice was tightly controlled, but soft. "What were you babbling about the case? What did you figure out? Because Paxton isn't talking. We don't have enough to hold the son of a bitch for long, and he knows it."

"Come here."

She obliged reluctantly, sitting close enough to see the screen but not touch him.

"The code number for each Mary corresponds to the initial abduction date. This is Liz Brentwood." He pointed to one. "And this is Traci Pritchard. I've got everyone but Janet Garson and Nicole Eddings deciphered." He rubbed his brow, quickly dropping his hand at her piercing look.

"Digger's working on the encryption," she said, watching as he opened Liz Brentwood's file. "He's having trouble making headway. I gave the boys a call and they promised to take a look."

Mulder nodded absently, scrolling down to the second code number. "Here. This is another set of data, Scully. Another test subject. The number corresponds to Liz Brentwood's date of death. And the letter..."

Scully pressed shaky fingers to her lips. "Girl," she whispered.

"Yeah," Mulder confirmed bleakly.

She tore her eyes from the screen to study his face. "Then that means..."

"They're alive, Scully. All of them. We just don't know where."

Scully's eyes flooded with tears, then turned to stone. "But I'll bet Paxton does," she said, standing.

Mulder set aside the computer and rose as well. "I'm coming with you. Just take me by my place so I can get a suit."

Scully's head was shaking vehemently, her grip on his arm hard enough to bruise. "No way. Skinner has you on medical leave, remember? I may not be able to stop you from poking through my desk but he will definitely stop you from seeing Paxton."

"I put this together and I want to be there," Mulder snapped irately. "I have a right to be there!"

Scully rounded on him. "You have no rights after what you did this morning! You betrayed my trust by going through my desk and accessing files that were forbidden to you! And for God's sakes, Mulder, stop picking at your finger! You've been doing that all the time lately and it's making me crazy!"

The complete switch of subjects derailed Mulder's fury and he stared at her blankly. "Huh? What are you talking about?"

His complete bafflement shamed her and Scully wished she could take the words back. After all, it didn't have anything to do with their argument and she'd promised herself she wouldn't embarrass him by bringing it to his attention.

"Forget it, Mulder."

"No, you brought it up," he insisted. "What did you mean?"

"That!" Scully said, exasperated, gesturing to where his thumb was rubbing the knuckle of his fourth finger. "Why do you keep rubbing that finger? You never used to do that."

As she'd feared, he did look disconcerted and a little defensive. "It tingles," he replied petulantly. "It has ever since I was...sick. They had it taped up for a while - guess maybe I broke it."

For just a moment Scully forgot to breathe. Paxton, the murdered women, and even the missing babies faded to the background and all she could see was Mulder's left hand. With abrupt clarity she realized that each time she'd observed Mulder's nervous habit he'd been engaged either in deductive thinking or trying to remember something. And the headaches inevitably followed.

"Let me see it," she said, grabbing hold of his hand before he could offer it.

"Scully! This is no big deal, we need to talk to Paxton and find out... What?"

Scully pointed to a small, hairline scar that ran along the inside of his fourth finger.

"What is that?" he asked quietly.

"I'll need an x-ray to be sure," Scully replied, her voice wired with a combination of excitement and anger. "But I think we just found the cause of the tingling - and your headaches."

**Georgetown Memorial
Thursday
1:34 p.m.

"*That* is the damnedest thing I've ever seen," Dr. Palermo said, shaking his head. "It definitely makes up for being dragged back here after a night on call."

The light box in front of him displayed two different views of Mulder's left hand, the tiny chip clearly visible in each.

"I owe you an apology," Palermo went on, turning to look at Scully, whose eyes were still fixed on the x-rays. "I'll admit when you wanted to look for that thing in his neck, I was only humoring you. It sounded so far fetched, I thought you were just grasping at straws."

Scully smiled. "Apology accepted. What matters is that you did humor me - then and now."

Mulder put his hands on his hips and scowled. "Those other x-rays - you were looking for a microchip? You said you were checking for compression of my spinal cord!"

Scully ducked her head guiltily. "Mulder, all I had was a suspicion. I didn't want to raise your hopes one minute only to dash them to pieces the next." She gazed up from under a sweep of auburn hair. "You'd already been through so much."

The anger seeped out of his face, leaving only chagrin. "I'll admit I wasn't exactly at my emotional best," he said wryly. "Now, who's going to take that out of my finger?"

"I can do it right here, with a local anesthetic," Palermo said agreeably. "Go sit down on the gurney and I'll get things ready."

Mulder took a seat as indicated. The gurney was locked in an upright position so that he was only slightly reclined, and his eyes followed Palermo nervously as the surgeon moved about the room.

"How's the headache?" Scully asked, sensing his uneasiness and hoping to distract him.

Mulder appeared to think about it for a moment, then shrugged. "Not bad. I hate to say it, but I think I've almost become accustomed to a certain level of pain. As long as I'm not ready to pass out or throw up, I know I'm doing all right."

Scully's lips thinned, her jaw tight with animosity. "Just when I think I couldn't possibly hate that bastard any more than I do, he proves me wrong."

Mulder reached out to take her hand, enveloping it in his. "Hey," he said softly, drawing her back from the darkness. "He didn't win this one. You did."

She smiled, turning her hand so short fingers could wriggle between long. "No, *you* did." She hesitated. "You understand, Mulder, we won't know anything for sure until the chip is out and..."

"*I* know," Mulder said firmly. "I can feel it, Scully. It's like the volume has been turned up, and what was just an annoying buzz is now blaring at maximum amplification. I just want to be rid of it." "I understand that. But there's something else I think you should consider before you let Dr. Palermo take out that chip."

He started shaking his head before she finished speaking. "I know what you're going to say, Scully. And frankly, it just doesn't matter to me."

"Then maybe you'd better think a little harder," Scully replied a bit sharply. "We don't know the possible side effects to removing this chip. As someone who's already walked that path, I can assure you the view isn't pleasant."

Mulder stared at their entwined hands, then up at her face. "I know. You might not have always known it, but I was walking that path with you. I understand the risks, Scully. But right now the only side effect I care about is that the headaches will go away." His voice lowered, turning wistful. "I just want my life back."

"Okay, we're all set," Palermo said cheerfully, swinging a table across the gurney and adjusting it until Mulder could rest his arm comfortably on top.

Mulder eyed the stainless steel tray bearing instruments and a hypodermic needle and licked his lips. "Then again..."

The doctor chuckled. "Relax. The worst part will be the Lidocaine injections to numb the area. After that we're home free and you won't feel a thing."

"Easy for you to say," Mulder muttered as he watched Palermo swab the finger with disinfectant. "You're the one holding the needle."

Palermo pulled up the paper mask that hung loosely around his neck and secured it over his nose and mouth. "Mulder, I've seen your file, remember? It makes War and Peace look like a vignette. In the grander scheme of things this will hardly be worth mentioning." He lifted the syringe. "Ready?"

Scully tightened her fingers. "Look at me, Mulder, not the needle."

He actually managed a smile at that. "No contest, Scully."

Palermo was right - compared to being clawed by mothmen or chomped on by zombies, the removal of the chip was quick and relatively painless. A minor complication arose due to the fact that the chip had lodged next to the bone, making extraction more difficult. Palermo handled the unexpected with calm reassurances, maneuvering the forceps carefully until he triumphantly produced the tiny piece of electronics. Ten minutes later Mulder was stitched, bandaged, and holding the offending object in a specimen cup.

"Thank you," he told the doctor, accepting Scully's steadying hand as he slipped off the bed. "For letting us drag you in here on your day off, and for the impromptu surgery."

Palermo grinned. "No problem. As I told your partner, life may have been easier before I met you, but it was also less interesting."

Mulder rolled his eyes. "Yeah, I get that a lot."

"You've had stitches before, the usual applies. Don't get them wet for the first 48 hours, keep changing the bandage and applying the antibiotic cream - oh, and you'd better take this."

He produced a prescription pad and quickly filled one out. "Here's something for the pain. I had to do a little digging around in there and you're going to feel it. You're all right for now, but once the anesthetic wears off it'll be another story."

Mulder grimaced. "Great. Something to look forward to."

"I'll see you in a week for another neuro check up. With any luck we'll put this whole experience to rest. How's that for something to look forward to?"

Mulder stole a quick glance at Scully before replying. "Works for me, Doc."

Her lips curved. "Me too."


DC Police Station
Thursday
3:16 p.m.

Dr. Sean Paxton was of medium height, with a thin, bookish face and wire-rimmed glasses. He compensated for a receding hairline by growing the rest long and combing it over the top of his head. Consequently, he had the habit of smoothing locks back when they tried to tumble forward into his eyes.

He sat carefully at the table and folded his hands, looking politely from Mulder to Scully as if he were a candidate for a job interview rather than a murder suspect undergoing interrogation.

"Dr. Paxton, I'm Agent Mulder from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I believe you've already met Agent Scully. We need to ask you a few more questions regarding the deaths of your patients."

"I already told Agent Scully everything I know this morning," Paxton said reasonably. "I can't imagine how I could shed any more light on your investigation."

"It must be very disturbing for you - six of your patients murdered in cold blood, the lives of their unborn children brought to such a brutal end," Mulder said, shaking his head.

"Of course it's disturbing! Not nearly as disturbing, however, as finding out you are some kind of suspect," Paxton sniffed. "I'm in the profession of creating and preserving life, Agent Mulder, not taking it."

Mulder leaned back comfortably in his chair, keeping his bandaged hand folded across his chest and slightly elevated. "You weren't always, though. I understand that you were initially involved in research, rather than medicine. Genetics, the recombination of DNA - sounds fascinating."

Paxton eyed him warily, as if confused by the change of subject. "It was. We did some ground-breaking work in locating a cure for several diseases."

Mulder looked puzzled. "So what made you decide to go into practice? If the work was so fulfilling, I mean?"

Paxton shrugged. "I suppose it was the people connection, Agent Mulder. Research is all well and good, but it can become tiresome when you never see the people you're trying to help."

Mulder nodded thoughtfully. "I see what you mean." He paused. "I suppose the ultimate job, then, would allow you to perform the research and yet be able to see the people it was affecting at the same time. Kind of the best of both worlds."

Paxton stiffened, his demeanor cooling twenty degrees. "That would be impossible, Agent Mulder, since with very few exceptions the practice of experimenting on human beings is ethically, not to mention legally, forbidden."

This time Mulder shrugged. "True. Still, I would imagine there are ways to get around that - especially if you're convinced of the *purity* of your purpose. I mean, say you knew the fruits of your research could eventually wind up saving the human race from extinction. A few human test subjects would be a small price to pay, right?"

Paxton licked his lips and swiped nervously at a strand of hair. "I don't know what you're talking about. I help couples conceive babies, Agent Mulder. While of great importance to them, I'd hardly say it impacts the planet."

Mulder leaned forward and rested his hands on the table. "But these aren't ordinary babies, are they?"

"What do you mean?"

Mulder scratched his head. "Dr. Paxton, could a baby survive if taken from the womb at, say, eighteen to twenty weeks gestation?"

Paxton pushed the hair back again with slightly trembling fingers. "It's highly unlikely."

"Not anymore," Scully spoke up. Paxton's eyes jumped apprehensively over to her, as if he'd forgotten her presence. "With the advances in medicine and the technology available now, babies have routinely survived premature births at only twenty weeks."

"Agent Scully is also a medical doctor," Mulder said matter-of-factly.

Paxton squirmed.

"You've probably delivered more than your share of babies over the years," Mulder mused. "Am I right?"

Paxton just nodded, obviously uncomfortable with Mulder's hit and run style of questioning.

"You know, one of the things I couldn't figure out about these murders was the complete lack of...I guess you'd call it passion," Mulder continued, almost as if speaking to himself. "I mean, you have what on the surface appears to be a very brutal crime - a pregnant mother, her child ripped from the womb, left to die of shock and blood loss..."

He picked at the bandage on his finger, then raised piercing eyes to Paxton's face. "But that's just superficial. There is a...surgical precision to the wounds inflicted on the victims. The knife strokes have a definite purpose, are not just random slashes. The women were sedated to feel a minimum amount of discomfort. Almost like a C-section to deliver a baby. Except in the hospital they don't allow the mother to bleed to death."

Paxton fidgeted, shifting in his chair and pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "What does any of that have to do with me?"

Mulder leaned forward. "We know about the Marys and about Purity Control, Dr. Paxton. We've pulled the files from your computer at the office and we've matched our victims to them. We know you experimented on those women under the guise of fertility treatments. We know you cut them open and took their babies. And we know those babies are still alive. We're in the process of decrypting the rest of the data right now."

Paxton turned white. "I don't know... You're crazy! Why would I help those women become pregnant and then steal their children? What would I possibly gain from that?"

"You worked for InterGen, a subsidiary of Roush Laboratories. They trained you, let you conduct research in the hybridization of two species within the lab and then they set you up to give it a whirl in the real world," Mulder said tightly. "Treating abductees, women already subjected to involuntary medical procedures. You helped them get pregnant, but those babies weren't human - at least not 100 percent. Babies genetically altered with alien DNA in an effort to create the perfect hybrid, able to withstand colonization."

Paxton glanced around the room agitatedly. "You can't prove any of that. You'll never be able to decipher that data, even I don't know how it's encoded."

Mulder chuckled, but it was a hard, humorless sound. "Don't be so sure. Look how much we've been able to glean after less than twenty-four hours." He smoothed his tie and then added earnestly, "You might as well talk to us, Dr. Paxton. How long do you think you're going to survive once your employers realize we've pulled you in for questioning, taken a look at your files? Do you really think they'll leave a loose end like you hanging around to implicate them? What will your cigarette smoking friend think?"

Paxton stared at him, mouth agape, and perspiration broke out on his brow. "They wouldn't... I'm crucial to this project!"

"The project is over," Scully said. "Cooperate with us and we'll protect you." "Otherwise, we'll cut you loose and you can go on home," Mulder added coolly.

Paxton buried his head in his hands with a little moan. "I'm not a murderer. What I did, I did for the preservation of the human race. That's all that matters!"

"Help us to understand then. You admit that you altered the genetic material of those women? That the babies they carried were hybrids?" Mulder pushed.

"Yes. I was notified in advance when a 'Mary' would be coming to see me and provided with the necessary genetic material."

"There were at least 30 names on that list, yet we are aware of only six deaths," Scully pointed out.

"Some of the women miscarried during the first month," Paxton replied. "And, of course, some are still gestating and have yet to be delivered."

Scully pressed the back of one hand to her lips, unable to mask a look of repugnance. Mulder, sensing her discomfort, plunged ahead.

"Each of the women had received a positive AFP test and an abnormal amniocentesis. They were going to abort. Is that why you took the babies?"

Paxton looked regretful. "It's an unavoidable side effect to the treatments we've been trying to correct. For some reason the hybrid tests positive for Spina Bifida or Down's Syndrome - when in actuality they are perfectly healthy. We couldn't allow the mothers to abort in a fit of misplaced hysteria."

Scully's voice was frigid. "So you killed them."

Paxton looked at her with honest puzzlement. "We *saved* the children. The mothers are incidental to end goal of the project. Expendable."

Mulder watched Scully's grip on her pen go white knuckled, feeling a bit ill himself. Paxton might have a degree and letters tacked on after his name, but inside he was built no different from any number of serial killers he had known.

"There were no signs of struggle. How did you get them to cooperate?" he asked.

"They were called, and they came," Paxton said indifferently. "My associate, Mr. Crittendon took care of that, as well as the disposal of the remains." He looked back and forth between Mulder and Scully's disgusted faces. "I took care of them! I treated them with the reverence they deserved as the mothers of our salvation, made sure they didn't suffer."

Mulder tried not to rub at his finger, which had begun to throb. He was abruptly exhausted, sickened by Paxton and his warped view of reality. He just wanted to finish up the questioning and get as far from the man as possible. One look at Scully told him she was experiencing similar emotions.

"Where are the babies?" he asked dully.

Paxton answered with a tilt of his shoulders. "I don't know. I would meet the project leader at a designated location and turn them over to him. I wasn't cleared for Phase 2."

"What about Mr. Crittendon and this project leader - what was his name? Can you tell us where to find them?"

Paxton looked horrified. "I was strictly forbidden to approach either one. They always contacted me at the appropriate time. I never knew the project leader's name, and I was wise enough not to ask." He shoved back a string of hair, eyes pleading. "You're going to protect me, you said you'd protect me - right?"

Mulder sighed and pushed himself to his feet. He opened the door and motioned for a guard before turning back to Paxton. "Don't worry, Dr. Paxton. We'll see you live to serve every one of the prison terms you've got coming to you."

"You don't understand, that's all," Paxton said patiently as the officer took him by the arm to lead him back to his cell. "You can't see the big picture. Someday mankind will remember me for my work, for my contribution to its deliverance from annihilation. You'll see."

"You okay, Scully?" Mulder asked when the guard had cleared Paxton from the room.

She gave a slight shake of her head. "We have to find those babies, Mulder."

"The answer has to be in those files somewhere. I believe Paxton when he says he doesn't know how they're encrypted. I'll bet his associate, the mysterious Mr. Crittendon, handled all the data entry. Paxton is just a pawn."

"Paxton is a cold blooded murderer with delusions of grandeur," Scully replied, a slight tremor to the words. "How's your head?"

Mulder's eyes widened. "I never stopped to think..." He smiled. "I'm good, Scully. My finger is killing me, but my head feels terrific."

Scully stood and collected her briefcase. "I'm glad to hear it, Mulder. And I wouldn't worry about your finger. Once Skinner finds out you participated in this interrogation you'll be worrying about more important parts of your anatomy."

Mulder gave her his best leer. "Ooo, Scully. It's nice to know you appreciate their value."

Internally, she was delighted to see the old Mulder back. Externally, she gave the appropriate response.

"Shut up, Mulder."


FBI Headquarters
Thursday
5:51 p.m.

Someone was driving red-hot needles into his finger with each heartbeat. Mulder cast a furtive look at Scully, confirming that she was still absorbed in reading Paxton's paper file on Traci Pritchard. Keeping his eyes on her, he covertly reached over with his right hand and rubbed at the offending digit.

"Stop that. You're just going to make it worse."

How did she do that? He would swear she'd never taken her eyes from the folder.

"It hurts," he whined, sneaking in one more stroke before desisting. "And how do you know I'm doing anything to it? You're reading that file."

"It's called peripheral vision, Mulder. Mothers of small children have been employing it for centuries," Scully said dryly, still never lifting her gaze from the page. "Why don't you just take one of the damn pills?"

"Are you crazy? And face Skinner stoned? I plan to have all my wits about me, thanks anyway. I'll take one after this meeting." Mulder tried to settle himself more comfortably in his chair, ignoring the feeling that Janet Reno was watching him disapprovingly.

"Agents."

The door opened and Skinner strode into the room and sat down behind his desk. He shuffled a few papers out of the way before looking up at them, something dark hidden behind his businesslike demeanor.

"I'm sorry about the interruption. Please continue."

Mulder exchanged a long glance with his partner, then inclined his head. She met Skinner's expectant gaze and took a deep breath to collect her thoughts.

"That's about all we have for now, sir. Paxton insists that he can tell us nothing about Mr. Crittendon, the project leader, or the location of the infants. Agent Mulder and I are hoping that the computer files will reveal something useful."

"How is Agent Costanza handling the decryption?" Skinner asked, jaw tight and a small muscle twitching in his cheek.

Mulder sat a little straighter and smoothed his tie, puzzled by the underlying anger in his supervisor's voice. "It's slow work, but he's making progress."

Skinner nodded curtly. "I haven't heard an explanation for your participation in that interrogation, Agent Mulder. Or, for that matter, your presence in my office right now. I'm certain Agent Scully wouldn't have failed to inform you that you are on medical leave."

"I understand that, sir," Mulder replied reasonably. "But surely you can see that leave is unnecessary now that we've eliminated the source of my headaches. As Agent Scully can confirm, I handled Paxton's questioning with absolutely no ill effects."

"He's right about that, sir," Scully confirmed, shooting Mulder a sideways glance that said she wished he'd left her out of the discussion. "Prior to the removal of the chip, engaging in that type of activity would definitely have triggered a headache, yet Agent Mulder suffered no incidence of any pain or discomfort."

"I'm delighted to hear that, Agent Scully. The fact remains that his leave has yet to be revoked and therefore he had no business in the police station. I'd hoped that you, at least, would show a bit more sense."

Scully flushed red and her eyes narrowed. "Excuse me for pointing this out, sir, but Agent Mulder is an adult and..."

"The only one responsible for my presence in that interview was me, sir," Mulder broke in calmly. "Agent Scully advised me that I was on medical leave and should allow her to handle it. I insisted."

Skinner sighed heavily and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Bottom line, Agents. Where are we on this case?"

"Dr. Paxton is responsible for the deaths of our six victims," Mulder said. "He wielded the scalpel that inflicted the wounds, and he left them to die without providing life sustaining treatment. It's clear, however, that Paxton is merely a cog in a much larger machine - and a rather insignificant one, at that. The men who orchestrated these experiments, who gave Paxton his directions, are just as accountable for those murders, perhaps more."

"Yet we have no way of finding these men," Skinner said tersely. "No way to connect them to the deaths, or the missing babies."

"There's still the possibility that the computer files will give us a clue," Mulder reminded him. "And I was thinking that perhaps if we had Paxton sit down with a sketch artist we could get a picture of the Mr. Crittendon and the elusive project leader. It might be enough to..."

"Paxton will be of no help in finding those men, Mulder," Skinner interrupted through clenched teeth.

Mulder shook his head, baffled by the man's certainty. "I know he's scared, but with a little pressure..."

"Paxton is dead, Mulder."

Mulder saw Scully's head swivel sharply toward Skinner; could only stare dumfounded.

"Sir?" she demanded.

"That's the call that Kim pulled me out of our meeting to take. The DC cops said it was confidential and she wasn't sure if you and Mulder had clearance." Skinner's hands clenched the chair's armrests. "Shortly after you and Mulder left, Paxton had a visit from his lawyer. They met briefly and Paxton returned to his cell. Fifteen minutes later a guard found him collapsed on the floor. He was already dead."

"Preliminary cause of death?" Scully asked numbly.

"Looks like some kind of poison, though I'll be damned as to how it was administered. I'm having them ship the body to Quantico. I'd like you to perform the autopsy."

She nodded.

"There's more," Skinner continued. "I asked for a description of this 'lawyer.' Early thirties, dark hair and beard, green eyes. Cop said something must have been wrong with his left arm, since he didn't move it much."

"Krycek. Damn it!" Mulder added several more expletives that had both Skinner and Scully's brows arched in surprise, though he didn't seem to notice. "I should have foreseen this, should have locked Paxton down somewhere safer!"

"He was in a cell in the police station, Mulder," Scully pointed out cynically. "One would think he was safe - at least for the time being."

"Bullshit! We know these men, Scully. We should have known better."

"Hindsight, Agent Mulder," Skinner said wearily. "I suggest you both go home and get some rest. Until Costanza makes some more headway with those files there's not much more we can do. Oh, and Agent Mulder?" he added as they headed for the door.

Mulder turned back, his expression still marred by anger. "Sir?"

"I'll initiate the paperwork to revoke your leave. But until I have a signed release from your physician in my hands you are still barred from this building. Is that clear?"

"Crystal, sir."

Mulder stalked from the office, barely restraining himself from slamming the door on his way out.


Alexandria
Thursday
9:38 p.m.

"Mulder, go to bed."

Green eyes slit open and he offered her a goofy grin. "Scully, I thought you'd never ask."

She rolled her eyes, nudging his head from her shoulder. "That pill must have been stronger than I thought. You're delusional."

Mulder rubbed his eyes and squinted at the television screen. "You can't go yet, Scully. Marion's still in the Nazi's clutches."

Scully stood and stretched, shaking out pins and needles in the arm that had served as his pillow. "Mulder you have been sawing wood for the last half hour. I need to go home and you need to get some real sleep."

Mulder's protest was cut short by the ringing of his phone. Clicking off the television with one hand, he scooped up the receiver with the other.

"Mulder."

"Hang on to your shorts, Spooky, cuz I've got news for you."

"Lay it on me," he replied, mouthing "Digger" for Scully's benefit.

"I've been working on the files all day with those three geeky friends of yours - you sure know how to pick 'em, Spook."

"I was just thinking the same thing," Mulder replied dryly.

"Ha, ha. Anyway, you were right, they do know their stuff. A few hours ago we managed to decode something that rang a bell and I've been pursuing it ever since."

"Don't make me beg, Digger."

He chuckled. "Okay, I found an allusion to something called Hollington Home. It's a singe reference but it occurs in each of the sets of data on the infants. It was the Hollington part that stuck with me. I was certain I'd heard that name before, and recently too. So I went back over the data I've downloaded on this case, and sure enough there it was.

"It was when I was checking into Paxton's background and poking into InterGen Labs. Along with the stuff about how they were owned by Roush, there was this little news clip about them acquiring a parcel of land in Virginia, only about fifty miles from here. It was supposed to be designated as forest preserve, but somehow InterGen got their mitts on it and some conservationists weren't pleased. They'd been going to build another research facility there, but scrapped the plans after all the bad publicity. The land was called Hollington Woods."

Mulder could feel his pulse speed up. Something must have shown on his face because Scully had ceased donning her coat and reseated herself beside him on the couch.

"How much land are we talking about?" he asked, struggling to keep his voice level.

"Nothing huge, just about 40 or 50 acres. But get this - ninety percent of it is heavily wooded. There's just one stretch of about 10 acres near the northwest corner that's relatively clear. That's where InterGen had planned to build the new facility."

"Digger, I take back every snide remark and degrading name I've ever called you."

"Yeah, yeah. Until next time, you mean," Digger replied cheerfully.

"Where is this place?" Mulder asked, miming writing so that Scully would bring him pencil and paper.

Digger read off the directions, then paused. When he resumed speaking his voice was sharp with concern. "What exactly are you planning, Spooky? You aren't going to do anything stupid, are you? Like running off half-cocked without your partner?"

"Digger, you wound me! When have I ever exercised less than an adequate amount of caution?" Mulder said reproachfully.

Digger snorted. "Just tell me one thing, G-man. Is Dana there with you?"

Mulder cast a sidelong glance at Scully, who was drilling holes into his head with her eyes. "She's right next to me, Dad. Does that make you feel better?"

"More than you can ever imagine," Digger replied, not bothering to disguise the relief in his voice. "One thing is for certain, Spooky. That God you don't believe in was looking out for your sorry ass the day Dana Scully was assigned to be your partner."

"You never spoke a truer word, Digger. Thanks for the info."

"You two watch yourselves. I've made my requisite hospital visit for the year," Digger replied.

"I hear you."

Mulder hung up the phone and turned to regard his partner, practically foaming at the mouth with curiosity.

"What is it, Mulder? Where do those directions lead?"

"Maybe nowhere, Scully. Or maybe to those missing babies."

He stood, stripping off his white tee shirt and heading for the bedroom. When he returned a moment later he'd replaced it with a black turtleneck and was carrying his hiking boots.

Scully looked up from the directions, frowning. "Mulder, what do you think you're doing? You heard Skinner! We need to run this by him, get a team out there..."

"Paxton is already dead, Scully. How long do you think they're going to wait before making the rest of the evidence disappear?" he asked impatiently. "There's no time for a committee, we've got to go right now, tonight."

She ran a hand over her face in frustration. "Mulder, you know I want to find those babies just as much as you." She shook her head. "Maybe more," she added softly. "But you promised Skinner."

"Actually, I promised Skinner that I wouldn't set foot in the Hoover," Mulder replied smugly. "And I won't be breaking that promise."

"Damn it, Mulder, you knew what he meant!" she snapped.

He tied off his boot and turned, taking her by the shoulders. "Look, Scully. You and I both know I'm fine. This may be our one opportunity to save those kids from spending their lives as guinea pigs. Now, are you with me or not?"

She looked into the intensity of his eyes and felt her resolution evaporate. Even wrong, he was right. They owed those little ones a chance.

"Good thing I've been wearing a lot of black," she muttered, indicating her jeans and buttoning her black sweater over the white shirt beneath. "My hiking boots are in the trunk. Let's go."


Hollington Woods
Thursday
11:44 p.m.

Mulder lowered the binoculars and passed them to Scully. "It's some kind of single story facility. Can't see too much in the darkness, but there are lights on inside."

She peered through the lenses for a moment. "I don't see any activity. Of course, it is the middle of the night. It could be empty or there could be only a skeleton crew."

Mulder grinned and rose to a crouch. "Well, why don't we just go take a look, Agent Scully?"

They circled the periphery of the clearing, keeping to the shadows of the trees until they reached the rear of the building. The night was crisp and clear, the sky awash with stars. A short sprint across open ground and they flattened themselves against the rough brick. Mulder inched his way over to a window and carefully peered inside.

"I can't see anyone," he said sotto voice. "I'm going to check down there." He gestured to another set of windows about 100 yards away. "Scully, check the other end and we'll meet back here."

A terse nod was his reply and they split up.

This set of windows revealed a large kitchen, steeped in shadow but for a light on the range hood. By cupping his hands on either side of his face to reduce glare, Mulder could just make out several high chairs standing along the far wall. A lone baby bottle sat forlornly next to the sink, a tiny bit of milk still coating the bottom. He ducked back down and returned to where Scully was already waiting.

"The windows at that end were covered," she murmured. "But through a crack in the blinds I could see a bed and a chest of drawers. It seemed unoccupied."

Mulder tilted his head toward the door and pulled the little black lock pick case from his pocket. He was about to insert the small device in the keyhole when Scully's hand clamped onto his arm.

"What if there's an alarm?" she hissed.

Mulder considered, then shrugged. "I don't see what choice we have, Scully. We haven't even seen anyone so far. Unless you want to wait until morning and ring the doorbell, this seems the logical choice."

Scully hesitated, then released him, though she still looked unhappy. Mulder deftly probed the lock with the delicate tool, fumbling just a bit with his injured hand, and a moment later they slipped inside.

The short entryway intersected with a hallway that appeared to run the width of the building - long, dark, and dimly lit. Scully let Mulder take the lead, following close on his heels with her weapon in hand. They passed a laundry room with two washers and dryers, redolent with the scent of detergent and fabric softener. She panned her flashlight around until it rested on a pastel colored pile on the end of a long low table. Mulder hovered in the doorway, keeping an eye on the corridor, while she walked slowly over and lifted a scrap of clothing.

A blue terrycloth sleeper with a tiny rocking horse emblazoned on the breast.

She silently returned it to the pile and they continued down the hall, shoes occasionally emitting a soft squeak on the immaculately waxed floor. Eventually they reached the huge kitchen that Mulder had viewed from the window. Three high chairs lined one wall, six more under the window. Mulder opened the extra large refrigerator, revealing nearly a dozen prepared bottles, multiple cans of formula, and several cases of baby food, not to mention a standard assortment of adult fare.

"Certainly seems we've come to the right place," he said quietly.

More hallways, more doors. Several standard bedrooms with adjoining baths, all vacant. An enormous playroom with three baby swings, four playpens, and an assortment of infant and toddler toys. Scully fingered a set of wooden building blocks, her face pinched. The total absence of life signs, coupled with silent rooms, added up to only one conclusion. Yet they pressed on, both unwilling to voice in their heads that which their hearts were screaming.

Until they found the large nursery with eight cribs and five toddler beds. Everything tidily in place except for the small, warm bodies. Scully wandered over to a crib and lifted a woolly lamb with a wind up key. She turned it a few times and the soft chiming of Brahms' Lullaby shattered the stillness as violently as a scream.

"They're gone, Mulder," she said woodenly, eyes glistening in the semi-darkness.

Mulder leaned his forehead against the doorjamb, stomach twisting both at the sight of the empty beds and his partner's face. He abruptly straightened, eyes flinty. "They probably cleared out of here in a hurry. They might have missed something," he growled. "There must have been records here somewhere."

After trying several more doors he found a suite of rooms that resembled a doctor's office. Two contained exam tables, scales, and standard medical instruments such as thermometers and otoscopes, and smelled faintly of alcohol and disinfectants. One was a standard office with a large oak desk, the top devoid of personal effects. Mulder rummaged quickly through the drawers, finding only pencils, rubberbands, and a pair of broken sunglasses.

"Mulder, in here."

He followed her urgent voice into a small adjoining room, pausing in surprise. Five large file cabinets took up every inch of available space, standing like mute sentries across the back wall. Scully tugged impotently on one of the drawers, then another.

"Look out, Scully."

She stepped aside as he selected a pick and went to work on the first cabinet. After several minutes sweat trickled freely down his back and he cursed steadily under his breath. Finally something shifted with a soft snick, and the button popped outward.

The top drawer contained only a handful of files. Leaving Scully to sift through the contents, Mulder moved to the next cabinet and repeated the procedure. For a time only the soft rustling of paper filled the room as each worked through the drawers of the cabinets.

"This is nothing but garbage!" Mulder growled, slamming a drawer shut and wrenching open the next with a metallic screech. "Facility maintenance and old equipment log sheets."

"Not much here either," Scully admitted. She paused and cocked an ear. "What *is* that sound?"

Mulder tossed a few papers angrily over his shoulder and pulled out a few more. "Huh?" he asked distractedly.

"That clicking. Mulder, stop a minute."

He complied, turning to gaze at her impatiently. "Scully, what the..."

"Shhh!"

Mulder humphed, folding his arms across his chest and scowling. After a moment his brow smoothed and he tilted his head. "What is it?"

The soft clicking, obvious now in the silence, kept a regular beat, neither speeding up nor slowing down. Mulder searched for a clock or some other timepiece, but came up empty. Scully licked her lips, backing up a step.

"Mulder, I'm getting a very bad feeling about this. We have to get out of here."

"We will, Scully, just as soon as we check the other cabinets," he replied, looking at her quizzically. "It'll just take a few more minutes. We can send a forensics team back in the morning and..."

Scully shook her head vehemently. "No, Mulder. Now. I think they've got this place wired. That ticking sounds like a bomb."

He gaped at her, then frowned. "I thought *I* was supposed to be the impulsive one! That sound could be related to any of the systems in this building, there's nothing to indicate..."

"How many wild ideas have you backed up by saying you just 'had a feeling', Mulder? Well now it's my turn. Call it intuition, premonition - I don't care. Let's just leave *now*."

Mulder's lips curved but there was a small line between his eyebrows. "Scully, you have no idea what talking like that does to me."

Ignoring him, she pressed her ear to the third file cabinet, then the fourth. When she reached the last she lurched backward.

"Whatever it is, it's in there."

Dropping the half-hearted leer, Mulder stepped over and began working the lock. When it snapped open Scully immediately grasped the bottom handle with shaking fingers. It slid about a quarter of an inch before stalling.

"Something heavy is in here," she said tersely.

He added his muscle and the drawer lurched open, revealing its contents like a warped Jack-in-the-box.

An electronic device riddled with multi-colored wires entwined around several large chunks of something that looked like gray modeling clay. An LED displayed a steadily diminishing number, currently 65.

Click. 64.

Click. 63.

"I think I'm having my own premonition," Mulder rasped, grabbing her elbow and propelling her toward the doorway. "Let's get out of here right now."

Boots pounding on tile, they fled down hallways that suddenly all looked identical. Like rats in a maze, they pressed onward toward the back of the building and the door they knew awaited them. At one point Mulder made a left turn and they plunged headlong into the boiler room, the huge furnace's deafening vibrations scraping already raw nerves. Scully seized the tail of his leather jacket and hauled him back the way they'd come, taking the opposite corridor. She nearly sobbed with relief when they passed the kitchen and she could make out the entryway just beyond.

She reached the door first, the smooth metal cool against her sweaty palm. She tugged hard, horrified when her hand lost its purchase and the door never budged. Wrapping her fingers around the knob she pulled frantically twice more before regaining enough composure to push instead.

The door flew wide, clanging hard as it impacted the brick wall. Frigid air hit flushed faces like a slap, instantly drying sweat as they tumbled into the darkness. Ten running steps, a roar, and Scully felt her eardrums pop as a giant hand lifted her off her feet and pitched her through the air. Before she could orient herself to the topsy-turvy view she was slammed indiscriminately to the ground with a teeth-jarring impact and everything narrowed to a small pinpoint of sensation.

The cold brought her back, penetrating abused bones and muscles until they shrieked in protest. A soft moan to her right provided the impetus to drag herself upright, blinking as the trees spun wildly, then stilled. As soon as she lost contact with the icy ground she could feel the superheated air, hear the hissing of flames. Rotating her head gingerly, she found Hollington Home transformed to an inferno, the cheerful crackling occasionally interrupted by a distant crash and shower of sparks as more of the building gave way under the onslaught.

Another moan and she found Mulder sprawled face down on the grass, his arms curled protectively over his head. One eye cracked open at the feel of her fingers on his neck.

"Scully. You okay?"

"I'm alive, Mulder. Beyond that I'm reserving judgement," she replied, smoothing a streak of dirt from his cheek. "You?"

He groaned and rolled onto his back, staring up at the stars. "My damn head hurts."

She laughed silently. "'s all right, partner. Mine does too."

She helped him struggle to a sitting position and they both gazed glumly into the flames.

"I guess that's it then," he said quietly.

"Not necessarily," she replied, trying to fight her own sense of despair.

Mulder laughed bitterly, the heel of his hand pressed to his head. "We've been here enough times, Scully. I should certainly be able to recognize it by now."

"We still have the disk and the microchips," she persisted. She tipped her chin up stubbornly. "I won't give up on those babies, Mulder. Not while I still draw breath. I refuse to just file them away as regrettable but unavoidable casualties."

Mulder reached over to slip his arm around her shoulders. "Neither will I." He gave her a small squeeze. "I don't give up on the things that are important to me, Scully. No matter how long it takes."

Scully pondered the meaning behind that statement; found it when she looked into his eyes. He leaned over and pressed a kiss to her brow, bringing his free hand to cup her cheek, then tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. Struggling to his feet, he reached down.

"Come on, partner. We'd better get someone out here for this fire. And I hate to say it, but we need to call Skinner." He grimaced. "We got a lotta es'plainin' to do, Lucy."

She smiled, grasping his hand and let him pull her up. "Uh- uh. This one's all yours, G-man. And if I were you? This time I'd take the pill first."


X-Files Office
Monday
8:03 a.m.

Mulder opened the door to the office, blinking in surprise at the sight of Scully and Digger leaning against his desk, identical "cat that ate the canary" grins on their faces.

"What's this?" he asked, taking off his coat and hanging it on the hook.

"Congratulations!" they cried in unison, moving apart to reveal an enormous piece of Scully's famous apple cream cheese coffeecake and a large cup of Starbuck's coffee.

"Welcome back to field agent status, partner," Scully added, pleased when his eyes lit up with delight.

"Look out world, they're turning him loose," Digger muttered.

Mulder sat down in his chair and took a bite of the coffeecake, sighing in bliss. "Scully, your mother should be granted sainthood just for teaching you how to make this."

"I'll pass that along, Mulder," she replied dryly.

"Caffeine!" he crowed after a sip of the coffee. "I haven't had a decent cup of coffee since the stuff you brought me last week, Digger."

Scully's eyebrows climbed up her forehead and she turned slowly to regard the agent with baleful eyes. "Excuse me?"

"How was I supposed to know he couldn't have caffeine?" Digger whined, extending his hands, palm out, in supplication. "Once I found out, Spooky wouldn't give it back!"

"As if," Mulder smirked. "Come on, Scully. Be nice and give the man a piece of cake."

"Thanks, but I gotta run," Digger replied with a wave of his hand. "Jeffreys just handed me a new case and I need to start a background check on the suspect. And I'm sure you two must have a pancreas-eating mutant or two to catch."

Mulder snorted. "*Liver*, Costanza. Liver-eating mutant."

Digger looked at him blankly. "There's a big difference?"

"There is when it's yours he's after," Scully said.

Digger chuckled and stuck out his hand. "It's been good working with you, Dana. You ever need any help keeping this guy in line, just give me a call."

"Like suddenly you're poster boy for the Bureau," Mulder said sarcastically.

Scully surprised them both by grasping Digger's hand and pulling him close enough to plant a kiss on his cheek. "Thanks for everything, Digger. You'll keep us posted on those files?"

He sobered. "Count on it." Turning to Mulder he touched two fingers to his brow in a mock salute. "Take care, Spooky. Don't be a stranger, okay?"

"You too, Digger. Keep in touch."

When he'd left, Scully crossed the room to sit at her desk. She booted up her computer and sorted through the mail, glancing up after several minutes to find Mulder still reclined in his chair with a bemused expression on his face.

"Mulder?" she asked quietly. "You all right?"

He moved forward to rest his elbows on the desk, rolling the coffee cup between his palms. "There were days I couldn't remember why I still did this, Scully. Why I bothered getting out of bed in the morning when everything seemed to be slipping between my fingers." He chuffed a little laugh. "There's nothing like almost losing everything to make you realize just how much you've got." He looked up at her. "I'm good, Scully. I'm really, really good."

She swallowed hard against the lump in her throat. "Then let's get to work, G-man. Skinner just handed us a doozy of a case in California that I think is going to be right up your alley."


Location Unknown
Tuesday
10:34 a.m.

He watched a tow-headed toddler squeal in delight as a worker tossed her a large rubber ball. Nearby a small boy with dark curly hair and another with chubby freckled cheeks pushed toy cars around a plastic mat. Two workers were lulling infants to sleep in large wooden rocking chairs while several more babies explored colorful rattles and teething rings in a large playpen.

"How did they make the transition?"

The man beside him fingered his lab coat nervously. "Remarkably well. It was difficult the first night, of course, especially for the older ones. Like all children, they are extremely adaptable, however, and quickly adjusted to the unfamiliar surroundings. As you can see, they're right at home now."

He exhaled a long plume of smoke, never taking his eyes from the activity on the other side of the glass. "The lack of preparation was regrettable, but we were left with little choice."

He crushed the spent cigarette beneath his heel, simultaneously tapping a replacement from the pack in his breast pocket. "Are accommodations prepared for the new arrivals?"

"Ready and waiting. This facility is actually much better suited to handle an increase in subjects," the doctor replied eagerly.

The flick of a lighter and another long puff of smoke through pursed lips. Gray eyes left the window to regard the physician coldly. "Children, doctor. Extremely important children. I suggest you keep that in mind. Someday you may owe them your life."

"Yes, sir. I will, sir."

A commotion arose as the child who had been playing ball tripped over a toy and fell, skinning her knee. One of the workers calmly took the wailing girl onto her lap, attempting to soothe her while scraped flesh oozed bright green fluid. After a moment the child's tears abruptly ceased and she began wriggling against the worker's gentle grasp, the skin of her knee now whole and unblemished. The worker released the toddler with an indulgent chuckle, and she scampered off.

Behind the glass, the smoking man smiled.

The End.


ADDITIONAL Notes: You made it! Sometimes I wasn't sure *I* would! This started out to be a fairly simple Mulder profiling story that took on a life of its own. Suddenly I was writing mytharc - something I swore I'd never tackle again! I owe many thanks to Kronos, whose insights got me thinking in a new direction and changed the entire course of this story. And, of course, my wonderful team of betas - Donna, Laurie, Vickie, and Nikki. I count on each of you guys for your own special brand of "tweaking." Thanks for getting me through this one!

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