Title: Dancing In The Shadows
Author: Mort
Written: February 2004
Feedback Email: mort@morts-lair.com
Author's Website: http://morts-lair.com
Category: Drama, Angst
Pairings: Mulder/Krycek , Skinner/Krycek (non-slash)
Rating: NC-17 Gossamer
Category: Story ~ Angst ~ Slash

Summary: How do you tell the truth from the lies, when the truth is the biggest lie of all?

With his eyes closed, he could almost pretend someone else's calloused fingers were gliding slickly over his cock. The sensation they generated overwhelmed his ability for coherent thoughts such as regret or loneliness. He burrowed into the heat pooling in his groin, letting the passion consume him, allowing touch and sensation to rampage through his senses like a bush fire; immolating his nerve endings until his body was awash with reaction and his mind was numbed by overload.

His body jerked. Once, twice, then the pressure inside him erupted out through his fingers in a wet, sticky gush of bitter fluid and, for a split-second, he paused on the brink of something approaching happiness. His ceaseless, haunting thoughts still rose like bright bubbles inside his head but, as he rode the orgasmic wave, they simply burst and melted, dissolving back into a maelstrom of confused emotions. For one brief moment, it didn't matter that the fingers he had pictured on his flesh had been stolen from the past.

Then he wiped-out, crashing painfully back to reality on a sudden backwash of guilt. He choked a harsh, barking gasp as his heart slowed its frenetic thudding and he became uncomfortably aware of the cooling stickiness adhering his fingers to his stomach.

He was aware of a shadow shifting. He could feel the wafting currents of frigid air as a ghostly presence flickered into substance around him, sensed avid interest as long-dead eyes drank in his satiation and he shivered as insubstantial fingers trailed tentatively through the evidence of his slaked lust.

"Fuck off, Frohike," he growled and heard a snort of repressed laughter although, when he opened his eyes, the spectral gnome had retreated to the far wall and had a look of studied innocence on his face.

'Oops, I guess that means it wasn't me you were dreaming about, huh?' Frohike said, shaking his head sorrowfully. 'Oh, well.'

Heat suffused his face with color and he hurriedly pulled a cushion over his groin. "Pervert," he spat, through he'd become almost fatalistic about Frohike's voyeuristic visits. He knew there was no point appealing to the ghost's sense of shame; as far as he could ascertain, Frohike didn't have a conscience to prick.

'I don't even have a prick these days,' Frohike agreed sadly.

"If you won't stay out of my bedroom, at least stay out of my goddamned head," Mulder snapped.

'This is your living room,' Frohike pointed out, with a smug grin. 'Anyway, if you'd wanted to be alone, you wouldn't have projected all that need in my direction.'

Mulder swallowed heavily, wincing internally at the notion of his loneliness radiating an invisible psychic net that snagged any passing spirit that was paying attention. "It wasn't in your direction," he muttered.

Frohike shrugged, his dead eyes soft with compassion. 'Maybe not,' he agreed. 'But at least *I* came.'

Mulder shivered, and spoke in a voice ragged with sorrow. "Does he still hate me so very much? Even now? Is there never to be any forgiveness then?"

'I never realized you thought he had anything to forgive,' Frohike replied bluntly. 'Isn't he supposed to be the devil incarnate? What was it you called him - a scum-sucking invertebrate whose moral dipstick was one drop short of bone dry?'

"I hated him," Mulder admitted, his expression haunted. "But now he's dead I can't remember the hate. All I remember is how much I loved him once. I miss him."

A rueful smile played over the ghost's lips. 'That's the coolest thing about being dead. The living only choose to remember the good things about you. Hell, did you see how many babes attended my funeral?'

"They obviously cared about you."

'Yeah, right,' Frohike snorted. 'But if I'd suddenly leapt out of my coffin and yelled 'April fool', I doubt any of them would have offered to do the horizontal tango with me. It's the same with you and Krycek. You say 'you love him' and 'you miss him'. Well I say bullshit.'

"Fuck you. You don't understand anything."

'I understand a hell of a lot more than you think, my friend. Being dead gives a man a unique perspective on life, and perspective is definitely something you're lacking right now. Krycek let you have his ass, and you thought that meant he loved you. It broke your heart when you found out he was working for the Smoker and you've hated him for it ever since.'

"Yes," Mulder agreed miserably.

'so why the hell are you sitting here alone, jerking off to the memory of that bastard, instead of fucking the delectable Dana Scully?' Frohike groaned.

"Because, whatever else Krycek lied about, he couldn't have faked the way he reacted to me. I just had to step in the same room with him and he did this kind of full-body shiver. Even when I hated him so much that the only way I'd touch him was with my fists, he used to stand there and take it with this desperate, pathetic hunger in his eyes. I can't get that expression of his out of my head. Don't you think that's ironic? He refuses to haunt me, so his memory haunts me on his behalf."

'When are you gonna wise up and figure out that sometimes sex is just sex? Maybe Krycek just let you fuck him 'cos he was a slut and you've got a big cock,' Frohike suggested, with a leer.

"Maybe he did," Mulder snapped, "but excuse me if I miss having someone look at me like they're starving and I'm a banquet, instead of acting like spreading their legs is granting me some huge fucking favor."

'so Krycek was the better fuck,' Frohike accepted, with a philosophical shrug, 'but, on the other hand, you've never wished *Scully* dead.'

Mulder raised tragic eyes to his ghostly visitor. "If I could bring him back to life, if I could turn back the clock, I would."

'Bullshit,' Frohike replied. 'If Alex Krycek were to resurrect himself and walk through that door this minute, you'd plant two bullets in his chest before he had a chance to say 'hello'.'

"No," Mulder denied, shaking his head vehemently. "That's not true, and I'd say that to his face if he ever damned well visited me. I want to see him. Please, Frohike. Can't you tell him I want to see him?"

'You think the afterlife is some big cocktail party where all the dead gather to chew the fat? It doesn't work like that. The only thing that ties us to our memories of being alive are the people we left behind. When you stop needing us, we forget and move on. Unmourned souls don't hang around in the ether hoping you'll have a change of heart. Face it, Mulder - Krycek's long gone.'

Mulder gave a choking sound of distress. "He can't be," he whispered. "He can't be gone, because I never stopped needing him. Even when I hated him, I needed him. Maybe I just needed to hate him, but I didn't forget him and he can't have forgotten me."

Frohike looked dubious, but shrugged. 'Well, if he *is* still hanging around and I can find him - which is highly unlikely - I'll let him know what you've said but I don't expect he'll believe me anyway.'

Mulder's eyes flared with shocked hope. "You'll speak to him for me?"

'Like I said, I've got to find him first. I haven't seen him since the trial. Even if I do, I don't think he'll listen. I remember him being pretty pissed you didn't even blink when Skinner killed him. After that, I don't think he even cared *what* you thought of him. But who knows? See ya later, dude.'

"Tell him I love him," Mulder said, as the apparition vanished. He wasn't sure whether Frohike had heard him, but doubted whether it mattered anyway.

Frohike was right about one thing.Alex probably wouldn't care.

And in the face of that bitter reality, there was nothing to cushion Mulder against the dark tide of shame and self-loathing that invariably followed his reawakening of memories that should have been long-since buried. Nothing except to wipe his fingers frantically on his bare thighs, reach one trembling hand out in the darkness and dial, on auto-pilot, the one person with the power to shatter the mind-numbing knowledge that his long-dead lover didn't even care about him enough to bother haunting him.

The phone barely rang twice before Scully's sleepy voice snapped, "This had better be good, Mulder."

A reluctant smile slid over his features as he visualized her face scrunched up in a petulant scowl. "How did you know it was me?"

"Who the hell else would call me at this time of night?" she retorted, clearly unamused.

Mulder did a slight double-take as though, despite the room being so dark his fingers had been forced to dial her number from memory, he hadn't truly realized it was so late. "Were you asleep?"

"It's 2am, Mulder. Of course I was asleep. *Everyone's* asleep."

His smile bled into a lip-biting moue of guilt. "I'm sorry. I'll call you back in the morning," he offered half-heartedly, making no attempt to hang up the phone.

Sure enough, Scully immediately responded with a deep, heart-felt groan of combined irritation and concern. "It is the morning. What's up?"

He was silent for a moment, gazing blindly around the dark unfamiliar shadows of the room, desperately grasping for a way to let her know how he was feeling without admitting why. How could he admit that the invisible impenetrable barrier between them had always been the absent ghost of a man for whom she believed he felt nothing but hatred? How could he say that the love he felt for her had always played hostage to the memory of a few brief months of happiness with someone else?

How could he say any of that without admitting the reason he hadn't been home to hear her desperate telephone call for help, on the night Duane Barry kidnapped her, was because he'd been buried balls-deep inside the ass of the man who'd planned that abduction?

He sighed deeply. "Nothing. Everything. I was. hell, I was just sitting here thinking about the plans we used to make. The things we said we'd do if we ever got the chance to come home. I was wondering how we ended up like this; where the hell it went wrong between us."

"It didn't," she replied softly. "Going wrong suggests that at some point it was right. We weren't ever meant to be. If nothing else, four years of living in each other's pockets proved that much. I think we used to fantasize about how good we'd be together, if we were back home, just to avoid the fact we were so bad together."

"I know," Mulder agreed dolefully. "But I still miss you."

"You miss me because it's two in the morning and you've gotten into the habit of having someone to talk to when you can't sleep," she retorted, not unkindly. "It took you long enough to adjust to living with me. It's not surprising it's taking you some time to get used to being alone again."

"I guess," he replied. He would have asked her whether she was okay, but that might have prompted her to point out that, unlike him, she wasn't alone and that wasn't a fact he felt able to deal with in his current frame of mind. Or any frame of mind, come to think of it.

"So, how are you settling in?" she asked.

He forced a false smile, hoping it would add a note of brightness to his voice. "You know me, Scully. As long as I have a couch and a TV, I feel right at home. I'm fine."

"Fine," she repeated doubtfully, and he belatedly remembered that 'fine' was her own codeword for FUBAR.

Which, truth be told, pretty much summed up his life since their inglorious return to DC. 'Everything's changed,' he wanted to say. 'Everything's different. In coming home I discovered that I didn't have a home to come back to.' But he bit back the words, and they slid back down his throat like a bitter draught. There was no point saying the words, because Scully would think he was talking about a 'place' when the truth was he was in mourning for 'Mulder'. How many times could a man come back from the dead and accept the world had moved on perfectly well without him? He was floating on the periphery of his old life like a disembodied spirit, tethered by so few fragile, gossamer-fine connections between the man he now was and the man he had once been that he sometimes thought it would take little more than a strong-wind to send him careering blindly back into oblivion.

"Mulder?" she queried, as silence stretched into accusation.

"I feel displaced," he admitted quietly.

"We were gone four years. If your apartment hadn't been re-let in that time, it really would have been an X-file."

He chuckled. She laughed with him, not realizing his humor was in bitter response to her unwitting confirmation of the depth of her misunderstanding. The distance between them was more than miles of telephone cable. It was a dark chasm in which dreams had died. And, rather than stir the sharp-teethed demons that lurked in that void, he chose to accept her pretense that his feelings of displacement were rooted in the physical.

"One apartment's pretty much the same as the next. It's not like I was particularly attached to the old place and, on the bright side, I don't have to keep moving the furniture here to strategically cover up blood stains. The Consortium grapevine obviously hasn't tracked my new address down yet. No unexplained corpses or dodgy water and the only bugs here are of the six-legged variety. Besides, the fish seem to like it here."

"It was nice of Skinner to keep all your belongings, wasn't it?" she said.

Her comment floored him for a moment. It suggested that maybe, just maybe, she did understand how he felt. "Yeah. I think it was his way of keeping faith, you know?" He closed his eyes and silently begged her to understand.

"His way of showing he always believed we'd be able to come back," she agreed.

He felt an almost physical jolt, as though one of the tethers tying his present to his past had suddenly strengthened, as her words confirmed that someone had refused to sweep his existence under the carpet. He released a breath he hadn't even been aware of holding and a genuine smile quirked his lips. "I bet he really hated having my tank in his apartment. It doesn't quite fit his d,cor. He probably hid it in his spare bedroom, well out of sight. Come to think of it, he probably put it in storage with my clothes and stocked it up again when he heard we were coming back. I'm positive they aren't the same fish."

"They were never the same fish, Mulder. I can't count the number of times you disappeared out of town and forgot to tell me to feed them until you'd been gone for a week. I replaced so many of the damn things I ended up with a discount card at Pet Smart," she grumbled.

"I'd suspect our practical AD of doing the same, except I just can't see Skinner in a pet store," he chuckled. "Maybe he had replacements couriered over with his dry cleaning."

"Or his take-out," she suggested mischievously. "I can just see him phoning for an order of Thai Green Curry, Special Fried Rice and a bag of four blue guppies on the side."

Mulder laughed out loud, the sound resounding through his darkened apartment and ricocheting off the storage crates he still hadn't attempted to unpack. She chuckled with him for a moment, and then apologetically said, "I've got to get some sleep, Mulder. I'm due at Quantico at 7."

"Yeah, you should get some sleep," he agreed, but still made no move to hang up.

She sighed deeply. "What's really wrong?"

"I think I'm finally onto something. I'm close to getting some real answers. So, guess what? Surprise, surprise, Kersh has pulled me off the investigation and is sending me on some bullshit assignment for the BSU. By the time I get back, the trail's going to be cold again. Anything sounding familiar, huh?"

"I know how you feel. It's only natural you're suspicious but, if Kersh was still working for them, we wouldn't be having this conversation at all, would we?" she reminded him quietly.

// No, we'd still be on the run, with a death-sentence over my head, but at least we wouldn't be having this conversation over a fucking telephone. //

"The timing bothers me, Scully. Every informant I've ever had has turned out to be in their pockets, just feeding me enough information to keep me dancing like a fish on a hook but never letting me get close enough to see what's really going on. They let me get a taste, and then they snatch it all away. It's like a game for them."

"Well, I share your doubts regarding the source, but there's no arguing the fact that so far the intelligence has been good. Who knows? Maybe someone is finally really trying to help us. Every single one of the locations on that disc has checked out so far. It's just a shame we aren't getting the answers we hoped for."

"Maybe we're asking the wrong questions," Mulder replied. "What if the laboratories weren't using Purity to alter the normal development of human babies in an attempt to create a vaccine? What if they were working towards a different agenda completely?"

"What agenda?" she asked tiredly, and he could almost see her mouth curling up into a just-sucked-a-lemon expression.

"The creation of Supersoldiers."

"I thought we'd agreed there was no such thing," Scully argued. "You said yourself that Krycek only threw the term 'supersoldier' at us to try and make us believe the replicants were genetically engineered super-humans, rather than aliens."

"I know," Mulder agreed impatiently. "But the best lies are always based on truth and, as far as liars go, Krycek was definitely the best. If what we call 'supersoldiers' are really alien replicants, what the hell were the Consortium creating in their laboratories?"

"Could it have been a vaccine?" she drawled.

"Sarcasm doesn't become you, Scully. What if the Consortium really *were* attempting to create a race of 'supersoldiers'? If William was the product of that experimentation, that would explain why the replicants feared his birth."

"Except, when push came to shove, the replicants changed their minds, didn't they? They didn't attack. As soon as William was born, they obviously realized he was a perfectly ordinary child. He isn't a 'supersoldier', Mulder. And there's absolutely no evidence that the Consortium had anything to do with his conception."

"Then you explain his conception," Mulder countered. "Because I sure as hell can't understand how I suddenly fathered a son several months after your IVF treatment failed."

She gave a small gasp, as though he had slapped her, and her voice was cold when she replied. "How many times are we going to have this conversation? I don't know how William was conceived, but I prefer to believe a much greater power than man was at work."

"Our son, the Catholic miracle," Mulder scoffed, rolling his eyes.

"Until the day you can produce scientific 'evidence' to the contrary, you have no right to mock my faith," Scully said stiffly. "You'll forgive me if I prefer to see our son's birth as a gift from God rather than the by-product of nefarious Consortium experimentation."

He didn't argue the issue with her. There wasn't even any point mentioning the 'abilities' William had been born with, because she'd spent four years convincing herself that the evidence of her own eyes had been no more than hallucinations brought on by post-natal stress. Scully had always been good at denial.Besides, since he'd given her the news about the Van De Kamps, William had become a particularly touchy subject between them and, in the wake of Frohike's visitation, he was feeling too emotionally fragile for a full-scale argument.

"The Consortium never managed to create a viable hybrid," she continued, her own voice softening as though she too had decided it wisest to keep emotion out of their conversation. "The records we've recovered say all the children infected with Purity were still-born."

"Or at least that's what we're meant to believe," Mulder argued. "It's more likely that someone sanitized the records before we turned up. Maybe the same person who sent us the disc in the first place. We're being played, Scully."

"There's no evidence to support that theory. Their failure to create a living hybrid does explain why the labs were closed down," Scully pointed out.

"If it's impossible to create an alien-human hybrid, what the hell am I, Scully?" Mulder demanded impatiently. "What is Gibson?"

"I don't know why you and Gibson appear to have hybrid DNA. But there's no evidence to support your theory that the Consortium were responsible for the anomalies in your genetic make-up and neither is there any evidence that they achieved it with any other subjects."

"Which just goes to prove that the so-called evidence we've found in those laboratories is a crock of shit," Mulder snarled, forgetting his determination to stay professionally detached. "God, Scully, it's hard enough hitting my head against a brick wall at work every day, without doing the same every time we have a conversation."

"I know," she said, her voice softening again. "And I'm not necessarily saying you're wrong. But my purpose on the X-files has always been to find scientific evidence to support or disprove your theories. I'm no use to you if I don't do my job and the bottom line is the facts don't support you. All the evidence we've uncovered confirms that the labs were exactly what the source said they were - a failed attempt to create hybrids for the sole purpose of developing a vaccine. There's nothing to support your theory they were trying to create Supersoldiers."

"So it's just co-incidence that I put forward that theory today and Kersh took exactly that moment to pull me off the investigation and lend me out to the BSU?" Mulder drawled.

Scully was silent for a moment, then carefully asked, "What did Skinner say about it? I assume you did tell him."

Mulder gave a huff of disgust. "He said that if I wanted the FBI's support, I had to occasionally give something back. He didn't see how profiling a serial killer could be considered a waste of my time, particularly since you'd told Kersh you couldn't handle the workload you already had, let alone any more evidence I uncovered."

"I'm sorry, Mulder. But, since I'm based at Quantico I couldn't approach Skinner. My request for addition staffing had to go through Kersh's office. To be blunt, if the cost of getting Johannsen is you doing a couple of days work for the BSU, it's still a good trade. Even with Johannsen's assistance, I've barely started processing the evidence we've already uncovered. I can't see myself getting out of the lab this side of Christmas."

"How's Johannsen working out?"

"He's green, but he's good. He's going to be a real help." She paused, then added sadly. "He reminds me of Pendrell."

Mulder couldn't think of anything to say to that, so he changed the subject. "The worst of it is that Kersh is effectively closing down the department for at least two days. Monica's on leave, you're stuck at the lab and, despite the fact he knows jack-shit about profiling, I've been ordered to take Doggett with me to New Orleans."

"He told me."

Mulder's face twisted in a grimace, but he forced his tone to remain casual."Yeah, of course he did."

Entering without knocking, Skinner took advantage of the Deputy Director's averted face and allowed an expression of distaste to dance momentarily over his tired features before he cleared his throat noisily to announce his presence.For an interminable moment Kersh continued to ignore him, his attention seemingly riveted on the window through which the horizon was beginning to lighten with the first faint hint of dawn.

Without turning, Kersh began to speak in a wry voice. "Almost five years ago, I stood in this exact same place and told Agent Doggett I'd never seen a sunrise from this office. I think some particularly vengeful gods were listening to me, because I've sure as hell seen a lot of them since."

Skinner gave an unsympathetic shrug. "I think we both know who was listening, Sir."

Kersh swung away from the window and offered him a baleful glare. "You're hardly in a position to criticize. You were just as compromised as I was."

"Perhaps," Skinner allowed. "The difference is, I'm not compromised now. The question is whether you can say the same."

Kersh managed an impressive impersonation of offended pride. "Do you have any idea of how many strings I pulled to get Mulder's sentence rescinded?" he snarled. "I've kissed so much military ass it's surprising my mouth isn't set in a permanent pucker. And, let's not forget, if I hadn't helped you back then, Mulder would be six-feet under and you and Doggett would be kicking your heels in a military prison for the rest of your days."

Unimpressed, Skinner shrugged again. "This conversation was old four years ago. If you hadn't sat back and allowed that kangaroo court to convict him in the first place, we wouldn't have had to break him out of there."

Kersh glowered. "Like you said, it's old news. Mulder's alive and back running the X-files. What the hell else do you want from me?"

"I want to know whose tune you're dancing to now."

Kersh stiffened visibly. "How dare you suggest."

Skinner's mouth curled into a derisive smile. "I'm not suggesting anything. I'm stating a fact. Someone helped you get Mulder pardoned. My question is whether that person is the same 'anonymous' source who gave Mulder the disc? And, if so, why the hell is that person now telling you to pull Mulder back off the case? Or are you still working both sides of the fence?"

He was sure the other man's heart must have kicked into a rapid, panicked tattoo, but Kersh's face remained deceptively calm and Skinner was reluctantly impressed by his air of cool poise as he replied.

"Don't be so damned paranoid, Skinner. This new assignment has nothing to do with Mulder, per se. It's simply about the best utilization of resources. The investigation into the Consortium's operations has been on ice for four years already. A couple of days is hardly going to make a difference. But two days could mean another dead body down in New Orleans."

Skinner's head nodded in acknowledgment. It was a reasonable explanation. Reasonable - but bullshit nonetheless. "And it's just coincidence that this emergency call from the New Orleans office landed on your desk within half-an-hour of my receiving Mulder's latest 302's?" he mocked.

"I don't like your implication," Kersh snapped. "Besides, what the hell have poltergeists got to do with his current investigation anyway?"

Blind-sided, Skinner could only blink helplessly for a moment. What the hell was Kersh playing at? Why confirm so blatantly that he'd somehow read the details of files he shouldn't have had access to? Was he supposed to react with indignation to the fact Kersh had violated the files or simply accept the information as a gift? He chose the latter, though not without reminding himself of the danger of Trojan horses.

"Funnily enough, I was wondering exactly the same thing until I had your call, Sir," Skinner snorted. "Now I'm wondering how many of those cases will still be worth investigating 48 hours from now."

Kersh held his gaze for a long moment then gave a half-shrug, turned to face the window once more, and spoke towards the reflection in the glass. "Last Christmas, someone gave my son a Joke Book. He drove me crazy for about three weeks, telling me one juvenile joke after another. One of them stuck in my head. How do porcupines make love?" He turned and smiled wryly at Skinner's blank expression. "Carefully, Skinner. Very carefully." He walked over to his desk and sat down with a tired sigh. "Like it or not, Skinner, you and I are alike. We're cut from the same cloth. We both understand strategy. Sometimes you have to lose a battle or two, if you want to win a war. Men like Mulder don't understand that. They charge into every battle without any consideration of the consequences of their actions. They consistently fail to understand that the cost of some truths is too high a price to pay."

"You're saying Mulder's life's being threatened?" Skinner growled.

"I'm saying that there's a serial killer in New Orleans who will undoubtedly claim another victim, whether or not little green men are planning to invade the planet, unless Mulder gets his ass on that plane this morning."

The tone of dismissal in his voice was unmistakable and Skinner had played irresistible force to Kersh's immovable object enough times to know when a conversation was over. "What should I do with his 302's? Approve them for when he returns?"

Kersh met his glare without flinching. "I think we both know that would be a waste of bureau resources," he replied.

Skinner swallowed, then nodded. Kersh's message had been received and understood. Within 48 hours, the 302's would be worthless. Proof, in itself, that Mulder was on the trail of something significant.

He checked his watch. It was 6am. If he hurried, he should manage to get to the airport in time to talk to Mulder before his flight.

It was early enough that they managed to find a reasonably private booth in the airport caf,. It was just as well, considering the way Mulder kept raising his voice. It struck Skinner that if the Consortium had hoped to break Mulder's spirit, they'd chosen the wrong way to go about it. If anything, it seemed four years on the run had only increased Mulder's volatile temper. Looking at his pouting lip and furious expression, Skinner wouldn't have been surprised if Mulder had started kicking the base of his chair in a childish temper tantrum.

Except for a thinning of his lips and the pulse of a prominent vein in his forehead, Skinner's own face remained expressionless in the face of Mulder's aggression. He took a deep breath and silently counted to ten before speaking in a calm and measured tone. "I understand your reservations about this assignment for the BSU. I have a number of doubts over Kersh's loyalties myself. It took a lot of courage for you and Scully to come in from the cold, a lot of faith in the promises of a man whom we all have good reason to doubt. Nevertheless, I've called the New Orleans office to verify the assignment and they have requested the assistance of a profiler."

Having finished his speech he sat back, swallowed a mouthful of coffee, and waited for the inevitable argument.

"So what?" Mulder demanded mulishly, waving his right hand in a gesture of dismissal. "What difference does it make? I'm supposed to be the Head of the X-files. The FBI has enough profilers to hold an annual convention and yet I'm supposed to believe not one of them is available for this assignment? The whole thing stinks like week-old kippers. We both know this is just some bullshit game Kersh is playing."

Skinner blinked for a moment, as his mind fruitlessly attempted to process some particular significance to the image of week-old kippers, then he grinned wryly. "I agree," he said, and enjoyed Mulder's gape of confusion for a moment before continuing. "It's obvious someone wants you out of the way for a couple of days."

"Who?" Mulder demanded suspiciously. "Who the hell's pulling Kersh's strings *this* time?"

Skinner shrugged. "I don't know, but I think I know why. I have reason to believe it's something to do with the 302's you sent me."

To his surprise, Mulder's reaction was a wide, self-satisfied grin. "I knew I was on to something," he crowed.

Skinner's own temper spiked. "Well perhaps you'd like to enlighten me, Agent Mulder," he growled. "Because I certainly don't see any connection between poltergeists and Consortium experiments."

Mulder leaned forward in his chair, his expression earnest and his eyes flashing with barely contained excitement. "It's quite simple, Sir," he started, which was enough to warn Skinner it wouldn't be. "Despite the seeming disparity of the Consortium's operations and the different agendas of the different factions, the constant theme was the experimental use of alien DNA in human subjects. Some of the Elders were dedicated to producing a vaccine, some were creating clones and others were trying to create alien-human hybrids. I always assumed the different factions were working alone, looking for separate solutions to the same problem, but now I suspect there was only ever one ultimate solution. An attempt to create 'supersoldiers' who were automatically immune to both the black oil and the alien virus that creates the Replicants and also physically and mentally enhanced so they could counter the threat of the shapeshifters. A kind of three-in-one solution to the threat of colonization. "

Skinner removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes tiredly. "Do you have any evidence to support this theory, or is this just one of your famous hunches?"

"No Scully-proof evidence," Mulder admitted wryly, "But I believe Gibson Praise is living proof of that experimentation. So is William. And, somewhere out there, there are other kids like them. They're the answer, Sir. The truth is literally in them."

"What do these hypothetical children have to do with poltergeists?" Skinner demanded.

"I'm getting to that. The records we've recovered from the laboratories say that all the hybrids were stillborn. But the existence of Gibson Praise is proof that the records have been falsified."

Skinner frowned and shook his head. "You have proof the Consortium had a hand in the creation of Gibson Praise?"

"No, but it doesn't matter. Just the fact that Gibson exists is proof that human-alien hybrids are viable. The Consortium would've had to employ a whole bunch of peculiarly inept scientists to have failed to come up with even one successful subject from their own experiments. So it makes plain common sense that the laboratory records have been tampered with."

After a moment's consideration, Skinner nodded his head in reluctant acknowledgment. "I agree. But that still leaves the question of how or why Gibson Praise ended up with alien DNA."

"I have a theory about that," Mulder said.

"I had a feeling you would," Skinner retorted dryly.

Mulder's mouth twitched into a near-grin. "The Consortium were the only people with access to the alien fetus, so Gibson's DNA had to come from the Purity project. Somehow, either deliberately or by accident, the alien DNA was introduced into at least one subject outside of the laboratory experiments without the knowledge of the Elders. But maybe that's beside the point. The important thing is one hybrid child is sufficient justification to assume the existence of others. So the problem is how do I find them? Which brings me back to poltergeists. Children like Gibson might look normal, but they're not. They have abnormal abilities. And no matter how carefully they're trying to hide those abilities from normal people they're inevitably going to do things that give themselves away. No child has much emotional self-control."

"It doesn't seem to be a particular quality in certain FBI Agents either," Skinner muttered.

Mulder gave him the obligatory offended glare but his lips twitched with a repressed snicker. "Anyway, that's why the most logical place to start looking for children like Gibson is checking out reports of poltergeist phenomena."

"Speaking of looking for children, have you had any luck?" Skinner interrupted gruffly.

Mulder stared at him, gauging the depth of sincerity in Skinner's sympathetic expression before giving a slight shrug and dropping his eyes. "I found someone who could break into the sealed adoption files," he admitted, a little sheepishly.

"I'll pretend I didn't hear that," Skinner grumbled. "What did you find out?"

"What I expected; the name and address of the couple who adopted him."

"And what do you intend to do about it?" Skinner pressed gently. "I know you're the father, and you didn't give consent, but it's still not going to be easy to contest the adoption. There aren't many judges who'd consider removing a child from a safe family environment and handing him over to a single father, particularly one with your.um.history."

"Oh, if only it were that simple," Mulder laughed bitterly.

Although Skinner's expression didn't change, a little color rose in his cheeks and, when he spoke, his tone was uncharacteristically hesitant. "If.um.if it's.well, if it's a matter of money.um.well, I have some savings and well." his voice trailed off into awkward silence.

Mulder closed his eyes for a brief moment, overwhelmed by Skinner's offer. He took several deep breaths as he realized, for the first time, that the news he was about to impart was actually going to hurt this man he was finally learning to consider a true friend. And so, peculiarly, it felt harder to tell Skinner the truth than it had been to tell Scully.

"Thanks for the offer," he said, "but that's not the problem."

"So what is?"

"The people who adopted him, the Van De Kamps, apparently never existed," Mulder replied, with a wry shrug.

"What do you mean 'they never existed'?" Skinner demanded. "Do you have any idea what kind of stringent background checks are made on prospective adoptive parents? Believe me, no-one can fake an identity that good."

The bitterness in Skinner's voice confirmed something that Mulder had often suspected, that Walter and Sharon had tried and somehow failed to adopt a child of their own. It explained Skinner's somewhat ambivalent attitude to Scully ever since her decision to give up William for adoption. Mulder understood that. He felt pretty ambivalent towards Scully himself over her decision.

"I don't necessarily mean the Van De Kamps were anything other than what they purported to be at the time of the adoption," Mulder corrected, choosing his words carefully. "I mean that they don't exist now. They've not only dropped off the radar. They've disappeared so thoroughly that there's no record they ever existed. No birth records, no social security, no mention of them on the deeds of the house they used to live in, nothing, nada."

His implication wasn't lost on Skinner. "It would take black ops to make someone disappear as efficiently as that. Which admittedly suggests Consortium involvement. But that doesn't make sense. The Consortium would have had the resources to erase the sealed adoption records too. It would have made more sense to leave no trail, than a broken one."

Mulder hunched over his coffee and stared miserably into the dark liquid as though the answer was lurking within. When he finally spoke, his voice was bitter with old hurt. "There's only two possibilities that I can see. Either the Consortium left the adoption record to deliberately bait me. They could have left it so I'd be in no doubt, when I hit the dead end, that they had taken William. Maybe they miss being able to dangle Samantha under my nose to distract me, every time I get too close. Maybe they're planning to start the whole damn thing all over again with my son." Mulder's voice trailed off and his eyes darkened with pain.

"Or?" Skinner prompted gently, his expression oddly sympathetic.

Mulder took a deep breath and rubbed his forehead so fretfully before answering that it was clear the alternative was even more difficult for him to vocalize. "Or someone else took William to hide him from the Consortium. Someone who either didn't have the resources to wipe the adoption file or thought it would be a waste of time since they assumed I wouldn't go looking for him."

Skinner shook his head in disbelief. "Why on Earth would anyone assume that?"

"Why wouldn't they?" Mulder spat. "Even Scully thought I'd be okay with the idea. Giving up your child is a Mulder family trait, remember?"

Skinner cleared his throat, looked intensely uncomfortable for a moment, and then his eyes brightened with sudden suspicion. "So that's the real reason you're looking for other hybrid children. You want to use one of them as bait to draw out whoever has William, don't you?" he asked quietly. "What's your plan? To do a deal to exchange one of these children for your son?"

Despite the lack of accusation in Skinner's tone, Mulder bristled furiously. "What kind of bastard do you think I am?" he demanded. "Do you honestly think I'd be capable of doing a thing like that?"

Skinner blushed slightly and dipped his eyes away from Mulder's in obvious embarrassment. "William's your son," he said gruffly. "If he was my son, I'd.well, maybe I'd do whatever it took."

Mulder's eyes widened in disbelief. "What are you saying?"

"Nothing should be more important to a man than his family," Skinner growled, raising his eyes back to Mulder's and fixing him with a stony glare. "Nothing," he repeated, fiercely.

Mulder blinked rapidly, his gut clenching at the depth of emotion he'd heard in Skinner's voice. Suddenly a few throwaway comments of Scully's regarding the period of his abduction and burial made a bleak, disturbing sense and his mind took an unwelcome leap into unfriendly territory. It was times like these that made him curse his ability to make clear pictures out of a disjointed jigsaw of facts.

He winced visibly and closed his eyes. "If I.if I hadn't been. if you hadn't had me exhumed." he paused and took a deep steadying breath. "You would have.would have married her, wouldn't you?"

Skinner jerked as though slapped and his face darkened into an expression that was more hurt than anger. He toyed briefly with the idea of a vehement denial, dismissed it as both cowardly and pointless, swallowed once or twice and then spoke with quiet dignity. "I'm not sure that would ever have been an option. But, to answer you with complete honesty, I wouldn't have been averse to that outcome," he admitted.

It was Mulder's turn to reel with shock as though, despite his accusation, he couldn't believe the verbal confirmation of his suspicion. "She said.she said you were always there for her during her pregnancy. She said you were her 'rock.' She said.. Oh fuck. You. you wanted to be William's father, didn't you?"

"Obviously not as much as I wanted you alive," Skinner countered bluntly.

Mulder nodded, unable to deny that truth, unable to deny a lot of unpleasant truths in the face of Skinner's dignified honesty. "I'm sorry," he whispered.

Skinner startled. "What the hell for? For coming back to life? How the hell can you be sorry about that?"

Mulder's mouth twisted into a wry grimace. "I'm sorry for being too fucking selfish to do the right thing before it was too late."

Skinner shook his head firmly. "It wasn't your fault," he said gently. "You never misled Dana. You were always honest with her about your feelings. You wanted to be her baby's father, but you made it clear you didn't want to be her husband. It's not your fault she chose to believe you'd eventually change your mind."

"But with me out of the picture you could have looked after them both, kept them both safe," Mulder argued, his eyes suspiciously bright. "If I'd walked away when Scully was pregnant, maybe no-one would have figured out I was William's father. The three of you would be living together in suburbia, with a puppy and a station-wagon."

"Maybe," Skinner shrugged sadly. "But it was never your choice to make. It was Dana's, and she chose you."

"Yeah, and we both know how that turned out," Mulder said, with another wince.

Skinner shuffled uncomfortably. He still had no idea why Mulder and Scully had returned from their exile most decidedly 'not' a couple, but he'd never found an appropriate reason to ask the question, neither of them had volunteered the information, and within a week of their return the grapevine had informed him that Scully was romantically involved with someone new. He'd suspected she'd jumped into the relationship on the rebound but, since it seemed to be working out and Mulder and Scully's friendship seemed intact, his only surprise had been his own lack of interest in her decision.

"I wasn't ever in love with her," he admitted, with characteristic bluntness. "I think I was just in love with the idea of being a husband and father."

"I was blown off my feet myself at the idea of being a Dad," Mulder replied, with a sad, understanding smile. Then he shrugged awkwardly. "But in my case the husband-thing was too extreme a possibility."

Skinner frowned at him curiously, but decided pursuing the comment would be an unwelcome and inappropriate intrusion into Mulder's personal life. So he swiftly brought the conversation back to William. "I'll understand, under the circumstances, if you feel that any emotional attachment I claim towards William is inappropriate, but nevertheless I'd be less than honest if I denied those feelings. I'll do anything within my power to help you find your son. That being said, there's a limit to my support of your use of bureau resources to pursue a private investigation into his disappearance."

"Naturally," Mulder agreed, without rancor. "But since I'm positive I can link his disappearance to the Consortium experiments, I don't foresee a conflict of interests here. I'm not sure whether William was taken by the Consortium or by someone who's trying to protect children from the Consortium. Either way, my attempt to flush them out of hiding by finding another hybrid can only help to answer the legitimate questions raised by my official investigation of the abandoned laboratories."

Skinner nodded his agreement. "Which brings us back to the current problem. By the time you get a chance to follow up the 302's you sent me, any evidence will have disappeared. If the Consortium were already aware of these children, they'll already have acted to move them. If they weren't already aware of them, you've given their locations away."

Mulder chewed his lower lip and hunched guiltily in his seat. His pose was less that of a man who'd made a crucial tactical error than that of a little boy caught with his hand in a cookie jar.

Skinner cleared his throat and glared suspiciously at his agent. "Okay, Mulder," he growled. "I take it the 302's were an example of your usual subterfuge?"

"I'm sorry," Mulder said, not sounding particularly apologetic. "But given the way information wanders from your office, I was hardly going to take the chance of writing down the identity of the kid I'm really interested in. I'm pretty sure the other cases are just straightforwar d poltergeists but I've got a hunch about this girl." He reached inside his jacket, retrieved a folded piece of paper and handed it over.

Skinner opened the paper and read it quickly before returning his attention to Mulder. "So what makes you think she's any more of a hybrid than the other children? You said you think the others are normal cases of poltergeist phenomena, so what makes this girl different?"

Mulder snickered loudly. At Skinner's affronted expression he gave a sheepish shrug. "Sorry, Sir. It just sounds weird to hear you call poltergeists 'normal'. What I wouldn't have given a few years ago for you to accept that kind of phenomenon without question."

Skinner didn't smile, but his lips twitched a silent touch,.

"Anyway," Mulder continued. "She's fifteen. A little too old for a natural manifestation of latent psychic abilities brought on by pubescence."

"If she's fifteen, I can't see how she's relevant at all. Aren't you looking for children born around the same time as William?"

"That was my first intention," Mulder agreed, "but then I realized I'd be better off looking for another Gibson Praise. I already know the answer's 42."

"What?" Skinner frowned.

"Life, the universe and everything."

Mulder chuckled at Skinner's look of annoyed confusion. "I'll buy you the book, Sir. My point is if William's the answer, what's the question? What William is, is less important than why William is. Why was Samantha taken instead of me? Why am I a hybrid? Am I a failed experiment or a successful one? What if I'm a necessary stepping stone to success? Is William the culmination, or just another evolutionary link? And if I was only ever intended to be the means of producing a child like William, then it stands to reason that I wouldn't be the only person out there with that ability. So, maybe, I should be looking for links in other genetic chains."

"You're suggesting there are countless people out there who have been genetically modified to produce hybrid babies?" Skinner asked, his expression incredulous.

"Perhaps not countless but it makes more sense than the Consortium putting all its eggs in one basket, forgive the pun. I mean, why do so many women on IVF treatment have multiple births?" Mulder asked rhetorically. "Because more than one egg is planted to increase the chances of success. It's just common sense to stack the odds in your favor. We know every member of the consortium gave up one child as hostage. For every one of those hostages, there's probably a sibling like me who was left behind. Even Scully now accepts that, genetically, I am no longer fully human. The only explanation for those modifications to my DNA is if I was experimented on, without my knowledge, despite the decision not to remove me from my family completely.

"So, isn't it reasonable to assume that the genetic modifications I have were duplicated in the other surviving children of the consortium members? And at least some of those children must have grown up and had children of their own. Children who'd most likely be teenagers now like this girl, Storm Redlum."

"You're making a lot of assumptions," Skinner pointed out. "What if the explanation is far more simple than that? Samantha's file had your name on originally. Isn't it possible that the experiments you're talking about took place before the decision to abduct Samantha in your place? In which case your theory collapses, doesn't it?"Mulder sighed and rubbed his face. "I know," he admitted. "The whole thing's a long shot but I need to check it out. I have a 'feeling' that this girl is going to prove me right."

Skinner suppressed a groan. "Why?" he demanded, his expression reluctantly interested rather than skeptical. Experience had taught him a certain amount of respect for Mulder's 'feelings'.

"She's supposedly an orphan, so who's paying the fees to keep her at an exclusive boarding school? It's not an inheritance. I've checked. The mother's name on her birth certificate is false. The father isn't named at all. She arrived at the school two years ago with a full set of records, but it turns out that none of her previous schools have ever heard of her. As far as I can see, the girl's whole identity is false. Another thing, the school fees are paid by some nameless benefactor. Pays for everything through a Swiss bank account. Receives reports on her progress through the same bank. Someone's going to a lot of trouble to keep their interest in Storm anonymous."

"Storm. What the hell kind of name is that anyway?" Skinner grumbled. "Chances are she's just the illegitimate child of some rich guy. He's probably funding her schooling out of guilt."

"Maybe," Mulder agreed. "And maybe it's just co-incidence that 'things' seem to happen around her whenever she gets upset."

"Exactly what kind of things?"

"The usual poltergeist phenomena," Mulder admitted. "Flying objects. Unexplained fires. Minor accidents to people who've upset her."

"She's dangerous?" Skinner demanded.

"I'm talking really *minor* accidents, like prat-falls."

Skinner sighed heavily. "In other words, people are scared of her so-called abilities and blame her every time they stub their toe or cut themselves shaving? Sounds like a whole load of hysterical nonsense to me."

"Panic and mob mentality," Mulder agreed. "I imagine most of it's nonsense, but there's still possible evidence of her having genuine psychokinetic ability. I'll know better tomorrow when I've met her."

"Tomorrow? You're flying to New Orleans in two hours," Skinner reminded him dourly.

"Where I'm expected to remain for at least 48 hours," Mulder agreed cheerfully. "Have you read the case file? It's no wonder they haven't caught the perp. The answer's staring them right in the face and they can't see it. Hell, I could have done the profile over the phone. That's why I knew it was a bullshit assignment."

Skinner's face clouded. "Why didn't you say that earlier instead of bitching about being sent out of town? If you could have done the profile over the phone why the hell didn't you say so?"

Mulder blushed and dropped his eyes to the table. "Because.well.I figured if Kersh knew where I was, he wouldn't be keeping tabs on me. I needed time to check out the Redlum girl and I figured I could wrap the case up today, then check her out on my way back to DC without anyone knowing."

Skinner contemplated pointing out chapter and verse of exactly how many regulations Mulder had just admitted breaking, then sighed and let it go. Considering Kersh's dubious loyalties, they both knew that following the rulebook would be the quickest way to get Mulder kicked out of play.

"Obviously, I can't approve a 302 on it until you get back," he said.

Mulder shrugged. "That's fine. If it doesn't pan out, I won't submit one anyway." He checked his watch. "I'd better get going. I told dog-breath I'd meet him in the departure lounge."

Regardless of how many times it had happened before, Kersh's heart still leapt in his chest and thundered a panicked tattoo against his breastbone when he turned away from the window he'd been staring blindly out of and saw the man seated casually behind his desk.

As always, he wanted to demand an explanation of how his visitor had, silently and unannounced, entered a locked office in one of the most security-conscious buildings in Washington DC. As always, he bit back his words - knowing they would only confirm how much he was rattled by the other man's presence and would elicit no more than an enigmatic, mocking grin in return.

"Must be a nice view," the man drawled. "It's good to see our tax dollars at work."

Knowing that any politeness on his part would be perceived as weakness, Kersh just snarled, "There was no need for you to come here. I've handled the situation."

"You've handled shit. None of those files have anything to do with the Project. Sending Mulder out of town was a mistake."

Kersh frowned with apparent confusion. "I thought."

"You obviously didn't think. Slamming a door in Mulder's face is like waving a red flag in front of a bull." The man raised suspicious, speculative eyes in Kersh's direction. "But then you know that, don't you?"

Kersh shivered internally at the quiet menace in the other man's voice, but he knew better than to show fear. "You told me to keep Mulder on a short-leash," he protested.

"I didn't tell you to use a fucking choke-chain," the man countered. "Mulder's like a dog with a bone. Now he's caught a sniff of a cover-up, he isn't going to stop digging until he finds out the truth."

"I thought that was the goddamned point," Kersh snapped. "It's time we brought this situation to a goddamned head. We lay our cards on the table and let the self-righteous little bastard choke on them. I'm sick to the stomach of his 'wounded martyr' routine."

"You've put us all at risk, just because Mulder called you dirty names?"

"What risk? Whatever else he is, he isn't stupid. When he finds out the truth he'll finally realize what he stands to lose if he doesn't start keeping his goddamned mouth shut. Why the hell else did you help me get him pardoned and back onto the X-files if you didn't intend him to find out about the Project?"

"You stupid cunt," his visitor snarled. "The replicants are watching Mulder and shadowing every step he takes. Mulder's supposed to investigate the information on that disc that 'proves' the Project was a failure. By convincing him, maybe we'd have convinced the aliens. But if he finds even one of the kids and the aliens get wind of it, the whole fucking world is going to go to hell."

Kersh paled and swallowed convulsively. "They'll bring the invasion date forward," he whispered.

"Finally, the penny drops that you've fucked up big time," the man snarled.

Kersh bristled angrily. ""If I've fucked up, it's because you kept me in the dark. But everything's solvable. Maybe it's finally time for a permanent solution to the Mulder problem."

"Maybe," his visitor agreed reluctantly. His air of menace deflated abruptly, replaced by an expression of bone-weary tiredness.

"You look like you need a vacation," Kersh said, with mock solicitude. "A couple of weeks in the sun somewhere. Get yourself a nice tan." His visitor's eyes flashed an angry warning. "Oh, sorry," he continued. "I forgot. Skin-grafts don't tan well, do they? Hard to believe a man could do that to his own child."

He'd hoped to see the scarred face contort with pain. Instead, his visitor responded with a cool, feral smile. "Make no mistake, Kersh, this." he gestured at his face, "is nothing compared to what I'll do to anyone who threatens the safety of one of my children."

Although his face was set in a careful mask of indifference, Doggett's fingers skipped with such rapidity through the crime scene photos that it was clear he was attempting to absorb the crucial details without fully absorbing the torturous pain they evidenced.Mulder couldn't find it in himself to blame him. Bad enough that one of them would relive the murders in their nightmares. There was little point in both of them suffering sleepless nights over a case that neither of them had any business investigating in the first place.

'Easy for you to say. You're not the one who had your balls cut off and stuffed up your ass.'

Mulder flinched guiltily and flicked an apologetic look in the direction of the offended ghost who, fortunately, looked a hell of a lot healthier in spirit-form than he did in the crime-scene photos.

'You can say that again,' the ghost agreed, leaning over Doggett's shoulder and giving a dramatic shudder.

Intriguingly enough, Doggett mirrored the shudder and then turned to face Mulder with a slightly sheepish expression. "Guess somethin' just walked over my grave," he muttered.

Mulder was momentarily tempted to point out that the sensation of chill up Doggett's spine had actually been caused by a ghostly hand goosing his butt.

'And what a butt,' the ghost leered. 'Bet he's got a nice tight asshole. Think he'll squeal if I stick my finger in to check?'

Mulder snorted wildly, pretending a sudden coughing fit to cover his snickers, as he wondered how the hell Doggett would come up with a rational explanation for the assault. The asshole would probably claim it was a sudden attack of piles.

It wasn't that he didn't respect Doggett's ability as an Agent. He didn't even dislike his company that much. He just couldn't shake the opinion that being partnered with Doggett was like turning the clock back eleven years to when he'd been faced with Scully's original unfaltering skepticism. Day after day, he was relieving a past that he hadn't particularly appreciated the first time around and sure as hell felt too old to deal with a second time. John Jay Doggett was like Scully in drag, only twice as big and a hell of a lot less easy to handle.

He sighed under his breath, turning his attention away from Doggett and his ghostly admirer and back to the ASAC of the case, Danton LeCroix."According to the witness statements, the victims were all 'tops', weren't they?"

Despite the almost midnight hue of his skin, LeCroix still managed to blush. "Yeah. They were all.um.dominant. Well, except for Terry Mazon. He was a .um.I believe the term's a .um.switch. It's all there in the file."

'What an asshole. Switch isn't a goddamned dirty word. I was an equal opportunity lover, that's all,' the ghost interrupted. 'Two-faced bastard. Bet he'd be less goddamned prejudiced if I was a brother, instead of a faggot, huh?'

"Will you shut up for a minute?" Mulder muttered under his breath.

"Did you say something?" LeCroix asked, with a perplexed frown.

"I said, all of the victims suffered extreme genital mutilation, but no signs of anal trauma except for the insertion of their bodily parts. They weren't raped," Mulder said, with a repressive glare at Mazon's ghost who had loudly started to complain that it sure as hell had felt like rape to him.

"That's why we've been investigating the murders based on the assumption that the victims were killed by a rival, rather than a lover," LeCroix said.

With no more than a brief flick of his eyes towards the case file, Mulder managed to express his total contempt of its contents. "Who the hell came up with that profile?" Mulder snorted rudely.

'He did,' Mazon informed him helpfully, as LeCroix stiffened with obvious offense.

Doggett groaned under his breath.

"Your perp's a submissive," Mulder said. "Male, mid to late twenties. He isn't gay. The only scene he's interested in is BDSM. This isn't about sex. At least not in that way. Given the excessive mutilation of the bodies, I'd say his level of violence is directly proportional to the physical strength of his victims."

'Hey, you're good,' Mazon applauded. 'Little murderous bastard was a fucking homophobic psycho.'

// How about giving me his name, so I can end this dog and pony show? //

'If I knew his fucking name, I would,' the ghost snapped. 'I never asked, okay.'

// Slut //

'Takes one to know one,' Mazon sang, and gave him the finger.

"So what you sayin', Moldhar? He killed them for going too far?"

Mulder took a deep breath, wondered whether a seeming inability to ever pronounce his godamned name right was sufficient grounds for Partnercide, and settled for offering Doggett a condescending sneer. "I think he killed them for going exactly far enough."

At LeCroix and Doggett's looks of perplexed surprise, he smiled wryly and continued. "We're looking for someone who plays sexual games but never voluntarily participates in sexual interaction with his chosen partners."

"You said he ain't gay. So why's he playing sexual games with men?" Doggett countered.

"Because, on the whole, men are physically stronger than women. I think our submissive has a seriously masochistic kink. He pushes his tops to the limit. Maybe the women he played with backed down, probably out of fear of causing him real physical damage. What he needs is an 'extremity' of sensation, one that only the victims were prepared to give him. The perp doesn't go to these men to experience a sexual act. He goes there for pain. That's the satisfaction he craves. But when he suffers sufficient pain to satisfy him he gets physically aroused as a side-effect. He then kills the victims for arousing him, because he can't deal with the fact that it's a man who's been instrumental in bringing him off. He kills the men because they do satisfy him and that disgusts him, because he's homophobic."

"So you're sayin' he killed them because they got him off?"


"But you still say he's not gay?" Doggett scoffed.

"He's not gay," Mulder replied firmly.

"Yeah? Well I say if it looks like a duck, and sounds like a duck."

'Asshole,' Mason snorted.

"Which is why I'm the profiler and the senior agent on this case," Mulder snarled.

LeCroix shrugged uncomfortably. "Well, I guess you are the expert in this kind of thing," he said, with a nod at Mulder. From anyone else, it might have been a compliment.

Though Mulder's eyes narrowed with irritation, he refused to rise to the hidden implications of LeCroix's statement. It never failed to amaze him how his ability to successfully profile deviant personalities automatically made his colleagues look at him like he was little better than the perp he was chasing. Just because he was investigating a sexually motivated serial killer, LeCroix was reacting to his insights as though Mulder was talking about his own sexual fantasies.

Still, it was less likely to get him thrown into five-point restraints than admitting the reason he knew so much about the murderer was because the ghost of one of the victims was standing in the room confirming his profile.

Mulder shoved the case file in LeCroix's direction. "Unless you want the body count to keep rising, I suggest you stop looking for a psychotic, homosexual dominant, and start looking for a straight homophobic submissive. Talk to the female dominants. There's always an escalation in these things. He would have started playing his 'games' with Mistresses, then moved on to men when the women failed to satisfy him."

"So you're going to start the investigation from scratch?" LeCroix asked.

Mulder shook his head decisively. "I was sent here to do a profile. I've done it. What you do with it is up to you."

"You're leaving already?" LeCroix demanded.

'You're leaving,' Mazon echoed dolefully. 'But you're the only person who can see me.'

"I'm a profiler. I've profiled. My work here is done," Mulder replied, with an apologetic look in Mazon's direction followed by a deliberately smug grin towards the ASAC. For a moment he actually thought LeCroix would strike him, but with a disgusted glare the ASAC turned on his heel and strode from the room. After a moment's hesitation, the ghost followed him.

"You have such a winnin' way with people, Moldhar," Doggett drawled, his eyes sharp with anger.

"Considering the way you're bitching about this case, I thought you'd be glad to see the back of it."

"I am," Doggett admitted, "but there was no need to be so damned rude to LeCroix. The way you act reflects on the X-files. I've spent four years mendin' the Department's reputation and in less than three months you've managed to turn it back into a dirty word."

Mulder chuckled dryly. "You still haven't figured it out, have you? Mulder's the dirty word. The minute old Spooky was back in the basement was the minute all your 'respectability' went out the window," he said, with a wry grin. "I never did give a damn about my reputation. The only thing that interests me is the work. And the way I see it, the more I piss off the locals when I get sent on this kind of bullshit case, the less likely Kersh is to lend me out to the BSU. And that means I spend more time doing what I should be doing. I didn't come back to the Bureau to chase serial killers. I sure as hell didn't come back so I could fly half-way across the country to do a profile I could have done just as well over the phone."

"No," Doggett snorted. "You came back to chase little green men."

Mulder shook his head in disgust. "You know something, Doggett? The more time I spend with you, the less I understand what the hell you're doing in the X-files at all. After all you've seen, all you've witnessed with your own eyes, you still don't believe, do you?"

"In aliens? No," Doggett replied bluntly. "I believe there's been a conspiracy to cover up human experimentation by certain sections of the Government. I believe that both Scully and you were abducted and experimented on. I believe there's a force of evil working in the shadows of our Government, whose interests are against the American people. I accept the existence of Supersoldiers, but I'm damned if I'll call them alien replicants. None of the above has anythin' to do with aliens from another planet."

"Then you're going to love our next case," Mulder said, his expression smug.

"What next case?" Doggett growled suspiciously.

Mulder reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew two plane tickets to Forbes Field, Kansas. "We're on our way to find living proof of the true purpose of the Consortium laboratories."

Doggett rolled his eyes. "What true purpose?"

"I'm talking about a project that goes back as far as Roswell and took place with the full knowledge and co-operation of our Government. I've always known the military were attempting to incorporate the alien technology discovered at Roswell into new aircraft. But now I'm beginning to believe the conspiracy ran a lot deeper and nastier than that. They weren't satisfied by the idea of just playing with alien technology. They started playing God with alien DNA to create biological weapons. Weapons of a two-legged variety."

Doggett huffed in disgust. "So now you're sayin' Knowle wasn't an alien replicant but a human/alien hybrid? Make your damned mind up, Moldhar. How the hell do you expect me to swallow any of your science-fiction bullshit if you keep rewritin' the plot?"

"I'm not talking about what we call Supersoldiers. I'm talking about real Supersoldiers. Hybrid humans designed to fight the alien replicants."

"Tell me somethin', Moldhar. Did your mother ever admit dropping you on your head when you were a kid? Cos that sure as hell makes a whole lot more sense than any of the garbage that spouts out when you open your mouth."

It was on the tip of Mulder's tongue to tell Doggett to go fuck himself. But the problem with following the impulse to ditch his doubting Thomas of a partner was that Doggett returning alone to DC would inevitably trip Kersh's radar. So he reined his temper back to a manageable level and settled for pulling rank.

"You know something? I don't give a damn whether you believe me or not as long as you do your job. This isn't open for debate. I've got a lead and we're going to go check it out before we return to DC, so you might as well shut up and put up."

"You sayin' this is an officially sanctioned investigation?" Doggett retorted, with a snort of disbelief.

"Tell you what," Mulder snapped. "Call Skinner and ask him. Then, when you're done, ask him to refresh your memory of who's in charge of the X-files now." He felt a coil of tension snaking through his guts as he waited to see whether Doggett would call his bluff. He didn't doubt that Skinner would support him, but he was damned sure that Kersh had an illegal phone tap into Skinner's office.

For a moment Doggett continued to glare at him, his blue eyes sharp with angry suspicion, but then, with a heavy put-upon sigh, Doggett shrugged his reluctant compliance. "So you gonna tell me what the hell you think we're gonna find in Kansas?"

The man paused by the gate, his heart clenching tightly at the sight of the sun playing over the boy's auburn hair. The boy was too immersed in his task to have noticed his presense yet. The still pudgy arms of the four-year old were occupied with the momentous task of building a castle out of the sandpit in their back yard.

The lopsided edifice was crumbling faster than the boy could build it, its sides collapsing every time the boy added another bucket of sand, but the boy's face was a mask of grim determination and it was clear he had no intention of being defeated by anything as minor as mere gravity.

A fond smile spread over the man's face. Persistence was obviously a genetic trait, he snickered to himself. Simply the sight of the boy made both his weariness and the myriad of aching pains in his body disperse under a wave of contented happiness.

He walked through the gate, carefully latching it behind him, and crossed the grass until the boy saw him and gave a squeal of excitement.

"Daddy! You're home!"

"Hiya, slugger. Where's your mom?"

"She took Nana to town to get her hair done," the boy relayed carefully, though his eyes portrayed some doubt over what that procedure entailed.

"Where's Nicki?"

"Doin' homework," the boy said, with a sulky frown.

"Ah," the man said, with a wink and a sympathetic smile. "He thinks he's too grown up to play sandcastles, huh?"

The boy nodded dolefully.

The man hesitated for a moment, knowing the possible danger of exposing his grafted skin to the deceptive strength of the late afternoon sun, but then he shrugged, squatted down next to the sandbox and reached for a shovel. "Guess we'll have to play without him then."

A wide smile burst over the boy's face, his eyes sparkled with joy and, in response, a slow, silent tear slipped down the man's face. He stared for a moment into the boy's hazel eyes and swallowed heavily against the emotion choking his throat. "I always wondered," he whispered, "what these eyes would look like if they'd never known unhappiness."

"Huh?" the boy asked, cocking his head uncertainly, his innocent face confused.

The man shook his head, as though angry at himself for saying the words out loud, but his fingers were gentle as they lifted the boy's face to meet his. "You are happy here, aren't you?" he demanded urgently, his eyes shadowed with an old fear.

The boy frowned in thought, as though he truly understood the importance of the man's question. "I love you, daddy," he announced solemnly.

"I love you too, William," the man replied, lifting his right hand and carefully stroking the boy's soft cheek.

Doggett was quiet as he drove the rental car from Forbes Field. Mulder was appreciative of the silence but not the reason for it. The silent disapproval that had radiated off Doggett since he'd learned the reason they were returning to DC via Kansas was so palpable it had almost a visible aura and whenever he glanced at the other man's profile his own teeth ached in sympathy at Doggett's clenched jaw.

Doggett was pissed with him.

No surprises there. These days, Doggett was permanently pissed with him.

And while Mulder remembered how it felt to be pussy-whipped, he had little feelings of empathy. He at least had the excuse that he'd still been in college at the time.

"I don't understand you," he muttered petulantly. "You of all people ought to understand how I feel about this."

"You're so full of shit," Doggett snarled.

Mulder jerked as though slapped, and stared at Doggett with widening eyes. "What the."

"Don't even think of comparin' us, Moldhar."

Mulder shook his head in denial. "You lost Luke."

Doggett's fingers whitened on the steering wheel. "Luke was my son," he said, his voice clipped and cold. "And I looked for him as his father. What's William to you, Muldhar? At worst you see him as a pawn, at best you see him as another Samantha. You think I'm impressed by all of this?" he asked, gesturing vaguely at the road ahead. "You think Dana is gonna be impressed by this?"

// Dana! So there you have it in a nutshell, boys and girls. Out of the mouth of the man who's currently fucking the mother of my child //

"William is Dana's son," Doggett continued. "It's my understandin' that your only contribution to the process was to jerk off into a paper cup. Which, I guess, kinda made it okay that you fucked off and left her alone to handle her pregnancy."

"I spent three months of it as an abductee and the subsequent three months buried alive," Mulder snarled. "Where, I hasten to add, I'd still be if it had been up to you."

Doggett had the grace to look slightly embarrassed for a moment, but rallied quickly."You sure got your ass the hell out of Dodge fast enough afterwards," he pointed out.

Mulder didn't even flinch. "If I'd stayed, both Scully and the baby would have been at risk."

Doggett snorted rudely. "They were at risk anyway. All you did, by runnin', was leave her alone to handle the shitstorm you'd started. And now you have the fuckin' cheek to blame her for making the same decision that you did. You say you left for William's sake but you can't accept that she gave him up for exactly the same reason."

"I don't blame her for anything," Mulder protested. "Scully knows I love her."

"Dana worships the ground you walk on, you bastard, but that doesn't make you any less of a selfish, self-absorbed shit," Doggett retorted. "You say you love her but you don't understand what love is. If you *loved* her, you'd've let this drop. You sure as hell wouldn't have told her the bad news. You think she's better off knowing that the Van De Kamps have disappeared? You think telling her that William's missin', maybe even dead, is an act of love? Do you have even the slightest damned conception of how it feels to really love a child, and know that child is missin', and not be able to do fuck-all about it?"

Mulder's face twisted in fury. "What was I supposed to do? Lie to her? William's her son. She needed to know the truth."

Doggett snorted rudely and his eyes were ice-cold as he shot Mulder a venomous glance. "The only person around here who needed to know that truth was you, Moldhar. But then that's the story of your life isn't it? Everyone who touches you gets burned on the pyre of your goddamned truth."

"This is bullshit," Mulder snarled. "My son is missing, and you think I can just shrug and say 'never mind, these things happen'?"

Doggett shook his head in disgust. "He's been missin' for four years. Four fucking years. Only you were too damned busy lookin' after your own hide to even remember you had a son until now, weren't you? So, yeah! I think it's too damned late for this grieving 'father' act to be convincin'."

"I couldn't look for him before. Scully and I were on the run. We couldn't have subjected a child to the kind of life we were living before Kersh sorted everything out with the military. I thought he was safer where he was."

"Yeah, well so did Dana until you gave her the good news," Doggett drawled.

"Don't you see that's exactly why it's even more important to find him now?" Mulder demanded. "Scully needs to know what's happened to him."

"It won't help. Don't you understand that? She'd come to terms with her decision. Now it's an open wound again. A wound that you can't stitch up by finding William. Nothing's changed, has it? He'll still be at risk even if you find him alive and well and take him back to her. So what you gonna do, huh? Track him down, hand him over to someone else and tell her that this time he's gonna be okay with this stranger? You think she's gonna accept that? You think she's ever gonna have any peace again?"

Mulder shook his head stubbornly. It wasn't that he disagreed with Doggett's assessment of how badly Scully had taken the news of the disappearance of William and his new family. It was that he couldn't honestly understand how Doggett could believe that it was better to believe a lie than the truth. No matter how unpalatable that truth might be.

"William may be dead," he admitted. "Or someone might just have helped the Van De Kamps disappear to ensure his safety. But what if the Consortium have him? What if he's one of their experiments now? Do you think I will ever have any peace if I don't find out the truth?"

Doggett just grunted, and they returned to a strained silence.

As they drove through the arid landscape the heat inside the car was almost unbearable. She could feel perspiration gathering at her collar and trickling down the back of her neck. She pursed her lips with displeasure, biting down the words crowding in her throat. She'd learned the futility of criticizing him to her daughter, but it was hard to stay silent when her blouse was clinging to her breasts and her skirt was creased and damp under her uncomfortably hot thighs.

No, not hard.impossible.

"I told him the air-conditioning wasn't working in your car. He 'said' he'd get it fixed before he left."

"He's had other things on his mind, Mom. Anyway, it's my car. I'm just as capable of calling a mechanic as he is. I'll call the garage when we get home."

She rolled her eyes in disgust. "He's your husband. This kind of thing is his responsibility. Your father would never have let me drive around in an unsafe vehicle while he was off gallivanting around the country doing who knows what..."

"Don't start, Mom. Don't tempt me to answer that."

Despite the heat, her daughter's chilly tone sent a shiver through her and she pursed her lips into silence. Pointless, anyway. Pointless and tiring to have the same conversation over and over when nothing could ever be resolved between them.

"He's a good husband, Mom," her daughter said quietly.

But he wasn't, and they both knew it, so the lie hung in the hot air around them, choking and constricting them both.

"He's a good father," her daughter continued.

And the truth of that was like a slap in the face.

"I don't understand," she admitted bitterly. How could she have been so wrong, so blind? How could she have been such a fool? How could a man like him be such a good father when her own.. Oh god, no. Even now she couldn't admit it, couldn't really 'believe' it. Didn't want to believe it.

"I know, Mom. It's okay. I understand."

The reluctant sympathy in her daughter's voice was as painful as a whiplash and suddenly she felt old and bewildered, cast adrift in a bizarre reality where black and white merged into a confusing multitude of grays.

"He's home," her daughter announced, as she swung the car onto their driveway.

She swallowed heavily at the sight of the black SUV, its hulking presense casting a dark shadow across the front yard just as its owner cast a shadow in her own heart.

"He hates me," she blurted, then flinched at her momentary loss of composure.

"He blames you," her daughter corrected, her eyes darkening with emotion and unspoken words bounced between them in silent condemnation.

// So do I, Mom. So do I. //

Suddenly she couldn't breathe. The inside of the car was as hot and unforgiving as hell fire. She grasped for the handle and swung the door open.

A tiny tornado charged through the swirling dust of the front yard and grabbed her arm with grubby, excited fingers.

"Nana! Nana! Come see my castle!"

Skinner entered the empty apartment on auto-pilot. His right hand reaching for the light switch, his left dropping the keys onto the small telephone table, his right hand loosening his tie and unfastening the top button of his shirt as he strode across the living area, his left hand reaching for the bottle of whiskey, his right hand reaching for a cut crystal glass, his left hand adjusting the cushions as he sat, his right hand exchanging the whiskey glass for the remote control, his left hand stretching out for the telephone and pressing the speed-dial number for his local Thai take-out.

It wasn't until he'd replaced the phone on the arm-rest and taken a deep, satisfying gulp of smooth Glenfiddich that he allowed his eyes to rest on the empty place to the left of the television. A place marked only by four deep indentations in the plush carpet and a feeling of absence, a feeling of something crucial missing from his life.

Which was patently absurd, under the circumstances.

He'd remembered feeling relieved, perhaps even grateful, when his long-standing, unwanted guests had departed. Not that, truly, they had been as long-standing as one might have otherwise imagined. Over four years their numbers had swelled and depleted with alarming regularity, as his own ignorance combined with the long hours of his job had conspired to make their tenure in his apartment no less precarious than their previous abode.

Over the years he suspected he had replaced so many individual fish that the occupants who had finally returned to Mulder's care had borne only a remote resemblance to the motley collection that had first graced him with their presense.They had been an unwanted burden, a half-hearted attempt to show some belief that their owner would one day be in a position to return and claim them. His guardianship of Mulder's fish had been as erratic, and yet as sincere, as his support of their owner.

He'd been pleased, even proud, to return them to Mulder, their gifting the closest acknowledgment of his own silent vigil of belief that Mulder *would* return to his previous life.

He'd been relieved to be freed of the burden of their care.

And now, sitting alone in his apartment, he missed their bright accusing presense.

Or, maybe, he just missed having a reason to speak out loud, an excuse to talk into the empty barren space of his home as though someone or something even cared that he existed. He missed the hated obligation of their feeding, their cleaning, even missed the all too frequent somber guilt of fishing a pale body out of the water and consigning it into the toilet bowl in a secret ritual ceremony.

He missed not being totally alone.

He stared into the amber fire of his whiskey glass and contemplated, not for the first time, the possibility of buying a kitten. A cute bundle of claws and fur that would transform into a sleek, adoring companion.

And then he laughed bitterly at his own fancy, a sound of loneliness and regret and despair, and he wondered, not for the first time, what point there was to a life of solitude. A life wherein no one would mourn his passing. A life extinguished with no evidence left that he had ever even existed.

He wondered, not for the first time, what it might feel like to know his name, his life, would live on in the existence of a child and, in that moment, he understood more than Mulder might ever imagine him capable why finding William was so important and he wondered, not for the first time, how Scully had ever made the choice to give William up.

In deliberate contrast to Doggett's surly professionalism, Mulder produced such a high-wattage smile that the Principal barely glanced at his ID. Blushing furiously, she offered him a girlish grin that sat uncomfortably on her homely middle-aged features.

"The FBI. How exciting," she simpered. "Though what on Earth you think I can help you with."

"We'd like to speak to one of your students, Storm Redlum," Mulder interrupted smoothly.

Her smile slipped a notch. "Oh dear. I do hope she isn't in any trouble."

Mulder narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. Although her expression was an appropriate mix of concern and confusion, there had been a definite note of insincerity in her voice.

"Not at all, Ma'am," Doggett said. "We just want to talk to her, if that's not too much trouble."

Her eyes flickered with something suspiciously like disappointment, but she fixed them both with a gracious smile. "No trouble at all, except I'm not exactly sure where she is. You might find her in the stables, but it's more likely that she's out riding."

"Riding?" Doggett repeated, with a disbelieving frown. "I thought this was a school."

"Blakemore is an exclusive educational Academy," the Principal corrected, a little haughtily. "Our girls come from advantaged backgrounds, Agent Doggett, and we endeavor to make this a home away from home for them. Classes finish at 2pm daily, after which the students are free to pursue their own appropriate interests until supper-time. Miss Redlum's primary interest is in her horse."

"Her horse?" Mulder repeated, his eyes narrowing thoughtfully.

"Naturally the Academy provides riding lessons as part of an all-round education," the Principal replied, "but most students have their own horses and board them here during term-time."

"I thought she was supposed to be an orphan," Doggett growled quietly to Mulder. "So where the hell did she get the money for a horse?"

"From the same place she gets the money for the fees here, I expect. What does it cost to keep a student here, Miss Baxter?"

The Principal shrugged slightly, as though uncomfortable with discussing as crass a subject as money. "A full boarding package, with all leisure facilities included, is approximately $25,000 a term." She smiled at Mulder and Doggett's incredulous expressions. "As I said, we're exclusive."

"Well, I think this blows your Consortium theory out of the water," Doggett grunted, as the two men made their way towards the stable block. "There ain't no way old Smokey and his friends would pay this kind of money just to put a kid through school."

"I think this is exactly the kind of place one of the Consortium elite would send a 'special' child," Mulder argued. "Money isn't an issue with them and I doubt the school asks too many questions about who the kids are as long as the fees get paid."

"I don't know what you're hoping to achieve here, Moldhar. As far as I can see, all you've got here is some spoiled adolescent girl who's been getting her kicks out of foolin' a bunch of other spoiled girls into thinking she's got some kind of supernatural powers. It's just a load of teenage BS. I'll lay you odds it's just a trick to get attention."

Mulder waved blithely at the idyllic surroundings. "Why the hell would a kid with all this feel the need for extra attention, Doggett?"

"Jesus, this place is cleaner than my apartment," Doggett grumbled, as they walked into the stable block.

Mulder gave a low whistle, as he stared around the pristine stalls. "Hell, it's cleaner than Skinner's apartment. When I die, I wanna come back as a horse. Well, not just any horse, of course."

"Spare me your fantasies about being ridden by nubile teenage girls," Doggett growled. "I've heard all about your Porn collection."

"Really? Do let me know if you want to borrow a tape or two. You never know, you might learn something," Mulder replied airily, confident that Doggett obviously knew nothing about his Porn collection.

"You're a sad, sick bastard, Moldhar," Doggett pronounced, with more than a little satisfaction.

They walked up the aisle between the stalls, Doggett stroking the soft inquisitive muzzles of the horses they passed, Mulder giving them all wide berth.

"You obviously don't like horses," Doggett commented sagely, as though that explained everything he'd always wondered about the other man.

"You obviously do," Mulder retorted, with equal disgust.

"I like animals. Dana and I are thinking of getting a puppy."

"Oh?" Mulder replied, with feigned indifference although the announcement felt like a kick in his guts. Puppies were permanent. Puppies were commitment. "So it's serious, huh?"

"As serious as it gets," Doggett said. "That gonna be a problem?"

"Why should it be? You're both beyond the age of consent."

"I got the impression you."

"You were wrong," Mulder snarled.

Doggett opened his mouth, then closed it again and shrugged. "Okay."

The clatter of hooves made them both turn in time to see the elegant silhouette of a girl on a sleek, dappled horse entering the far end of the barn. As they watched, she swung off its back and dropped the reins, allowing the horse to make his own way to his stall as she followed behind, unfastening the strap of her crash hat.

"Storm Redlum?" Doggett asked, his eyes unconsciously admiring the girl's long, jodhpur clad legs.

"That's me," she agreed, with an easy grin, removing her hat and allowing her hair to fall in two swinging braids.

Mulder blinked at her in disbelief. "Samantha?" he gasped.

The girl shook her head in negation, so that her long braids danced around her shoulders.

"Sorry, Mister. My name's Storm. I don't know any Samantha."

"...can't emphasize strongly enough the importance of departments working inside their assigned budgets." "...the necessity for full and complete disclosure of all monetary anomalies." "... fail to understand the justification of the expenses detailed within this report."

Years of experience had taught Skinner how to appear fully riveted to the droning minutiae he was subjected to in meetings even as he let the voices of the speakers fade in and out of his attention. He had an almost unfailing instinct for knowing when it was safe to let his concentration wander and, more importantly, a talent for filling a sudden awkward silence with a neutral question that quickly deflected attention away from his inattention. Maintaining a professional front in the face of meaningless trivia had become such second-nature that it took surprisingly little effort for him to maintain an illusion of self-control, despite the very real terror icing through his veins.

In consequence, as the meeting rumbled on towards lunchtime, the auditor was satisfied sufficiently by Skinner's outward demeanor that he believed every word of his pontificating speech had been heard and inwardly digested.

If the three department heads present noticed anything anomalous in Skinner's behavior, it was only that the AD was possibly a little quieter than normal and a little more tolerant than usual of the officious accountant's tendency to launch into self-important diatribes. None of them noticed the slight pallor of Skinner's face. None of them noticed the pulse beating furiously in his neck or the fine sheen of sweat beading on his forehead or even the fact that, hidden behind the lenses of his wire-rims, his eyes were looking over their heads towards the far corner of the room.

So if, when the four men filed quietly out of his office, any of them glanced at the space in the corner where Skinner's attention had been riveted for two hours they did so subconsciously and, seeing nothing of interest, thought no more of it.

And, Skinner decided, their failure to see the ghostly figure standing in the corner of his office was perhaps the most terrifying thing of all.

"What do you want?" he choked. "Why are you haunting me? Speak to me, dammit. Tell me why you're here."

The apparition's ravaged features twisted and strained until, at last, a single word emerged in a reed-thin whisper.


"Protect?" Skinner repeated helplessly. "Are you warning me I'm in danger? Are you saying I need protection? Or am I supposed to protect someone else?"

'secret,' she hissed.

Skinner shook his head in confusion. "I don't understand. How can I protect someone if their identity is a secret? Or are you saying it's a secret that I'm supposed to protect?"

But the old woman just gave him an enigmatic smile, and then vanished.

The girl's fingers trembled as they dialed the cell phone number she'd memorized only for an emergency and she almost sobbed with relief as the call was answered within three rings.

"Daddy?" she wailed, her voice sounding far younger than her fifteen years.

The voice that replied // What is it, baby?// was gentle and calming enough to soothe the top edges of her panic, and she took a deep breath to steady herself before continuing.

"Some men were here. They said they were FBI. One of them kept calling me Samantha."

She heard a sharp intake of breath, and her father's voice took on a note of urgency.

// Was it .//

"It was Mulder," she confirmed.

Her comment was greeted by a long silence, but she had the distinct feeling that was only because he'd muffled the handset with his palm before cursing a blue stream in several languages. She almost smiled at the realization he was doing this as much to spare her sensibilities as to conceal his reaction to her bombshell. One of these days she was going to have to let him wise up to the fact that she probably knew more swear words than he did. One of these days she was going to make him admit she was a young woman now, rather than a little girl. But that day wasn't today. Today, her most prevalent regret was that he'd * ever* listened to her pleas that he should let her 'grow up'.

// It's okay. Don't panic, honey. I'll take care of it. //

She wanted to believe him, wanted to believe everything would turn out okay, but it was hard. Because if she'd still been the little girl who thought her father walked on water and could never be wrong, she'd never have gotten them into this mess in the first place. She desperately wished she could turn back the clock two years, skip back in time to the moment of her thirteenth birthday when she'd been so hateful to him, and undo the selfish, thoughtless demand she had made of him.

"I just wanted to live a 'normal' life, Daddy," she whimpered. "I just wanted to go to school and have friends and. and.and I didn't listen to you, didn't want to listen to you, when you said I was putting us all in danger. But you were right and I'm so sorry and.and I'm so scared."

// I wanted you to have a normal life too, sweetheart // he replied, his voice low and husky with regret.

"They.they made me take a blood test. I couldn't think of a way to refuse without it seeming suspicious. I'm sorry. I know I messed up. I'm really sorry. I just didn't know what to do."

There was another long silence.

"I'm so sorry, Daddy," she whispered.

// It's okay. I'll take care of it, honey. //

His voice held no censure, only a deep, solid certainty that he could make everything all right again. Just as he had *always* somehow made everything all right.

"I know you will," she sighed, allowing belief to flood through her. "I love you, Daddy."

// I love you too, sweetheart .//

She smiled, closed her eyes with relief, and replaced the receiver.

As he shifted for the umpteenth time in a pointless attempt to get comfortable in the cramped confines of an economy seat that would have cramped even Dana's legs, Doggett marveled at Mulder's ability to appear perfectly at ease. For a man who usually needed to be perpetually in motion, Mulder had a disgusting habit of switching off and sprawling like a lazy contented cat whenever he was on an airplane.

A Cheshire cat, no less, since the grin on his face was so wide that the drinks trolley had made several unscheduled returns to their aisle as the otherwise indifferent stewardess had crumbled under the dubious charm of a happy Mulder.

Which pissed Doggett off even more than the lack of leg room.

'He's not that damned good-looking,' he wanted to shout at the vapid blonde. 'He's got a big nose and a weak chin and a mouth that would look cute on a girl, but looks damned stupid on a forty-something man.'

But he repressed the childish urge, knowing the person he really wanted to say that to was Dana, understanding that saying it to either woman would just reveal a deep insecurity born of the knowledge that everyone compared him to Mulder and found him wanting. And, ultimately, he was a pragmatic man. He knew it didn't really matter that Dana would never love him the way she loved Mulder, because Mulder didn't want her. Not in that way.

Which begged a question or two.

For a moment, back in New Orleans, he thought he'd finally put a finger on the answer. A sudden clarity, at the moment when Mulder had stated so surely that the perp wasn't gay, when a light bulb had flashed inside his head saying 'That's it. That's the answer to the mystery of the Mulder/Scully conundrum. He's a faggot.' A thought seemingly confirmed by Mulder's muted reaction to his puppy comment. But then blown back out of the water by Mulder's effortless flirting with the stewardess.

So now he'd abandoned the 'gay' explanation in favor of his original assumption, one that fitted far more comfortably over Mulder's behavior. It didn't matter whether Mulder was turned on by women, men, or even, more likely, the idea of an alien probe up his ass, the bottom line was the self-centered bastard simply couldn't see far enough past the end of his overlong nose to truly give a shit about another person.

Which brought him back to the current victim of Mulder's dangerous obsession.

"I can't believe you did it," Doggett groaned. "Do you have any idea how much shit's going to hit the fan if the school nurse reports you?"

If anything, Mulder's smug grin widened "If she was going to report me, she'd have done so before taking the blood test," he pointed out. "As far as she's concerned, the FBI have a lead on a possible relative of the girl and need the blood for DNA comparison before getting Storm's hopes up. She practically fell over herself trying to help."

"Only in the hope that the poor non-existent schmuck would take Storm out of the school," Doggett snapped. "We never even looked into the so-called poltergeist phenomena."

"Because right now the most important thing is to establish what she is, rather than what she can do," Mulder replied.

"She's not a clone," Doggett said firmly. "If nothing else, the blood test proved you wrong. Her blood's red."

Mulder shook his head mulishly. "It surprised me," he admitted, "But I know my own sister. Red blood or not, she's the spitting image of Samantha. You've seen her picture, Doggett. You can't honestly say you can't see the resemblance."

"There is a close resemblance," Doggett admitted, "But that's all. I've only seen a picture of Samantha at eight and that girl's fifteen. Her hair's several shades darker and.Samantha's eyes were hazel like yours, yes?"


"Well that girl has green eyes. True green like a cat."

Mulder chewed his lower lip uncertainly. Intellectually he knew that his red-green color blindness made distinctions like those impossible but he didn't doubt what Doggett was saying. If Doggett said the girl's blood was red and her eyes were green he had to accept that it was true. So maybe she wasn't a clone. Maybe she was a hybrid created from Samantha's DNA.

In which case she was not only exactly the proof he'd come to Kansas to find but, in a way, she was far more special than a clone of his sister.

"-she's Samantha's daughter. My niece."

For a long moment, Skinner said nothing. His eyes remained dark and unfathomable behind the lenses of his glasses, and not even a twitch of his face betrayed his considerable unease at Mulder's passionate avowal. He took a deep breath, then another. Inhale; exhale; steadying his heartbeat until he could trust his voice to emerge calmly, and without emotion.

"Daughter?" he questioned.

"Biological, though admittedly unnatural - given her date of birth was several years after Samantha purportedly died," Mulder clarified, and shrugged as though posthumous motherhood was an everyday occurrence.

In Mulder's world it possibly was, Skinner considered sourly. It went perfectly hand-in-hand with alien invasions, giant flukeworms and interactive ghosts. He shivered a little, his eyes darting towards the corner of the office where his own interactive ghost had materialized the day before, and it was on the tip of his tongue to confide in Mulder, to tell him of the visitation and ask his opinion. But he swallowed the words unspoken, some unnamed instinct warning him that the last person he should tell of the old woman's visit was the only man who would believe it had truly taken place.

"Quite an assumptive leap," he pointed out mildly. "One based on nothing more than a physical resemblance."

"The DNA results will prove me right," Mulder asserted confidently.

"Perhaps," Skinner allowed. "But doesn't it strike you as somewhat 'convenient' that she looks like your sister?"

Mulder rolled his eyes in rude frustration. "Considering I went there looking for a child created from the Consortium's breeding experiments, it's actually pretty reasonable that I found one created from Samantha's DNA. The Consortium had limited breeding stock to work with."

"Limited?" Skinner repeated thoughtfully. "Correct me if I'm wrong, Agent Mulder, but your original justification for investigating the girl was based on your assertion there are numerous people capable of conceiving a hybrid child."

"Numerous people from within a limited gene pool," Mulder replied easily. "Storm could have turned out to be the daughter of any child of the Elders, but there obviously were a finite number of Consortium members, so the odds of any child being related to Samantha are actually quite high."

"As usual, you want to have your cake and eat it," Skinner muttered, with a repressive scowl.

Mulder shuffled uncomfortably in his seat but his sulking pout and over-bright eyes defied Skinner to find fault with his reasoning.

Skinner shook his head sadly, knowing what he was about to say would fall on willfully deaf ears but needing to say the words regardless. "I think they know exactly what buttons to press with you, Mulder. You still haven't learned, have you? This whole thing smacks of a set-up."

"How could it be?" Mulder protested. "I never filed the paperwork for the Redlum case. The case file on her was gathering dust in my office for months before I got reinstated. I know paranoia's my middle name, but even I have to draw a line sometimes. It doesn't make sense that someone planted it as a trap for me while I was still on the run, with a death sentence over my head. Who the hell would have imagined I'd ever get the chance to return to the X-files?"

Skinner sighed. Mulder's argument made sense, except. "You're conveniently forgetting the person who was most instrumental in getting you pardoned is the same man who blocked your 302's to investigate the other children like her."

Mulder looked momentarily startled, his eyes flaring with self-doubt, but then he shook his head in negation.

"Kersh didn't know I was planning to investigate her."

"No," Skinner agreed. "Unless."

Mulder rolled his eyes in exasperation. "Unless what?"

"Unless he already knew you had the Redlum case, because it was planted in your office. Perhaps the reason he made sure I was aware he'd blocked your 302's on the other children was to deliberately encourage you to investigate the child he wanted you to find instead."

"No," Mulder said, shaking his head slowly. "That's the kind of thing you'd have done to manipulate me. I don't believe Kersh is as good at thinking outside the box as you were."

Skinner winced at Mulder's reminder of his own past betrayals. "Just because he's heavy-handed to your face, don't believe he's incapable of subtlety. I know him a lot better than you do. Believe me, underestimating Kersh's intelligence is a dangerous mistake," he warned. "Besides, even if this girl isn't a plant designed to distract or discredit you, there's still no reason to believe she's Samantha's 'daughter'. Your sister was used as the blueprint for at least two different sets of clones. Isn't it most likely that this girl is simply a new form of red-blooded clone?"

"What if she is?" Mulder countered. "She's still my flesh and blood. Family's everything, isn't that what you said?"

Skinner shook his head sadly. "I can't believe you're letting them do this to you again. Can't you see this is probably exactly what they want? She isn't Samantha. She isn't your sister. Your sister is never coming home," he said bluntly.

"I know that," Mulder spat, his eyes flashing with barely constrained fury.

"I thought you did," Skinner said, his mouth pursed with disapproval. "And while you're messing about investigating this girl, who's going to look for William? What happens to your son while you're busy playing this new Consortium game? Did you consider that? Because I think you're reacting exactly how they want you to react. And that in itself is enough to convince me this girl isn't what you believe her to be."

"If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck," Mulder muttered.


Mulder's eyes suddenly clouded and he sagged in his chair, the urgent energy of his conviction draining almost visibly from his body. "Something Doggett said. He was wrong. So I have to accept the possibility that maybe I am too." He smiled wryly at Skinner's perplexed expression. "Sometimes we see what we want to see, don't we?"

"That's the point I've been trying to make," Skinner agreed, uncertain of the reason for Mulder's abrupt self-doubt but grateful for it regardless. "I just don't want to see you hurt, Mulder."

"It's too late for that," Mulder pointed out. "Look.whatever happens, I'm not oblivious to the possibility I'm being set up. I'm way past any expectation of a happy ending but I still have to.have to know for sure."

"Of course you do," Skinner agreed, his expression softening. "And.well, I hope for your sake that this girl is what you want her to be. Only, try not to get emotionally involved until you know one way or the other."

"It's too late for that too," Mulder admitted, with a wry smile.

"I think you're making a mistake," she began.

Mulder's face twisted into a pout. "Don't bother, Scully. Skinner's already beaten you to it. I've had chapter and verse on why I should walk away and forget Storm even exists. He thinks she's a Consortium plant, designed to distract me from my search for William."

Scully pursed her lips and frowned. "He may well be right. At the very least, waiting for the DNA results is going to keep you preoccupied for a couple of weeks."

"Two weeks?" he demanded furiously.

"If you want a full DNA work-up," Scully replied calmly, "it's going to take that long. This is real life, not the movies."

"But you can at least get me some preliminary results sooner, can't you?" he wheedled. "Just a basic comparison between her DNA and my own. That's all I need to convince a judge to give me temporary custody."

"Why the hell would you want custody of a 'supersoldier'?" she asked snidely. "Or have you decided to throw that theory out of the window just because she looks like your sister?"

"The Supersoldier theory explains her existence. But that isn't relevant right now. Whatever else she is, she's also Samantha's daughter - which makes her my niece. That's why I want custody."

"Even if the DNA results prove you right, I hardly think 'niece' is an appropriate term," she snapped. "Samantha died years before this girl was born. Even if you're right about Storm being partially created from Samantha's DNA, that's hardly the same thing as her being a child born of Samantha's body, is it?"

"Really?" Mulder demanded coldly. "I don't remember you making the same distinction when you claimed Emily as your daughter."

Scully reeled as though slapped, but the color that immediately flooded her cheeks wasn't anger at his brutality as much as shame at her own words. "You're right," she admitted, in a near whisper. "I'm sorry. It doesn't matter how she was conceived. She's still possibly your flesh and blood."

"Even if she was just a clone of Samantha, I couldn't walk away from her, Scully. Except for William, she's the closest thing to family that I have left."

"If the DNA results prove you right," she reminded him.

Mulder sighed and shrugged. "Yeah."

For a long time, Skinner had made a point of glancing into the back seat of his Lexus before climbing inside. The reflex had been plain common sense considering Krycek's ability to enter locked, alarmed cars with impunity and, even after the demise of his nemesis, he'd found it hard to shake the habit. But while time didn't necessarily heal, it definitely smoothed the edges of bad memories until their sharpness faded like old photographs and, in consequence, Skinner had begun to feel self-conscious and paranoid about his formerly obsessive behavior. While he still made a point of parking in a well-lit spot near a security camera, he'd gradually begun to relax enough to accept the likelihood of peering through the back window of his car and seeing an assassin perched on his back-seat was remote.

Even so, the fact that the overhead light over his parking space had blown should have rung a sufficient alarm in his head to at least make him cautiously unbutton his overcoat to allow access to his gun. But it was late and he was tired. So he interpreted his faint tingling sense of 'wrongness' to no more than proof of how unsettled he was over both Mulder's discovery of the girl who looked like Samantha and his own recent ghostly visitation, and simply climbed into his car. It wasn't until he started the engine, moved the gear into reverse and glanced into the rear-view mirror to check no one was behind the car, that he realized he wasn't alone.

At first, Skinner thought it was just the shock, of looking into the driver's mirror and seeing any face other than his own in its reflection, that made his heart leap and hammer wildly in his chest. It was too dark inside the car to see much more than a silhouette sitting in the shadowy rear seat. It could have been sheer co-incidence that the man was of the same height and build as the nemesis that had haunted his nightmares for so long.

But then he felt a familiar sickening pulse through his veins, as though a million termites were marching through his cardiovascular system, and an almost indescribable pain slammed through his ribcage and raged outwards through his whole body until even his extremities were throbbing with agony.

The specter leaned forward out of the shadows until, even in the dim light that made many of the man's features indistinct, Skinner couldn't deny his recognition of the all too familiar eyes and sneering grin reflected by the mirror.

"You're dead," he gasped with difficulty, through teeth clenched with as much terror as pain.

"I get that a lot," Alex Krycek purred.

Skinner shook his head wildly, trying to think through the pulsing agony of his throbbing arteries. "I killed you myself. I watched you die."

"Yeah?" Krycek smirked. "I once watched David Copperfield make the Statue of Liberty disappear. Didn't your optician warn you never to trust the evidence of your eyes?"

"I buried you, you bastard."

"Yeah," Krycek agreed easily. "And I gotta say, Walt, I was pretty touched by the effort. I mean I gotta admit a ditch is easier to climb out of but, despite the inconvenience, I kinda appreciated the fact you dug me a proper grave. Even if it was a bit premature under the circumstances."

"You were dead," Skinner insisted. "It was you, not a clone. You bled red, you died and I buried you."

"Considering we're having this conversation, I think it's perfectly obvious I didn't die," Krycek snorted.

Skinner grasped desperately for some other fact to disprove Krycek's reality, but all he could come up with was "Mulder said he'd talked with your ghost during his trial."

Krycek's sardonic mask slipped and his teeth flashed in a grin of genuine amusement. "Mr Fox 'my cell phone was eaten by an alien' Mulder, is your prime witness?" he laughed. "With the cocktail of drugs those bastards slipped him, I wouldn't be surprised if he saw two dozen Reticulans dancing naked in his cell." He tapped the stylus against the palm pilot. "Let's cut the crap, huh?"

Skinner winced and closed his eyes as a fresh wave of agony pulsed through his veins. Through the mirror, Krycek watched him dispassionately for several moments and then stroked the stylus downward until Skinner's visibly throbbing arteries faded back into his skin. Skinner gasped a couple of times, as though unable to believe the pain had gone, then shook his head like an angry bear.

"What do you want? Why let me think you were dead for all these years and then come back now?"

"Because it suited me then that you thought I was dead, and now it suits me that you know I'm alive," Krycek responded, with a reasonable smile.

"Why?" Skinner barked.

Krycek blinked a couple of times, then shrugged. "Because being dead is convenient sometimes," he explained slowly, as though to a child.

"Why come back now?" Skinner clarified irritably. "Why do this?" He tapped his chest significantly.

"Because I want you to do something for me," Krycek said, "and, let's face it, Walt. You weren't gonna do me a favor for old time's sake, were you?"

"What do you want?"

"That's what I like about you, Walt. You always cut to the chase. You don't spend hours talking the hind leg off a donkey like Mulder does."

Skinner shuddered at the mention of Mulder's name. While he couldn't understand how Krycek had 'come back to life', the timing made the why too damned obvious. While he still failed to understand what purpose Krycek had been serving when he had tried to kill William, and then Mulder, it was clearly related, in some fashion, to the girl Mulder had found in Kansas.

"Leave Mulder out of this," he growled, testing the theory.

"Ah," Krycek sighed. "Well therein lies the problem. Mulder is the problem. As usual," he added, under his breath. "I want you to tighten his leash before he strangles himself on it. He's poking into things that aren't any of his business. You're going to convince him of the error of his ways."

// So he was right. Krycek's Lazarus impersonation was a response to Mulder finding Storm Redlum. But did this blow his theory that the girl was a deliberate Consortium plant? Or was Krycek's resurrection a double-blind -a typical rat-ploy of deliberate misdirection - whereby Krycek was 'pretending' to want Mulder off the investigation just to make them believe the girl was the genuine article? Lies within lies within lies, layered carefully to hide the presence of any possible truths //

"And if I don't?" he asked steadily, his expression carefully neutral.

"He'll be back in his grave so fast you'll forget he ever crawled out of it. And I don't think either of us want that to happen."

Skinner sneered into the mirror. "I'm supposed to believe you care whether Mulder lives or dies?"

"Believe it or not, Mulder dying has always been exactly the last complication I've ever needed in my life," Krycek snorted, with such obvious feeling that Skinner was genuinely confused.

"The man you were pointing a gun at, when I put a bullet in your head?"

"I could have shot him six times in the time it took you to arrive," Krycek pointed out. "You think I stood there and made a speech until you bothered doing your cavalry act 'cos I like the sound of my own voice? I already told you, I had an urgent need to be publicly 'dead'. You seemed the best candidate for the job and you sure came up trumps."

"And I guess you had an alien healer on stand-by, just waiting to dig you up and revive you?" Skinner scoffed.

"Something like that," Krycek agreed.

Skinner snorted rudely. Hearing Krycek's preposterous theory out loud made him realize that, red-blood or not, the man he'd shot must have been either a clone or an alien shape-shifter, because it sure as hell couldn't have been the man sitting behind him.

"Whatever," Krycek shrugged. "You're missing the point. I never intended to kill Mulder."

"Aren't you conveniently forgetting the day you refused to give me the vaccine to save him?"

"As I recall, I offered you a perfectly reasonable trade."

"Reasonable? You said it was either his life or his son's, you fucker."

"Get over yourself, Skinner. If was never about killing Mulder. There wasn't any fucking vaccine. The only thing that Mulder needed was that damned life support shut off so his own immune system got a chance to deal with the infection. All I did was give you a reason to do it. With Mulder dead, you were home free to play happy families with Scully, so I figured you just needed the right incentive to take the bait. 'sides, you'd hardly have taken my word for it if I'd just come out and told you to turn the fucking machine off."

"So you were trying to save his life," Skinner drawled, trying to cover his horror at the suggestion he had subconsciously accepted Krycek's ultimatum as an excuse to kill his rival for Scully's affection. He knew it was just another typical Krycek mind-fuck, but just hearing the words was enough to shock him to the core because it could so easily have been true.

Alex waved the palm, and gave a taunting grin. "Drop the attitude, Skinner," he purred. "I don't give a fuck whether you believe me or not about Mulder. Just accept that if you don't do as I say, your life expectancy is worse than his."

Skinner swallowed heavily. "So, I say again, what do you want?"

"The people I work for want you to pull Mulder off the case."

"Which case?" Skinner asked.

"Don't fuck with me. The Redlum case. Tell him to back off."


Krycek tapped the palm pilot significantly. "Because I say so."

Skinner shook his head. "Threaten me all you like. It won't do any good. Mulder would resign before he'd agree to drop this case. He's convinced she's not simply a clone of Samantha. He says she's Samantha's daughter and her DNA is going to prove it. The lab is already working on her blood sample."

"Unconvince him," Krycek snapped. "Intercept the DNA results. Destroy them. It won't be the first time you've helped evidence 'walk'."

Skinner flinched at the blunt reminder of his past betrayals, but he shook his head and concentrated on the here and now. What was important enough about the girl to make Krycek 'come back to life'?

"So he's right. She is Samantha's daughter. Why else would you care about the Lab results?"

"Don't be obtuse, Walter. She's a plant, a set-up. Someone's just trying to lead Mulder by the nose. He's finally given up looking for Samantha, so someone's just come up with a new bait to dangle in front of him like a carrot."

Even though the words were immediately suspect, given the mouth that had uttered them, it was too much of an echo of his own doubts for Skinner to automatically dismiss it as a lie. "So the DNA results will confirm her to be Samantha's daughter."

Krycek looked uncharacteristically confused, as though blindsided by Skinner's conclusion. "Yes. No. maybe."

"Well that covers everything," Skinner mocked.

"The DNA will confirm a relationship to Mulder. But, like I said, it's just a red herring."

Skinner nodded his head in agreement. "Apparently she's not simply a clone. So what is she? A hybrid? Is Mulder right about her being part of some Consortium conspiracy to create the ultimate 'supersoldier'?"

Krycek's eyes flared with alarm and Skinner was absurdly tempted to laugh out loud. He'd always considered Krycek an accomplished liar. That perception was changing rapidly. It seemed that under pressure the rat bastard was as transparent as any other deceiver. Even just watching his reflection in the dim lighting of the car, the giveaways were text book. Rapid pulse, inability to retain eye contact, and flushing cheeks on an otherwise abnormally pale face.

The problem was, he still wasn't sure what Krycek was trying to conceal.

"Let's cut the crap, shall we?" Skinner said, relaxing for the first time since the nanos had enacted their revival party in his bloodstream. "Since we both know I'm not in a position to do something stupid, why don't you try telling me the truth, son?"

Krycek flinched visibly. "Don't call me that," he snarled, his eyes glittering with sudden hatred.

"Okay, how about 'Why don't you try telling me the truth, you ratbastard, scum-sucking piece of slime?'" Skinner suggested sweetly.

Krycek's eyes widened with shock, before his lips twitched into a reluctant smile. "Oh, what the fuck. I don't get paid enough for this shit. You'll eventually figure it out for yourself anyway. She's fuck all to do with Samantha Mulder and I don't know anything about any damned 'supersoldier' experiments. She's Spender's granddaughter, okay?"

Skinner's eyes widened in shock. "You're saying she's Jeffrey Spender's child?"

"Yeah," Krycek agreed, with an indifferent shrug. "She's Jeffrey's daughter."

"I don't believe it," Skinner breathed.

"I agree the possibility of him getting his leg over a woman, even before his face got rearranged, is pretty far-fetched," Krycek snickered nastily, "But it just proves there's no accounting for taste."

"So the only reason she resembles Samantha is she's Mulder's niece?"

"Well, duh," Krycek snorted, rolling his eyes.

"Then why the big secret? Why doesn't Jeffrey want Mulder to know about her?"

"Well gee, maybe it's the fact that Mulder needs a government health warning printed on his forehead. Something like, 'Being related to me is hazardous to your health'," Krycek suggested snidely.

Skinner's lips twitched in reluctant appreciation of the comment. It was a frighteningly reasonable explanation of the whole damned situation.

"So Jeffrey's pulling your strings now, huh? Seems the apple never falls far from the tree. I'd love to know what hold he's got over you, to get you to do his dirty work like this."

Krycek's face shuttered abruptly into a cold, calculating mask. "The only thing you need to know is that I'm literally holding your life in my hands, Skinner, and you're holding Mulder's in yours. Unless he backs off the Redlum girl, you'll both end up in the morgue."

Skinner spread his hands placatingly. "There's no need to threaten me, Krycek. I'm sure the last thing Mulder wants to publicly acknowledge is his relationship to Spender senior. As far as Mulder's concerned he doesn't have a brother, so I can't see any reason why he'd care that Jeffrey has a child. If I tell him the truth, he'll probably walk away."

"Probably's not good enough. You have to destroy the results."

"And if I refuse?"

"Do you really need another demonstration?" Krycek smirked, raising the stylus to the pilot.

Skinner blanched. "I don't see that I have any choice," he acknowledged, his tone bitter. "I'll bury the Redlum file."

It took all his self-control to keep his expression suitably cowed in the face of Krycek's smug grin of triumph.

He would intercept the results, but not because he was afraid of the nanos. He'd intercept them because he wanted to see them for himself. Because even if Krycek was telling the truth about Jeffrey being Storm's father, which he had to admit seemed perfectly feasible, Skinner was suddenly damned certain that Samantha Mulder was Storm's mother.



It was suddenly so damned obvious that he couldn't believe he hadn't seen it before.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend, he told himself repeatedly, as he entered the room. The mantra helped him maintain a bland, almost bored, expression on his face despite the cold ripple of fear that shivered down his spine as he recognized the gray-haired specter sitting in the winged armchair nearest the fireplace.

// What the fuck do you want now? //

'Is that any way to speak to your father?'

// You're not my goddamned father //

'Perhaps not biologically,' the ghost agreed sadly, 'but, nevertheless, I cared for you as my surrogate son. I tried to be a father to you."

// Shame you made such a piss-poor job of it then //

'I did what I could,' the ghost protested sadly. 'I gave you as much protection as I dared.'

// It wasn't enough //

'I know, and I am more sorry for that than you'll ever comprehend. But I did what I could. I provided for you. I left you what legacy I could.'

"An inheritance of lies and deceit," he cried out loud, his eyes flashing with fury as the specter's words rekindled flames in raw wounds.

His exclamation made Jeffrey jerk upright on the sofa, his fingers clutching nervously at his pants legs. "Who're you talking to, Alex?"

"Mannerly's here," Alex spat, tipping his head towards the armchair.

The color drained out of Jeffrey's face and he scrambled to his feet, his eyes darting frantically towards the empty chair. Although he couldn't see the ghost himself, since Mannerly wasn't one of his personal dead, he believed without question it was present in the room. "What does he want?" he gasped.

Alex shrugged carelessly. "I don't know," he said, then turned a cruel smirk towards the ghost before adding, "and I don't care. He was never any fucking use to me alive, so he sure as hell is fuck-all use to me now."

The ghost flinched slightly, but swiftly recovered with aplomb. 'I wouldn't be so sure of that, dear boy. I have information I think you'll greatly appreciate knowing.'

Despite Alex's scowl of suspicion, a slight darkening of his eyes betrayed his reluctant interest. Knowledge had always been his opiate of choice.

// What information? //

'I'm told Mulder's looking for you.'

"WHAT?" he roared, his fingers automatically diving for the palm pilot.

"What's he saying?" Jeffrey demanded.

"That fucker Skinner's betrayed me."

Mannerly chuckled and shook his head in a gesture of fond exasperation. 'You're worse than Mulder for acting first and asking questions later. Skinner hasn't told him you're alive. Mulder's looking for your *ghost*.'

"What?" Alex repeated, dropping the palm pilot from suddenly nerveless fingers. "What the hell are you saying?"

'Remember Melvin Frohike? Irritating little gnome of a man?'

Alex nodded.

'Well he's looking for you. Says Mulder wants to see you. Seems he's upset you're not 'visiting' him. Apparently he regrets the way things ended between you.'

"What the fuck is it with you dead guys? You fuck up your own lives so you get cursed to spend your whole afterlife playing goddamned relationship counselors?"

"What's he saying to you," Jeffrey demanded again.

"That Mulder's been dialing 0800-FUCK-A-GHOST," Alex snorted.

Mannerly's face twisted into pained disgust. 'I must say, your language hasn't improved with age, Alexander.'

"Yeah? Well death's done fuck-all for your sense of humor, old man," Alex retorted.

'I certainly see little humor in the situation,' Mannerly admitted. 'But I thought you'd be pleased to know that Mulder's missing you.'

// Pleased? Because he's rewriting history to make me his great unrequited love affair? Give me a break. Mulder just enjoys feeling sorry for himself, that's all. I don't care what he says. If I walked through his front door, he sure as well wouldn't 'miss' me //

'Frohike said the same thing,' Mannerly agreed, with a cool shrug. 'But I promised I'd pass the message along.'// I don't give a shit about the message itself. The important thing is it at least proves he still thinks I'm dead.//

'At the moment,' Mannerly pointed out. 'How long do you honestly think Skinner's going to keep your secret?'Alex shrugged coolly. // Not long enough. But longer than you expect. I gave him a damned good reason to keep Mulder out of the loop // He smirked at the ghost with satisfaction.

'What reason?"

"I told him she's Jeffrey's daughter," he said.

"What the hell did you do that for?" Jeffrey roared, his face paling in uneven blotches.

Alex swung his attention to the younger man and shrugged. "Skinner's not stupid. The results are going to prove she's related to Mulder."

"You said he was too scared of the Nanos to give you any trouble. He was just supposed to destroy the fucking results."

"I was wrong. He's not as easy to manipulate as he used to be. I actually think the stupid bastard would rather sacrifice himself than betray Mulder again. But Skinner knows how Mulder feels about you. He's not going to commit suicide just to give Mulder the proof that you have a daughter."

"You'd better be right," Jeffrey snarled. "Because if Mulder turns up on my doorstep, I'll put a fucking bullet through him myself."

Alex's eyes darkened dangerously. "I told you I'd handle Mulder."

"You told me you'd handle Skinner," Jeffrey reminded him with a frown. Then he winced as the expression puckered a sensitive patch of sun-burned flesh. "These fucking grafts are pissing me off," he snarled.

Alex shrugged. "You're looking better though," he pointed out. "I told you that plastic surgeon was the best."

"Yeah," Jeffrey agreed, glancing at the now almost unblemished skin above Alex's nose. Except for a slight discrepancy in skin-tone, it was hardly credible that a round from a '38 had once lodged between Alex's eyes. It was a goddamned miracle. But it would take more than a miracle of cosmetic science to make him look 'normal' again, so bitterness clouded his voice as he continued. "Who are we trying to kid anyway, huh?" he demanded, gesturing at Alex's prosthetic hand. "We still look like a pair of fucking freakish monsters from a second-rate Frankenstein movie."

Alex's expression was less bitter than sad as he replied. "Not even our bastard fathers could build Rome in a day, Jeffrey."

'We deliberately blinkered ourselves to the cost our children would pay for our success,' Mannerly admitted, his expression tragic. 'For what little it's worth, I'm sorry for what we did to you all.'

Alex's lips curled with disgust. "Fuck your sorry, and fuck you," he snarled.

The ghost offered him a flicker of an apologetic smile, then simply faded from the room to avoid Alex's fury.

"What did he say?" Jeffrey demanded.

Unable to lash out at the ghost, Alex turned a cruel smile on the younger man. "He said he's been keeping an eye on you, Jeffrey. A very close eye. You might want to think about jerking off under your sheets from now on."

Jeffrey's eyes widened with horror. He took a couple of convulsive deep breaths, then threw his hand against his mouth and bolted from the room. A few seconds later, the distant sound of violent retching restored Alex's sense of humor.

"Asshole," he grinned.

He was whistling as he left Jeffrey's house.

"I checked the sample against the FBI employee database as you requested."


"Well, I can see why you wanted to keep this quiet, Sir, and, under the circumstances, I even understand why you insisted I brought the results directly to you rather than Agent Mulder, but I still feel obligated to point out that this isn't really a justified use of FBI resources."

At Skinner's furious glower, the lab tech quailed a little and offered a nervous smile. "But I'm sure you have a good reason, and it's not my place to question an Assistant Director and." he babbled.

"Just tell me what you found," Skinner snapped impatiently.

"I managed to cross-reference the subject with three employees in the FBI database," the tech blurted.


"Um.yes, sir."

Skinner shook his head in slight bewilderment. He forced a tone of indifference. "Which three?"

The tech twisted uncomfortably on his seat and offered an awkward smile. "Special Agent Fox Mulder and Special Agent Jeffrey Spender."

// So Krycek *had* been telling the truth when he'd said Storm Redlum was Jeffrey Spender's daughter //

"You said three?" he prompted.

The tech blushed deeply and cleared his throat. "And, well, and yourself, Sir."

"WHAT?" Skinner roared.

The tech's smile warped into a grimace. "Um, I said the subject is a close biological relative of both yourself and Agents Mulder and Spender, Sir."

Ignoring the wild hammering of his heart, Skinner shuttered his expression and spoke with remarkable calmness. "How close?"

"Well, considering that one half of nuclear DNA is inherited from the mother and the other half is inherited from the father, and the subject has an approximate 25% match with yourself, I'd say he or she is your grandchild. The match with Agents Mulder and Spender are slightly lower, suggesting they're possibly uncles or cousins of the subject."

A wave of relief flushed through Skinner. Whatever game Krycek or his employers were playing had just blown up in their faces. He was almost smug as he replied.

"My grandchild? Impossible. I don't even have children."

The tech looked mildly surprised, then shrugged. "That you know of," he pointed out.

Skinner shook his head decisively. "I can't have children," he said and, though his face flushed angrily at the admission of his own inability to reproduce, his absolute certainty of that inability was proof, in itself, that the entire DNA test was bogus. Since Storm couldn't be his granddaughter, it was equally unlikely that she bore any relationship to Mulder. The girl was a consortium set-up.

The lab tech blushed slightly and shrugged. "It's possible this could be a child of one of your siblings," he suggested doubtfully.

"I don't have any," Skinner retorted.

"That you know of," the tech countered.

Skinner nodded reluctantly. He had to accept the extremely remote possibility that he might have an illegitimate brother or sister. However, the odds against that theoretical person somehow having a child who then coincidentally impregnated Mulder's sister were about as likely as a herd of pigs sprouting wings and flying over the White House lawn. It beggared belief that both he and Mulder could have this connection. Even if he did have an illegitimate sibling, what were the chances of that person having a son who had then impregnated Samantha Mulder? The supposedly dead Samantha Mulder. Unless Mulder also had an illegitimate sibling who.. No.. that was taking it too far. While he prided himself on being more open to extreme possibilities than Mulder gave him credit for, he wasn't the gullible fool Krycek obviously took him for. "You're positive about these results?"

"DNA doesn't lie. The subject is related to all three of you."

"Well, I agree that's obviously what someone wants us to believe," Skinner replied dismissively. "The question is why."

"I would say the question is 'how?'," the technician retorted. "The sample shows no sign of contamination."

"Then it's fair to assume that it's the girl's DNA itself that's been tampered with to produce these results. We're dealing with people who have the ability to splice DNA inside a living subject. Run the tests again. Work on the assumption that someone has somehow introduced false DNA into the girl to produce these results. Someone's playing games with us," Skinner snapped.

He was pretty sure he knew who that someone was.


It had to be Krycek playing some mind-fuck with him. That was why he'd told him to intercept the results. He dismissed, out of hand, the fact that Krycek had told him to destroy the results rather than intercept them. Maybe Krycek hadn't told him to examine them himself, but that was a typical rat-ploy. By telling him to destroy the DNA results, Krycek had planted the seed of interest in his head.

But why?

Since Krycek couldn't possibly believe he was stupid enough to believe the girl was related to him, he was obviously intended to dismiss the presence of his own DNA as a trick. And, consequently, he equally had to dismiss the DNA that tied Storm to either Mulder or Spender.

Or was that what he was supposed to do?

Was it as simple as that? What if the girl was Samantha's daughter, and rather than trying to hide that biological connection, the Consortium had added a little junk DNA from a totally improbable source - himself - as a red herring to cast doubt on any tests run on the girl?

It was entirely possible. Although Samantha Mulder had been supposedly dead and buried years before Storm was conceived, someone 'claiming' to be Samantha had grown up as Spender's daughter, then gotten married and had two children. She'd met Mulder and told him about the kids, explained that they were the reason she couldn't come home.

Perhaps, when it became obvious that even Samantha herself couldn't talk him out of his obsession to find her, a different 'truth' was offered. That Samantha had been dead for years. And, oddly enough, Mulder had liked that so-called truth better.

The most probable scenario was that the woman who had met Mulder in that diner had been the real Samantha Mulder, and Storm was one of her two children, and the presence of his own DNA in Storm's results was just the latest in a long line of mind-fucks to protect the secret that Samantha was alive.

If so, the only question left unanswered was who was Storm's father, because it sure as hell wasn't any relative of his.

And that inevitably led him back to Krycek's explanation.

Jeffrey Spender.

Mulder's half-brother.

A man Mulder loathed.

Yes, he could see why Jeffrey would be desperate to conceal the fact that all the time Mulder had been searching for his sister, Jeffrey had been happily fucking her.

When she walked into the basement and saw the unmistakable paperwork on his desk, Scully almost dropped the cups she was carrying.

"Tell me that isn't what I think it is?"

Standing to retrieve one of the coffees from her shaking fingers, Mulder just offered her a sheepish smile.

"Mulder, think about what you're doing. This is crazy. It's probably exactly what they want you to do."

He shrugged, sank back into his chair and took a drink before replying. "I don't care who her goddamned father is, Scully. The important thing is she's Samantha's daughter. The DNA results proved it."

"They proved a relationship with you, not necessarily Samantha," she reminded him. "And since Jeffrey's your half-brother, any child of his would duplicate the results. The same DNA results incidentally that 'prove' she's Skinner's granddaughter," she scoffed gently.

Mulder grinned. "Yeah, who'd have thought old Wally had it in him, huh?"

"It's not funny, Mulder. He absolutely, categorically, denies any possibility of that being the truth."

"I know," he laughed. "As much as I hate accepting the idea of Jeffrey fucking my sister, I do agree with Skinner he's the most likely candidate for father. The two of them apparently grew up together. It might make my stomach churn to think of the two of them together, but it kind of makes sense she might have fallen for the insipid little bastard. Why the hell else did Spender bring her up as his own daughter? Maybe getting Samantha and Jeffrey to have children together was the whole point of Samantha's abduction. Skinner's DNA is just there as a smokescreen to make me doubt the entire results so I won't accept she's Samantha's daughter," Mulder pointed out.

"It doesn't work that way, Mulder. No one has the ability to falsify half a DNA test. The bottom line is that either she is related to both you and Skinner, or she isn't related to either of you."

Mulder shook his head mulishly, "She is Samantha's daughter. And I think the woman I met in that diner was Samantha and that means she's possibly still alive, Scully. My sister might be alive."

"You don't have any evidence for that belief, Mulder. You just want to believe it. Even if Storm is Samantha's daughter, it doesn't necessarily follow that Samantha is still alive today. It's far more probable that she died in that fire with the other Consortium family members, isn't it?"

"Storm didn't die," Mulder pointed out mullishly.

"Can't you see that this is exactly the reaction they want from you? You'd accepted your sister was dead, that the woman in the Diner was a clone. Now you're back where you started, on a pointless quest to find Samantha when what you should be doing is concentrating on finding William and preventing the invasion. How many times are you going to let them do this to you?"

She expected him to lose his temper, to yell back at her or even storm out of the room in a typical Mulder tantrum. What she was completely unprepared for was a gentle, happy smile.

"Even if you're right, you know what this means, don't you?" he asked, his eyes shimmering suspiciously.

"What?" she asked, equally softly.

"They don't have William."


"If they could dangle William as bait, why would they go to the effort of trying to make me believe Samantha is alive? It's a win, win situation, Scully. Either this is real and Storm is my niece, or else proving it to be a lie will at least prove that William is somewhere safe. I don't have anything to lose."

"Except your already questionable sanity," she snapped without heat. "What on earth are you going to do with her, Mulder? Do you really think you're in a position to adopt a teenager? Hell, Mulder, you can't even manage to keep your fish alive."

"I'm counting on that," he laughed. "I'm assuming Samantha is equally certain of my inability to look after Storm. The minute I file the papers for custody, Samantha is going to have to come out of the woodwork and claim her."

The moment he stepped into his apartment, he froze in place, his eyes widening with shock and his heart thudding into a rampaging rhythm that drowned the husky voice of the dark-haired assassin sitting casually on his sofa, tapping a small black computer on one of his denim-clad thighs.

He almost laughed at the smug look on Krycek's face. Would have, if he could have released the sound without hysteria. Because it wasn't Krycek's presence that had sent his veins into hyperdrive, but that of the old hag who was grinning a gap-toothed smile at him as her ghostly fingers carded through the lush strands of the oblivious assassin's hair.

"What do you want?" he choked, not certain which of his two nemesii he was addressing.

"I warned you, but you didn't listen," Krycek snarled. "I told you to bury those results, and what do you do? You gift wrap them and hand them to Mulder. Anyone would think you wanted me to kill you."

"You fed me a bunch of lies, Krycek. But then, you wouldn't know the truth if it reared up and bit your ass."

"The only reason you're still alive is you didn't make the mistake of telling Mulder about our little chat. So, contrary to appearances, I'm assuming you're not feeling completely suicidal. I'm going to give you a chance to redeem yourself."

Opening his mouth to reply, Skinner blinked in disbelief as the old woman smiled benignly down at Krycek and patted his head approvingly. Then she raised her gaze to Skinner's face, her eyes frighteningly sharp, and shook her head decisively.

'Don't even think of saying that to him,' she warned.

He slammed his mouth shut abruptly. She was right. He'd been about to say he'd decided that finding the girl was already enough of a distraction, without Mulder wasting his energy trying to send Krycek back to the grave he'd somehow crawled out of. But whatever satisfaction he'd derive from saying that to Krycek wasn't worth suffering the pain of the nanos.

'I just didn't want you to hurt his feelings,' she corrected, with a motherly tap on Krycek's cheek. Who shivered slightly, as though he'd felt the ghostly touch.

// That *thing* doesn't have feelings //

'Everything that has a heart has feelings, Walter,' the old crone cackled. 'Even you.'

He was still trying to absorb the impact of her words when she winked at him and disappeared, leaving him alone with Krycek. He swallowed dryly, then turned a furious glare on the younger man.

"I asked you what you wanted," he snapped.

Krycek relaxed back on the sofa, spreading his legs casually, his expression mocking but his eyes so devoid of emotion that they clearly put the lie to the idea of a heart residing beneath the dark leather jacket.

"The people I work for are not happy. I'm warning you, Walt, you're currently the most expendable player in this particular game. Mulder's filed for custody of Storm Redlum. You've got 24 hours to stop him."

"How the hell am I supposed to do that?" Skinner growled.

Krycek shrugged, the gesture made awkward, even poignant, by his prosthesis. Not that Skinner felt even a twinge of sympathy under the circumstances.

"Oppose the custody. His case is based purely on the DNA evidence that you were supposed to destroy, Walter. So my employer is holding you personally responsible. Based on those same false DNA results, you are Storm's closest relative. I suggest you simply claim custody yourself and tell the court you prefer that Storm remains with her current guardian."

"I can't do that."

"You don't have a choice, Walter. And why the hell do you care what happens to the kid anyway? She's nothing to do with you. The DNA results were faked. But then you already know that, don't you?"

"So the only reason she was given my DNA was so you could use me to block any attempt by Mulder to claim her?"

"Not just Mulder. Like any consortium brat, she's a prime candidate for abduction. The only way to keep her safe from the aliens is to keep her identity concealed."

"Is she Samantha's daughter?"

"You're pissing me off now, Skinner. I already told you, she's Jeffrey Spender's daughter. There's no X-file here. The only connection between Storm and Mulder is a certain late and extremely unlamented smoking bastard. The Consortium doctors altered Storm to conceal her from the aliens. They couldn't completely disguise the fact Storm was related to Jeffrey, but they managed to muddy the water with some random strands of DNA. Obviously it's more than an unfortunate co-incidence that you were chosen as the source. In the remote event of Mulder ever discovering her existence, my ability to control you was seen as the best way to control Mulder."

"I see," Skinner grunted. It made a horrible amount of sense, to the extent that any of the current situation could make sense. "So you are really working for Jeffrey Spender."

"The penny finally drops," Krycek laughed. "Jeffrey is somewhat of a ... shall we say 'recluse' these days. He's in hiding, like a modern day Phantom of the Opera, but he still wants his daughter to have as close to 'normal' a childhood as possible."

"By sending her to a boarding school and pretending she's an orphan? Does she even know her father's alive?"

"No. You've seen him for yourself, Skinner. Are you honestly surprised he'd rather have Storm believe she's an orphan than let her see the way he looks now?"

"No," Skinner agreed, shaking his head in confusion. It made sense. It was the only thing that made sense. It was merely the fact that Krycek was saying it, which made the scenario suspect.

"The whole thing would have been so much simpler if you'd simply 'lost' the DNA results in the first place, of course, but it's not too late for you to put things right. Block Mulder's attempt to gain custody, leave Storm alone, and I don't see why both you and Mulder can't get out of this situation alive."

"More threats, Krycek?"

"Promises, Skinner. Let me make this plain. If Mulder claims her, he might as well put a neon arrow over her head directing the next passing UFO to pick her up. Spender would rather see his daughter dead than abducted. Maybe you don't think your own life is particularly valuable and god knows I can see plenty of reasons why you might finally decide you're tired of putting yourself on the line to save Mulder's hide, but I don't think you want that girl's death on your conscience."

"You bastard."

"She rides, you know. Such a dangerous pastime, horse-riding. Unpredictable things, horses. They get spooked so easily. Did you know that 5 deaths per 100,000 population per year occur due to horse riders falling from horses?"

Skinner's eyes widened with horror. "I always knew you were a lying, murdering bastard, but I never realized you were evil enough to murder an innocent child."

Krycek smirked widely, his eyes sparkling with obvious amusement.

"Skinner, you can't even begin to imagine how evil I can be," he laughed. "But feel free to test me on this matter. As far as I'm concerned, the world can only be improved by the removal of Spender's whelp. So, to tell the truth, I don't really care which way you jump on this one. Make the wrong choice and I get the chance to take out two of the Cancerman's spawns in one go - Mulder and Storm. Then, who knows, maybe I'll do the world a favor and put Jeffrey out of his misery too. Call this a win, win situation for me."

Eyes still glazed with shock, Mulder clenched his pencil so tightly in his hand that it snapped with a loud crack. Both Skinner and Scully startled at the sound, and then exchanged a worried glace.

"Krycek's alive," Mulder muttered. "The bastard's been alive all along."

Scully rolled her eyes tiredly. "We've covered that, Mulder. Krycek's alive. Big deal. Can we get back to discussing the important issue?"

Mulder jerked to his feet, his hand sweeping across his desk to send the entire contents flying. "Alex Krycek is alive, and that's not 'important'?" he roared. Then he turned his wild, wounded eyes in Skinner's direction. "And you didn't even think it was 'important' to tell me he was alive?"

"This is exactly why I didn't tell you before," Skinner barked. "You've got enough problems to deal with without haring off in pointless pursuit of a man who hid himself well enough to convince us he was dead for over four years."

"I was convinced he was dead because I witnessed you murdering him," Mulder yelled.

"Murdering him?" Scully repeated quietly.

"He was unarmed, on his knees, and Skinner shot him in the head," Mulder spat.

"While he was begging me to shoot you," Skinner reminded him.

"Bastard," Mulder growled.

Skinner opened his mouth to reply.

"Not you," Mulder continued, before Skinner spoke. "Him. Krycek. The bastard let me think he was dead."

Scully and Skinner exchanged another worried look.

"You hate Alex Krycek," Scully reminded him carefully.

"Yeah," Mulder agreed, his voice harsh. "I hate him. I fucking HATE him."

"I'm not that fond of him myself," Skinner interrupted dryly, and a little of the brittle tension in the room escaped as Mulder exhaled a gasping laugh.

"You okay?" Scully asked.

"It's just a shock," he said. "Just a hell of a shock, that's all."

He rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands and dropped gracelessly back into his chair. "So what the fuck's his game this time?"

"I know he's playing us. What I don't know, for sure, is exactly how or why," Skinner admitted.

"His story does make sense," Scully pointed out. "It is far more likely that Storm is Jeffrey's daughter than any other scenario." She flinched slightly at the look of betrayal in Mulder's eyes but continued. "It's the only scenario that makes sense and explains the fact she's related to you, Mulder. In which case, do you even want to pursue this?"

"That's exactly the point. I don't give a damn whether or not Jeffrey has a daughter. As far as I'm concerned my relationship with him is just an accident of birth. I sure as hell don't feel any brotherly connection to him. That's why the whole thing makes no sense at all. Why all the cloak and dagger stuff with Skinner's DNA just to cover up the existence of a child I probably would have had no interest in anyway?"

"Krycek explained that. He said Jeffrey wasn't willing to take the chance of anyone discovering her identity. It wasn't really you he was worried about. Any child related to the Elders was at risk of abduction. Her DNA was altered to conceal her from the aliens. The particular problem with you finding her, is the high probability you'll alert the aliens to her existence."

"Krycek's lying through his teeth."

"You're saying you don't believe she's Jeffrey's daughter?" Skinner demanded.

"Absolutely not," Mulder agreed. "This is just another red herring. Which makes me wonder." His face went curiously blank for a moment, and then his eyes abruptly widened.

"What?" Scully demanded, recognizing Mulder's expression as one of sudden enlightenment.

"Krycek's given you a damn good, almost impossible to disprove, explanation of why the DNA test showed a relationship with me. But he also said the results were faked in regard to your DNA, Sir."

Skinner nodded. "He explained that. I'm the one with the nanos in my blood. He knew he could force me to oppose you if you attempted to gain custody of the girl."

Mulder gave a wry smile. "What a nicely tied-up case, except for an obvious problem. That's the funny thing about Krycek," he said lightly. "He's so good at wrapping you up inside his little fantasy worlds that sometimes you can't see the wood for the trees. Neither of you can see it, can you?"

"See what?" Scully demanded, with a frown of irritation.

"A hole in his story big enough to drive a truck through," Mulder scoffed. He shook his head at their blank expressions. "Tell him what you said to me, Scully."

"About what?" she asked.

"I'll quote you, shall I? 'No one has the science to falsify half a DNA test. Either she's related to you both, or she most probably isn't related to either of you.' That is what you said, isn't it?"

Skinner shook his head in bewilderment. "What is your point, Mulder?"

"That Krycek's been leading all of us by the nose, Sir. We've been wading blindly through a web of lies, unable to see the truth, because we've been looking for the wrong truth. It's my fault. You've always accused me of being self-centered in my obsessions. In this case, I think I have been. You see it doesn't really matter whether Storm is Samantha's daughter or Jeffrey's. Either way, she is your granddaughter."

"Impossible," Skinner snapped.

"Yes," Mulder agreed. "That's what we were all supposed to believe. We accepted the impossibility of you having a relationship to Storm as an obvious smokescreen to throw doubt upon her relationship to me. Too obvious. Krycek's always been good at sleight of hand. He knows me far too well. He's also a hell of a lot smarter than I ever gave him credit for. He's been using my own paranoia against me." He gave them both a wry, embarrassed smile. "Krycek used you, Sir, to show that Storm's DNA had been tampered with in order to fool me into believing she was Samantha's daughter. With the revelation of that tampering, I was supposed to see her as a typical Consortium trap and walk away. God knows, I've been fooled by enough fake Samanthas in the past that I should have learned my lesson by now.

"But Krycek overplayed his hand. By introducing the idea of Jeffrey as Storm's father, he's inadvertently confirmed that I wasn't supposed to find her. He's admitted she doesn't exist simply as a trap for me. I was never supposed to know she even existed. And if that's true, if I found her by complete coincidence, then there never would have been a reason to tamper with her DNA in the first place."

Scully sucked in a breath. "You're saying that you found Storm by accident, and the only deceit here has been a deliberate attempt by Krycek to conceal the fact that Storm is exactly what her DNA says she is?"

"Yes," Mulder agreed, with a smile of satisfaction.

"My grandchild," Skinner scoffed. "I hate to rain on your parade, Mulder. But like I said before, it's impossible."

"No," Mulder corrected. "It's simply highly improbable. I think it's time we investigated it as an extreme possibility. Particularly since you're going to the judge in two hours and claiming custody of Storm Redlum."

"I am?"

"Let's keep Krycek happy for now. Let's not give him any reason to believe we doubt his story about Jeffrey being Storm's father."

Skinner stared at the veins on the back of his hands and shivered involuntarily. "I don't have any issue with keeping Krycek off my back for the moment," he agreed dryly. "But the fact remains that there's no way Storm is related to me. I don't have any siblings and I'm medically incapable of having children."

"So is Scully," Mulder pointed out, with an apologetic glance in her direction.

Skinner gave a bitter laugh. "It's not quite the same situation, Mulder. My 'problem' relates to the injuries I received in Vietnam."

"In which case, you could have fathered a child," Mulder pointed out reasonably. "I assume you did have relationships as a teenager."

Skinner looked momentarily startled, then blushed deeply. "Not that it's any of your business, Agent Mulder," he snapped, "but in those days 'nice' girls weren't quite as ... liberal minded as they are these days. I.um. well, let's say none of the girls I dated were the kind who ended up 'having' to get married."

Mulder quickly hid a grin at the AD's obvious embarrassment. He tried to catch Scully's eyes but she was busy looking at an invisible scuff mark on her shoes. "Well...um," he said, "were you. um. sexually active in Vietnam before your injury?"

A vein began to throb prominently on Skinner's forehead, and his face stilled into a repressive mask of quiet fury, but when he spoke his voice was quiet and sad.

"I have absolutely no intention of answering that question, Agent Mulder. What I will say is this. If there had been any feasible chance that I had fathered a child, I would surely have known about it. I would have accepted my responsibility towards that child. If I. if I had had a child, that child would have been part of my life. I would have. I would have welcomed a child, under any circumstances. I don't. I can't imagine that I. Oh god. What if I did? What if I never knew?"

"So it is possible that you-" Mulder began.

"Sir," Scully interrupted quickly. "It may be relevant to point out that Storm's DNA is 100% Caucasian."

Skinner's blush deepened but he closed his eyes and sighed with obvious relief. "Then no. Even in the highly improbable event that I fathered a child, that child could be no relation of this girl."

"Then the answer has to be closer to home," Mulder stated firmly. "Is it possible that the doctors who operated on you after Vietnam took sperm samples from you?"

"Without my consent or knowledge?" Skinner demanded incredulously.

"Well, if they knew you'd be left infertile by your injuries, they might have.well. I mean they do that for cancer patients, don't they?" Mulder demanded, then winced awkwardly at the pinched expression on Scully's face.

"The phrase 'grasping at straws' comes to mind," Skinner growled.

"I just think-" Mulder started.

"The problem with you, Mulder, is you frequently don't think at all," Skinner interrupted. "I'll request a copy of my medical records. I'll do that much."

"Thank you, Sir."

"Don't thank me, Mulder. I'm not doing it for you."

The old man's eyes were rheumy and opaque, yet they still sparked with intelligence within his wizened face, and his voice was a little breathless as he motioned to the chair beside his bed with a shaking hand.

"Don't get many visitors," he said. "Sit down, Walter. Tell me your news."

Skinner sat down, his substantial frame casting a dark shadow over the frail old man. "It's a nice place," he said awkwardly.

Rushton snorted rudely. "It's death's waiting room, Walter. The pretty furnishings and pretty nurses are window dressing. It's still just a place for old farts like me to wheeze their last breath."

Skinner winced a little although, since Dr Rushton was on the wrong side of ninety, it was pointless to argue the point. He was relieved, at least, that Rushton was evidently still firing on all cylinders mentally.

"Okay, just spit it out, Walter," Rushton snapped into the awkward silence. "I haven't seen you in twenty years, so I know you didn't come here to chew the fat. Out with it, boy. At my age, I don't have time for people to beat around the bush."

Skinner nodded. "Why can't I have children?"

He saw a flash of something like guilt in the old man's eyes before Rushton smiled at him awkwardly. "We've been through this before, Walter. Your sperm count is too low."

Again Skinner nodded. "But why? You never specifically explained to me why it's so damned low."

Rushton sighed and picked at his bedcovers, averting his eyes as he replied. "Well your injuries in Vietnam were extensive, Walter. Your intestines were virtually shredded and your groin suffered significant trauma. Whoever performed the surgery in the Military hospital that put you back together performed nothing less than a miracle."

Skinner shook his head impatiently. "I know that," he snarled. "I've spent the best part of thirty years being grateful that I'm not limping around with a colostomy bag strapped to my thigh, let alone the fact that I'm sexually active. So damned grateful that it never occurred to me to question why my sperm count is so low. Specifically, I mean."

"Specifically, I can't answer you," Rushton admitted.

"I didn't think you would," Skinner replied angrily. He slapped a file down on the old man's lap. "I finally requested a copy of my medical records. They make interesting reading, even for a lay person like me. I showed them to a colleague of mine, a doctor. She says that it's a miracle I'm not impotent, but that in and of themselves the injuries wouldn't have affected my sperm count."

"If you're finally asking me to be completely honest with you, I will be. Your sperm count isn't low. It's non-existent. You don't appear to have any gonocytes. They're the germ stem cells that produce sperm. Without them you can't reproduce. So, to be frank, I had always sincerely doubted whether you could have had children anyway," Rushton admitted heavily. "There just seemed little point investigating that suspicion. By the time the subject came up, you'd been injured in Vietnam. You were always satisfied that it was the shrapnel that rendered you infertile, so it seemed pointless for me to suggest that the problem pre-dated that injury."

"You're telling me you suspected I'd be infertile even before I went to 'nam?" Skinner demanded.

"I tried to raise the subject with your parents," Rushton replied, with an awkward shrug. "They refused to discuss it. I had every intention of telling you the truth when you were an adult but, like I said, your injury made the subject moot."

"The truth about what?"

Rushton looked intensely uncomfortable. "Sometimes it's better to let sleeping dogs lie, Walter."

"Just tell me."

Rushton sighed and closed his eyes momentarily, as though gathering strength.

"Something happened when you were twelve, Walter. You never remembered the incident. You didn't even have nightmares about it. I was always worried the amnesia wouldn't be permanent and that it would do more harm than good to brush the whole thing under the carpet, but your parents insisted and.well, they seem to have been right because you never did remember what happened to you."

"What did happen to me?" Skinner growled.

"You were abducted."


"Someone took you from your house in the middle of the night. No one ever found out who took you or why. You were missing for a week. The sheriff found you wandering naked in the woods near Bear Lake. You'd been...assaulted. You had extensive bruising, lacerations and. well, a lot of internal damage."

"You're saying I'd been raped?" Skinner demanded.

Dr Rushton shook his head, his expression both haunted and perplexed. "The injuries weren't anal, Walter. The damage was centered on your groin. You had incision marks and stitches. As far as I could tell, someone had performed a form of bizarre vasectomy on you."

"I don't. I don't remember."

"You never did," Rushton agreed, with a sigh. "You were pretty spaced out for a few weeks, and then you just 'snapped out of it' and acted like nothing had ever happened. I kept an eye on you for a while. Like I said, I was sure you were just suppressing the memories. Besides, I was concerned the 'operation' might have other side-effects. Tell the truth, you were so messed up internally that I wasn't sure whether you'd been effectively castrated but your parents refused to send you for more extensive tests. They just wanted to pretend the whole thing had never happened. Naturally, I was worried about you, but then you entered puberty normally. From your growth, it was clear that you were producing more than enough testosterone. So, well, I decided to leave well alone unless you came to me as an adult and queried your inability to have a child."

"But then I went to 'nam and got half my insides blown up, so you never bothered to tell me the truth," Skinner growled.

"You never asked, so I didn't see the point," Rushton admitted. "Why risk opening up that kind of wound? The way I figured it, if you had been capable of handling the memory of your abduction, you would have remembered it by then. So I thought it best to."

"Let sleeping dogs lie," Skinner interrupted bitterly.

Rushton flushed and nodded. "I'm sorry, Walter. Perhaps I should have."

"It wouldn't have made any difference," Skinner admitted, with a ragged sigh. "It was already too late."

"Just let me talk this through with you, Dana. What's the difference between my gonocytes being removed and your eggs being stolen?"

"Essentially, only that my eggs were, and possibly are, still viable. Someone could fertilize my eggs, but no one can use your gonocytes to create sperm. Well, not unless they found a way to somehow integrate them into another man's testes which I'm pretty sure is scientifically impossible. So, even if the same people were responsible, the only common factor between us is that we're now both incapable of conceiving a child naturally. The fact that they may be using my eggs for their own purposes is a different thing altogether."

"So it seems the important thing was to ensure that neither of us could have a child."

"Except that, somehow, I had William," she reminded him. "And as much as I hate to admit it, and I'll deny this conversation if you repeat it to Mulder, I suspect that the only way that could have happened was because they somehow impregnated me."

"Because the IVF didn't work and you never actually slept with Mulder."

Scully flushed but nodded.

"I believe, somehow, that *I* have a son too," Skinner said, his voice little more than a whisper.

"I think it's far too early to conclude that."

Skinner interrupted her impatiently. "Storm Redlum is apparently my granddaughter and I'm certainly not related to Mulder. So somehow I have to be the father of Storm's father."

"Only if you're assuming that Storm is Samantha's daughter rather than Jeffrey's."

"Just because I'm currently open to a particularly bizarre, extreme possibility, doesn't mean I'll buy every damned bridge I'm being offered. There's one constant in my life that never changes. Krycek may not be the devil, but he's certainly the father of all lies. So we can safely assume Jeffrey's involvement in this situation was never anything more than a red herring. That leaves us with Samantha as Storm's mother and my hypothetical son as her father."

"I don't want to be indelicate, Sir, but are you absolutely certain you didn't.um. simply impregnate some girl before your gonocytes were removed?"

Skinner shook his head. "I was twelve. I don't think I was even physically capable, let alone that promiscuous. Besides, I don't believe in co-incidences. It's a big world, Scully. If my son knocked Samantha Mulder up I think we can be damned certain that he was 'meant' to do it. Which means that my DNA is somehow important. Important enough for someone to steal it then ensure I never had any other children."

"You think someone took your sperm, to artificially create a child, then rendered you infertile?"

"Why not? That's what they did to you, Scully."

"But you were twelve years old. That's forty years ago. The technology to create test tube babies didn't exist back then."

"The *human* technology didn't," Skinner replied darkly. "But, Mulder was born in 1961. If we take a leap of faith and accept Mulder's assertion that he's a hybrid, then that would mean the Consortium had the ability to perform genetic slicing several years before I was abducted."

"Possibly," she allowed, her expression troubled. "But even if you're right about having had a son, there's a high probability he's dead," she pointed out softly. "Most of the consortium family members were killed by the Rebels."

Skinner rubbed his face tiredly. "I don't know what's worse; refusing to believe he ever existed at all, or accepting I had a child who died without ever knowing I was his father. If Mulder's right about a breeding project to create a supersoldier and my son was just part of that program, what kind of life do you think he led, Dana? Did they even treat him like a human being, or was he just 'merchandise' to them? Maybe his body is lying in one of those buried box cars, with the other refuse of their experiments. Maybe he lived and died as no more than a lab rat to those bastards."

"Don't, Walter," she pleaded, tears slipping down her face, discarding any semblance of professional distance in the face of his palpable grief. "Don't do this to yourself. You're grieving for a child that may never have even existed."

"I know," he admitted stiffly, stepping away from her, deliberately refusing the offer of her open arms, unable to accept her comfort for fear her soft touch would shatter him. "But I feel him, Dana. I feel him in here." He tapped his chest for emphasis. "And I have to know the truth."

She wiped her eyes and straightened herself, smoothing her suit, accepting his need for distance. "How are you going to find it?"

"I'm not sure, but I know where to start. I'm going to see the girl. See her with my own eyes."

She was beautiful. There was no denying that much. A fine-boned face, with wide-set emerald eyes. She had Mulder's mouth, full-lipped and generous, but she'd mercifully been spared his nose. Lustrous chestnut hair flowed down to brush the top of her slender, seemingly endless legs. She rode the dappled gray like a centaur, her body moving so effortlessly with each fluid pace of the horse that it seemed the two flowed into each other, muscles and sinews blending into one creature of grace.

He found himself blinking furiously, sneaking a finger under the rim of his spectacles to remove the moisture pooling in his eyes. And he blamed the wind and the bright sunlight for the embarrassing leakage, but could find no equally comforting excuse for the aching sensation inside his chest.

If she was aware of his silent scrutiny, she didn't acknowledge it. Lost in a world in which only she and her horse existed, she continued to ride in endless, complicated patterns over the dusty covered arena, executing dressage maneuvers so effortlessly that an ignorant onlooker would have mistaken skill for ease. But though it had been years since he'd ridden, and the mounts of his youth had been rough beasts in comparison with the expensive gray, Skinner was knowledgeable enough to be both awed and saddened by her ability.

Saddened because it made him abruptly aware that Krycek was right, damn him. Mulder had been wrong to seek custody of her. Even putting aside the possible threat from the aliens, to steal this child away from her life of obvious privilege and luxury would be almost a criminal act in itself.

Neither Mulder nor himself had anything to offer this girl, except the loss of the life she knew and the gaining of knowledge she'd be better off without. What excuse did either of them have to shatter her complacent world with their tales of conspiracies and invasions? What justification was there for proving this innocent child no more than the product of a machiavellian breeding program?

Yet, selfishly, he couldn't bear to simply walk away.

Already, just the fact of her existence was filling a hole inside him that had been empty for so long that it ached with her sudden presence. She stripped his pretense of indifference, peeling away the layers of self-protection that had been laid bare and vulnerable by his aborted role as Scully's protector. His long abandoned yearnings of fatherhood, reawakened by Scully's pregnancy then cruelly dashed by Mulder's return, were consuming him once more and this time he didn't know whether he could survive the pain of another disappointment.

And so it barely surprised him, when Storm finally dismounted and led her horse back towards the shelter of the barn, that he turned to follow and saw the old crone standing within the eaves of the doorway, her eyes sharp and knowing within a face too wrinkled for expression.

::Is she the secret I have to protect?::

But she remained silent and inscrutable, not even moving when Storm hesitated at the doorway and did a slight double-take, her eyes flicking towards the apparition, her face paling slightly. Skinner followed her gaze and almost stopped breathing.

"You can see her, can't you?" he demanded urgently.

His voice made the girl whip around in fright, the shocked expression on her face confirming she'd been completely oblivious to his presence. "Who are you?" she demanded, her voice warbling with panic.

Abruptly realizing the presence of an unidentified middle-aged man might naturally startle a teenaged girl, Skinner produced his ID in a smooth gesture, "Walter Skinner, FBI," and Storm relaxed a little, though her eyes deepened with a different type of wariness."That Mulder guy send you?" she asked.

Her directness stunned him for a moment, then he shook himself angrily and met her cool gaze with a deliberately friendly smile. "I know Mulder," he agreed. "But he doesn't know I've come here to meet you. Why do you ask?"

"The school had a letter from the Court. He's apparently applied for custody of me."

"And how do you feel about that?" he asked carefully, deciding it best not to mention the change of plan that had now put his name on the custody papers.

She pointedly tapped a forefinger on her temple. "The guy's obviously off his nut," she announced, her face twisting into an incredulous pout. "He thinks I'm his long-lost sister or something."

"He has reason to believe you're the daughter of his sister," Skinner corrected gently.

"Because I look like her, right?" the girl scoffed. "Does he make a habit of this kind of thing, or am I the only lucky victim?"

Skinner cleared his throat, to buy time, as unwelcome countless memories of similarly bizarre Mulder theories jumped to mind. "You do look like her. But, more to the point, the blood test proved a relationship with you."

"Big deal," she spat. "By the rules of 'seven Degrees Of Separation' I'm probably related to enough people to populate a small country."

A laugh barked out of Skinner's throat. "You definitely remind me of Mulder," he snorted. "That's exactly the kind of wise-ass comment he'd make."

She shrugged and shouldered past him, leading her horse towards its stall and muttering under her breath, "So I remind you of a nut-case. Thanks for nothing."

Skinner waited silently until she untacked and turned to him, hands on hips, face set into a scowl.

"So what do you want?" she demanded.

"You didn't answer my question," he reminded her.

"What question?"

"You can see her, can't you?"

She met his gaze with wide, guileless eyes. "See who?"

"The old woman standing by the door. You can see her, can't you?" he insisted.

She half-turned, so that she was staring directly at the apparition, then gave a shrug and turned back to face him. "There's no one here but us," she replied, and there was something hauntingly familiar about the way she blinked her huge green eyes at him with deceiving innocence as she spoke what he was sure was a blatant lie. "Are you sure you're feeling alright, Mr. Skinner?" Her lips twitched, as though she was trying not to laugh, but the expression seemed more nervous than humorous, and there was something uncomfortably familiar about that mannerism too.

"You remind me of someone," he blurted.

"Yeah, this Mulder guy. You told me," she drawled with a classic Mulder pout.

Skinner shook his head. "No. Someone else but I can't think who." He rubbed his face fretfully, sure he was on the brink of understanding something important, but too distracted by the old woman's mocking gaze to follow the rapidly disappearing thought to its conclusion.

Storm rolled her eyes in a typically teenage expression of exasperation. "Are you sure you're okay? You really do look pale, Mr. Skinner."

"I don't know what she wants," he whispered.

Storm shrugged and looked suddenly bored of the conversation. "Why don't you ask her?" she asked petulantly. "She's your ghost."

The girl's words cut through Skinner's haze of confusion like a sharp knife. He swung around to face her, his expression triumphant.

"So you can see her!" he exclaimed.

She blushed, then sighed heavily. "Yeah," she admitted. "I see your ghost, so what?"

"You aren't frightened of her?"

"Should I be?"

"I don't know," he answered honestly.

"Well you should know," she retorted. "She's your ghost, isn't she?"

"What do you mean? How is she mine?" he demanded.

"Of course she's yours. You must have brought her back with you. That's usually how it happens. Some kind of connection gets made on the other side and when you come back you open a doorway that allows your beloved dead to come visit with you."

"Come back from where?"

"From being dead, of course," she said impatiently. "You really don't know anything, do you?"

"About the afterlife?"

"About us," she snapped, with another roll of her eyes.

"What about 'us'?"

Storm paled, then flushed, her eyes flaring with alarm. "I just meant, well people in general, you know? That's all," she blurted hurriedly.

Skinner shook his head slowly. "No, I don't' think that's what you meant at all," he said, and though he couldn't put his finger on what she'd said that was so significant, he recognized the body language of someone trying desperately to conceal a secret.

"Okay," Storm huffed. "I meant people who see ghosts, all right?"

"Fox Mulder sees ghosts," he pointed out, sure that obvious similarity would crack her cool faade.

But she didn't even blink.

"So?" she countered. "You do too."

And that was the point at which his previously vague attempt to make sense of the situation began to take form and substance. Mulder saw ghosts. He saw ghosts, well one ghost anyway. And Storm saw ghosts. It was the one point of commonality between them, the one thing that set them apart from other people, the one thing that gave credence to the idea that he was as much a part of the Consortium's genetic manipulations as the Mulders were.

It explained nothing. What possible use could the ability to see the dead be to a 'supersoldier'? Yet, strangely, he was sure that if he asked that question of Storm, she'd know the answer.

But he was equally sure she wouldn't tell him.

He felt like he was walking on eggshells. Whoever or whatever Storm was, it was clear she wasn't naturally deceitful. Her lies were clumsy and unpracticed and she blushed far too easily. But she was still smart enough to back away from a trap and clearly determined to protect her secrets.

He glanced over at the apparition of the old woman. Was he supposed to help Storm protect them or was Storm the secret he was supposed to protect? Or had the old woman materialized simply to make him aware of Storm's ability to see ghosts too?

"I don't mean you any harm, Storm," he said, and suddenly it felt like the most important thing in the world that she should believe him.

Her answering smile was surprisingly warm, if a little sad. "I know," she said softly. "But you know what they say about good intentions, don't you?"

Storm's comment clarified his belief that she knew far more about the 'truth' than either he or Mulder did. While nothing shook his conviction that she was an innocent in the situation, he could no longer fool himself that she was ignorant of her origins. She knew exactly who and what she was. And she was far too smart to willingly give up those secrets to a stranger, no matter how trustworthy they proved themselves to be.

"I think.I think there's a possibility I might be your Grandfather," he blurted.

He didn't know what reaction he expected. Shock, startlement, denial, even a panicked run to the schoolhouse as she decided he was an escapee from a lunatic asylum. Instead she stared at him with an unnatural calmness, the same cool poise with which she'd reacted to his comment that Fox Mulder saw ghosts.

And all she said was, "Do you smoke?"

Unbidden, the image of Spender popped into his head and he shuddered at the thought that she was comparing him to that cancer-lunged bastard. Her other grandfather. So his voice was a little sharp as he snapped, "No."

"Bummer," she said, kicking the ground in irritation. "I'm gagging for one."

His mouth dropped open in surprise, and when he spoke his voice was gruff. "It's not a good habit to start. It stunts your growth."

"Good. If I get any taller, I'll never get a date," she laughed.

Skinner frowned repressively. "I'm serious. Smoking is an unattractive and unhealthy habit, particularly in a young lady," he stated, then colored a little at how old-fashioned that had sounded even to his own ears.

She gave a most unladylike snort. "God, you actually might be my Grandfather. You sure as hell sound enough like my dad."

A wild hope spiked in Skinner's chest, as stabbing and sharp as any assault of the nanos in his bloodstream, because her words, her tone, had unthinkingly been present tense. She spoke of her father as though he was still alive.

"Storm, who is your dad?" he asked, over the thudding of his own heart.

She collapsed with laughter. "Don't you know? How many women did you knock up, Gramps?"

Skinner had an insane urge to grab the girl and shake her until she understood just how serious the situation was. Then he shuddered, a wave of shame filling him, at the idea of attempting to bully his grandchild into betraying her father. His son.

// My god. I have a son //

And the old hag raised her eyes to him, the wrinkles on her face smoothing and fading, the deeply lined skin unfurling and tightening to reveal the high, Slavic cheekbones of a remarkably beautiful woman. A woman he'd only ever seen in long-faded sepia photos.

'I wasn't always old, Walter,' she laughed, her voice no longer husked with age but soft with the brightness of youth.

"I know you," he gasped, his eyes wide with shock. "I *know* you."

'Of course you do,' she agreed gently. 'How could you have ever imagined you didn't?'

// So Mulder was right about you. You only ever wanted to protect me //

'A grandchild is a blessing to be cherished.'

// Yes // he agreed, glancing at Storm then returning his gaze to the ghost of his own Grandmother. // But my son. Who is he? Where is he? You must know //

She smiled gently but shook her head. 'The truth is a delicate thing, Walter. It has its right time and place. For now, your granddaughter needs to hold fast to her secrets.'

His hands clenched into fists, his nails biting into his palms, as he struggled to control the frustration that coursed through him. Both women, one barely more than a girl, the other a long-dead ghost, knew the answer to the question that was shredding his heart, and both were taunting him with the refusal of that knowledge.

So his voice was slightly bitter as he turned his attention back to his granddaughter.

"Will you at least tell me your real name? I mean your real first name."

"Don't you like Storm?" she teased.

"It's a great name. I can see why you chose it," he replied dryly.

She frowned at him, her eyes flashing with Mulderesque-defiance for a moment, then a smile quirked her lips. "No you can't," she argued. "Come with me." She strode back to the stable door and whistled the gray gelding. "Meet Dancer, short for Storm Dancer."

Skinner blinked with open astonishment. "You named yourself after your horse?"

"Why not?" she challenged. "It's a cool name."

"And your real name?"

"Isn't cool at all."

She grinned at him with unrepentant defiance, but Skinner just waited patiently until she sighed with irritation and gave up.

"It's Lisita," she pouted.

"That's a pretty name."

"But not a cool one," she pointed out.

"Do you know what it means?" he asked.

She shrugged her shoulders. "It's just a name."

"It's Russian for a female Fox."

"She reminds me a lot of you," Skinner began. "She's definitely a Mulder. It's not just her looks, but her mannerisms. She's beautiful, charming, intelligent, and unbelievably irritating."

Scully laughed out loud, her eyes sparkling with appreciation.

"All right," Mulder agreed, ignoring Scully's outburst and nodding in Skinner's direction. "But do you think she's related to you?"

"Yes," Skinner admitted simply. He didn't attempt to explain why he was certain. In Scully's presence, he was hardly going to mention that his grandmother's ghost had appeared in Lisita's presence to confirm the relationship.

"So if your son is Storm's..."

"Her name's Lisita," Skinner interrupted quietly. "It means vixen."

Mulder looked momentarily stunned as the significance sank in, but he recovered his composure quickly. "Okay, as I was saying, if your son is Lisita's father, that explains her DNA results."

"I'm glad you think so," Scully muttered rebelliously. "Try to remember that this is all hypothetical."

"Sure," he agreed, with a casual shake of his head. He turned his gaze back on Skinner. "Let's take it one step at a time. The existence of your hypothetical son depends on the theory that he was created by the Consortium. That makes sense considering Lisita's father must have ended up working for the Consortium in some way. How else would he have met Samantha? She grew up as Spender's daughter. There's no way Spender would have allowed her to get involved with anyone who wasn't under his thumb," Mulder said.

Skinner and Scully both nodded.

"So we're agreeing that the Consortium were involved in his conception," Skinner said. "And he was probably brought up by one of the Elders, like we believe Samantha was. But for what possible reason?"

"It's possible he was always intended to father Samantha's children," Scully suggested carefully. "It seems too much of a co-incidence, otherwise, that you should end up here, as Mulder's supervisor on the X-files."

"I find that co-incidence far more comfortable than the idea that the Consortium abducted me at 12 years old and conceived a child from my body in the full knowledge that over thirty years later I'd be supervising the brother of my son's wife. That suggests an amount of predestined fate that no-one would feel comfortable with."

"I think it's a combination of both," Mulder interrupted. "The bottom line, the thing that both of you are avoiding, is that there has to be something particularly important about your genes, Sir. For some, as yet unknown, reason, the Consortium decided that your child was critically important to them. Just as they later decided that the conception of William was equally important. To that extent, I don't think there's any co-incidence at all in the idea of your son and my sister having children together. Neither was it left to chance that Scully and I met. And, the more I think about it, I believe the fact that I failed to make.um. romantic moves towards Scully when she was first partnered with me is the true reason for her abduction."

"What?" Scully demanded.

"Think about it, Scully. If I'd knocked you up the natural way, there never would have been a reason to abduct you at all."

"You're suggesting that everything has always been about some kind of consortium breeding program?" Skinner asked.

"It's certainly beginning to be the most likely hypothesis, Sir. A very 'specific' kind of breeding program, though, where the chosen 'breeders' were rendered physically incapable of accidentally having unplanned pregnancies. You were only ever supposed to have one particular child, who was intended to only impregnate my sister. Scully was only supposed to have one child, fathered by me."

"And what about you, Mulder?" Scully sniffed. "Presumably you're allowed to have as many children as you want?"

Mulder grinned self-consciously. "Believe me, Scully. The idea of me having any unplanned progeny would 'definitely' be an X-file."

Skinner frowned at him in bemusement, but one of Scully's eyebrows arched in a definite expression of understanding. "Of course. How stupid of me," she muttered, in a less than friendly tone.

Mulder couldn't find it in himself to blame her, considering he'd just admitted his suspicion that she'd only been abducted because of the extreme improbability of them ever conceiving a child naturally. And, of course, he'd chosen exactly the wrong person to prove that particular quirk of his personality to. Damn Krycek, anyway.

"Let's stick with specifics," Skinner suggested. "Our current hypothesis is that my son was brought up inside the consortium and deliberately introduced to your sister for the purpose of this 'breeding program'."

"My sister knocked up by your son, the Consortium lackey," Mulder agreed, with a derisive sneer. "Still so pleased with the idea of being a 'dad'?"

"Whatever happened wasn't his fault," Skinner retorted angrily. "Brought up in that nest of vipers, he wouldn't have known any better."

"You should have gone into law after all, Skinner. He's probably going to need a good defense attorney once I've gotten my hands on him," Mulder spat.

Skinner bridled. "From what you've told me, when you met her Samantha was perfectly happy to stay with Spender. She didn't exactly jump at the chance of going back to her old life and she was eight when she was taken. My son was in a fucking test tube. You tell me which one of them is more culpable of the choices they made."

"Stop it, both of you," Scully snapped, jumping between the two men. "While it does you credit, Sir, to display some paternal feelings towards this man who may or may not be your son, I think it's far too early to be jumping to any conclusions about his motivations. And as for you, Mulder, the fact that Samantha seemed content with her life when she met you suggests that the father of her children meets with her approval. Why don't the pair of you shelve your testosterone until we at least have some facts?"

"How do we begin to look for him?" Skinner demanded. "We have no idea what he looks like. We don't even know how old he is. They could have frozen my sperm for years."

"I don't think so," Scully replied thoughtfully. "There would have been inherent risks to that. It's more likely that they'd use it quickly to reduce the chances of something going wrong. After all, they couldn't come back to you for another sample. It's also reasonable to assume that he's close to Samantha in age."

"So if he's still alive he's what? About thirty-eight to forty? And chances are he's going to be tall, probably dark-haired.if he's not already going bald," Mulder added, with a snicker.

"The genes for male pattern baldness come from the mother," Scully corrected. "It's far more likely he has a full head of hair."

"Thank god for small mercies," Skinner muttered, rubbing his scalp self-consciously.

"And his coloring could have come from his mother too," she pointed out. "He could be a blue-eyed blond for all we know."

"No," Mulder said, his brow creasing in thought. "He's dark-haired. My mom was blonde so if he was blond then it would probably have come out in Lisita. And I think his eyes are green. In fact.oh my god.he's about thirteen years younger than you, dark-haired, green-eyed and works for the Consortium. You don't think." he looked at Skinner with mixed horror and sympathy.

Skinner had collapsed into his chair, the color bleeding from his face. He shook his head desperately. "It can't be," he whispered.

"Maybe I'm wrong. I mean shouldn't the DNA test have brought up Krycek's FBI file if it was true?"

"What file?" Skinner replied. "I doubt even his real fingerprints are still in the computer, let alone his DNA."

Scully looked awkwardly between the two men. Mulder looked, if possible, even sicker than Skinner.

"What was it I said about co-incidences," Skinner mumbled. "Do you think that was Spender's idea of humor? Setting me up to hate and kill my own son?"

"You didn't." Mulder began.

"I called him that the other day, you know? Son. And he looked like I'd slapped him. I didn't understand his reaction, at the time, but I guess it really hurt him to hear it from my mouth. Considering we'd both already killed each other at that point."

"You're saying Krycek knows you're his father?" Scully asked.

"This isn't possible," Mulder suddenly blurted. "Krycek can't be Lisita's father. He's-he's...look, he's gay, okay?"

"So?" Scully snapped. "You're William's father, aren't you?"

Skinner reeled in his chair and his eyes bugged wide at the sudden flush on Mulder's face. "You're gay?" he demanded.

Mulder just swallowed heavily.

"And you know Krycek is gay too because?" Skinner continued, his voice a quiet dangerous rumble.

Mulder's blush deepened and he dropped his eyes from Skinner's gaze.

"So my son is not only a murderous, treacherous, amoral, lying rat-bastard but he's also gay?" Skinner asked, stressing the last word as though it was the most damning statement of all.

Mulder shook himself angrily and forced himself to meet Skinner's horrified expression. "It's not a dirty word, Sir," he hissed.

"And you two were playing hide the baloney for how long?"

Mulder drew himself up to his full height and met Skinner's eyes proudly. "Alex and I had a. a relationship when we were partners. It ended abruptly the night I discovered he was a rogue agent."

"You decided the rules about fraternization didn't apply to you?" Skinner snarled. "Of course you did. You never believed any other rules applied to you."

"I didn't see you having a problem when you thought I was sleeping with Scully," Mulder countered hotly. "Or is it just the idea of me fucking your son that bothers you?"

Skinner surged to his feet, a vein throbbing prominently in his forehead. "What bothers me, Agent Mulder, is the idea that between the two of you, you still somehow managed to knock up both Scully and your sister."

Mulder turned green and sat down abruptly, as though his legs couldn't hold him. "Fucking ratbastard scumsucking shit fucked my sister?"

"I'm glad the reality of the situation has finally sunk in," Skinner growled.

"Even if he did, given Lisita's age, it happened a few years before he met you," Scully pointed out dryly.

"He came here, joined the X-files, and screwed me knowing I was Samantha's brother?"

"I thought you said it was you doing the screwing," Scully pointed out, with a wicked smirk.

Both men stared at her as though she'd grown horns. She shrugged. "I think you're both missing the whole picture here."

"Enlighten us," Skinner growled.

"If Alex Krycek is your son, and the father of Samantha's children, I think we have to re-evaluate everything we've ever assumed about his motivations. For one thing, we always assumed the only person he cared about was himself. That he did everything out of some selfish desire for power. What if his real motivation was simply to protect his children?"

"From what?" Mulder demanded.

Scully smiled at him apologetically to soften her words. "From you, Mulder. Everything you did was based on your need to find Samantha. But perhaps Samantha never wanted to be found. She told you she had two children, didn't she? So it's probable that Lisita has a brother or sister. Where's that child? Hidden in a boarding-school like Lisita or given over to the Consortium?"

"Krycek wouldn't." Mulder blurted, then stopped as though shocked by his own thought.

"Krycek wouldn't let one of his children be taken," Scully said. "That is what you were about to say, isn't it?"

"Yes," Mulder admitted weakly. "I hate the bastard, but he's.shit he's nothing like Dad. I didn't know he was a father, but I know him. He'd rip someone apart before they made him give in over something like that."

"He was always changing allegiances within the Consortium, playing one against the other," Skinner interrupted. "Working with us sometimes, working against us other times. I thought he was just playing the field, looking for the angle, trying to be a player instead of a lackey. I thought it proved he was an immoral little shit. But maybe he needs to be a player. Maybe that's the only way to keep his family safe."

"My dad was a 'player'," Mulder reminded him acerbically. "It didn't help Samantha."

"Maybe if I talked to Fox," Teena suggested hesitantly.

"Yeah, I can see that working," Alex snorted. "You could turn up at his apartment in the middle of the night like the ghost of Christmas Past and warn him of the error of his ways. I'm sure that would work a treat."

"There's no need to be nasty, Alex," she sniffed. "If I went to see him, explained everything, told him the truth then."

"Then he'd be on the next plane here and he'd bring a whole fucking alien fleet to our doorstep."

"If Lisita just disappears out of school, he'll never stop looking for her," Teena pointed out. "It will be like Samantha all over again. And, quite apart from the risk to us, it will distract him from what he should be doing. We're running out of time, Alex. The date's set, remember?"

"How the hell could I forget?" Alex snarled.

"Lisita's going to have to die again, isn't she?" Samantha asked, her eyes dull.

"It's got to look natural," Alex agreed. "I don't have the resources for anything dramatic. We'll just go for a car accident, I think. Something cut and dried. Something that won't scar her too badly. A basic autopsy and a quick burial. I don't want her waking up before we've retrieved her."

"Then what?" Teena demanded. "Another new identity for her? She's fifteen, Alex. She needs friends, stability, a decent education. You can't keep erasing her past and re-inventing her every couple of years."

"Fuck it, Teena. You think I like this? You think it's easy for me to kill my own daughter?"

"I think you've died so many times yourself you're inured to the horror of waking up buried alive," she snapped.

"Shit. How many times are you going to rub my face in it?" Alex snarled. "It wasn't my fault. It was your fucking darling Fox. He was the one who decided to stand vigil over your grave for three fucking nights. I could hardly dig you up while he was sitting there, could I? He'd probably have put a stake through your heart. Come to think of it, that wouldn't have been such a bad idea."

"Alex," Samantha interrupted warningly. "Don't take it out on Mom. It's not her fault."

"Really?" Alex sneered. "It wasn't her fault she handed you over to Spender? It wasn't her fault she let Mulder grow up a self-obsessed, guilt-ridden maniac? It wasn't her fault she decided to fake her own death when all her old lies started to box her into a corner?"

Pale faced, Teena's mouth narrowed into a thin-lipped grimace. Samantha flinched as she looked between her mother's expression of pain and the angry hurt in Alex's eyes.

"She had no choice about what happened to me. She kept silent to protect Fox from the same fate," Samantha said, familiar words, old argument.

"What is it with you Mulders anyway? You all think you're so lily white. Well, I've got news for you darlin'. Roll in shit and you all start to smell just like the rest of us."

"I wasn't running away from Fox. I just wanted to be with my grand-children," Teena interrupted with quiet pride. "You were the one who wouldn't let me come here unless I could guarantee Fox wouldn't come looking for me."

Alex sighed heavily and closed his eyes, forcing his anger to pale back to his usual more manageable feelings of mere resentment.

"I don't understand any of you Mulders," he finally admitted. "All three of you hate with passion but your love is cold."

Samantha moved to wrap her arms around him, resting her head against his shoulder and pressing her face into his neck.

"We do love you, Alex," she murmured, squeezing her arms tighter around him for emphasis. "We all do, in our own way, and I know that's not the way you want or need but it's the best we can do."

Mulder whooped, dropped the phone back into its cradle, and punched the air in triumph.

"Yes!" he exclaimed loudly, rocking his chair back onto its back legs and swinging his feet up onto his desk, before gracing the room with a smug grin.

"I take it the judge awarded in favor of Skinner?" Scully asked. Despite her own personal misgivings, her lips twitched a little at Mulder's obvious exuberance.

"That was the clerk of court," he agreed. "Giving me the 'bad' news that I lost my own petition. It's official. Skinner's got custody of Lisita."

"So what happens now?" she asked carefully.

"We call the school and tell them to pack her bags, of course. Damn. I'd better look for a bigger apartment."

"Better look for a house," Doggett drawled. "Unless you're plannin' to keep a horse on a balcony."

"Shit," Mulder said, his mouth drooping into a pout. "I'd forgotten about the damned horse. Where the hell am I supposed to find the money to feed a horse?"

"Where are you gonna find the money to feed a teenager?" Doggett mocked.

"Hang on a minute. I thought you were going to leave Lisita at her school. That's what you told Skinner," Scully reminded him, with a suspicious frown.

Mulder shrugged and rolled his eyes. "He was having second thoughts about applying for custody," he explained unrepentantly. "And it's what Krycek wanted to hear. He thinks Skinner's going to leave her there, so he's off-guard at the moment. I need to take advantage of that and get Lisita moved while Krycek still thinks he's in control of the situation."

"What about Lisita?" Scully reminded him carefully. "Do you really think it's in her interests to be ripped out of the life she knows to live with a complete stranger?"

"I'm not a stranger," he growled. "I'm her uncle."

"Poor kid," Doggett grunted. "You're a self-centered bastard, Muldhar."

Scully flashed him a repressive frown, though she was pretty much of the same opinion. As far as she could see, Mulder wasn't giving any consideration to the girl's welfare.

"Tell me something, Mulder," she said, her expression deliberately bland. "Who exactly are you hoping to flush out by kidnapping Lisita? Samantha? Or Krycek?"

She knew she'd struck a bulls-eye from the immediate flush of angry color that suffused Mulder's cheeks.

"Kidnapping? She's my niece," he snapped defensively.

"She's Skinner's granddaughter," she countered. "He's not going to agree to let you use her like a pawn."

Then she flinched guiltily at the look of abject misery in Mulder's eyes and his sad expression of wounded betrayal, as he straightened in his seat and answered her with careful dignity.

"You're right in a way, but you're so damned wrong too. I.I guess I never really understood how little faith you have in my integrity, Scully. Do you think so little of me? Do you think the fact I'm gay means I'm incapable of real emotions?"

"Gay?" Doggett interrupted, his expression more satisfied than surprised.

Mulder ignored him, his attention fully on Scully. "Yes, I'm hoping - praying even - that both Samantha and Krycek turn up on my doorstep and explain this whole fucking mess to me. But that's not why I want Lisita. She's my niece. She's the only member of my family that I know for sure is still alive. And if you can't understand what that means to me, what that makes me feel, then you aren't the person I always thought you were."

Scully dropped her eyes to hide the tears that were threatening to spill. She felt suddenly ashamed of herself for her suspicions. In the face of Mulder's obvious sincerity they seemed preposterous. Except.except she knew Mulder, perhaps better than he knew himself, and it was hard to shake the feeling that regardless of his avowed feelings of love for Lisita, that love was still basically selfish. This was all about Mulder's wants, Mulder's needs, and not once, in his heartfelt speech, had he even tried to suggest that his intentions were in Lisita's best interests."What about the Consortium?" she reminded him carefully. "What about the aliens? What if Krycek was right when he said she'd be abducted if you claimed her? How are you going to protect her, Mulder? And how the hell are you going to cope if she is abducted while she's under your care? Can you honestly say you could handle that?"

Mulder paled slightly, his eyes growing dark and haunted. He chewed his lower-lip fretfully and swallowed several times, as though reluctantly digesting her words.

"Skinner's got a big apartment," Doggett interrupted suddenly. "And enough money to keep a kid and stable a horse."

Mulder glared at him, but Scully nodded in decisive agreement. "He's right, Mulder. It's the best solution. Lisita could live with Skinner, and you could visit her there whenever you wanted."

"It's not the same," he grumbled petulantly, but his shoulders slumped as though in preparation for an impending capitulation.

"Of course it's not the same," she agreed. "But it makes sense, and it's the safest option if you're determined to bring Lisita to DC."

He nodded reluctantly. "I guess."

"Good," Doggett grunted. "So, now that's decided, is there any chance either of you are gonna get some work done today?"

Throwing the swathe of cloth down in disgust, Skinner frowned repressively at his insufferably camp visitor.

"I told you I didn't want pink," he growled, in the voice that usually sent FBI agents running for cover.

Gordon 'but you can call me Gordy' McAllister just simpered with obvious delight at the show of temper. "Mauve, darling. It's mauve. It's absolutely in this year. Just look at this divine fabric I found for the drapes."

Skinner had a sudden urge to throw the sample book and the interior designer off his balcony. But that image just reminded him uncomfortably of the night he'd cuffed Alex to the railings.

// My own son. I did that to my own goddamned son.//

"-would be absolutely perfect. A young lady needs a beautiful boudoir. A place of her own considering the.well, rather Spartan masculinity of the rest of your apartment. Perhaps you'd consider a touch or two in this living room.just a hint of personality."

"What?" he asked absently.

"I was thinking, perhaps a little color here and there? Something warm like orange or red."

// I told him to 'think warm thoughts'. Oh Christ. What the hell am I going to do?//

"-a few sketches for your approval, of course."

"What?" he demanded again, realizing he'd tuned out almost the entire conversation.

"I said I wouldn't do anything without your final approval, of course."

"Just do it," he snapped. "Do whatever you want and send me the bill. Just make sure her bedroom's finished by the weekend."

"The weekend?" Gordy screeched, his eyes fluttering in horror. "Absolutely impossible, darling."

Skinner surged to his feet and grabbed him by his designer lapels. "I said I want it done by the weekend," he growled into Gordy's face.

Looking like he was going to faint, though not necessarily with fright, the little man nodded his absolute agreement to Skinner's demand.

"Damned queer," Skinner snarled, as Gordy made a swift mincing retreat through the front door.

// Alex is queer // an unwelcome little voice chirped up inside his head.

He winced, and made a mental note to himself that he'd handle Alex pointing a gun at him, hitting him, even using the nanos against him, but if Alex ever behaved like that poncing little queen McAllister, he'd break his goddamned neck.

He was still considering that unwelcome image when the telephone rang.

"FUCK!" Doggett slammed his fist into the wall so hard he sent a flurry of plaster into the air. Then, cradling his now throbbing hand, he turned to his sobbing girlfriend. "I don't fuckin' believe it. He's a walkin' goddamned CURSE."

Dana just buried her face in her hands and wept harder.

Mentally slapping himself, Doggett crossed the room and put his arms around her, holding her until she turned and pressed her face into his neck. And as she sobbed in his embrace, her tiny ribcage heaving, her tears dripping down his chest, he closed his own eyes in pain, hating the fact that a huge portion of his misery wasn't the news itself but the inescapable fact that Dana was crying for Mulder, rather than the girl.

He waited until she quietened a little before daring to say the immediate suspicion that had leaped into his mind the moment he'd heard the news.

"What if it's not true?"

"What?" she gasped, her swollen eyes blinking in confusion.

"Skinner makes a move to bring her to DC, and the very next day she dies in some car crash? Doesn't that strike you as kinda 'convenient'."

"I wish," she whispered, her voice ragged with grief. "But Walter flew straight down to Kansas. He saw her body for himself. He didn't tell Mulder until.until he was sure."

"What the hell was she doin' in a car by herself. She's only fifteen," he groaned. "Just a goddamned baby."

"It was just an accident. A tragic, senseless accident. The weather changed suddenly, and she lost control on a bad bend in the road. She was killed instantly. And.and I.I never even met her," Scully cried.

"Shit," Doggett cursed. "Krycek's gonna go crazy. He's gonna blame Skinner and Mulder."

Scully's face snapped up in surprise, but her frown quickly turned to comprehension. "Damn. Of course he is. He's going to think they led the Consortium to her."

"Maybe they did," Doggett muttered darkly. "Like I said, it's a pretty damned convenient accident."

"Oh god," Scully breathed. "Don't say that to them. Don't even suggest it. I don't think either of them could handle. God, what if you're right?"

"I think we need to get down there. You can check the coroner didn't miss anything. I'll talk to the local cops, find out the details of the accident."

She angrily wiped at her tears and nodded decisively, pulling herself quickly together now that her grief had been given a focus.

"And." Doggett added reluctantly, "Mulder probably. well he probably needs you right now. You should be with him."

Scully closed her eyes momentarily, thanking God for the strong, generous man he'd given her. "Thank you," she said fervently. "Thank you for understanding."

Doggett shrugged awkwardly, wishing he felt as sanguine as he was pretending. The truth was, the idea of Scully and Mulder sobbing in each others arms, of Scully comforting Mulder, felt like a hand reaching inside his chest and savaging his heart.

But he wasn't selfish enough to admit it.

"Let's go," he said quietly. "Pack a couple of bags, while I book us a flight."

"It should be raining."

Doggett's face creased into momentary folds of confusion at the first words Skinner had uttered that morning. Unlike Mulder, whose grief was audible and angry - a wild mix of tears and curses - Skinner's sorrow was silent and dignified. His face was a stony emotionless mask. The only visible marks of his mourning was the paleness of his features and the way he seemed almost shrunken into himself. Somehow he seemed shorter. His whole presence seemed diminished, as though the death of the girl they were burying had sapped his own life-force. He wasn't broken, exactly, but everything about his posture and mannerisms suggested a defeat from which he wouldn't ever recover.

Mulder was at the head of the grave, tears rolling down his cheeks as the pastor droned incessantly about 'eternal life', Scully clutched to his side so closely that they looked like a pair of Siamese twins. A throng of schoolgirls and teachers from Blakemore twittered at the side of the gaping hole, like a crowd of nervous blackbirds.

Doggett rubbed his eyes and angrily told himself they were only watering because of the sunlight.

And then he understood what Skinner had said.

"Yeah," he said, his heart heavy with remembered grief. It should rain, when a child was buried. The whole fucking world should weep for the loss of such promise and hope.

After a long silence, Skinner spoke again. "I keep expecting Alex to appear."

// With an Uzi // Doggett agreed silently. Aloud he said, "Maybe he doesn't even know, yet."

"Maybe," Skinner said, though his tone didn't suggest agreement.

"I've been over and over the accident report," Doggett continued, in a low voice. "There's nothin' to suggest."

"Thank you, Agent," Skinner snapped repressively.

Doggett took the hint and lapsed into awkward silence. It wasn't the time or the place. Perhaps there wasn't a right time or place. Scully had concurred with the original autopsy. His own investigation of the accident had turned up nothing new. Even Mulder had accepted their improbable conclusion that Lisita's death had been an accident.

Or maybe not. Maybe he was just too shell-shocked for his usual paranoid tendencies to have kicked in yet. Doggett had the feeling that it was only a matter of time before Mulder's grief turned into a crazed need for revenge and, proof or not, he'd choose to blame the Consortium for Lisita's death.

He sighed sadly, feeling abruptly weary of the whole damned business.

He waited at the Holiday Inn at Forbes Field for three days, leaving instructions with the reception that if anyone asked after him they were to confirm he was staying there. He wasn't sure what he expected exactly, though he suspected his first warning of Alex's arrival would be the immediate activation of the nanos.

He certainly didn't expect to leave Kansas alive.

And that was okay because, whatever Doggett and Scully said, he knew, in his heart, that he was somehow responsible for his granddaughter's death. Maybe it hadn't been a carefully constructed consortium murder. Maybe. Maybe it had just been an inexperienced driver's momentary distraction as everyone said.

But what no one was saying was why Lisita might have been distracted. No one had mentioned the glaringly obvious fact that the most likely thought in her mind, as she'd lost control of the car, was that she was about to be torn away from her life and sent to live in a strange city, with a complete stranger. It was no fucking wonder she hadn't been paying attention to the road.

So he couldn't find it in himself to care if Alex demanded his own life in compensation for the loss of his daughter.

Yet, despite his acceptance of Alex's right to demand revenge, by the third morning, after the third sleepless night, he found himself unable to sit in his hotel room any longer and just passively wait for death to arrive.

At five, he climbed out of bed, packed his case and put it in the trunk of his rental car. Then he called an all-night florist and paid a ridiculous amount for someone to courier over a small posy of flowers. He used the phone in the lobby to confirm a noon flight, left a message at the reception saying he was returning to DC, and then climbed into his car and drove in the direction of Blakemore to say his final goodbye to his granddaughter.

At six-thirty, knowing he was going to arrive far too early, he stopped at a Diner to kill time with an early breakfast. But the place was too stark, too real, the garish lights and plastic tables assaulting his senses, the harsh voice of the surly waitress grating on his ears, and he found himself staring blindly at the menu, the words blurring into each other, incomprehensible and alien. The smell of the coffee, as she splashed it carelessly into his cup, made him so nauseous that he just slapped a bill onto the white Formica and raced back to his car, where he sat, shaking, until the blood stopped rushing through his ears.

So he pulled back onto the road and drove on until he arrived at the cemetery. It was only a little after seven, and the posted sign on the gates stated they wouldn't be unlocked until 8.30.

He contemplated seeking another Diner for a caffeine fix, but his stomach immediately threatened a protesting back-flip. So he just turned off the engine and sat there, radio off, feet slowly turning to ice, and watched the early morning fog lifting as the horizon slowly lightened. He waited maybe twenty minutes, though it felt like an hour, then he climbed out of the car and walked towards the heavy metal entrance gates. He pushed against them, without force, simply responding to a subconscious urge to prove they were locked against him.

So when one of the gates groaned rustily and swung open, he just stood there for a moment, mouth open in surprise, body frozen in place. He shook himself, a gesture that began as self-irritation and ended as a full-body shiver of something that felt strangely like dread.

// Of course it's dread. You're visiting the grave of your fifteen-year-old granddaughter.//

He returned to the car to retrieve the posy of white roses and gyp from the back seat. He paused there a moment, an unwelcome memory of Krycek lurking, dark and dangerous, on a similar beige leather seat flickering through his mind. Then, with another angry shake of his head, he snatched up the flowers, slammed the car door shut and strode back towards the entrance, his overcoat flapping behind him like a vampiric cloak.

The fog was heavier inside the cemetery, roiling thick and white around the gravestones, distorting those closest to him and completely obscuring any object more than ten feet away. It was as surreal as the set of a horror movie, yet it struck Skinner that, unlike the day of the funeral, the cemetery was finally revealing its true face to him. Its formal rows, and the carefully cultivated beauty of its flowers, had disappeared under the fog and the gravestones now jutted with jagged inconsistency from amongst the swirling, unsubstantial mist. They stood starkly rude, revealed randomly where the natural undulations of the earth rose above the low-lying rolling fog, creepily suggestive of teeth rising out of death's gaping maw.

Though dawn had already broken, the cemetery was strangely void of any bird-song. Perhaps their chorus was simply muffled by the wet banks of mist, but their absence still chillingly suggested that nothing living belonged in the presence of the lonely graves. And, though he tried to laugh at himself, a grown man spooked by nothing more than a natural phenomena of nature, he couldn't totally ignore the growing certainty that he wasn't alone.

Then he heard, faint and muffled, a wet, rhythmic thudding. It was impossible to judge the direction the sound was coming from, or even hazard a guess as to its distance from his position, but his spine chilled as he became abruptly certain he was hearing the impact of bare feet on damp soil, and a thousand images from countless late night movies assaulted him, visions of walking corpses with rags and flesh hanging from their exposed bones.

He mentally slapped himself.

// Pull yourself together, Marine! //

And with that admonishment, a lot of his instinctive panic faded because he realized the true source of his discomfort had less to do with cheap budget horror movies than previously suppressed memories of early mornings in 'nam, where certain death had lurked within mist-shrouded trees.

Yet still the sound continued, with the eerie rhythm of a heartbeat. A wet slap of something solid striking dirt. Like.like the sound of digging. He almost laughed his relief out loud. Of course. He was in a cemetery. What sound was more natural than that of someone digging a grave? That was why the gate had been open. One of the cemetery laborers was already at work.

Smiling wryly to himself, he continued down the pathway that led to Lisita's resting place. Perhaps one day, when neither of them were so raw, when they could actually discuss Lisita's death with some rationality, he would admit his momentary panicked imaginings to Mulder. Or perhaps not. He could already imagine the look of incredulous amusement on Mulder's face.

Although the fog was still too heavy for clarity, he began to identify a vague, indistinct shape of piled earth near Lisita's grave, and then, as he walked closer, he saw the form of a man bent over a shovel, his bottom half obscured within the hole he was digging.

It saddened him that no more than three days had passed and already the earth next to Lisita's grave was being disturbed in readiness for a new occupant. Yet, at the same time, it seemed right that she would no longer be lying there alone.

But as he approached, his meandering thoughts suddenly coalesced into fury. Lisita's floral tributes had been roughly displaced. They were scattered like refuse, and the mound of freshly dug earth was sprawled almost as far as the walk-way, spilling rudely over the ground, obscuring her grave. Desecrating it.

"HEY!" he roared, his stride lengthening into a near-run. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

The grave-digger jerked in shock then swung around to face him, raising the shovel like a weapon against Skinner's fury.

And Skinner's head-long charge faltered into a skidding, horrified halt. Despite the dirt and sweat smeared over his face, the man in the grave was unmistakably Alex Krycek.

He didn't make a conscious choice to draw his weapon. It was in his hand and pointed in Krycek's face before he'd even fully processed the fact that the reason he couldn't see Lisita's grave had nothing to do with the mound of earth. He couldn't see it because Krycek was standing waist-deep in it.

"What the fuck do you think you're doing?" he barked, waving his gun wildly in Krycek's direction until he lowered the shovel to his waist.

"What the fuck does it look like?" Krycek snarled, his eyes blazing with defiance.

Skinner blinked at him in disbelief, warring between the urge to shoot and the far more satisfying image of dragging the little bastard out of the grave and beating him senseless with his own shovel for his desecration.

And then his own guilt, and the terrible pathos of the situation, struck him.

This was Krycek's daughter. The poor, insane bastard was trying to dig his own daughter up out her grave.

"She's dead, Alex," he said gently, lowering his weapon. "Lisita's dead. Let her rest in peace."

Krycek's face twisted into a feral snarl. "This is none of your goddamned business, Skinner. Fuck off and leave us alone."

"I can't, son," Skinner said, with a sad shake of his head. "I can't let you do this."

"You can't fucking stop me," Krycek countered. "But I tell you what. Turn around and fuck off home and I'll let you live. Don't make me kill you, Skinner."

Skinner shook his head again, certain that if Krycek had the palm pilot on him he would already have used it. "This isn't going to happen, Alex. Put the shovel down. I know you're grieving, but this isn't going to help. She's dead."

Krycek's face twisted with indecision, as though he was desperately trying to judge what would be the worst of two evils, and when he finally spoke his expression was oddly defeated despite the angry tone of his voice.

"She's not fucking dead, okay?" he spat.

Skinner sighed heavily, convinced now that Lisita's death had pushed Krycek over the edge of his already questionable sanity. "I understand you don't want to believe it, but I visited her in the morgue, Alex. It's senseless and it's cruel, but it's true. Your daughter's dead. She's at peace now."

"Oh spare me the goddamned platitudes," Alex snarled. "Save your 'let's humor the lunatic' speeches for Mulder. Liss isn't dead, but she's soon going to wish she was if I don't get her out of this fucking casket."

For a moment, Skinner's heart leaped in hope. Perhaps Krycek had faked Lisita's death. There were drugs that could. But then reality crashed down once more. He'd seen her body himself. He'd even seen the incision scars from her autopsy.

"Alex. Even if she'd survived the accident." he began carefully.

Krycek rolled his eyes in disgust. "Fuck it, Skinner. Do I have to spell it out for you? She's no more dead than I am. She's no more dead than Mulder was. And she's no more dead than you were when they put you in that fucking body bag in 'nam."

Skinner's legs gave way, and he sank to his knees in the wet, dirt-strewn grass. "'When you come back you open a doorway that allows your beloved dead to come visit with you'," he whispered.


"Lisita said that to me. She said that's why people like 'us' could see ghosts. I didn't understand what she was saying to me, at the time. But she meant.she was talking about a belief in the ability to come back from the dead, wasn't she?"

Instead of answering, Krycek raised the shovel and slammed it into the dirt that was still covering the casket.

"STOP," Skinner demanded.

"Fuck it, Skinner. Either shoot me, or get the fuck out of my way," Krycek snarled.

The sound of Skinner cocking the trigger snapped almost as loud as a gunshot between them, and Krycek flinched, his eyes widening with surprised alarm. Skinner inched forward on his knees, his eyes never leaving Krycek's, until the muzzle of his weapon was barely a breath apart from the sweat-stained t-shirt and he could see the individual beads of sweat pearling on Krycek's forehead.

"Give me the shovel," he snapped.

"Fuck you."

"Give me the goddamned shovel, Alex. The cemetery's going to open in less than an hour. We're running out of time. I'm fresh, I'm stronger than you, and I've got two fucking arms."

Krycek winced at the brutality of Skinner's comment, but his eyes carefully gauged the sincerity of Skinner's expression. "You believe me?" he asked wonderingly.

"I don't know what to believe," Skinner admitted. "But this is the only way I'll know for sure."

Alex took a deep, shuddering breath, nodded once and then handed the shovel over. Skinner reholstered his weapon, shrugged off his overcoat and slipped down into the grave, pointedly not watching Krycek's far less dignified scramble back out.

He slammed the shovel into the dirt. A deep, hollow thud assured him there was less than a foot of earth still to be shifted, and he settled into a steady pace. Swinging the shovel easily, dirt flying over his shoulder with each sweep of the blade, until the bare wood and brass fastenings of the casket were revealed.

"How are we going to raise it?" he asked, pausing for breath, sweat trickling down his back and adhering his shirt to his armpits.

"Just open it up," Krycek retorted, his tone confident. "Liss can climb out by herself."

Skinner dropped to his knees and unscrewed the first bolt, his heart thudding in his chest, his fingers awkward and nerveless. What if Krycek was insane? What if he opened the casket and found nothing more than Lisita's decaying corpse staring back at him? What would Krycek do faced with that terrible reality? What would he do?

"I don't know whether." he began, only to gasp in shock as a wave of agony ripped through his body.

He threw back his head and looked up, to see Krycek standing at the head of the grave with a snarl of satisfaction on his lips. "Just a small reminder, in case you change your mind," he smirked.

Skinner cursed himself for a fool. While he'd been digging, Krycek had taken the opportunity to sneak back to wherever he'd parked his car and retrieve the palm pilot.

"This isn't necessary, Alex," he gasped, as his veins bubbled like hot lava.

"You know me, Skinner. I like to hedge my bets. Now either get Liss the hell out of that fucking casket or join her in it."

Skinner blinked in hurt confusion. "Do you honestly still think you need to threaten me?"

"Yes," Krycek stated, his expression cold.

"You're wrong, Alex. Lisita's my granddaughter."

"And I'm supposed to believe you give a fuck?" Krycek laughed bitterly. "What happened, Skinner? You finally grew a fucking conscience or something? Give me a break."

Looking at Krycek's face, Skinner felt a jolt of pain in his heart that was more agonizing than any assault of the nanos. Gone was Krycek's usual taunting smirk and supercilious air of superiority. In its place was an expression of complete and unmistakable loathing.

"You hate me," he gasped. "You really hate me, don't you?"

"I fucking despise you," Krycek snarled.

"Why do you hate me so much, Alex?"

"Jeez, Dad, I dunno. Could it be something to do with the fact that you bought your cushy life by selling your own son?"

Krycek's words felt like a knife in his chest. Krycek's hatred of him was so intense, so absolute, so undeniable, that his earlier ambivalence over learning his son's identity was crushed under the weight of the sudden knowledge that Krycek's torture of him had never been impersonal. Every blow of Krycek's fists in that stairwell, every activation of the nanos, had been aimed with the precision of pure, unadulterated rage. Kryc..Alex. hated him. Not as an enemy, but as a father.

Alex hated him because he was his father.

Presumably because he hadn't been his father. Because Alex had grown up as a lonely, unloved little boy who was unable to comprehend how his own father could have abandoned him into the brutal hands of the Consortium.

If he was right, if Alex's hatred was in direct correlation to his experiences as a child, then that loathing gaze spoke of a suffering almost beyond Skinner's comprehension.

And he knew, in that moment, that he forgave Alex completely and absolutely for the agonies he'd suffered at his hands. Forgave him, even, the pulsing pain that was charging through his veins as they spoke. In that sudden, blinding revelation he accepted that this pitifully damaged, possibly insane, indisputably dangerous man was his son; his child, flesh of his flesh, blood of his blood, and with that acceptance he understood that, while he might never learn to like Alex, he'd already lost the battle not to love him.

Even if that love tasted like bitter ashes in his mouth.

"I didn't even know I had a son," he explained sadly, apologetically, guiltily, trying to express, in just those few words, how much he regretted that ignorance. "If I'd known, everything would have been different."

"Yeah, sure, Pop," Alex sneered. "It's just co-incidence, huh? I mean, yeah, I can see it now. A hybrid like you just happens to stumble across a hybrid like my mother, has hot monkey sex, produces 'exactly' the genetic link the Consortium needs, and waltzes off into the sunset none the wiser. Yeah, sure."

"Just how damned old do you think I am, boy? Forgive me for pointing out the obvious, Alex, but I was twelve years old when I apparently 'fathered' you. The nearest I came to your mother was a test tube. I knew nothing about it or you, or even the consortium at the time you were conceived."

Alex looked stunned for a moment, as though he'd never stopped to do the math, but he quickly rallied. "Yeah?" he challenged. "So it's just co-incidence you ended up as an AD in the FBI, in charge of Sam's brother? I don't think so."

"I'm beginning to doubt there's any such thing as co-incidences," Skinner admitted, "but I didn't know you were my son. I didn't know I had a son. How the hell could I know?" Skinner shook his head angrily, then his eyes narrowed. "And what the hell did you mean when you called me a hybrid?"

Alex sneered again. "Oh, I'm supposed to believe it's a shock, huh? How many people do you know who regularly come back from the dead? You telling me you got blown to pieces in 'nam, woke up in a body bag, and didn't catch a clue?"

Skinner reeled with shock, as a dozen disparate pieces of the puzzle slotted seamlessly together to form a picture he didn't want to accept. He'd told Scully there had to be something 'important' about his DNA, something that would make his child crucial to the consortium's breeding plans. Was it possible that peculiarity of his genetic code had something to do with.

"Immortality," he breathed.

Alex snorted with dark humor. "That's one term for it," he snorted. "Though it's a hell of a nice name for such a fucking curse, isn't it?"

"A curse?"

"Struldbruggs," Alex retorted, spitting on the ground in a gesture of disgust.

Skinner frowned in confusion. The word struck an echo in his mind, but he couldn't pin-point why the word sounded familiar.

"And I always took you for a well-read man," Alex mocked.

With a gasp of recognition, Skinner raised his eyes to Alex's prosthetic hand and his stomach churned. "Gulliver's Travels," he said, his voice a pained whisper.

" '.the Question therefore was not whether a Man would choose to be always in the Prime of Youth, attended with Prosperity and Health, but how he would pass a perpetual Life under all the usual Disadvantages which old Age brings along with it,'" Alex quoted, his eyes dark with contemplation. Then he smirked at Skinner's look of sudden horror. "You understand what I'm saying?"

Skinner nodded reluctantly, his face paling several degrees. "A curse," he repeated quietly. "Yes. I understand."

"We scar, we suffer all mortal disease and pain. We grow old and incontinent and senile. We even leave pieces of ourselves rotting in overgrown Russian forests. We watch the people we love die, and then they haunt us perpetually - as though our inability to join them locks them into this plane of existence. And we pray, every time the suffering is too much to bear, that this time we won't wake up again. But we do, Skinner. We almost always do. Ask Jeffrey whether he believes we're cursed, " Alex spat.

"Oh god," Skinner gasped, his head reeling as he fought against the nausea Alex's words had evoked. As he understood the ultimate pointlessness of the 'immortality' Alex was describing. As he realized that the question of how it was possible, was even less important than the why.

Perhaps Alex saw that question in his tortured eyes and sought to answer it, or perhaps he spoke simply to voice his own despair in the strangely perfect setting of the lonely, fog-bound cemetery.

"Human DNA's an endless playground of possibilities," Alex explained. "Imagine it, Skinner. Consortium scientists isolating the genes for longevity, the genes that make some people less susceptible to cancers and other diseases, and of course there were the mutated genes for them to play with. The real fun genes. The genes that make monsters like Leonard Betts possible. Remember him, Skinner? Do you remember your scorn and incredulity at Mulder's insistence that a man could be decapitated and simply regrow himself a new head?"

Skinner's eyes flicked automatically to Alex's prosthetic arm and, seeing the look, Alex laughed bitterly. "Unfortunately, they hadn't isolated that genetic anomaly when they made the second gens. I missed out on that particular fun modification."

"You're saying our 'immortality' is because of manipulation of our *human* genetic code rather than the introduction of alien DNA?" Skinner demanded incredulously.

"It's both. Only certain human genomes react positively to the introduction of Purity. There are different degrees of 'immortality'. So the term's deceptive anyway. We can *all* die permanently, given sufficient injury. But some people are more 'immortal' than others. That's how Spender ended up in such a position of power inside the Consortium. He was naturally genetically compatible with the alien DNA. Being a first gen, like you, he was more vulnerable to permanent fatality. But it still took a rocket launcher and half a mountain falling on top of him to finally send the fucker to hell."

Skinner shook his head in sudden denial. "This is crazy. It can't be true. The whole concept is preposterous."

"Truth is a flexible concept, Skinner. It stretches like taffy to fit anything we want it to fit. The only unarguable truth you need to believe is that if you don't fucking move your ass and get Liss out of that grave, I'll give you a first hand demonstration on just how vulnerable a first gen is."

It was like waking from a deep sleep. A momentary confusion, as she blinked her eyes and mentally chased a dozen dream fragments that faded so rapidly into the distance that she immediately doubted her brief certainty that a craved knowledge was almost at her fingertips. A sudden pain in her chest, followed by a wave of sensation through her whole body like pins and needles, as though her veins had suddenly surged to life. A single gasping choking breath, and her lungs abruptly remembered how to breathe. A tingling, itching feeling along her breast-bone, as fresh scar-tissue pulled against tender flesh. Then she was sitting up, coughing and spluttering, her mouth almost agonizingly dry, her nostrils filled with the damp smell of wet dirt.She was aware of being cold, and hungry and.and.

And her father's face was looming over her, his eyes brimming with relieved tears.

"Daddy," she sobbed, reaching her arms up towards him, scrabbling to her knees, then to her feet, and feeling his hands, one real, one as strong and cold as steel, pulling her out of the darkness and into the light, and then she was pressed against his chest, her face buried in his neck, their hearts beating together in a wild, primitive rhythm.

"You okay, baby?" her father husked, in a rough growl that sounded like the most wonderful music she'd ever heard.

"I'm fine," she said, laughing and crying with relief. "I'm FINE."

He squeezed her tighter, almost crushing her in his need to affirm she was all right, and then he released her slowly and stepped back a little so he could look down into her tear-streaked face.

"I'm fine," she repeated, and the creases at the edge of his worried eyes relaxed a little.

"Here," he said gruffly, wrapping his jacket awkwardly around her shoulders, then pressing something metallic into her fingers.

She looked down in confusion at the car key in her hands.

"Take my truck and go home, honey," he said, then gave her another brief hug and a gentle push as he turned her towards a gravel path leading, through the Cemetery, down to the exit gates.

She hesitated, gnawing her bottom lip in uncertainty. "What about you? Aren't you coming too?"

"I'll follow you," Krycek said over her shoulder. "Just go honey, don't turn around."

So she had to turn. Couldn't not turn. Couldn't refuse the curiosity and the knowing that something was terribly, horribly wrong.

And that was the first moment she became aware of the man still standing in the grave her father had hauled her out of. The man whose face was streaked with dirt and tears, and whose expression was a distorted canvas of relieved disbelief and unmistakable agony. Her attention riveted on the dark pulsing veins spider-webbing over Skinner's flushed face.

"Don't, Daddy," she begged quietly. "Please don't hurt him. He won't tell anyone I'm alive." She fixed her pleading eyes on Skinner's. "You won't tell, will you?"

Skinner shook his head slowly.

"Please, Daddy?" she begged, and for a moment she was sure he wavered. His deep, unfathomable green eyes flickered with grief and self-loathing, and his mouth curled into a snarl that was as much pain as it was anger.

But then the moment passed, and he was suddenly cold and unreachable.

"Get in the car and go home, Liss," he growled. "NOW!"

She jumped at his shout, tears sheening her eyes, her expression as tragic, wounded, frustrated and ultimately powerless as any Skinner had seen on Mulder's face. There was fear too in her huge, emerald eyes, but, even through his pained haze, he was sure that her fear wasn't for herself but for him.

Then, she stretched her right hand and swept a light, stroking caress down her father's bare right arm.

"Please, Daddy. We can just take his car, can't we? By the time he tries to follow us, we'll be gone and he won't know how to find us. We can disappear. All of us. Don't do this, Daddy. Don't hurt yourself like this. He isn't worth it."

She cast a look in Skinner's direction that was as hot and hate-filled and full of loathing as her father's earlier expression.

Skinner gasped with an agony that had nothing to do with the tiny, deadly machines surging through his bloodstream but everything to do with the knowledge that Lisita cared nothing for *his* pain after all. She looked at him and saw nothing but a man she believed had caused her father immeasurable grief. She saw his death as nothing other than another guilty burden for her father to bear. And, strangely, despite the despair that struck him like a physical blow, that knowledge just ratified his belief that, right or wrong, Alex truly believed he himself was deserving of the pain he was suffering. That Alex truly believed his death was necessary to ensure Lisita's safety.

So, as Alex moved the stylus upwards on the palm pilot to drive the nanos to killing intensity, as he felt his heart swelling like an over-inflated balloon, as he opened his mouth in a silent scream and collapsed lifelessly into Lisita's casket, the final words that thundered through his brain weren't curses or pleas. The only words that he tried to utter, as his heart exploded within his chest, were, "I love you both".

And then, blessedly, there was nothing.

He kicked the basement door shut behind him with a violence that made both Scully and Doggett jump. As he made his way to his desk, Doggett's eyes tracked him warily, his face carefully set in the kind of bland mask he usually offered gun-wielding lunatics, but Scully's expression, while still careful, was genuinely concerned.

"What did he say?" she asked.

In response, he punched a filing cabinet hard enough to buckle its metal front. Then, wincing, he dropped into his chair and stared morosely down at his swelling knuckles.

Scully's lips pursed for a moment and she exchanged a look with Doggett before sighing softly and saying, "I'll go get us some coffee."

Mulder snorted rudely. "Yeah, that'll help."

Scully ignored his sarcasm and slipped out of the room, returning several minutes later with three cups. She offered one to Mulder and waited until he took an obedient mouthful before handing one to Doggett and perching on the edge of Mulder's desk with her own.

"This tastes like crap, Scully," Mulder pointed out. But his voice was slightly subdued, as though the act of sipping the bitter, lukewarm beverage had given him a moment to control his earlier outrage. As Scully had no doubt counted on.

Doggett wisely kept his own opinion to himself.

"So what did Kersh say?" Scully asked again, and this time, although temper flared in Mulder's eyes, it just manifested itself in a sullen pout rather than physical violence.

"A pile of fucking bullshit," Mulder spat.

Scully arched an eyebrow. "What *specific* fucking bullshit?"

Doggett looked mildly shocked at her language, but Mulder's lips twitched with reluctant appreciation.

"He said Skinner had taken indefinite compassionate leave. Kersh said I should be prepared for the possibility he might not be coming back," he explained.

Scully frowned, her eyes troubled, and she nodded slowly. "It doesn't sound right," she agreed. "Even the morning Sharon was buried, he was back in his office by lunchtime."

"Exactly," Mulder said, his eyes burning with suspicion. "Something must have happened to him and Kersh is covering it up."

Doggett stared at the two of them in disbelief, then threw his hands in the air in a gesture of exasperation. "What you sayin'? You think he's been abducted by aliens or somethin'? Jesus, Dana. I can't believe you're buyin' this BS. I talked with the man and I'm tellin' you, he was *gutted* by the girl's death. Why the hell do you think he stayed in Kansas after the funeral? He was grievin'. Really grievin'."

"He checked out of his hotel two days ago," Mulder countered. "He booked a flight to return to DC. He checked in his rental car at the airport. But he never checked in at the flight desk. He just disappeared."

"Maybe he just changed his mind," Doggett drawled. "He could have just thought 'what the hell' and caught a flight anywhere."

"Or maybe Krycek was waiting for him at the Airport," Mulder muttered darkly.

"Krycek?" Scully repeated, her eyes widening in alarm. "You've got some evidence to suggest he."

Mulder slapped his desk angrily, his face contorting with frustration. "NO," he snapped. "I don't have any goddamned 'evidence', Scully. I don't have any nice convenient CCTV footage of Krycek kidnapping Skinner at gunpoint. I don't even, as Kersh so helpfully pointed out, have anything other than Skinner's word that Krycek is still alive. But I know he's behind Skinner's disappearance somehow. I just KNOW."

"Like you 'know' he killed your father?" Scully said, with a despairing shake of her head.

Mulder glared at her defiantly. "Yeah," he agreed. "Like I know he killed my father. I know you don't understand it, Scully, but there's a. a connection between us. I can't explain it, but it's there."

"Yeah?" Doggett drawled, his mouth curling with distaste. "Well we already know about the 'connection' between the two of ya. Spare us the sordid details."

Scully blushed and shot Doggett a death-glare until he shrugged and looked slightly ashamed of himself. Mulder barely even noticed. He didn't give a shit what Doggett thought about him, or Krycek, or him and Krycek. His gut was telling him Skinner was in serious trouble, and that time was running out.

"I'm going to Forbes Field," he announced. "It's the last place anyone saw Skinner."

Scully shook her head. "You can't, Mulder. Kersh will never approve it."

"So? What makes you think I'm planning on telling him? I'm feeling the need for a little indefinite compassionate leave of my own."

After a moment's indecision, Scully quietly announced, "I'm coming with you."

"Tell me what really happened," he insisted firmly.

For a moment he looked almost frighteningly like their father and she felt herself responding automatically to the demand of his intense, teal-green gaze. Then his overlong hair flopped down over his forehead, breaking the illusion, and, as he swiped his hand irritably through his unruly bangs, she reminded herself he was only eleven years old.

"You need a hair-cut," she laughed.

He shrugged and sneered with disgust. "You sound like Nan."

"Oh," she said, not liking that comparison. Their grandmother wasn't the most.well, likeable.person. Or maybe, to be fair, she was old enough now to understand her perception of the old woman was unfavorably colored by her father's behavior. He never even pretended to like Nan, so it was hard for her to be objective.

"Dad had his hair long like that once," she said.

"He did?" Nicki asked, his face glowing with sudden happiness.

"Yeah. You were just a baby at the time, but I remember. You look just like he did."

"Cool," he said, grinning with satisfaction.

And though some part of her was amused by his obvious hero-worship of their father, she knew, far more than Nicki ever would, that their father had more than earned that respect. At least she prayed he didn't know. That he'd been too young to remember. Just as she herself denied the memories whenever her mother cautiously brought up the subject of her early childhood.

"What happened, Liss? Why's he so.so." his voice trailed off, his eyes glistening suspiciously, his lower lip beginning to tremble.

"Daddy. Daddy had to. to kill a bad man," she explained carefully.

Nicki shrugged his confusion. "So?"

She closed her eyes in pain, acknowledging for perhaps the first time, the terrible cost they had all paid for their survival. //He's just a little boy, really // she reminded herself. // It's not his fault he doesn't understand. Death isn't real to him yet //

"Don't ever say that," she said firmly. "And never say that in front of Mom and Dad. Just because, sometimes, Dad has to kill people, doesn't mean he believes killing people is right."

Nicki rolled his eyes. "I know that, Liss," he exclaimed. "Dad says life's sacred and killing is wrong, but that it's a man's duty to protect his family."

"That's right," she agreed.

"So, when *Dad* kills someone, it isn't wrong," he said loyally.

"But it still hurts him," she explained softly. "Especially if the bad person he killed is someone he cared about."

"How could he care about a bad person?" Nicki demanded, with an incredulous laugh.

Lisita shook her head in frustration, rubbing her forehead fretfully as she tried to find a way to explain the inexplicable to a boy who was still young enough to worship their father as some kind of living, infallible Rambo.

"Imagine *I* did something awful. Imagine I decided I was tired of running and hiding and I decided to make a deal with *them*," she started.

"You wouldn't," he said staunchly, his face paling at even the suggestion.

"Of course I wouldn't," she said. "But imagine I did. Can you do that?"

"Uh huh," he agreed doubtfully.

"And in that imaginary scenario, I'm going to let them take you and William."

Nicki gulped, but nodded.

"So, what do you think Daddy would do?" she asked.

His eyes widened with horror. "He'd.he'd have to.he'd." and he burst into tears.

She threw her arms around him, pulling him to her chest, rocking him gently as he cried out his miserable understanding.

"He'd have to make a choice. A terrible choice," she said softly. "But he'd make it, because that's the kind of man Daddy is. That's why we're all alive, Nicki. Because Daddy makes the kind of choices that no-one else could live with."

Nicki sniffed and nodded. "So.so that's why he's sad? Because he had to make a choice like that when he killed the bad man?"

"Yes," she agreed. "That's why he's so sad."

"The keys were just posted through the door of the rental office," Mulder announced, with a satisfied grin, as he rejoined Scully in the main terminal.

"Perhaps he was in a hurry," she pointed out.

"So much of a hurry that he didn't collect his deposit?" he demanded.

"Perhaps he forgot," she suggested hesitantly.

"Mr. Anal?" Mulder scoffed.

Her eyes creased with worry. It was becoming increasingly impossible for her to remain objective. While she was determined to remain the voice of reason in the absence of anything except circumstantial evidence, she was beginning to believe Mulder's theory was the most likely explanation for Skinner's disappearance.

"I've shown his photo at every check-in desk," she admitted. "No-one remembers seeing him."

"Perhaps because he was never here," he suggested. "Krycek got to him after he left his hotel, then dropped his car off here to make it look like he'd arrived at the airport okay."

"We still don't know Krycek had anything to do with it," she reminded him, but she didn't argue with his assessment that Skinner had been abducted en route to the airport.

"Let's go to the hotel. If Skinner didn't leave there directly for the airport, there might be a clue there as to where he went."

"Okay," she agreed.

She stared morosely into the empty paddock and sighed. While she fully understood her father's insistence they used a circuitous route to bring Storm Dancer home, she couldn't help feeling miserable about his absence. According to the itinerary she'd read, the horse was currently somewhere in Saudi Arabia, having the tattoo inside his mouth altered to match his new equine passport. He'd then be 'sold' to England before having his identity changed once more, and it would be at least a further three months before he finally arrived in Arizona. It was costing her father a small fortune, so she felt guilty about even feeling resentful about the necessity for such detailed subterfuge.

But she missed him. Missed him so much she'd been quite unforgivably rude when her grandmother had said she didn't know what all the fuss was about and couldn't Alex simply buy her another horse. And it was a measure of how strained and strange things were in the house at the moment, that her father had told her to apologize to Teena. Usually he just smirked under his breath whenever she or Nicki back-talked their grandmother and he left their mother to smooth any ruffled-feathers over.

She didn't understand why her father would suddenly start caring about Teena's feelings.

'Oh, I think you do.'

The unexpected voice made her swing around in shock and her eyes widened with frightened disbelief.

"Why are you here? What do you want?" she asked shakily.

The deep wrinkles of the old woman's face folded into a gently admonishing smile.

'You know why I'm here.'

Lisita shook her head angrily. "This isn't happening. You're his ghost."

The apparition smiled gently, her expression soft and full of loving understanding. 'He's your grandfather, Lisita, and I'm his grandmother. That makes us family. That makes me your ghost too.'

"He's dead."

'Yes,' the ghost agreed. 'But it's not too late yet, Lisita. He hasn't crossed over. There's still time to bring him back.'

"No," Lisita spat, her eyes panicked. "I can't do it. Daddy would never forgive me if I betrayed the family."

'If Walter dies, will your father ever forgive himself?'

"Mr Skinner's one of THEM," Lisita cried, her face crumpling into tears. "He'll find us and tell them where we are. It's not just me Daddy's trying to protect. It's Nicki and William too. Don't you understand?"

'If he really was one of *them*, do you think your father would be grieving for him?'

"Yes. Because he isn't grieving for him. He's grieving for what his father *should* have been."

'What he wanted to be, if only Alex had given him the chance,' the old woman said, with a sad shake of her head.

Lisita's face twisted with confusion. "Daddy would never have killed him if he hadn't been sure it was necessary."

'Of course he wouldn't,' the ghost agreed. 'Alex believes a man who would sell his child to the Consortium wouldn't hesitate to sell his grandchildren too. But what if your father's wrong? What if all that pain he feels over his abandonment is just a terrible misunderstanding ? What if Walter loves him? What if all Walter really wants is to protect your father, just the way your father wants to protect you?'

"No," Lisita said, shaking her head in denial. "Even if you're right, it's still too late. Daddy killed him. And I helped Daddy bury him. Even if we brought him back, he'd hate both of us now."

The ghost smiled gently. 'Oh no, Lisita. He could never hate either of you.'

"Even if you're right, there's nothing I can do about it," Lisita sobbed. "Daddy won't take the chance. He'd rather live with being wrong, than take the chance of Mr. Skinner betraying us."

'so help Walter yourself,' the old woman suggested.

"Me? You think Daddy's going to let me jump on a plane and fly back to Kansas?"

The ghost laughed gently. 'I'm not suggesting you go to the cemetery, Lisita. Just send a message to Fox.'


'Tell your Uncle Fox. He can help.'

"Then tell him yourself instead of asking me to betray my father," Lisita demanded. "Mr. Skinner said Fox can see ghosts too. Go talk to him yourself, and leave me out of it."

'I can't. This is something you have to do, Lisita. It has to be you.'

"He wouldn't believe me anyway. What the hell am I supposed to say? 'Hi, Uncle Fox. My granddad is buried alive in my grave? Oh and, by the way, I'm fine'?"

Instead of taking offense, the old woman simply chuckled at her sarcasm.

'Just send him this message; 'sometimes we bury our dead alive'.'

"Just that?" Lisita asked doubtfully.

'Trust me. It will be enough.'

Mulder switched off his cell phone, and gave Scully a triumphant smile. "He went to the cemetery."

"How do you know?"

"That last number he called from his room was an all-night florists. He ordered a posy of white roses and paid for it in cash. That's why we didn't find a record of it on his credit card bill."

"You think Krycek was waiting there for him?"

"Maybe. Or maybe he was just there to see Lisita's grave, and Skinner simply arrived at the wrong moment."

Scully nodded. That made a horrible kind of sense. Skinner arriving at the Cemetery, stumbling across a grief-stricken Krycek. Then the color drained out of her face. "You think Krycek killed him there, don't you?"

Mulder swallowed heavily. "I don't want to believe it. but it's looking like the most likely scenario. But I don't think.I don't think Krycek meant to do it."

"You don't want to believe it," she retorted angrily, furious that despite everything Krycek had done and his passionate avowals of hatred for the man, Mulder still didn't want to accept Krycek was capable of cold-heartedly planning Skinner's murder. And a spiteful voice inside her head snickered that Alex Krycek must have been one hell of a good lay.

"For god's sake, Scully, I'm not trying to defend him," Mulder spat. "I'm saying that Krycek would have planned it better than just sitting in a cemetery in the hope that Skinner might turn up. If he killed him there, it was more likely to have been a sudden impulse. And that means he probably made a mistake."

Scully's brow smoothed and she offered him an apologetic smile. "You're saying we might find forensic evidence at the cemetery."

"That's what I'm saying," he agreed, his expression so cold she knew he hadn't forgiven her yet.

"Let's go," she suggested, hoping the drive would be long enough for his mood to lighten again.

"So you didn't find anythin'?"

"Just another dead end," she agreed tiredly. "We think he did go there. There was a posy on Lisita's grave that matched the description of the one Skinner ordered. But there were no signs of a struggle or anything to suggest Krycek had ever been there."

"So you comin' home tomorrow?"

"Yes. There's nothing else we can do here. Mulder just wants to speak to. no, never mind."

"Moldhar wants to what?" he demanded.

"If I tell you, I don't want any sarcastic comments, all right?"

He laughed softly. "I promise to behave myself, ma'am."

"He wants to talk to the cemetery groundsmen. He says all the wreaths on Lisita's grave are out of place."

"He what?"

"He.well, he thinks the grave might have been disturbed," she admitted reluctantly.

"Someone moved the goddamned flowers around and now he thinks Lisita's a vampire or somethin'?"

"John, you promised."

He sighed. "Did it occur to him that Skinner might have simply moved 'em around to make room for his own flowers?"

"Of course it did. I'm not saying he's gone off the deep end or anything. He's just 'bothered' about it."

"One of his famous hunches?" he scoffed. Then, when her only answer was a stony silence, he quickly changed the subject. "I got an interestin' email today."

"Oh?" she asked, her voice still chilly.

"Yeah. The litter was born last night. There's three boys and four girls. They're askin' whether we still want one."

She gave a small squeal of excitement. "Of course we want one, John Jay Doggett. Email them right back."

"Yes, ma'am," he chuckled.

"Speaking of email, my laptop's playing up. Can you check my account for me? It's set up on Mulder's PC."

"I can't believe you let the bastard steal the only desk again," Doggett grumbled, but walked over to the PC and logged into the email. "There's a couple from your mom."

"Don't read *those*."

"And one from Johannsen. He says he's got a couple of problems with some test results. Load of scientific mumbo-jumbo. Want me to print it out and fax it to you?"

"That'd be great."

"Okay. I'll just check whether Spooky's got anythin' interestin'."

"Don't open anything from a mailing-list," she warned quickly.

"I won't," he agreed with feeling. "I've just ate my dinner."

She rolled her eyes and smothered a smirk.

"Oh.this one's weird. No subject. No return address. How the hell did someone manage to spam an FBI computer?"

"What does it say?"

"Nothin' that makes sense. Just says 'sometimes we bury our dead alive'."

Alex slammed his whiskey glass down in fury. "What the fuck do you want now?"

Teena jumped in her seat, her eyes widening with alarm. Samantha took a careful look at her husband and rose off the sofa. "Let's start dinner, mom," she said quietly.

"Who's he talking to?" Teena demanded. "Is it your father?"

Samantha flinched and her eyes narrowed with barely contained fury. "Don't you ever mention that man in this house," she spat. She grabbed her mother by the arm and propelled her, less than gently, out of the living room.

Mannerly wandered over to the half-empty bottle on the mantelpiece and tutted sadly. 'Glenfiddich, Alex? Feeling somewhat maudlin, are we?'

"Get the hell out of my house," Alex snarled.

'I never took you for a drinker, Alex. Your vices always used to be more. shall we say... interesting.'

Alex opened his mouth to retort, but immediately changed his mind and just sighed wearily instead. "Leave me alone."

'But I have such interesting news for you,' Mannerly chuckled."I don't care what you've got to say. I really don't care."

Mannerly did a slight double-take, assessing Alex's unshaven cheeks, dark-rimmed eyes and air of complete dejection. 'I actually think you mean that, dear boy. What on earth has happened to you? Where's your spark? Where's your 'fuck-the-world' attitude? Do I suspect this has something to do with the recent demise of a certain Walter Skinner?'

"Fuck you," Alex replied, with another tired sigh.

Mannerly shook his head sadly and tutted again. 'Take it from me, Alexander. Self-pity is a highly unattractive look for you. Vulnerability is only sexy if it has an edge of bite.'

"Yeah?" Alex snarled. "Then why don't you piss off and find sexy piece of ass to haunt."

'That's more like it,' Mannerly smirked. 'That little feral snap to your voice. Quite unique.'

Alex rubbed his eyes and groaned. "Just fucking say whatever the fuck you've come here to say and fuck off back where you fucking came from."

Mannerly rolled his eyes. 'Whereas that kind of pointless, unemotional profanity is just pathetic.'


'But I'm sure I can inspire you to some genuinely emotional cursing, Alexander.'

"Oh?" Alex asked disinterestedly.

'Been keeping track of your lover-boy recently? No. I didn't think so. Would it surprise you to learn he's at Blakemore?'

Alex straightened abruptly in his seat, his slight alcoholic haze extinguished instantly by Mannerly's sobering words. "What the hell's he doing at Blakemore? Fuck, I knew it was a mistake to move the horse so soon."

'Oh, not the school,' Mannerly chuckled. 'The cemetery. Seems he's managed to bully a local judge into giving him an exhumation order for Lisita's body. As we speak, he's arranging a JCB for tomorrow morning.'

"Shit," Alex breathed. "Fox Mulder's like the fucking walking curse of my life."

Mannerly looked highly disappointed. 'That's all you've got to say?'

Alex shrugged. "It is what it is."

'You've still got time to stop him,' Mannerly pointed out urgently. 'You could still catch a flight. Kill Mulder, then open the grave yourself and finish Skinner off properly.'

"Yeah," Alex agreed, making no move to rise out of his seat.

'Don't you understand? Skinner hasn't crossed over yet. If Mulder exhumes him tomorrow, he's going to revive.'

"Yeah," Alex agreed.

'He not only knows about you and Lisita, he's going to be living proof to Mulder that the project worked. Unlike Mulder's resuscitation, there won't be any alien viruses to conveniently explain Skinner's ability to rise from the dead.'

"I know."

'so what are you going to do about it?' Mannerly demanded.

Alex's face screwed up in intense thought.

'Well?' Mannerly prompted.

Alex's face cleared and he nodded decisively. "I know what I'm going to do," he said.

'What?' Mannerly asked eagerly.

Alex's mouth widened into a feral smirk. "I'm gonna pour myself another drink."

"What the hell's taking so long?" Mulder demanded, pacing up and down the corridor, his eyes glaring furiously at the closed doors to the morgue. "Can't you go in there and hurry them up or something?"

Scully rolled her eyes. "The exhumation order was quite specific," she reminded him. "The judge only agreed to the original coroner being present for the opening of the casket. I'm sure he'll tell us, soon enough, if there's anything that warrants an FBI investigation into Lisita's death."

Mulder scowled furiously but nodded his reluctant acceptance. Since he'd only managed to get the judge's signature by spinning a wild tale that Lisita might have been murdered after all, there was no point in him chaffing at the legal restrictions that were consequently being imposed.

"These things always take time," she pointed out.

"How much time does it take to notice there's more than one body in a casket?" he retorted mulishly.

"If you're right," she reminded him.

"Where the hell else could he have hidden Skinner's body? He killed him in a Cemetery and buried him in Lisita's grave. It's the only thing that makes sense."

"I just can't see him throwing Skinner on top of his daughter's body," Scully replied, her expression troubled. "It seems too." She fished desperately for the right word. ".distasteful."

Mulder gave a reluctant chuff of agreement. It did sound pretty damned 'distasteful' but he still couldn't imagine a practical killer like Krycek losing too much sleep over the idea.What he didn't want to admit, what he hadn't even dreamed of saying to her yet, was that he suspected Skinner hadn't even been dead when Krycek buried him. Considering Skinner's physical strength, he'd have to have been pretty badly injured for Krycek to overpower him enough, but, between the email he'd received and his own understanding of Krycek's warped need for revenge, he fully expected the coroner to discover the corpse of a man who had suffocated to death while attempting to claw his way out of the casket.

And since just the thought of it made him feel sick to his stomach, he wasn't going to share his suspicions with Scully until the evidence proved him right.

His ghoulish musings were disturbed by a commotion at the far end of the corridor. He had a quick flash of uniforms and running feet, then the morgue doors swung open behind him and he turned so see the white-faced coroner quickly beckoning, "In here! He's in here!"

"What's going on?" Scully gasped, as the paramedics ran past them.

"He's alive!" Mulder yelled, grabbing her by her arm and racing into the morgue after them. "He's still fucking alive, Scully."

"Impossible," she stated firmly, trying to plant her feet and stop Mulder's headlong rush.

But as his strength and momentum carried both of them through the swinging doors, she realized the idea of Skinner being alive wasn't impossible, after all.

Because he was.

There was a reason intimidation was called an art rather than a science, Mulder decided. Because by the rules of Scullyish sense and reason, no man could retain enough dignity to be intimidating while he was sitting in a hospital bed in a paper gown with an oxygen tube up his nose.

Obviously, no one had ever explained that fact of life to AD Walter Skinner.

Not even the fact he was so hoarse his voice was little more than a whisper, aided constantly by rapid sips of water, deflected from his air of dignified self-control. Old stoneface was alive and well.

And except for being pissed as hell at the hospital's insistence on keeping him overnight for observation, seemed none the worse for having been buried alive for three days.

Which was an X-file in itself.

"And you're sure you don't remember being in the casket?" he demanded suspiciously. It was all very well for Scully to say Skinner was simply dehydrated, but Mulder would have sworn the ragged rasp to Skinner's voice was the after-effect of several days of screaming for help.

Skinner shook his head and took another sip of water before replying. "No. I didn't become aware of anything until I woke up in the morgue," he said firmly.

Mulder frowned with confusion.

"That correlates with what the coroner said," Scully pointed out. "He said he thought Walter was dead when they removed him from the casket. It wasn't until several minutes later that he suddenly took a breath and sat up."

"A breath," Mulder repeated thoughtfully. "Maybe that's it. Maybe as long as you were buried, without any air, you would have remained dead."

"He wasn't dead," Scully snapped. "He was in some kind of coma."

"Like the coma *I* was in for three months?" he mocked.

"Exactly," she said, and glared at him as though defying him to produce evidence that would prove otherwise.

"Then explain Lisita," Skinner interrupted quietly. "You going to stand there and say she was just in a coma too?"

Scully's brow furrowed in thought. "Are you absolutely certain you weren't hallucinating?"

Skinner grunted with disgust. Mulder stared at her in disbelief for a moment and then, surprisingly, burst out laughing.

"What's so funny?" Scully demanded.

"Is this the new scientific method, Scully? When faced with unpalatable truths, clutch desperately at any straw you can find?"

"Excuse me if I think a hallucination is far more believable than a tale of genetically enhanced immortals," she sniffed.

"Struldbruggs," Skinner corrected.

Mulder smiled with appreciation. "Never would have taken Krycek for a reader," he admitted, "but it's a damned good analogy."

"What is a damned Struldbrugg, anyway?" Scully demanded.

"You never read 'Gulliver's Travels'? Shame on you, you illiterate woman," Mulder laughed.

"I've seen the film," she countered defensively, and this time Skinner laughed too.

"We're not talking about the sweet Disney tale of Lilliputians," Mulder explained finally, when her annoyed look threatened to become lethal. He really wasn't in the mood for her to shoot him again. "In the original book, Gulliver visited a lot of different islands and encountered a multitude of strange people including a race that had a small proportion of immortals, the Struldbruggs."

Skinner took over the tale. "At first Gulliver assumed he'd found something extraordinary, something to be envied. The idea of being able to live forever sounded like any man's dream come true. But the truth turned out to be a nightmare." He coughed suddenly, reaching for his water and waving at Mulder to continue.

"The Struldbruggs aged like normal people. They suffered the same diseases and frailties. And when they reached the age of eighty, they were disenfranchised. Their marriages to mortals were dissolved. Their rights as citizens were revoked. And from then on they just continued getting older and frailer, as their minds and bodies failed, but they still were unable to die."

"And that's what Krycek claims to be?" she demanded.

"What Krycek claims he and Walter and I all are," Mulder corrected. "Not literally, of course. He's suggesting that the Consortium scientists somehow pinpointed the genome for longevity and then used Purity to turn that natural ability to survive into something very unnatural. The good news is we can somehow recover from 'fatal' injuries. The bad news seems to be that we only recover to a limited extent."

"The question is how limited," Skinner mused thoughtfully. "We must have the ability to regenerate damage to our internal organs, otherwise I wouldn't have recovered either time Alex killed me with the nanos, but we clearly don't have the ability to regenerate external injuries."

"As Krycek said, we scar," Mulder agreed. "And, let's face it, he obviously can't re-grow his arm. Just like you couldn't re-grow your gonocytes."

Skinner winced. "Next time I send you on a team-building seminar, make sure you attend the lectures on tact," he growled.

"Never has been one of my best qualities," Mulder admitted, with an apologetic shrug.

"Alex said the Consortium scientists did isolate the genomes for regeneration. He implied he was simply born too early to receive that particular genetic modification," Skinner continued.

Mulder absorbed his words and nodded decisively. "So the later generations like Lisita, and maybe William, are new and improved designs, based on an original template of basic 'immortality'. I wonder how much of that improved design was based on the work of Doctor Joseph Ridley."

He saw a momentary spark of recognition in Scully's eyes, as though, just for a moment, she was accepting the connection and making the mental leap with him. But then her face shuttered back into an expression of denial.

"Think about it, Scully. It makes sense. What's the common denominator between Spender, Jeffrey, me, Krycek and Walter? Every single one of us has died, at least once, and then somehow come back to life. What more evidence do you need?"

Scully was still standing there, gaping like a beached fish, when Walter interrupted again.

"Alex called Spender and I 'First Gens', and said that made us more vulnerable than he is. He refers to himself as a 'second Gen'. I assume that makes Lisita a 'Third Gen', which presumably means she's even more of a 'struldbrugg' than he is. Perhaps she has the ability to regenerate external injuries."Mulder shook his head. "I think she's too old. Even if the consortium eventually got their hands on Ridley's files, they couldn't have done so until well after she was born. But it's possible William has those modifications."

"I'm not listening to this," Scully said. "William is a perfectly normal child."

Mulder rolled his eyes impatiently, but didn't pursue the subject. Instead, he quickly returned the conversation to the relatively neutral ground of Lisita.

"Lisita definitely has some extra modifications," Mulder agreed. "Think about the reason I went looking for her in the first place. Lisita apparently has psychokinetic abilities. We have to assume all the Third Gen children are more than just the sum of their original genes. The question is whether they're the culmination of the breeding experiments or just another step on the way of producing the perfect supersoldier. How many generations do you think are necessary to produce a perfect template?"

"Given the proposed invasion date, it can't be more than four," Skinner replied thoughtfully. "There won't be time for a fifth generation."

"Of course! That's why Lisita is so important," Mulder said, with a triumphant grin. "And maybe that's why William wasn't. Maybe it had nothing to do with him being 'normal', Scully. Maybe the reason the replicants left him alone was simply the fact he's a boy. If a fourth generation is necessary, the most important third generation child is obviously going to be a girl. Lisita is the potential mother of the savior of the human race. That's why Alex will do anything to prevent the aliens learning of her existence. He knows how vital she is to the resistance."

"Birds and bees," Skinner grunted.


"It takes two to make a baby, Mulder. A boy and a girl."

Mulder frowned in thought for a moment, then his face cleared and he gave a satisfied nod. "We know there's at least two male third gens, Gibson and William. But how many girls are there? When you play with genetics, you open up a whole can of worms. What if the traits the consortium were breeding for were gender-specific? What if, by the third generation, all the successful progeny were boys except for Lisita? Maybe she's the only girl."

"It's a big 'maybe'," Skinner pointed out.

"So call it one of my hunches," Mulder said, with a confident, self-satisfied grin.

Scully smiled strangely.

"What?" Mulder demanded.

"Assuming all of this isn't just science fiction; even if you're right about Lisita being the only girl, and I'm not necessarily saying you are, I think you're still way off base over Alex's motivations," she said, with a sad shake of her head. "And, I suspect, that's exactly why he thinks you're so dangerous to him, Mulder."

"I don't understand."

"I'm not sure you ever will," she said reluctantly. "I don't think it's only the aliens he's hiding her from. He's hiding Lisita from the resistance too. It's the only thing that makes sense. Alex is trying to prevent the 4th generation from being created at all."

"That's crazy," Mulder snarled. "If Lisita's the key, why the hell would Alex hide her from the Resistance? Forget any damned vaccines; he already has the ultimate solution to stopping the invasion in his hands, Scully."

"He doesn't have an 'ultimate solution'," Skinner barked. "He has a daughter!" "Who has been genetically engineered to produce the ultimate solution," Mulder countered doggedly.

"I don't think he cares," Skinner said, his expression sad but strangely understanding. "That's the difference between him and the Consortium. He doesn't accept that any price is worth the sacrifice of one of his children."

"But.but we're talking about a chance to save the whole goddamned planet," Mulder argued.

"It's funny," Skinner mused. "But I never saw it before."

"Saw what?"

"Any possible similarity between yourself and your father."

Mulder blanched and staggered, his eyes widening with horror. "How fucking dare you say that to me?" he howled. "I'm nothing like him."

"I hope not," Skinner agreed. "For the sake of Alex's children, I sincerely hope not."


Everybody at school's got one," Nicki announced.

"I think I'll go check on the dessert," Samantha said, scraping her chair back and rising to her feet.

"Coward," Alex snorted. "Go on, run out on me. See if I care."

She grinned wickedly, gathered all the dinner plates except William's, and quickly exited the room.

"I finished too," William announced.

"You haven't eaten your vegetables," Teena pointed out sternly.

William pouted at the mountainous pile of peas, carrots and corn still remaining on his plate.

With one eye on Alex to make sure he wasn't listening, Teena quietly but firmly said, "Good boys eat their dinner, and only good boys get dessert."

William's face screwed up with misery, his lower lip began to wobble and she quickly amended the threat to, "You've got to at least eat a little bit of everything, okay?" before his tears alerted her son-in-law to her ultimatum.

"Okay, Nana," William agreed miserably.

Nicki, meanwhile, was pursuing his argument with typical stubbornness. "I said everyone at school's got one."

"So?" Alex asked, his face expressionless.

Nicki deliberately pouted his lower lip into the trembling expression that usually made his father's eyes soften. "So I don't wanna be different. You're the one who always says I've gotta blend in," he added, with a sly grin.

Alex chuffed softly. "Blend in, huh? So, if everyone at school jumped off a cliff, would you follow them just to 'blend in'?"

"That's stupid," Nicki grumbled. "It's not the same thing."

"It would certainly cost me less," Alex agreed.

Nicki narrowed his eyes and stared at his father suspiciously. Sure enough, he saw a tiny twitch of humor jerk the corner of Alex's mouth. "It's not that much," he wheedled. "And it's so cool."

"How cool?" Alex demanded. "As cool as taking the garbage out every night? As cool as doing your homework without your mother having to confiscate your TV remote? As cool as being grown up enough to let William."

"Okay, okay, I get the point," Nicki interrupted quickly. "I promise. Please, Dad. I'll do my chores and my homework and I'll. damn, I'll even let William have my old PlayStation."

William gave a whoop of excitement and kicked his legs against his chair. "Wanna go play now!" he announced.

"Finish your dinner first," Teena said.

"Don't wanna," he muttered defiantly. He looked hopefully in his father's direction, hoping he'd intercede. "Don't like veggies," he said plaintively.

Alex frowned at William's plate, shrugged and said, "If you eat your peas, you can leave the rest."

With a smugly triumphant grin at his Nana, William began quickly shoveling peas into his mouth.

Alex grinned at Nicki. "See how happy you've made him? And I was only going to suggest you let him use it occasionally."

Nicki's face fell.

"But since you've just been so generous," Alex continued. "I guess you can have this." He reached under the table and produced a black box.

Nicki's eyes lit up. "You really bought me an iPod?"

Alex nodded, his eyes twinkling.

Nicki reached out eagerly for the box, only to suddenly pause as he realized that since his father had already bought him the gift, he'd given away his PlayStation for nothing. "I've been had," he grumbled.

Alex winked at him. "Count it a lesson learned. If you approach a game assuming the other guy has a better hand, you're always going to lose."

Nicki pushed his hair back out of his eyes and smirked at his father. "Really? I thought the lesson of the day was if the 'other guy' is you, just cut my losses and fold."

"Well, that too," Alex laughed.

Nicki surged to his feet.

"Ask before you leave the table," Teena snapped.

Nicki sighed and rolled his eyes. "Please, can I leave the table?"

"Do your homework before you start." Teena began.

"Yeah, yeah," Nicki agreed, with another dramatic roll of his eyes.

Alex hid a smirk. "I can still take it back," he warned half-heartedly .

"Yeah," Nicki agreed, then offered his father a cheeky full-wattage grin. "But you won't."

Alex just shook his head in mock despair as Nicki grabbed the iPod and raced quickly from the room.

"You spoil him," Teena said, her mouth pursed with disapproval. "You spoil all of them."

"Wha's spoil?" William piped up.

"SAMANTHA?" Alex called.

She poked her head through the dining room door. "Yes?"

"Would you kindly tell your mother that how we raise our kids is none of her GODDAMNED business?"

"Daddy cussed!" William announced, with a wide grin.

Samantha shook her head tiredly. "I swear, it's like having five kids," she groaned. "Would you help me fetch the dessert, Liss?"

"Sure, Mom," Lisita agreed and rose to her feet.

"Good boy," Teena said, as William shoveled the last pea into his mouth.

"Good boys get dessert," William grinned proudly.

Alex's face darkened dangerously. "Who told him that?" he demanded, eying Teena suspiciously.

William frowned suddenly, his little face folding into misery. "So Lissy can't have no dessert."

Lisita paled suddenly, her fingers whitening on her chair back as she clutched it for balance.

"Why do you say that?" Samantha asked carefully.

"Cos Lissy did a Bad Thing," William said, his lower lip quivering.

"Really?" Alex asked coolly, his attention focused purely on Lisita's face. "What did you do, honey?"

Tears welled up in Lisita's eyes. William was too young to know what he was saying. He could only have 'sensed' her guilt, not understood the reason for it. But she could no more bring herself to lie to her father than grow wings and fly.

"It was me," she said simply.

Alex just nodded, his face an expressionless mask. Then he turned to William. "Why don't you go ask Nicki for your PlayStation?"

The little boy smiled eagerly, his dessert forgotten.

"And tomorrow, we'll have a conversation about listening to other people's thoughts."

William's face collapsed into a comically guilty pout. "Oops," he mumbled, and bolted quickly from the room.

Alex turned his attention back to Lisita and glowered at her silently until she burst into tears.

"What did you do, Liss?" Samantha said, looking worriedly between her tearful daughter and her dangerously quiet husband.

"I.I sent Uncle Fox an email about Mr. Skinner," Lisita said, starting to cry in earnest.

"Why?" Samantha demanded.

"B.be.because.because she said he loved Daddy," Lisita sobbed.

"Who did?" Teena snapped.

"The ghost. Mr. Skinner's ghost. I mean his grandmother's ghost."

"She said Uncle Fox loves your Dad?" Samantha asked carefully, wincing sympathetically at the brief flash of pain that flickered in her husband's eyes.

"No," Lisita said, shaking her head. "She said Mr. Skinner loved Daddy and that.that Daddy wouldn't forgive himself if he let his father die..Please, Daddy. I just.just couldn't bear to see you so sad." She reached a hand out towards him beseechingly, but he didn't even seem to see it.

"I can't believe you'd do something so stupid," Teena said. "Do you have any."

"Which computer did you use?" Alex interrupted suddenly, his voice ice-cold.

Lisita gulped guiltily. "Yours," she whispered.

"Mine," Alex said thoughtfully.


"My 'pass-worded' computer, in my locked office?"

Lisita gulped again, her eyes wide with dread as she nodded her head.

"What does it matter what computer she used?" Teena asked, her voice strident with panic.

"Because, you stupid cow, if she used my computer, the email will be virtually untraceable," Alex snarled. He turned his attention to Lisita again. "I'm assuming you did have the sense to send it anonymously, via the satellite relays?"

"Yes, Daddy," she agreed eagerly.

He sighed with audible relief and looked at Samantha. "What do you think, Sam?"

She shook her head fretfully. "I don't know," she admitted. "I don't want to run again if we don't have to. Like you said, it's virtually untraceable. He might not find us."

"He's like a fucking human bloodhound," Alex spat. "And now Skinner's going to be looking for us too. Neither of them are going to give up. It's just a matter of time."

"Then maybe it's time we stopped running. Made a stand," she said staunchly. "Maybe Jeffrey's right. Maybe we do have to consider a permanent solution."

Alex staggered slightly, and sank weakly into his chair. "I don't know whether I can do it, Sam. Not even for you and the kids. I.I just.I.oh, shit." He buried his head in his hands.

"Daddy?" Lisita sobbed.

"Go to your room, Liss," Sam said, her voice gentle. "It's alright. Daddy isn't mad with you. This is something else."

"But it's my fault, isn't it?"

Samantha closed her eyes for a moment, gathering strength, then she took her daughter in her arms. "What you did was wrong, Liss. You should have come to us, talked to us about it. Your dad.your dad isn't unhappy that Mr. Skinner's alive. He's just scared you've given our location away."

Lisita nodded miserably, turned on her heel and slouched morosely towards the door.


She swung around, her expression a mix of relief and dread. "Yes, Daddy?"

"Tomorrow, we're going to have a conversation about how you got into the computer, okay?"

She flushed guiltily. "Yes, Daddy."

As she watched her daughter flee from the room, Samantha's eyes narrowed with sudden understanding. "You think she pushed?"

"She must have. There's no other way she could have gotten through my security."

"She knows she's not allowed to use her abilities like that," Samantha sighed. "I thought she was more responsible than this."

"What do you expect?" Teena interrupted, with a sneer. "The way you both indulge them, it's no surprise they're growing up willful and disobedient. Take it from me, the only thing worse than having a wolf at your door is knowing your own child sent an engraved invitation."

For a long moment, Alex remained quiet and still. Then he raised his face and caught Teena's eyes before speaking in a low, deadly tone.

"What Liss did was stupid and irresponsible," he said. "And she'll be punished for it. But I know my own daughter. She didn't act out of willful disobedience. She did it out of good intention. What she did proves we're managing to bring our kids up believing that parents love their children. That family is the most important thing in the world. So the only thing wrong about her belief that Skinner is capable of giving a shit about us, is the fact it's going to break her heart when she finds out he's just as fucking cold-hearted and selfish as you, you old witch!"

Teena bristled with offense, her face stiffening into a mask of hatred. "What the hell do you know about 'families', Alex? What kind of role model do you think you are for your children? You pretend to be this wonderful father, but you're just a little escaped lab-rat who's built himself a little fantasy world around my daughter and every time your illusion of control is threatened, you fall back on your gun."

Samantha stepped in quickly, physically inserting herself between Alex and her mother. "I think you should apologize, Mom" she suggested, her voice cold.

"He started it," Teena spat.

"Mom, I think you'd better go to your room."

"I'm not a child, Samantha, and I won't be spoken to like one."

"Then don't act like one," Samantha retorted. "And if you ever speak to Alex like that again, I'll pack your suitcase myself."

"You always take his side."

"He's my husband."

"Let's hope he remembers that, if Fox turns up on your doorstep."

Samantha paled several degrees and grabbed hold of Alex's arm as he surged to his feet with a growl of fury.

"I'm going to fucking kill her," he snarled, struggling against Samantha's hold.

Teena rose and offered them both a supercilious sneer. "As I said, hardly a role model for his children, is he?" she said, with considerable satisfaction, then walked out of the room.

"Fucking BITCH!" Alex yelled after her retreating back. Then he turned to Samantha, his expression miserable. "I really, really want to kill her, Sam. I could do it quick and painless."

She shook her head and laughed softly. "Alex, if it comes to it, I'll kill her myself," she snorted. "And it's gonna be as painful as hell."

"Why the hell do we put up with her?" he asked, his face genuinely puzzled.

"Well you put up with her because I asked you to," she said, with an apologetic smile. "But, I must admit, I'm starting to wonder why the hell I bothered."

At some point during the middle of the night, Skinner gave up even pretending to try and sleep. His efforts had been damned by the way the nurses insisted on checking his vitals every hour. No matter how carefully they tried to slip the blood-pressure sleeve over his arm, he always woke up with a panicked start.

But that was only the reason why he couldn't sleep, rather than the far more important reason why he didn't want to sleep.

It wasn't just that, in his dreams, he found himself buried alive once more. Though he'd be damned before he admitted it to either Mulder or Scully, he had woken up several times while trapped inside the wooden casket, struggling wildly for impossible escape, only to 'die' again, almost immediately, in the dark, airless tomb. He finally understood, first hand, why Alex had been so desperate to get Lisita out of the grave before she woke up.

The reason he didn't want to sleep, was the same reason he hadn't told Mulder or Scully the true horror of his experience. Somewhere out there, unknown miles from the hospital, Alex and Lisita - his son and his granddaughter - were alive!

Every fiber of his being, every molecule and atom of his body, were yearning to find them. Not in revenge for the nightmare they'd put him through, though he accepted rationally that should have been his foremost emotion. Not because Lisita was supposedly the key to preventing the alien invasion, though he accepted that Mulder's theory made a hell of a lot more sense than any previous explanations.

He simply wanted the opportunity to prove to Alex and Lisita that he wasn't the kind of man they so clearly believed him to be.

And it hurt. Oh, god, it hurt. Just remembering the look of loathing on their faces was enough to make him glad of the oxygen tube still feeding his lungs. Not because he was the focus of such hatred, though he imagined that should have been his rational reaction, but because he'd met enough shell-shocked victims in his life to recognize the despair underlying that kind of passionate hatred. Emotion like that didn't spring to life by itself. It was built, brick by painful brick, through years of suffering and adversity.

// What happened to you, Alex? What kind of hell was your life? And what kind of hell are you trying to save Lisita from? //

He could only guess at the answers, based on his own experiences with Spender and the evidence Mulder had uncovered of the Consortium's inhuman experimentation. Until the day he could meet Alex, face to face, and demand an explanation for his behavior, he could only believe his suspicions were true.

And that, essentially, was the problem.

Maybe he only wanted to believe.

Maybe Alex was just a soulless, murdering monster and, growing up in his shadow, Lisita was another immoral sociopath in the making. Perhaps they had 'killed' him and walked away without ever giving him a second thought. Maybe he was no more to them than another 'road-kill', buried and immediately forgotten as they rampaged through life on their own selfish agenda.

But he didn't think so.

And though introspection wasn't his strong point, he was as certain as he could be that he wasn't just finding excuses for their behavior because of his own desperate need to acknowledge them as his family. He wasn't the kind of fool who'd turn a blind eye to evil, simply because his own blood pumped inside its veins.

No. He'd seen Alex's face at the moment he'd activated the palm pilot and it hadn't been sneering with satisfaction, or cruelty, or even the blandness of a man emotionlessly acting out of mere expedience. He'd looked into Alex's face and had seen, just for a moment, a bleak, terrible despair in those soulful green eyes. An expression so near to grief, that recalling it still took his breath away.

// You just had to make a choice, didn't you, boy? Me or Lisita, and of course she won. Do you really think I can't understand that? //

He hadn't shared any of those thoughts with Mulder or Scully. He'd settled for pointing out that since only Alex and Lisita had known what had happened to him, one or both of them had to be the source of the anonymous email. It had been enough, at least, to make them both halter their incessant cursing over what Alex had done to him. If only because they immediately launched into a heated discussion about how they could safely attempt to track the email to its source.

He was glad of the respite. His thoughts were personal business; things to be explored only between himself and his son. One day, God willing, Alex and he would share a long and painful journey of discovery. Unearthing a whole plethora of emotions and misunderstandin gs and explanations, and perhaps, at the end, they would find some common-ground on which to build a relationship. Or perhaps Alex would simply turn his back and walk away again. Either way, he had no intention of airing that kind of dirty linen in public. His private emotions, his secret dreams, would be safely guarded against all prying eyes, regardless of their supposed good intentions.

He found Mulder's passionate demands for him to explain his feelings exhausting, pointless, and rudely obtrusive.

"He's my son," was all he'd said, when Mulder had pressed him to file a report on the assault in the graveyard.

"But I'm sitting here talking to you," had been his bland reply, when Mulder had howled that Alex had killed him.

"A man capable of loving his daughter so much, is capable of loving anyone," he'd pointed out, when Mulder had accused him of protecting a sociopathic, homicidal maniac.

And that, finally, had stopped Mulder's tirade.

// Because the real reason you hate Alex so much, is the fact you can't stand the idea he walked away from you, isn't it, Mulder? You'd rather believe he's incapable of loving anyone. //

**Mulder rubbed his eyes tiredly and peered over the man's shoulder. "Any luck yet?"

'No more luck than last time you asked me,' Frohike snapped irritably. 'I told you it would take some time.'

"I know, but I forgot you dead guys think in terms of eternity. Try and remember I'm planning to find Krycek during my lifetime."

Frohike scowled, bristling at Mulder's careless reminder of his own dead status. His irritation allowed him to finally say the thing that had been on the tip of his tongue for hours.

'so he's Krycek again, huh? So much for your 'I'd give anything to have him back' speeches. Don't you think it's kinda pathetic you could only get it up for him when you thought he was dead?'

Mulder's wounded pout made the ghost feel slightly guilty, but not enough to regret his words. It was about time Mulder wised up to the source of his conflicted emotions.

"The attractive thing about a dead Krycek," Mulder retorted grimly, "is the reduced likelihood of him leaving a trail of corpses in his wake. Unlike Skinner, I'm not allowing my personal feelings to get in the way of apprehending a dangerous killer."

'Bullshit,' Frohike snorted. 'since it's becoming clear that the only people in danger from Krycek are those who threaten his family, primarily members of the Consortium, you'd be standing on the sidelines cheering him on except you're pissed because you found out he shagged your sister.'

"He used me," Mulder said, his voice ragged with angry grief. "All those years I told myself he couldn't really have been faking it all; that despite his betrayal he did actually feel something for me, and now it turns out he isn't even fucking gay. It was *all* a lie. Even the way he reacted when I touched him. Remember me saying he used to shiver when I walked into the room? How the fuck do you think I feel to find out that, what I always believed was desire, was really revulsion?"

Frohike's face folded into lines of compassion. 'You don't know that for certain,' he pointed out softly. 'Just because he's married with kids, doesn't necessarily mean he's straight. You're bi yourself, Mulder.'

Mulder shook his head angrily. "You don't understand. The Alex I knew.the Alex I slept with wasn't bi. He wasn't even. shit. I thought he was a natural bottom, you know? The kind of guy who couldn't even fuck a woman if he tried. He never even got it up until I was inside him. He said.he said it was the only thing that turned him on.being fucked, I mean. And, of course, I fell for it big time. Forget the Skippy rat act. Take off his suit and he was pure sex on legs. The first time he undressed in front of me, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. I'd always had this weird belief he was smaller than me. Something in the way he walked and held himself, maybe. But that first night, when I saw how built he was, was the first time I realized he was a hell of a lot more powerful than me.

"I.shit.I can't explain how good that made me feel. Knowing he was easily capable of taking charge, knowing he was willingly letting *me* take all the control. It was addictive, Frohike. All that muscle and sheer animal power just lying down and spreading his legs for me, shivering and writhing and fucking *begging* me to fuck his ass."

'Whoah!' Frohike exclaimed, licking his lower lip frantically. 'sounds hot.'

"Yeah?" Mulder laughed bitterly. "He played me like a fucking violin. All the times he stood there with a limp dick, begging me to fuck him until he came, and it turns out the only reason I gave him a hard-on at all was the fact I was pounding the fuck out of his prostate."

'Oh,' the ghost said glumly, as he caught Mulder's point.

"So excuse me if I've decided the only thing I want to do to Krycek's ass is kick it."

"They're not happy," Scully said, "but they've signed your discharge papers."

Looking at her smug smile, Skinner had a sudden image of her waving her weapon around in reception until the cowed doctors had given in. He quickly stifled a grin, although he knew perfectly well she'd only used her badge and her own qualifications to secure his release.Probab ly.

He holstered his own weapon, pulled on his jacket, folded his somewhat creased overcoat over his left arm and strode purposefully towards the door. As they headed down the corridor, Scully almost running to keep up with his long, powerful strides, he tried, desperately, to contain the excitement that was making his heart pound as frantically as if the nanos were jumping back to life inside his veins.

// Yeah, well, get used to the feeling // he told himself sourly, // because if Mulder's right, the chances are you are going to have a real up-close and personal reunion with that damned palm pilot. //

"I'm surprised Mulder restrained his enthusiasm long enough to pick me up," he remarked dryly, as they entered the elevator and Scully pressed the button for the ground floor.

Except for a brief flush of color in her cheeks, Scully managed to look almost convincingly confused by his comment. "Kansas is on the direct flight route from Washington to Arizona," she pointed out. "It was easy to arrange a connecting flight. We wouldn't have dreamed of checking out the address without you, Sir," she said primly.

"Hmmm," he growled, wondering whether she'd threatened Mulder with bodily harm until he agreed to stop off and collect him en route. "How sure is he?"

She shrugged lightly. "As sure as he can be under the circumstances," she admitted. "He didn't dare run the address through the FBI computer in case he alerted anyone to its whereabouts. So all we know is it might be the origin of the email."

"Might be?"

"Well, it apparently bounced several times around the world via various satellites and appeared to dead-end at a number of international addresses. He finally narrowed it down to four possibilities in Switzerland, Russia, Germany and Arizona. Since you said Krycek told Lisita to 'drive home', Mulder's convinced the Arizona address is the genuine one."

"Lisita's school fees were paid via a Swiss Bank," he reminded her, his heart sinking slightly.

"That's exactly why Mulder thinks that address is a red-herring. Besides, he says that the email was virtually untraceable. No one alive could have cracked Krycek's security systems and, knowing that, he's certain the Arizona address is the right one. He says Krycek wouldn't have bothered to hide it so well if it wasn't his address."

Skinner rubbed the bridge of his nose as it began to throb with an impending headache. Since he didn't want to know the answer, it seemed barely worth asking the question, but he still forced the words out. "If no one alive could trace the email, how the hell did Mulder do it?"

Scully blushed fiercely and dropped her eyes from his gaze.

"I'm waiting, Agent," he growled.

Picking at some invisible lint on the hem of her jacket, Scully mumbled into her chest, "He said.um. Melvin Frohike helped him."

Skinner rolled his eyes heavenward. "Lord, give me strength," he groaned.

Wearied by the flight, they disembarked at Tucson International and waited in a ridiculously long queue to collect their pre-booked rental car. It appeared the city was hosting some kind of convention, from the numerous people thronging the Arrivals lounge, and almost all of them seemed to have booked a car with Hertz.

As the harried desk clerks desperately tried to deal with the sudden influx of customers, Mulder began fidgeting constantly, hopping from foot to foot, and gnawing his lower lip in silent distress at the delay. Scully struggled with a wicked urge to ask him whether he needed the bathroom.

Skinner's face was so expressionless it could have been carved from stone, but Scully could see a small vein ticking so prominently on his forehead that the Doctor in her wanted to check his blood-pressure. But she wasn't feeling particularly suicidal and, for a man who had apparently been dead only 24 hours earlier, Skinner was undoubtedly looking remarkably well.

"I've had enough," Mulder snarled suddenly, pulling his badge from his jacket and pushing through the crowd to the front of the desk. "Fox Mulder, FBI," he announced loudly. "I've got a car booked and I'm on official FBI business."

"So much for a low profile," Scully sighed.

Skinner's mouth twitched as he watched the blonde at the desk glowering at Mulder with an expression of annoyance. "If you'd just wait a moment," she said, with forced politeness, "I'll serve you next."

Mulder brandished his badge like a weapon. "Serve me now."

"But I'm already half-way through booking these gentlemen into the computer," she replied. "If I stop now, I'll lose all the data I've input."

Mulder just glared at her until she muttered angrily under her breath and gave in.

"That's the much-vaunted Mulder charm at work?" Skinner snorted. "No wonder I spend half my working life pacifying the people he pisses off."

"He just gets a little intense when he's focused on a case," Scully explained hurriedly. "He always wants to get from A to B in the fastest possible time."

"We'll be going from A to B in a super-compact from the look on that poor woman's face," Skinner pointed out dryly.With a loud sigh of exasperation, he shouldered through the displaced customers. "Thank you, Agent," he snapped. "I'll take over." He flashed his badge and a charming smile over Mulder's shoulder towards the clerk then, elbowing Mulder ungently out of the way, he spent the best part of twenty minutes soothing the woman's ruffled feathers before emerging triumphantly with the keys to a Cherokee Laredo.

He waved them in Mulder's face. "I'll drive," he announced, and Mulder's face fell even further.

"We going on Safari?" Mulder grunted ungraciously, as he threw their cases in the back of the huge SUV. "It's a damned good job you sign off your own 302's."

"Mulder?" Scully said sweetly. "Shut up."

As she scrambled up into the front seat, she wished she were wearing pants. The Laredo wasn't designed for a short person in a skirt to enter with dignity. But her momentary embarrassment was more than made up for by Mulder's angry grumbling about being relegated to the back seat.

Skinner climbed in, started the engine and checked the map. "I think the quickest way is if we take route 10 through Benson, then turn down route 191. Fallow Point is about 25 miles north of Douglas."

"Not to mention, it's twenty miles east of Tombstone," Mulder snorted. "Wonder who Alex inherited his sense of humor from. Certainly wasn't you, Sir."

Skinner ignored him. "It's already 6.20, and it's going to take at least three hours to get there."

"The way you drive," Mulder grunted.

"So," Skinner continued smoothly, "I suggest we'll stop for something to eat, book ourselves a motel for the night, and approach the location in daylight."

Scully nodded her agreement.

"You've got to be kidding," Mulder protested angrily. "We're nearly there!"

"As you yourself just pointed out, Agent. I don't have a sense of humor," Skinner retorted. "This isn't going to be one of your usual unprepared headlong rushes into the unknown. We do this one by-the-book."

"Exactly what part of the book covers this situation, Sir?" Mulder drawled sarcastically.

"He's right, Mulder," Scully interrupted, turning enough to give him a quelling glare. "It's only common-sense to reconnoiter the address. This is Krycek we're talking about. God only knows what kind of weaponry he's got in his house."

"Et tu, Scully?" Mulder mumbled, his eyes dark with betrayal, then he lapsed into a sulky silence and pretended to be absorbed by the scenery as Skinner drove with implacable slowness down the dark highway.

When they finally reached the outskirts of Benson, Skinner pulled the Jeep up outside a Steak House and turned off the engine.

"We'll eat here," he announced.

"I'm not hungry," Mulder pouted.

"I am," Scully said, which earned her another of Mulder's death glares.

But it was the truth and, besides, spending an hour eating now would reduce the amount of time she'd spend later, listening to Mulder pacing up and down his motel room in frustration at the enforced delay.

Despite Skinner's decision to stop at the restaurant, it was soon evident that he had even less of an appetite than Mulder. He ordered a steak, then just pushed it around his plate disinterestedly until Mulder, who'd petulantly refused to order at all, started stealing his fries. At which point, Skinner told Mulder to order 'his own damned food' and then the two men just sat and glowered at each other while she munched doggedly at her salad and fervently wished she was anywhere else at that moment.

She had a feeling that, whichever way things played out at Krycek's place, it was all going to end in tears.

Skinner clearly wanted Krycek's actions to be vindicated somehow, and Mulder. well, though she hated to admit it, she didn't think Mulder was going to be satisfied until he'd permanently wrung the little rat's neck himself. Mulder wasn't even mentioning the fact that he might find Samantha alive. For the first time in her memory, his quest for his sister had taken a clear back seat.

And it occurred to her, sadly, that on top of all of Krycek's other crimes, he'd now done the absolute unforgivable. He'd tarnished Samantha in Mulder's eyes.

It was gone ten when they found a small motel on route 191, about 15 miles from Fallow Point.

Skinner killed the engine, opened the trunk, pointedly pocketed the keys and told Mulder to get their bags while he checked them in. He booked two connecting rooms; a single for Scully and a twin for himself and Mulder, since he didn't trust Mulder out of his sight.

But Mulder seemed oddly subdued as he let them into their room, dully asking whether Skinner minded if he took the first shower. So, although Skinner had driven and consequently considered himself to have first dibs, he graciously nodded his agreement. "But leave me some hot water," he warned, as Mulder disappeared into the bathroom, toilet bag in tow.

With a sly grin, he hid the car keys under his mattress, before removing his jacket and tie and sitting down on the edge of his bed with a sigh of weariness. He felt sick with tension yet contrarily bone-tired enough to sleep like the dead. Which he thought was pretty ironic, given the last few days.

His maudlin thoughts were disturbed by the sight of a wet, naked Mulder stumbling tiredly back into the bedroom in search of his sleep pants. His stomach did a lazy back-flip as, for the first time in his life, he found his cheeks burning with embarrassment at the sight of another man's body.// But it's not just any body, is it? It's the body of the man who slept with your son.//

Skinner swallowed convulsively, desperately trying to repress his sudden feelings of revulsion. Hell, he had several gay.well, not friends, but certainly acquaintances, and as long as they weren't camp, like McAllister, and didn't rub it in his face, he had no particular feelings about their chosen lifestyle. So, maybe Mulder had been right. It wasn't the fact that Alex was gay that bothered him, as much as the idea that Mulder had slept with him. Was it just too close, too personal for comfort, to imagine a man he knew so well in bed with Alex? Or were his feelings of distaste more to do with the relationship that had later developed between the two men?

Could Sharon have ever done anything to him that would have inspired the kind of hatred Alex sparked in Mulder? Could he have ever wanted to strike her and punch her, as Mulder had so often beaten Alex? Could he have let someone chain her on a freezing balcony? Could he have ever stood and watched someone kill her without even flinching?

The answer was no. A definite, absolute no. No matter what she'd done, even if she'd proven herself to be evil incarnate, he would never have been capable of truly hating her. And didn't that prove, in and of itself, that whatever relationship that had existed between Mulder and Alex had been in no way comparable to the love between a man and a woman?

Or maybe, just maybe, it proved what Sharon had always said. He'd never really loved his wife. Because if love and hate were opposite sides of the same coin, could love also be the opposite side of indifference? That was how their marriage had ended, a sad wasteland of indifference with both of them trapped on either side of a barricade of their own making.

"Did you ever love him?" he found himself blurting, only to flush hotly at his own words.

For a long time, Mulder pretended not to hear him. Pretended for so long that he was half-way to the bathroom before Mulder's sad thoughtful voice answered him.

"I loved him," Mulder admitted, his eyes dark and wounded, "and, for a while, I believed he loved me." Then he barked a wild chuff of laughter. "But then, I believe in vampires, werewolves and liver-eating mutants too, Skinner. So draw your own conclusions."

She wasn't sure what drew her to the window. Perhaps, subconsciously, she'd heard the soft snick of a door closing, or the furtive sound of feet sneaking over the parking lot. Whatever it was, she pulled the drapes aside just in time to see Mulder climbing into the Cherokee and starting the engine. By the time she raced to the door, he'd already left in a squeal of brakes and all she could see were two red tail-lights disappearing into the distance.She pounded on the locked inter-connecting door until Skinner wrenched it open and stood there, dripping water, wearing nothing except a towel around his hips.

For a split-second she did a double-take, swallowing compulsively, wondering suddenly whether she'd have been so quick to turn her back on his gentlemanly advances if she'd had any idea he looked like that without his clothes on. Then she forced the thought away, reminding herself that she loved John, and quickly told him the situation.

Though, from the furious look in his eyes, it was clear he'd already worked it out for himself.

Uncaring of her reluctantly interested eyes, he started throwing his clothes on. Cursing all the while under his breath about keys, mattresses and kicking Mulder's ass. Then he grabbed the phone and started dialing.

"I'm going to kill that stupid, self-centered, egotistical son-of-a-bitch," Skinner growled several minutes later, slamming the phone down in frustration. "There isn't even a 24hr taxi service in this godforsaken town."

Although Scully's own face was pursed with annoyance, she gave a half-shrug and reached for her FBI badge. "So we just commandeer a vehicle off another guest," she said matter-of-factly.At Skinner's look of surprise, she cracked a small smile. "I've been ditched by him so many times, I've learned to take a pragmatic approach."

**Samantha walked into the Sitting room, grabbed the newspaper off Alex's lap, rolled it up and used it to swipe the top of Alex's head.

"What did I do now?" he asked, looking up at her with a good-natured smile.

"Guess who didn't take the garbage out tonight?"

"Damn," he groaned. "For god's sake don't tell your mother. I'll never hear the end of it."

"Don't yell at me, but maybe she's got a point. Nicki's got to learn if he makes a promise, he has to keep it."

"He's only eleven," Alex countered. "It's not the end of the world if he's forgotten to take out the goddamned garbage."

"It's the principle."

"What do you want me to do? Go haul his ass out of bed, make him get dressed and do it now?" Alex demanded, with an exasperated sigh.

"Of course not," she soothed. "I'm just saying you need to have a talk with him in the morning."


"And.um.maybe you should hide the evidence from Mom," she added, with a grin.

"I've already set the alarms, Sam," Alex groaned.

She shrugged. "Fine. If you can't be bothered to get up that's okay. Just don't blame me when Mom finds the trash can full and feels the need to remind you of your fatherly obligations. Don't expect me to interfere, when she's giving you chapter and verse on your failure to adequately discipline the children."

"Alternatively, I could solve the entire problem by just shooting her and burying her in the back yard," he pointed out, with an evil smirk.

"That'd make a hell of a mess. I think it would be easier all round if you just put out the garbage," Samantha said solemnly, though she was clearly struggling to keep a straight face.

Alex rose to his feet with a sigh. "I'm a highly trained assassin, Sam," he grumbled. "I know at least 57 ways to kill her without making a 'mess' in the house."

"I know," she said. "I was talking about the mud she'll track into the carpet when she finally claws her way back out of the ground."

Alex snorted with laughter, pecked her lightly on the cheek, and headed for the kitchen to collect the garbage.

Mulder couldn't believe his luck.

He'd parked the Jeep at the end of the drive, deciding it best to make his way up to the house on foot, and years of experience of breaking into military enclosures had instinctively frozen him in place fifty-feet from the front door when a glint at the corner of his eyes had revealed what had turned out to be the tiny winking laser of a sophisticated perimeter alarm.

That hadn't been lucky, except for his failure to trigger it, because that had just left him cold and exposed and realizing he was totally unequipped for circumventing the alarm system. After ten minutes of freezing his balls off, convinced by the alarm alone that this was the right house, he reluctantly decided he might as well return to the motel and face Skinner's wrath.

What was lucky, was the fact that he'd no sooner made that decision than the tiny laser stopped blinking, the house's porch lights came on, the front door opened and none other than Alex Krycek himself stepped out. Carrying not an Uzi, or a rocket launcher or even a plain old fashioned pistol, but just an honest-to-goodness black garbage bag.

In front of Mulder's incredulous eyes, Krycek blithely walked down the porch steps and headed casually towards a large refuse container at the far end of the enclosed front yard.

For a moment, Mulder seriously wondered whether it was a trick. He'd get half-way across the lawn, and then the garbage bag would transform miraculously into some deadly weapon and he'd be cut down mid-stride.

But, being Mulder, his weapon was in his hand and he was already running impulsively across the grass towards the white-picketed enclosure before the thought occurred to him and, by the time it fully registered in his brain, he'd already leapt over the low fence and was less than twelve feet from his quarry. And it was only then that the noise of his running feet, or maybe just sheer animal instinct, alerted Krycek to his presence.

He didn't have time to delight in the expression of complete shock on Krycek's face, but he subconsciously registered the way Krycek lowered into a defensive crouch rather than reaching for a weapon of his own, and that gave him the confidence to slow down, instead of barreling straight into him. Even with one-arm, Krycek was stronger than him and Mulder wasn't fool enough to believe Krycek would sustain his usual habit of letting Mulder hit him with virtual impunity. Here, in his own home, Krycek would undoubtedly fight like a cornered rat unless Mulder took full advantage of the gun in his hands.

"Freeze," he spat breathlessly, coming to a shuddering halt just out of Krycek's reach, and pointing the muzzle at Krycek's heart. "Hands.oops, sorry, hand in the air."

"Asshole," Krycek snarled, his eyes flashing with dangerous fury.

"I said put your fucking hand up," Mulder yelled, cocking his trigger.

Krycek flinched minutely at the tiny sound, his eyes flicking worriedly between Mulder's face and the house.

"Yeah," Mulder agreed coldly. "A shot might bring Lisita out, mightn't it?" he taunted. "Do you really want to take that chance?"

Krycek paled, which only made his angry eyes burn brighter, but he slowly raised his good hand to prove it was empty.

"Now, turn around, and put your arms behind your back," Mulder said. "Slowly."

Krycek swallowed visibly, dropped his head slightly and turned around. Mulder waited until Krycek's arms were in the middle of his back, then leapt forward and slammed the muzzle of his weapon against the back of Krycek's neck. Using his left hand to grab Krycek's wrist and twist it painfully upwards, Mulder turned him sideways and increased the pressure in his right hand until Krycek threw his head back in a desperate attempt to escape the bruising pressure of the gun against his throat.

"Fuck it," Krycek gasped. "I'm not fighting you, Mulder."

Mulder considered his comment, then smiled nastily. "No, you're not, are you?"

He pulled the gun away from Krycek's throat, waited for him to take a gasping breath of relief, then smashed the barrel across Krycek's right cheek so hard that the skin tore and a spurt of blood landed on Mulder's own face.

"FUCKER," Krycek howled.

Mulder released Krycek's arm, swapped his gun to his left-hand, jammed it quickly against Krycek's neck and used his whole body-weight to drive his right fist into Krycek's gut. The way Krycek grunted and doubled over was so damned satisfying, he immediately did it again.

His fist, already hot with impact bruises, then drove towards Krycek's stomach a third time. But, before it could connect, the unmistakable sound of a rifle being cocked behind his head made his arm freeze mid-swing.

"Drop the gun and step away from him, hands in the air."

The voice was as cool as the night-air and just as familiar.

Of their own volition, his fingers released his weapon and it dropped into the dirt with a dull thud. He swung around eagerly, barely even aware of Krycek collapsing heavily to his knees behind him.

His sister, his honest-to-god sister, was standing on the patio, pointing a rifle at his face.

"Samantha?" he gasped, and stumbled towards her.

Only to freeze, once more, as a bullet kicked into the dirt at his feet.

"I told you to put your hands up," she reminded him coldly.Her attention flicked briefly towards Krycek, visually assessing the damage Mulder had wrought, and when she turned her eyes fully onto Mulder once more, he was stunned by the burning anger blazing in their depths.

"Samantha?" he pleaded, his expression bewildered by her expression of pure hatred. "It's me, Fox. Your brother."

"I know who you are, Fox," she said. "You're the coward who just held a gun to my husband's head while you beat him up."

"Coward?" he repeated disbelievingly.

"What else do you call someone who hits someone, knowing that person is too damned stupid to even try and strike him back?" she demanded, her angry eyes flicking towards Krycek as he struggled to his feet.

"Leave it, Sam," Krycek grunted, swiping the back of his right hand over his torn face before limping slowly towards her, carefully giving Mulder a wide-berth. He reached her side, turned to face Mulder, sat down heavily on the porch steps and hissed at the resultant jolt to his bruised ribs.

"You okay?" she asked Krycek gently, while Mulder simply gaped at them in confusion.

"I'll live," he snapped, jerking his head away irritably when she tried to check the damage to his face.

"I think that might need stitches," she said, frowning worriedly at the bleeding tear across his cheekbone.

Mulder took advantage of her momentary distraction to take another step towards them, only to immediately find himself staring down the barrel of Samantha's rifle once more.

"Don't push it," she warned. "I'm already pissed with you, Fox. I think you've scarred Alex's face."

Shaking his head, Mulder grinned with total disbelief. "You aren't going to shoot me," he said confidently.

"Want to bet?" she asked sweetly, her lips twisted into a frighteningly Krycek-like smirk. She lowered the rifle until it was sighted on his groin. "Maybe I won't kill you," she purred. "But I sure as hell feel tempted to geld that nasty temper of yours."

"Samantha, stop waving that gun at your brother."

The color drained from Mulder's face, and he swayed as he turned in the direction of the impossibly familiar voice. "Mom?" he gasped weakly.

"What's up, Mulder?" Krycek snorted. "Seen a ghost?"

Mulder ignored the mocking voice, his entire attention riveted on his mother. "Mom? Is that really you?"

Walking across the porch towards him, Teena Mulder offered him a tentative smile. "It's really me, Fox," she said, cautiously opening her arms to invite his hug.

But, instead of moving forward to greet her, Mulder's face contorted with fury, and he swung towards Krycek with a roar of outrage."You FUCKER," he howled. "You stole my sister AND my fucking mother?"

Krycek's bruised face twisted into a wry grin. "It was kinda one of those buy-one, get-one-free deals. Believe me, it wasn't a bargain."

Mulder gaped at him in momentary disbelief. Then, with a howl of fury, he launched himself at the seated man, his hands fixing around Krycek's neck in a choke-hold. He squeezed his fingers tight until Krycek's eyes began to bulge from lack of oxygen.

With a loud curse, Samantha flipped the rifle in her hands and brought it down, butt-first, on the back of Mulder's head.

Coughing and wheezing for breath, Alex stared down at Mulder's crumpled body, then looked up at his wife.

"Well, that went well," he said, and smirked.

"Are you sure this is the right place?"

Skinner just grunted, as though the question wasn't worthy of an answer. He swung the truck off the road past what was unmistakably their abandoned rental car and parked up in front of the house.

"It's very quiet inside," she pointed out, her brow furrowed with confusion.

"What were you expecting? The gunfight at the OK corral?"

"Something like that," she admitted.

"There's at least one child in the house," he reminded her. "Surely even Mulder's got more sense than to go bursting inside with his weapon drawn."

Scully looked less than convinced. "I don't know, Sir. He gets pretty.well, crazy, where Krycek's concerned. Can you really see him knocking politely on Krycek's door and being invited inside for a cup of tea?"

Skinner shook his head.

"It's really quiet," Scully repeated. "Too quiet."

"I know," he agreed reluctantly.

"I think we ought to call for back-up."

"And say what, exactly? That Mulder's possibly been taken hostage by a dead assassin and his recently-deceased daughter?" Skinner snapped.

"I'm sure I don't need to remind you that Krycek responds to any threat to his family with lethal force," she retorted.

"Which is exactly why I have no intention of surrounding the house with a SWAT team," he barked. "Alex's children are in that house."

"So what do you suggest? We just ring the doorbell and ask him to invite us inside?"

Skinner ignored her sarcastic tone. "That's exactly what we're going to do," he said decisively. He reached inside his jacket for his weapon, unloaded it and placed it in the glove compartment. "Yours too," he said, when Scully just blinked at him in disbelief.

"You're proposing we go into a potentially hostile situation without back-up and unarmed?" she gasped.

"Why not?" he asked dryly. "Mulder does it all the time."

"Do you want me to let them in?" Samantha asked hesitantly, as the door chime sounded for the second time.

"Sure," Alex mumbled through the ice-pack on his face. "Hell, why not call a few of the neighbors around and we can have a party!"

"They aren't going to go away," she snapped.

"So shoot 'em already," he drawled.

Spitting muffled curses around the cloth gagging his mouth, Mulder began to struggle wildly against the ropes that were binding his wrists and ankles to a heavy dining chair.

Samantha sighed heavily."He's joking," she assured her panicked brother. "If he'd wanted them dead, he could have activated the mines in the driveway."

"Shows what you know," Alex muttered, with a dark scowl. "Maybe I just want to see the whites of their eyes as I take 'em out."

As she walked into the room with a wet compress, Teena's face was pinched with distaste. "Don't tease Fox, Alex. You're worse than the kids." She walked up to Mulder and pressed the compress against the back of his head.

Mulder glared at her furiously, mouthing various obscenities into the gag and pulling hard enough at the ropes to rock the chair. "Can't I untie him, now he's awake?" she asked.

"If you untie him, he'll take the gag off, and if he's not gagged, he'll talk. Knowing Mulder he'll talk incessantly, and then I'll have to kill him just to get him to shut the fuck up," Alex snarled. "So, no, you can't fucking untie him, you stupid cow."

Teena flinched, her expression tightening with offense. "Are you going to let him talk to me like that, Samantha?" she demanded stridently.

Samantha rolled her eyes with obvious boredom. "Alex, don't speak to mom like that."

Alex just smirked.

The door chime sounded again and Samantha sighed. "We'd better let them in before they wake-up the kids."

Alex nodded, reaching into the crease between the seat and arm of the sofa for the gun he'd concealed earlier. He laid it across his lap, its muzzle pointed towards Mulder.

"Go let 'em in, Teena."

"Me?" Teena asked, her expression vaguely horrified.

"They might grab Sam as a hostage," he explained patiently.

"They could grab me," she pointed out.

"Yeah," he agreed. "Gosh. What a choice. Sam and the kids or the mother-in-law from hell. Jeez. Dunno how that one would go, Teena."

"Alex," Samantha hissed warningly, as Teena straightened her spine, cast Alex a supercilious glare, and stalked out of the room.

"You're terrible," she said.

"I am?" Alex replied, with an innocent look.

Then, in front of Mulder's stunned eyes, both Samantha and Alex collapsed into giggles like a pair of naughty children.

"Any more bright ideas?" Scully snapped.

"Ring the bell again. If he was planning to shoot us, he'd have done it by now."

"If he was planning to open the door, he'd have done it by now," she countered.

Only to jump with surprise as the door in question swung open and a polite voice said, "Mr. Skinner? Miss Scully? Do come in."

Scully, who had faced murderers and monsters without blinking, swayed almost drunkenly as she identified the speaker. But, except for a momentary start, Skinner didn't even appear surprised.

" Mrs. Mulder," he acknowledged dryly.

"But.but." Scully stammered.

"Indeed," Skinner agreed, using a gentle hand in the small of her back to usher her inside.**Without the stolid presence of Walter at her back, Scully wasn't sure she'd have been able to hold it together when Teena Mulder - the 'dead' Teena Mulder - led her into a wide, comfortably furnished room in which Mulder's bound and gagged body was displayed as a garish center-point.

Alex Krycek was sprawled on one end of a large over-stuffed sofa, against the left wall, opposite a roaring open fireplace. He had a gun in his right hand and his prosthetic hand was holding a dripping ice-pack against his face. On the right of the room, next to the fire, a tall young woman, with long brown hair scraped back into a careless ponytail, was holding a rifle with apparent casualness. Neither Alex nor the woman, // It must be Samantha // her mind supplied helpfully, made any move to raise their weapons, but Scully was left in no illusion that both were fully prepared to do so if either she or Skinner made the slightest threatening move.

So she ignored them both and rushed, instead, to Mulder. Ignoring his muffled complaints, she wasn't foolish enough to attempt to untie him. She simply ran her fingers over his face, head and upper body, until she was sure his only injury was a nasty swelling on the back of his head. Then she placed her fingers under his chin and tilted his head back to gaze worriedly into his furious eyes. The clarity of anger reflected in the hazel depths satisfied her there was no danger of concussion.

Only then did she rejoin Skinner, who had waited in surprising silence for her return to his side. Even more surprisingly, neither Alex nor Samantha had moved during her examination of Mulder, let alone protested it. And when she met Alex's eyes, they looked almost amused at her actions.

"Well, we already have the cowardly lion," Samantha sneered, sending a look of such intense dislike in Mulder's direction that Scully's mouth dropped open in surprise. "So I guess red here is Dorothy."

Scully stiffened angrily at the scornful jibe; while Alex snorted loudly, flashing a look of amused appreciation in his wife's direction.

"Soooo," Samantha continued, with a glare of distaste in Skinner's direction. "Is he made of straw or tin, do you think?"

"Oh, he's got a brain," Alex drawled.

"Then he must be lacking a heart," Samantha concluded with a solemn nod. She twisted her face into an expression of exaggerated understanding and snapped her fingers. "Of course," she exclaimed. "How stupid of me not to recognize him immediately. He's obviously your father, Alex."

Skinner's expression didn't alter, but Scully was standing close enough to feel a tremor of suppressed reaction run through him at Samantha's 'joke'. The woman was definitely Mulder's sister, Scully decided, because she clearly shared the same sense of cruel, sarcastic humor.

"If you've finished the comedy routine," she snapped. "Perhaps proper introductions are in order. I'm Mulder's partner, Dana Scully. This is Walter Skinner, and you have got one hell of a lot of explaining to do to us both, beginning with why the hell Mulder's trussed up like a Thanksgiving Turkey."

"Because we didn't have a fatted calf," Alex said, with an icy glare in Skinner's direction. "That is the appropriate celebration for a prodigal's return, isn't it?"

"That's a prodigal son," Samantha corrected.

"Oh," Alex said, his face falling into a mock pout. "Does that mean we don't get to put Mulder in the oven?"

Skinner sighed loudly and spread his hands in a gesture of reconciliation. "Can't we talk, Alex? Can't you at least give me an opportunity to explain my side of the situation?"

Like a spell being broken, Skinner's voice shattered the bizarre atmosphere of sarcastic humor and Alex surged to his feet, his face twisting into a feral mask of sheer hatred as he pointed his weapon directly at Skinner's face.

"Just one bullet," he snarled. "Just one fucking bullet in your head. Right between your eyes. Right where you shot me, you fucker."

"Alex, why don't you sit down and at least give the man the opportunity to speak," Teena interrupted, crossing calmly over to the sofa, sitting down and patting the empty place next to her as though to encourage him to obey.

"Why don't you mind your own fucking business, you old witch?" Alex snarled, but Scully saw some of the tension drain out of his shoulders as though yelling at Teena had allowed him to release enough fury to regain control of himself.

And the small, satisfied smile on Teena's lips suggested she'd been fully expecting that reaction.

"Mom's right," Samantha said, her tone soothing. "Let him speak. If you don't like what he has to say, you can always shoot him later."

Scully felt her eyes widening in shock at Samantha's casual tone, only to see a similarly satisfied smile on her face when Alex growled with disgust, lowered his weapon and slouched back to the sofa, successfully tag-teamed into compliance by the two women.

Which, Scully decided, suggested the dynamics in the room weren't necessarily what they seemed to be on the surface.

"Why don't you let Mulder go?" she asked, her tone reasonable. "You're armed, we're not."

"We know you're not," Samantha smirked. "You wouldn't have gotten through the metal detector on the front door if you were."

Scully started with surprise, but it at least explained why neither she nor Skinner had been frisked when they'd entered the room. "So you could let Mulder go," she repeated firmly.

"No way," Alex snapped. "He stays just as he is. You think I'm gonna let a nasty violent bastard like him loose around my kids?"

Scully opened his mouth in automatic protest, then closed it again. Despite the look of wounded betrayal in Mulder's eyes at her silence, it was impossible to deny the visible evidence of Mulder's temper on Alex's battered face.

"Remove the gag, at least," Skinner suggested. At Alex's frown, he shrugged and smiled wryly. "Since you can always replace it, if he pisses you off too much, I'm sure he'll be smart enough, under the circumstances, to keep control of his mouth."

Mulder's eyes narrowed with contained fury at Skinner's obvious message, but he nodded his sullen acceptance of the warning.

Alex stared intently at the carpet between his knees, then looked up and glowered.

"Sit down on the floor, both of you," he snapped.

Skinner sank down onto his haunches without even a token protest. After a momentary hesitation, Scully followed suit. As she crossed her legs and tried to make herself comfortable, she gave a quick prayer of thanks for her decision to change into a pant-suit at the motel.

Alex gave a small nod of satisfaction. "Okay, Sam. Take the gag off."

Scully was reluctantly impressed as she watched Samantha unknot the gag one-handed, her other hand keeping firm hold of the rifle. It was becoming increasingly obvious that Alex wasn't the only member of his family who was potentially lethal.

Naturally, the second Mulder's mouth was free, he proved his inability to remain silent."I can't believe you did this to me, Samantha," he protested, his expression a wild mix of bewilderment and anger. "And you, Mom. You let me think you were DEAD. It's Stockholm syndrome, isn't it? The bastard's brain-washed you both or something..."

"Mulder, shut up," Skinner barked. "Or I'll gag you myself."

His eyes tragically wounded, Mulder let his bottom lip drop into a puppy-dog pout, as though he couldn't face Skinner's apparent betrayal on top of that of his sister and mother.

"Fox, you don't understand." Teena began awkwardly, wringing her hands together on her lap.

"Of course I don't understand," Mulder snarled. "How could you do that to me, Mom? You pretended you'd killed yourself. You let me think it was my fault you were dead!"

"It wasn't about you," Alex interrupted, with a cold sneer. "Not everything's about you, Mulder. Come to think of it, just about NOTHING is about you. Okay? Do you get it yet? Wake up and smell the fucking coffee, Mulder. For all your self-centered, egotistical belief that the world revolves around you, when push comes to shove, you're just about fucking insignificant and you always have been. Okay?"

Scully flinched at the look of complete desolation that appeared on Mulder's face in response to Alex's cruel words. And she knew, instinctively, that it hadn't been a blinding flash of humility that had put that expression on Mulder's face. Alex hadn't rocked Mulder's belief in his importance in the quest to prevent the alien invasion. The pained understanding in Mulder's eyes was far more personal and tragic than that.

What she'd just witnessed was the shattering of any remaining tiny fragment of Mulder's heart that had stubbornly clung to any hope that Alex Krycek had ever given a damn about him.

"Well, this is nice. It's kinda like the Addams family reunion," Alex quipped, breaking the stunned silence. "But there's still something missing," he mused. Then he snapped his fingers suddenly. "Jeffrey," he announced, with a cruel grin. "Go call him, Sam. He'd hate to miss out on the fun and he always adds such visual.interest.to parties."

Mulder shook his head in disgust.

"What?" Alex asked innocently.

"You're such an asshole."

"Well, you should know," Alex replied easily, with a taunting wink.

Mulder flashed a guilty look in Samantha's direction, his face blazing with sudden heat.

"Alex, you're not helping the situation," Samantha snapped. "Why don't you go and put the kettle on, or something?"

"Oh yeah," he grumbled. "I'm sure the 'situation' will look a whole fuck better over a cup of coffee."But, wincing slightly, he rose to his feet and, right arm clasped across his stomach, he moved towards the door.

Hating herself for her inability to ignore his obvious discomfort, Scully found herself reluctantly saying, "I could tape those ribs for you and a couple of stitches on your cheek wouldn't hurt." Then she had to stifle a nervous laugh at his look of complete disbelief.

"Would you?" Samantha asked, her expression both surprised and relieved.

"I'm okay," Alex snapped. "I don't need any favors from her."

"I'm a doctor," Scully said. "It's not a favor, it's my job."

"You're a pathologist," Alex sneered.

"Under the circumstances, that makes me a rather appropriate Doctor for one of the 'Addams Family', don't you think?" she retorted dryly.

The rest of the room seemed to freeze into petrified silence at her words. Mulder's mouth gaped open, Teena looked like she was about to bolt, and both Samantha and Skinner's faces were pictures of shock.

But Alex laughed. He laughed so hard he had to clench his ribs tightly as they ached under the strain. And, when he was finally in control of himself again, he offered Scully the first genuine smile she'd ever seen on his face.

"You're okay, Doc," he said.

She just grunted and scowled in response but, despite herself, couldn't deny that something in his laughter and his easy smile, had relegated him from 'inhuman monster' into a real person. Not a likeable person, of course. But a person, none-the-less.**Skinner waited until Scully and Alex had left the room before turning his full attention on Samantha.

Despite their short, strange acquaintance, her worrying sense of dark humor and the even more alarming way she was obviously comfortable with the idea of pointing a rifle in his face, he couldn't deny actually liking his son's wife. She had spunk. There was something undeniably fierce about her. From what he could see, Samantha shared Mulder's trait of obsession but had clearly chosen to focus it entirely on the protection of her family. He had no doubt she would kill to protect her children. Or her husband. And although the AD in him found that alarming, the idea of such loyalty resonated perfectly comfortably within the core of his being. It touched on a dark, secretive place in his own heart that still believed in true love.

Samantha loved Alex. That much was obvious. And, from the easy banter and understanding glances between them, it was equally obvious that Alex loved her.Which was probably why Mulder had given up his cursing in favor of a silent, sulking pout. If it was obvious to him, it must have been equally obvious to Mulder. Alex and Samantha were happily married. Which surely proved Alex's seduction of Mulder had never been more than a cruel means to an end.

Skinner felt moderately guilty, as though he was somehow responsible for his son's actions and should, therefore, be offering Mulder some form of comfort over what Alex had done. But he was honest enough to admit that his primary feeling was relief. Because, while he agreed that Alex had carelessly trampled on Mulder's heart for the sake of his own, as yet unknown, agenda, the knowledge settled two things in his mind.

Firstly, while he still disapproved of Mulder's propensity for swinging his fists in Alex's direction, he at least could accept the merit of Mulder's violent hatred. Since he genuinely liked and respected Mulder, he was strangely relieved to understand his behavior towards Alex was somewhat justified.

Secondly, and more importantly, he wasn't going to have to try and come to terms with the idea of Alex and Mulder resuming their relationship. Now it was no longer a possibility, he could finally face the niggling doubt that had been in the back of his mind for days. The worry that if, no, when, Alex was vindicated, he and Mulder would fall back into each other's arms like two star-crossed lovers in a cheap romance novel.

// You're a selfish bastard, Walter Skinner // he told himself, as he glanced over at Mulder's posture of abject defeat. And he felt guilty and ashamed of himself.

But he still felt relieved.

**"If you'd asked, I could have found you some wool and a darning needle and you could have really made a mess of him," Samantha snapped, grabbing Alex's chin and turning his face so she could glare more closely at the heavy black stitches across his cheekbone.

"Will you get off me?" Alex snarled. "I'm FINE." He pulled away from her and stomped over towards the sofa.

"I told him the thread was too thick," Scully said, with a defensive frown. "But he just said if I didn't like it, he'd just stitch it up himself."

"He would have," Samantha sighed. "Stupid STUBBORN man." She rolled her eyes in frustration and flashed Scully an understanding look. "I swear that's the stuff Liss uses to plait Dancer's mane," she confided.

"So?" Alex argued. "I didn't hear you complaining when I used it to stitch your stomach back together, Sam."

"Since the alternative was running four miles with my entrails dragging behind me, I didn't have much choice," she reminded him angrily. "But this is your face, Alex."

"Yeah, shame to March the pretty boy looks," Mulder drawled sarcastically, though he'd paled somewhat at Samantha's casual mention that she'd been so severely injured.

"So you're 'immortal' too?" Scully asked quickly, before Alex could react to Mulder's taunt.

Samantha looked at her in honest surprise, then laughed. "We all are, honey, for what little it's worth."

"Yeah, Red," Alex snorted, at Scully's suspicious frown. "Even you."

"Me?" she squeaked.

"Which reminds me."

He moved so fast she never even saw him coming. One moment he was sprawled lazily on the sofa, the next his prosthetic arm had her in a headlock and his right hand produced a plam seemingly out of nowhere. She screamed with pain and shock as she felt its tip sink into the back of her neck.

With a howl of outrage, Skinner started to scramble up from the floor towards them, only for Samantha to smash the butt of her rifle into his temple with enough force that he collapsed back to his knees Shaking his head in a pained, angry daze, he attempted to rise again, but Samantha reversed the rifle and slammed the muzzle against the skin between his eyes."Move, and I'll shoot your fucking brains out," she announced coldly.

Mulder, meanwhile, was screaming with fury, threatening to rip Krycek's head off and struggling so violently against his restraints that he tipped his chair over and fell heavily to the floor with a resounding crash.

"Got it," Alex announced cheerfully, using the tip of the knife to flick out the implant in the back of Scully's neck.

It fell to the floor and he ground it under the heel of his boot. Then he released Scully, scooped the crushed implant up with his hand and tossed it into the fire with a grunt of satisfaction.

Samantha pulled the rifle back out of Skinner's face and offered him an apologetic shrug as he angrily righted himself.

"You've killed her," Mulder howled, banging his head on the floor in frustration.

"He's such a fucking drama queen, isn't he?" Alex asked the room in general, before crossing to the small bar in the corner of the room and pouring himself a drink.

Wide-eyed with shock, Scully pressed her right hand to the tiny wound at the back of her neck, then brought her hand to her face and stared disbelievingly at the blood on her fingers.

"Mom, go fetch Dana a band-aid," Samantha said.

"The cancer." Scully whispered.

"It's gone," Samantha explained, her face softening into an expression of sympathy. "You beat it yourself, Dana. The way our bodies work, you had to be either dead or at least almost dead before your healing powers kicked into gear. Why do you think you were the only abductee out of all of those women you met who survived the cancer?"

"Because we put the goddamned implant back into her neck!" Mulder roared.

Samantha shook her head. "Because she's one of us," she corrected impatiently. "The only reason Dad led you get hold of the implant was to make you think it was the implant that saved her."

"But why would he do that?" Scully demanded, shaking her head in stubborn disbelief.

Alex threw back his scotch, poured himself another, hesitated momentarily and then reached for a second glass. He poured a double measure into it, glanced thoughtfully over his shoulder at Skinner, and added another shot. Then he walked past the fallen Mulder, and pressed the glass into Skinner's trembling hand. "Woman's got one hell of a right-hook, hasn't she?" he asked proudly.

"Yeah," Skinner agreed shakily, taking a gulp of the Glenfiddich. He was rethinking his earlier decision to like Samantha, but he was damned well learning to treat her with respect.

"It's a tracking device," Alex said, turning towards Scully. "The aliens sweep for your location at least once a day. You were putting us all in danger just by being here."

Scully nodded stiffly, her eyes ice-cold. "And you couldn't have just said that to me rather than assaulting me and performing a butcher-act?"

"Alex tends to prefer a direct approach to solving problems," Samantha said, with an apologetic shrug.

"I see," Scully snapped coldly, though her mind had begun to race. What if they were right? What if she had beaten the cancer herself? Could she finally let go of her secret dread that the remission was temporary? "So it won't come back?" she asked, with a suspicious waver in her voice.

"It won't ever come back," Samantha agreed.

And, to her horror, Scully found herself bursting into tears.

Skinner hesitated, his throat tight with emotion, warring between the natural desire to offer comfort to the sobbing, obviously overwrought Scully and the understanding that she would probably prefer him not to acknowledge her distress. Past experience had proven conclusively that, although Scully would gratefully accept a hug when she was distraught, afterwards she would deliberately distance herself from her comforter, as though mortified by what she perceived as a show of weakness on her part.Unless, of course, her comforter was Mulder. But since he was still sprawled face down on the floor, his limbs bound to the upturned chair, there was little likelihood of his intervention in the current crisis. Skinner was still wondering what to do, torn between his natural protective urges and the common sense born of bitter Scully-experience, when Samantha solved his dilemma by handing her rifle to her husband and gathering Scully inside her arms in a warm, almost motherly, hug.

Skinner found himself sighing with relief, understanding that Scully would be far more comfortable with the idea of letting down her defenses in front of another woman, even if that woman was a virtual stranger. and, anyway, that was far from the truth. Samantha may not have been a physical reality to them until less than an hour previously, but her existence had been shadowing Mulder for so many years that no one who knew Mulder could claim Samantha as a stranger.

And, despite his concern for Scully, he was pleased for the opportunity to see this new compassionate facet of his daughter-in-law ... He'd already experienced the spunk, determination and sheer damned ruthlessness that made her such a perfect mate for Alex. Now he saw a little of her softer side, the part of her that was the mother of Lisita and.???

"You have two children?" he asked Alex cautiously.

The expression that crossed Alex's face was oddly furtive, as he looked between Skinner and Samantha and then, almost casually, flicked a glance towards the fallen Mulder, before nodding a brief, though strangely guilty, nod of agreement.

"We have a.a son," he said hesitantly. "Nicki.Nicholai. he's eleven."

Samantha gave him a peculiar questioning look over the top of Scully's head. Skinner watched suspiciously as Alex's eyes flashed her a silent warning, and Samantha's face immediately stilled into an unnaturally blank mask. They were concealing something, that much was clear, but it was hard to focus on trying to figure out the nature of that secret when the knowledge he had a grandson was making his heart pound furiously inside his chest.

A grandson. He had a grandson. A beautiful, wonderful, eleven-year-old grandson.

"Does he look like you?" he blurted, not sure why it mattered to him so desperately but, since Lisita looked so like Samantha, he had this strange certainty that Nicki was a carbon-copy of his father.

Annoyance flashed in Alex's eyes. "Why? You saying you're only interested in him if he looks like a fucking Mulder? Kids aren't puppies, Skinner. You can't pick and choose between 'em based on their looks."

"I know," he agreed mildly. "I suppose I was just hoping he'd been spared the Mulder nose."

Alex's mouth fell open in surprise, Samantha snorted loudly and Mulder cursed something unintelligible into the carpet. Which brought Skinner suddenly to his senses. He rose to his feet, completely ignoring the snick of a trigger being engaged on Alex's lap.

"Where the fuck do you think you're going?" Alex snarled. "Sit down."

Skinner pointedly refused to turn around. "I'm going to pick Mulder up," he announced firmly. He walked over to the fallen chair and, grunting with the exertion, snapped it upright again.

"Thanks," Mulder snapped, his tone anything but grateful. "About fucking time you ." he continued petulantly.

Skinner decided he'd had enough. He already had one sulky, bad-tempered brat waving a gun in his back for choosing to put Mulder's comfort over his own safety. So he sure as hell wasn't accepting Mulder's back-talk as his reward for the chance he'd taken.

"You want to be back on the floor, boy?" he growled, bending down until his nose was practically in Mulder's face.

It was peculiarly satisfying to see the hazel eyes widen with a sudden appreciation of imminent danger and, though Mulder just swallowed silently rather than apologizing, Skinner was gracious enough to accept that Mulder-silence was a hell of a lot more satisfying than any amount of verbal groveling.

He turned away from Mulder's temporarily chastened features and noted that Scully was now seated in one of the winged armchairs next to the fire. Samantha had retrieved her rifle, but she was standing behind Scully's chair-back, her right hand gently squeezing Scully's shoulder as the smaller woman wiped her face and struggled to regain her composure.

His heart ached for her, his own experiences with the nanos having taught him to appreciate how it felt to live with a constant dark-shadow of your own mortality hovering in the back of your mind. He imagined, if Alex ever freed him of that threat, he too would have an emotional catharsis of wild tears. He could only hope if it happened that Alex would have the good taste to let him experience that break down in private.

Which, naturally, brought his attention to Alex once more. It was impossible to sort out the conflicted emotions that Alex wrought in him. At the moment he'd risen to his feet to rescue Mulder from the carpet, he'd been reasonably confident that Alex wouldn't shoot him. He'd made the assumption or, more accurately, the leap of faith, that as long as Alex had the gun and, therefore, the upper-hand, he'd be satisfied with the threat of violence rather than its enactment.

To tell the truth, despite his long experience of Alex's lethal capabilities and Samantha's increasingly obvious affinity with her rifle, the atmosphere in the room currently felt far from dangerous. Regardless of the weapons in their hands, and their clear determination to use them if they had to, he was peculiarly certain that neither Alex nor Samantha wanted to hurt any of them. He'd been in enough hostage situations in his life to understand that the vibes in this room were different.

But that didn't give him any particular sense of reassurance. His gut told him that the only way the impasse between them all could be breached was if he and Alex stopped pussy-footing around and talked about the relationship between them. Unless they addressed the misunderstandings between them, there was no hope of moving forward. Yet, contrarily, he was equally certain that any attempt to broach the subject would immediately return Alex to his earlier murderous fury.

Which left them all facing a very long, very uncomfortable evening.

And, speaking of discomfort, he was damned certain that Alex felt like hell. The entire right side of his face was now swollen and discolored, the black stitches across his cheekbone almost invisible now against a garish dark-purple bruise, his right eye was little more than a narrow emerald slit inside puffed tender flesh, and Skinner imagined his stomach and ribs were a similar pinto pattern of bruises. Damn Mulder anyway. The situation was already emotionally volatile enough without this added complication.

Sure enough, as Alex shifted on his seat, his face was a controlled mask of obvious pain and his breathing was beginning to sound a little ragged. Skinner was ridiculously touched to notice that the moment Alex exhaled a tiny hiss of discomfort, Samantha abandoned her efforts to comfort Scully and directed her full attention on her husband.

"You okay?" she asked worriedly.

"I'm fine," Alex snapped so defensively that it was obvious he wasn't.

As Samantha's lips pursed in worry, a high-pitched wail from the doorway made them all jerk around in surprise.


"Oh, fuck," Alex cursed. "Get him out of here, Sam."

A look of momentary panic crossed her face, then she leapt towards the door in an attempt to catch the carrot-haired, blue-eyed toddler who was charging into the room with a look of determination on his face.

Skinner just gaped at the child, his mind working frantically to absorb the obvious, if unbelievable, identity of the little boy. Scully was frozen in place, eyes huge in her abruptly white face, her mouth dropping open in sheer confusion. Only Mulder managed to verbalize his shock with a roaring cry of "WILLIAM."

"Daddy," the little boy wailed, his plump legs powering him surprisingly easily past Samantha's frantically grasping arms.

For just a second Skinner's heart leapt with an odd, almost pained joy at the look of sheer happiness in Mulder's hazel eyes. Despite his own earlier doubts, it seemed Mulder really did love his son, he realized, and the knowledge was bitter-sweet that he would witness at least *one* happy reunion of father and son..

And in the next second, he saw that happiness in Mulder's eyes crushed into agonized confusion, as William's head-long charge into the room ended in a sudden swerve and a leap into Alex's lap.

"Daddy," William sobbed, throwing his arms around Alex's neck. "Daddy hurt."

Alex paused long enough to cast a dark, despairing look over William's head, swallowed heavily as he absorbed the horrified disbelief on Mulder and Scully's faces, and then he closed his eyes, lowered his head to the boy's temple and kissed him with undeniable tenderness. "Daddy's fine, slugger. I'm okay."

William shook his head in violent disagreement. "Dreamed you, Daddy. Dreamed you hurt," he explained solemnly, then raised a tiny trembling hand to Alex's discolored cheek and stroked it tentatively.

"It's just a bruise, honey," Alex explained, in a soft tender tone that Skinner wouldn't have even imagined possible to emerge from Alex's husky throat.

"Make Daddy better," William announced, his face screwed up with determination.

Samantha gave a little gasp of panic and took a step forward towards them. "No, William," she pleaded. "Don't."

But, in front of Skinner's incredulous eyes, he saw a warm golden-glow began to rise between William's outspread fingers until it bathed Alex's face and then, almost in slow-motion, he saw the swollen flesh begin to shrink back to its normal proportions, the dark bruises fading, the slitted eye roundening, and still the glow grew until the pair of them were silhouetted inside it, until they were haloed in light from head to toe. And then, as abruptly as if someone had flicked a switch, the light disappeared and there was nothing except a man and a little boy sitting on the sofa and the whole incident could have been a hallucination except for the undeniable fact that Alex's face was unmarked. Even the black stitches had disappeared.

"Oh my god," Skinner breathed.

"This isn't possible," Scully stated firmly, though her eyes were swirling with obvious doubt.

"You even stole my fucking SON?" Mulder roared, his face so dark with fury that, for a moment, Skinner had the strange illusion that Alex's bruises had somehow rematerialized on Mulder. "I'm going to fucking KILL YOU, YOU BASTARD!"

William's mouth dropped open in almost comical surprise. "You cussed." He turned to look at Alex, as though for confirmation. "He cussed, Daddy."

"Yeah," Alex growled, his eyes blazing in Mulder's direction. "The bad man cussed in front of you, William."

Although it was clear to Skinner that Alex was just warning Mulder to mind his language in front of the little boy, Mulder seemed to take the 'bad man' comment particularly badly, as though Alex was deliberately turning his son against him.

"FUCKER!" he screamed, struggling wildly against his restraints. "I'm gonna tear your fucking head off for this, Krycek!" he promised.

"Oh no," Teena groaned, covering her eyes dramatically.

"William. NO," Samantha cried, her tone oddly desperate.

Skinner and Scully had a split-second to exchange a confused look and then the chair Mulder was sitting in rose several feet into the air, shot backwards almost too fast for their eyes to follow, and impacted against the far wall with enough force that it splintered apart. Mulder was thrown to the floor, collapsing with a grunt of pain, and he sprawled face-first into the shattered remains of the dining chair. For a moment he just lay there motionlessly, then he groaned loudly, shook his head as though dazed, and struggled with obvious difficulty up onto his hands and knees.

"William," Samantha sighed, her tone heavy with both censure and obvious relief that Mulder was relatively unharmed.

"Bad man," William replied, with a smug satisfied grin.

Alex took a deep breath, held it for a moment, then released it in a heavy sigh. He shook his head at the boy in clear chastisement, though it was obvious to the adults in the room that he was struggling to suppress a smile, and all he said was, "Go back to bed, William. It's late."

"But I wanna."

"Nana will read you a story," he interrupted, with a sudden glare at Teena.

She took the hint and rose to her feet, taking William's hand and tugging him gently out of the room.

Like a spell being broken, his exit seemed to shatter Scully's stunned apathy. She surged to her feet, her eyes tracking desperately towards the door as though she'd race after the little boy.

"Sit back down," Samantha snarled, jabbing her in the stomach with the rifle.

Scully's face contorted with sudden fury. "That's my SON, you bitch!"

Samantha shoved her forcefully back into the armchair, her own features darkening with anger. "You gave up the right to call him that four fucking years ago," she reminded her coldly.

"Well, this is really turning out to be a fun family reunion, isn't it?" Alex drawled.

"Alex?" Skinner said, his tone mild. "I think you should shut up now."

And, to his immense surprise, Alex looked more startled than angry at his suggestion. He didn't even protest when Skinner crossed over to Mulder, helped the stunned man to his feet and walked him carefully over to the chair opposite Scully.

"You alright?" he asked worriedly, staring deeply into the dazed hazel eyes.

Mulder blinked a couple of times, his mouth opening and closing silently, then he shook himself, grunted with pain, and finally found his voice. "Did you. did you see that, Sir?" he asked, with barely contained pride. "Did you see what William did?"

Skinner rolled his eyes. Only Mulder was capable of being thrown bodily across a room by his own four-year-old son and ending up clearly more impressed by the child's ability to do it than upset it had happened in the first place.

"I can safely say we all saw it," Skinner said dryly. "He might take after Dana in looks, but he sure as hell inherited your temper, Mulder."

"Why did you take William off the Van De Kamps?" Scully demanded suddenly.

"You've got it backwards," Samantha retorted. "The Van De Kamps adopted him on our behalf. They never intended to keep him. They did want a child of their own, but the salient point is that they wanted a child of their own. They had no interest in raising someone else's child, but since it was well documented that Mrs. Van De Kamp couldn't have children naturally, they needed to be seen to adopt a baby to cover their own tracks. Alex deliberately got himself 'killed', so he could drop out of sight and work with the rebel aliens for a few months. The price of his help was a son for the Van De Kamps. Then he exchanged their son for William."

"You're saying that's the reason you threatened to kill Mulder in the parking garage?" Skinner interrupted hoarsely, his eyes dark and fathomless as he stared deeply into his son's face in search of the buried truth. "You really did go there with the intention of being 'killed' yourself."

"Like I told you before, I needed to be publicly dead," Alex replied, with a casual shrug. "And I was pretty sure you'd be more than happy to do the honors, pop."

Skinner winced visibly yet, at the same time, a little of the terrible tension in his spine relaxed a fraction at this first, small vindication of Alex's previous behavior.

"You needed me to believe you were dead," Mulder said, with a satisfied nod.

"Fuck it, Mulder. How many times do I have to say it's not all about YOU," Alex snapped. "I needed to die in front of Knowle. He'd started to suspect there was something a little too.resilient about me. The replicants knew you and Scully were second gens, but they didn't know about me. That's why I not only had to die in front of him, but then I had to go into permanent hiding after I'd done my deal with the rebels over William."

"None of this is possible," Scully denied vehemently. "At the time Walter 'killed' you, I was still pregnant. How the hell could you know I'd give William up for adoption? Even I never imagined I was capable of making that choice until the day I actually made it."

"I knew you," Alex sneered. "And, more to the point, I knew Mulder. It was obvious he was gonna run out on the two of you. For your 'own good', of course," he added, with a sarcastic glare in Mulder's direction. "And you wouldn't be able to handle a kid like William yourself."

"How dare you." she began.

"Stow it, Red," Samantha snapped. "You were abducted and entombed in an alien spacecraft that wiped out half of Antarctica as it took off over your head, and you still refused to accept the existence of Extraterrestrial life. You made a career out of denying the reality of anything that didn't fit into your narrow preconceived worldview. So how the hell were you ever going to accept a child with William's abilities?"

"So you decided to steal him for yourselves?" she demanded.

Alex gave a chuff of disgust. "Steal him? We did everything we fucking could to make you accept him. You were his mother, damn you! He belonged with you."

Samantha nodded her agreement. "Who do you think sent Jeffrey to give him that injection? We thought if we managed to suppress his abilities, you might accept him after all. But you still found an excuse to give him up, didn't you?"

"It wasn't like that," Scully protested, shaking her head in violent denial. "It was the only way I could make sure he was safe."

"No," Alex retorted, his green eyes cold. "It was just the easiest way. You just handed your baby off to a pair of complete strangers and went back to living the life his presense had so rudely interrupted."

"I LOVED HIM," Scully screamed.

"You couldn't have, or you'd have found another way, Dana," Samantha replied, her tone implacable. "Alex and I sacrificed our lives for our children. We never even wanted to have children, but the moment they were conceived we turned our backs on our own selfish hopes and dreams, and made the decision that they were the only thing that mattered. But you chose instead to sacrifice your child just so you could return to your previously comfortable life."

"That's not fair," Mulder protested. "All Scully ever wanted, all she ever dreamed of, was to be a mother."But, despite his words, his eyes were filled with old doubts as he watched the mother of his child attempting to deny his sister's obvious unforgiving condemnation. Two such strong women, he thought. So similar, and yet poles apart. Because Scully claimed she had used her strength to walk away from her child, while Samantha had clearly used her strength to keep her children at her side.

"So what happened, Red?" Alex snorted. "You changed your mind when you hit the reality of dirty diapers and sleepless nights?"

"You bastard," she spat, and her untypical profanity, more than anything else, was like an admission that he'd struck a raw nerve.

Mulder nodded sadly, accepting finally the apparent truth of a long-held suspicion - that Scully had liked the idea of motherhood, far more than she'd liked the reality itself. And a strange voice snickered in the back of his head that the puppy she and Doggett were planning to adopt had damned well watch its step. A few too many 'accidents' on the carpet and maybe it too would find itself in a new home.And yet. he couldn't bring himself to condemn her. As Doggett had said, he was equally guilty. He also had walked away. If he hadn't, if he'd stayed, if keeping William had been the price of his staying, he had little doubt that Scully would have chosen to keep William after all.

//Was that the true reason you asked me to father your baby, Scully? Did you really think you loved me *that* much, that you'd have our child simply in the hope of tying me to you with the chains of enforced responsibility?//

He didn't want to believe it, didn't want to accept that even subconsciously - and he sincerely didn't believe it a conscious choice on Scully's part - she might have conceived William primarily as a means to entrap him. It wasn't anger or disgust that made him want to deny the possibility. It was sadness and guilt. The whole damned scenario was too damned pathetic, considering the way he had so easily walked away from both Scully and his son.

So his voice and expression were subdued when he deliberately averted his eyes from her grief and turned his attention towards Alex instead. "Why did you arrange for the Van De Kamps to drop off the radar?"

It was Samantha who answered, as though she too couldn't bear to watch Scully's angry tears any longer. "So anyone looking for William would hit a dead end. We hit an unforeseen snag when the Van De Kamp's natural, or to be honest very 'unnatural', son was born with brown eyes. Alex and I discussed the situation, decided we couldn't take the risk of someone realizing the babies had been swapped, and gave the Van De Kamps the option of either accepting a new identity and a fat bank account or having an 'unfortunate accident'."

"You seriously considered killing them?" Skinner demanded, his expression shocked.

"They'd seen our faces," she replied coldly. "It might have taken bribes, drugs or even torture, but they'd have given us away under enough pressure. There was no point taking William in the first place if we weren't fully prepared to protect him."

"But why did you care what happened to William?" Scully asked, frowning with genuine confusion.

Samantha sighed guiltily. "We didn't exactly care about him. Not back then. We just wanted to make sure he didn't fall into the wrong hands. With you two out of the picture, we expected him to be abducted. Either by the aliens, who would have killed him when they recognized the threat he represented to them, or by the Consortium who would have. well let's just say he would have ended up wishing they'd killed him."

"Of course, we should have just let the aliens take him," Alex said darkly, shaking his head in apparent self-disgust at his temporary moment of weakness. "It would have been the easiest option."

"YOU BASTARD," Mulder howled.

"Shut the fuck up, Fox," Samantha growled. "Listen to what he's trying to say to you. We SHOULD have let William die. He wasn't our child! He wasn't our responsibility. We had far less obligation to him than you did, and you just turned your back on him. Besides, just by existing he's a threat to Lisita. So don't either of you dare fucking sit there and condemn us for 'stealing' your son, for learning to love him like he's our own, for putting our own lives on the line, time and time again, to keep him safe. You should be on your fucking knees THANKING us for accepting the risk he represents to our own DAUGHTER."

"Why?" Skinner barked, his eyes darkening with alarm. "Why is William a threat to Lisita?"

"Haven't you worked it out yet?" she sighed. "She's the lock. William's the key. The Consortium want to mate them together to produce the template for the 4th generation."

"But they're cousins," Scully blurted, her eyes wide with horrified disbelief.

"That's the point," Alex spat. "Interbreeding is the best way to re-enforce genetic anomalies."

"They want to force William and Lisita to have a baby together?"

Alex laughed grimly. "They just need sperm, ova and a petri dish. They're not trying to create a baby, Red. They haven't got time. William isn't going to hit puberty until about a year before the alien fleet arrives. We're talking about clones. Tens of thousands of cloned 4th Gens created from just one single successful fetus."

Mulder frowned thoughtfully and shook his head. "It's not very well planned. Why did the Consortium wait so long to create William? It would have made more sense, given the tight time factor, to get Scully pregnant when she was originally abducted."Scully glared at him in disbelief, infuriated by his ability to temporarily put aside his emotions and consider the situation from a purely logical viewpoint. Samantha sighed heavily. "Because at the time Scully was abducted, there were already over a dozen female 3rd gens. Obviously they wanted a baby from the two of you, but its conception wasn't considered a priority to anyone except Dad. He was arrogant enough to want the perfect 4th gen to be the product of a mating between my child and yours. But the other Elders blocked his attempt at that particular form of immortality. They said there was already enough genetic material to play with in the 3rd gens they already had."

"I thought Lisita was special because she was the only 3rd gen female," Mulder replied, with a confused frown.Samantha looked at him with clear surprise, reluctantly impressed he'd reached that conclusion on so little evidence. "She is now," Alex admitted grudgingly.

"So what happened to the others?"

"A misunderstanding," Alex replied, with a bitter snort of laughter. "A stupid fucking misunderstanding. Kind of funny really, if you think about it."

As Mulder, Scully and Skinner all frowned at him in confused annoyance, Samantha hastened to explain his cryptic comment. "The rebels found out the Consortium families were meeting with the aliens. They stormed the building and killed them all."

Mulder's eyes widened with sudden comprehension. "Burnt 'em to toast," he agreed, with a nod of satisfaction as he remembered the incident.

"What they, and obviously you, didn't realize was they 'toasted' the entire 3rd generation in that airport hangar. Well, except for Liss and Nicki, obviously," Samantha snapped.

"The rebel aliens thought they were killing the conspirators," Alex laughed. "But what they really destroyed was the Consortium's main plan for resisting the invasion. Ironic, isn't it?"

"But.but I thought we were all supposed to be 'immortal'," Mulder pointed out, with a confused pout.

"For fuck's sake, Mulder. We're 'relatively' immortal, not fucking indestructible. If I can't regenerate an arm, how the hell do you think one of us could come back from a pile of ashes? You think someone could have scooped 'em up, added water and, hey presto, reconstituted humans?"

"We were all supposed to be there," Samantha interrupted, before Mulder could respond. "I was driving to the hangar with Liss and Nicki, expecting Dad and Alex would meet us there. I was about a mile away, when Alex called me on my cell and told me to turn the car around and just keep driving. I didn't know what was going on but I trusted him when he said I couldn't go home, so I booked the three of us into a motel for the night. Alex met us there the next day and told me he'd managed to convince Dad we'd died in the inferno along with the others and so what was left of the Consortium believed the Project was over."

"You faked their deaths just to hide the fact two of the 3rd gens had survived?" Mulder demanded, with a disgusted sneer in Alex's direction.

"I faked their deaths to free my family from that cancer-ridden bastard," Alex growled.

"But I assume Spender eventually found out you'd lied to him?" Skinner interrupted.

"Yeah," Alex sighed. His expression was bleak for a moment, his eyes darkening with pain, but then he grinned with sudden unexpected pride. "But not for three fucking years, and he never found out where I'd hidden them. He never fucking saw ANY of them again."

"You're saying he couldn't find enough 'bribes, drugs or tortures' to get the information out of you?" Mulder taunted. "I find that hard to believe, Krycek."

Alex just glowered at him, refusing to rise to the bait, but Samantha's face contorted with remembered grief and her eyes, as she looked over at her husband, were soft with obvious adoration. "Alex protected us," she whispered. "They did.they did terrible things to him, to try and make him betray us."

"Shut up, Sam," Alex growled, his cheeks flushing hotly.

"No," she said. "I want them to KNOW, Alex. I want the three of them to stop looking at you like you're garbage and understand they haven't even got the right to share the same fucking AIR as you do."

"Just leave it," he snapped, surging to his feet. "Don't waste your breath. They don't care, haven't you figured that out yet? They see what they want to see, and believe what they want to believe, and it doesn't matter, because I don't give a fucking DAMN what they think of me, anyway."

He stood there for a moment, his chest heaving, his eyes so dark they looked like deep wounds gouged into his face, and then he stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

Samantha watched him go, unaware of the slow tears that were trickling down her face in response to his obvious pain, and then she turned to the others with a snarl of anger.

"How dare you come here, with your fists and accusations, and treat him like shit with your demand for answers to questions that are none of your damned business? He's suffered enough, damn you. Don't you understand that yet?"

"I can't talk for Mulder," Skinner replied gently, his face softening with compassion for her distress. "But I'm not here for a pound of flesh. I'm not even here for explanations, though I do believe they're my 'business'. The only reason I'm here is the fact I found out a week ago that he's my son."

"A week ago?" she scoffed.

"I know you don't believe me, that it's probably easier to continue hating me than take the chance I'm telling the truth, but, like I told Alex, I didn't know he was my son, Samantha. I honestly didn't know."

She frowned at him, gauging his sincerity, and what she saw in his eyes was convincing enough that a little of her anger seeped away into a wry despair. "It's too late, Mr. Skinner. Even if you're telling the truth, it's too late. The bottom line is you weren't there when he needed you."

"Did he need me?" Skinner asked, the four words expressing a world of pain.

"You can't even imagine how much," she agreed sadly. "What's broken in Alex isn't fixable, Mr. Skinner. There's no magic wand you can wave now to take away the things that have made him the man he is today. There's nothing you can offer him that will help. The only thing ANY of you can do to help him is somehow convince him it's safe to let you leave this house alive."

"You're saying the only reason you care whether he kills us is because you're worried doing it might upset him?" Mulder demanded incredulously.

"Fox, you're my brother and, believe it or not, I do love you. I don't actually like you that much at the moment, but I still love you. You're family, and in this house that stands for something. If it didn't, Mom would have been buried in the back yard a long time ago."

Mulder snorted, then blushed guiltily at his unintentional disloyalty to his mother.

"As for you, Mr. Skinner, I don't know whether you'll believe me, but the three days after Alex 'killed' you last week were about the worst in my memory. Alex was. well, the last time I saw him in such emotional pain was when he returned home from Tunguska minus his left arm. Even believing you would turn Lisita in to your Consortium friends without a second's pause, he still mourned your death."

"I have no 'Consortium friends' and there's no circumstance that would make me even consider betraying my grandchildren. It may be hard for you to believe, but I share your belief in the ultimate sanctity of family," Skinner interrupted firmly, his eyes glistening suspiciously at the suggestion that Alex had actually 'mourned' for him.

"Forgive me if I choose to reserve judgment on that for now," she replied coolly.

And though, from the look in his eyes, the comment clearly hurt him, he grimly nodded his acceptance of her caution.

Samantha turned to Scully, her expression thoughtful. "You're William's blood. I suppose that makes you family too, in a way," she admitted reluctantly. "And you're obviously important to Fox for some reason, so I guess that gives you an honorary family status in itself."

Scully responded with a mild sneer, making it clear she wasn't particularly impressed by the begrudged concession.

"So," Samantha continued, "all in all, no one here would be particularly happy to kill any of you. Which is why it would be in everyone's best interests for you to convince Alex you aren't a danger to us."Mulder shook his head in clear disbelief. "I can't believe you can sit there and say you'd let Krycek." he began.

She stiffened, her eyes narrowing into furious slits. "You've already more than tested my patience, Fox. So if you want to sit in my house, and discuss my husband with me, you'll at least give me the courtesy of calling him by his name."

Mulder's face twisted as though he'd swallowed something vile, but nodded his reluctant agreement. "Okay. Then at least help me try and understand what's going on here. How did you and ... and Alex end up together?" he demanded.

Samantha smiled sadly at his bitter tone. "Would you believe it was simply a case of true love at first sight?" she asked wryly.

Mulder shook his head in furious denial. "Absolutely not."

She gave a half-shrug at his vehemence. "Well, maybe not," she agreed, after a considering pause. "At least not on his part."

"You're saying you love him?" Mulder demanded incredulously.

"Why wouldn't I love him? He's a wonderful father. He's the only reason Lisita and Nicholai are free. He's a good father to William too. He loves your son, as though he's his own. He's a good man."

At Mulder's snort of derision, she stiffened angrily. "I grew up with enough bad ones to know a good man when I meet him, Fox."

"You didn't answer my question. Do you love him?" he insisted.

"Yes," she said angrily. Mulder winced dramatically at the declaration and her expression softened slightly. "I love him very much. But I'm not 'in-love' with him, if that's what you mean. We don't have that kind of relationship."

Skinner stiffened in his seat, his stomach churning suddenly as he caught the nuance of Samantha's words, but her meaning seemed to sail right over the top of Mulder's angry head.

"Really? You still managed to have two children together," Mulder pointed out nastily.

"Yes, well it wasn't a matter of choice," she snapped.

Mulder gulped convulsively, struggling to force words out of his throat. "Krycek forced you?"

"Dad forced us both," she replied, her eyes distant as she stared into her memories. She shuddered slightly, then offered Mulder a soft smile. "It isn't something we dwell on. We both love our children. We can't afford to look back to the violent way they were conceived."

"You're telling me Krycek raped you?" Mulder demanded, a rash of hot angry color staining the cheeks of his otherwise bloodless face.

"Alex never raped me," Samantha snarled. "It wasn't what you think. You wouldn't understand even if I tried to explain it to you. Alex is right, none of you are here for the truth. You already think you know all the answers, and god forbid anyone might prove you wrong."

"I want to know the truth," Skinner interrupted firmly.

"We all do," Mulder agreed.

She shook her head, her eyes cold. "No you don't. And you definitely don't want to hear it, Fox. Haven't you learned by now that the truth has a nasty habit of biting you on the ass? Believe me, you'll wish you'd let it drop, Fox."

He jumped to his feet, powering out of his chair as though he'd explode if he had to keep still for even a moment longer, and began to pace up and down the room as he replied. "I can't. You're telling me you were forced to have Krycek's children but that you still love him? How am I supposed to understand that if you won't explain it to me?"

He halted mid-pace, swinging around to face her, fists clenched, frustration bleeding out of his wounded eyes.

For a long moment she held his gaze, her expression as defiant as his was insistent, then she shook herself angrily and, when she finally replied, her blazing eyes made it clear she was capitulating out of temper rather than weakness. "You want the truth?" she snapped. "Fine. But don't blame me, when you can't handle it."

"I can handle it," he assured her smugly, dropping back into his chair. "Go ahead and throw it at me, Samantha," he taunted.

"Okay," she snarled angrily. "Alex was living with Uncle Edward at the time we met."

"Uncle Edward?" he demanded, frowning with confusion.

She glared at him for the interruption. "You met him. Edward Mannerly." She sighed with irritation at Mulder's blank expression. "He was English, upper-class, well-dressed," she prompted.

Mulder gave a small exclamation of recognition. "I met him," he agreed, with a curt nod at her to continue the tale.

"Neither of us figured out what was going on straight away. Alex thought Unc. I mean Mannerly," she corrected quickly at Mulder's glare of distaste, " was just bringing him to our house for dinner. It was one of those tedious formal affairs Dad was so fond of where he'd invite half the elite in some kind of childish-one-upmanship. Alex hadn't much experience of how 'families' lived and he was so." She paused, a faint fond smile lifting the corners of her mouth. "He was so shy, it was almost painful to watch." Her eyes darkened, and her smile slipped away. "I didn't understand. I had no conception of what was going on, Fox. At that point I had no idea of the kind of life Alex had led before Mannerly adopted him as his surrogate son."

Her mouth trembled a little and her eyes darkened still further, as they gazed inward towards memories clearly too painful for description. Then she shook herself and jutted her chin proudly in his direction, meeting his eyes once more.

"I remember thinking he was 'cute'," she admitted sadly, "but he was so gawkish and awkward, so clearly out of place at a formal Dinner Party. Mannerly had dressed him in this tailored suit, and he kept pulling at his tie as though it was choking him. It was obvious he was more used to wearing t-shirts and jeans. And he was so clearly discomforted by the other guests, despite the fact they all seemed to know him perfectly well. God, if only I'd known exactly how well they'd known him, maybe everything would have turned out differently," she mused.

"Anyway, despite his obvious wariness, his table manners were so perfect he was almost robotic. I felt so damned sorry for him. It was clear he'd been 'trained' to behave properly in so-called polite company and was just going through the motions like he was following a script. You won't believe it, considering how flawlessly he learned to blend into any situation by the time you met him, but back then he was just about the worst actor I'd ever met.

"After that first night, he starting coming round to the house a couple of times a week for about a month, accompanied by Mannerly at first, and later just by himself, and over the course of those visits I slowly started to fall in love with him."

"You fell in love with him," Mulder repeated sickly, his face ashen.

She reached out and cupped one of his trembling hands within her own."Oh, it's not what you think, Fox. What you.what you have to understand is when I met Alex it was the first time I thought I was actually being given a free choice. You see, I was always brought up knowing I was to marry Jeffrey ... That marriage was never open to discussion. My intended marriage to Jeffrey was always simply a fact of life to me. Although I hadn't seen him since Dad and Cassandra split up, back when Jeffrey and I were twelve, I remembered adoring him, in a childish little-sister way. In retrospect, I suspect a lot of my feelings for Jeffrey were subconsciously twisted with my repressed memories of you. But that's irrelevant. The important thing is that when I was sixteen, Dad sent me to stay with."

"Why the hell do you keep insisting on calling that bastard Spender 'Dad'?" Mulder interrupted, not even trying to hide his disgust.

Samantha's face tightened and her voice dropped several degrees. "Like it or not, he was our father, Fox."

She frowned at his startled look, then her expression softened slightly. "Didn't you know he was my father too?" she asked, more gently. "Neither of us were Bill Mulder's children. Dad would hardly have taken me if I 'd been Bill's daughter. Anyway, as I was saying, Dad sent me to stay with Cassandra, his ex-wife, and Jeffrey and I started courting and were married on my seventeenth birthday."

"You married Jeffrey Spender?" Mulder gasped. "Your own half-brother?"

Samantha blushed slightly. "You don't need to sound so horrified, Fox. Our marriage might have been morally and legally wrong, but Jeffrey's still a perfectly decent man. He may not have been the catch of the century but we were just a couple of kids at the time and we thought we were in love with each other. I think, left alone, we might actually have made a go of our marriage. Who knows?"

Mulder swallowed that, his expression twisted between relief and regret. A successful marriage with Jeffrey would at least have kept his sister out of Krycek's clutches, but it was still difficult to mourn its dissolution. "So what went wrong?"

"The project," she spat bitterly. "In my blissful ignorance, I was completely unaware I was ultimately no more than a Consortium brood mare. My primary purpose was to have 'third gen' children. Considering all you already know about the project, haven't you wondered why I didn't have Lisita until I was in my twenties?"

Mulder nodded, his eyes troubled.

"Because Lisita and Nicki are the product of my second marriage. My marriage to Jeffrey was annulled after I miscarried a second time. That's when Dad finally accepted what the consortium scientists had apparently been telling him all along. Even though Jeffrey was only my half-brother, we were still too closely related to be genetically 'compatible'. So he arrived one day, while Jeffrey was at work, packed my bags and told me I was going home. I didn't want to leave Jeffrey, but I was still shaken up from losing the baby, and I was.well, to be honest, I was used to doing what Dad told me to do.

"I didn't see Jeffrey again for almost nine years. I suspect that's the real reason he hated you so much when he met you. He still hadn't forgiven me for leaving him. Anyway, Daddy decided I needed to be bred with one of the other second generations.

"There were a number of other children who'd been genetically enhanced," she continued. "A whole plethora of candidates to father my all-so-important baby. But Dad's dream had always been to be the primary human genetic source of the perfect supersoldier. He was sure his grandchildren were going to be the key to the whole project but the failure of my marriage to Jeffrey had left me vulnerable to being taken away from him. If that had happened, he'd have lost any chance to use my children for his own purposes. So he decided I had to be married again quickly, to someone under his control, and together we'd produce perfect Consortium babies year after year. His grandchildren had to be seen by the other Elders as part of a family unit that should be kept together, rather than just 'merchandise'."

She smiled sourly at Mulder's shudder of recognition. "You know the term then. That makes things easier to explain. The other children, the 'merchandise', were considered Consortium property, to be used or experimented upon at will by the scientists. So trying to choose one of them as a suitable husband for me was ... well, you're a psychologist, Fox. You tell me what happens to children who are brought up without any nurturing whatsoever."

"As a rule, they become sociopathic."

"Exactly," she agreed. "Almost all the children created by the project were brought up in Consortium crches rather than families. They were clothed and fed, but they weren't nurtured or loved or even socialized. They were never intended to integrate into the general population. As long as they fucked each other on demand so the program could continue, and were available to be passed around like party favors by the Elders the rest of the time, no one cared if they were border-line psychotic. Most of them were 'put down' after they'd provided genetic material for the third generation anyway, and the few that were considered too valuable genetically to destroy were given a very specialized form of education."

"They were trained to be assassins, like Alex," Mulder concluded, with a grim nod.

Samantha shook her head angrily. "As assassins, spies, whores, you name it," she agreed, "but they were nothing like Alex. You still don't get it, do you? Dad chose Alex for me because he wasn't like the others. Despite his upbringing, he had an innate sense of his own humanity. It was Mannerly who identified the difference between Alex and the other 'merchandise'. He took Alex in, and tried to undo some of the conditioning Alex had as a child."

"So he could marry you?"

"No. It had nothing to do with me, originally. Mannerly had personal reasons for getting involved. Alex was ridiculously good-looking, even as a teenager, and although Mannerly was relatively happily married, he had a weakness for pretty boys. It was my fault Dad had Alex tested for genetic compatibility with me."Although his features remained stonily expressionless, Skinner's whole body began to quiver with rage. "Are you saying this Mannerly 'abused' Alex?" he growled.

Samantha chuffed a bitter laugh. "I don't think Alex saw it as abuse," she replied, her expression wry. "Being claimed by Mannerly was the best thing that had ever happened to him. Up to that point he'd always been considered communal property. So belonging to one Elder was one hell of a jump up the Consortium ladder. And, from what I understand, Mannerly was pretty good to him in his own fucked-up way."

Looking sick to his stomach, Skinner surged to his feet and staggered over to the bar. Without asking for permission he poured himself a fresh shot of whiskey and swallowed it down in one desperate gulp.

"You're saying Mannerly was fucking him? I thought you said Alex was Mannerly's surrogate son," Mulder protested.

At Mulder's confused look, she laughed cynically. "The term 'surrogate' had quite a unique meaning within the consortium," she explained.

Mulder blanched, his eyes darkening with sudden horrified suspicion. "Did.did Spender." he began, only to trail off into helpless silence as he found himself unable to speak the terrible thought out loud.

Samantha shrugged carelessly. "Oh grow up, Fox. Why the hell did you imagine Dad wanted to bring me up in his own house?"

Mulder gave a choking gasp of horror, his fists clenching, his face darkening with so much hatred that he was clearly wishing Spender was still alive so he could kill him slowly with his own hands.

"But.but he was your father." Scully interrupted, her expression bewildered.

Samantha shrugged lightly. "We had a. well, let's just say we were closer than your average father and daughter."

"That fucking bastard," Mulder howled. "That.that motherfucking scumsucking MONSTER."

Samantha blinked slowly, a genuinely puzzled frown forming between her eyebrows. "Are you saying Bill Mulder never.?"

He paled as he understood what she was asking, then shook his head furiously. "Never," he spat.

She gave him a surprised look. "I always assumed he did," she said, her expression confused. "Mom said.well, she admitted he abused you and so I naturally thought.well."

Closing his eyes, as though to hide himself from Skinner and Scully's sympathetic looks, Mulder took a deep breath then exhaled it in a choking sob. "He hit me," he admitted, in little more than a whisper. "He hit me a lot. But.but he never. never. oh god, Samantha. I can't believe that bastard did that to you."

"It doesn't matter."

"How the hell can you say it doesn't matter?" he yelled.

"It kept me alive, Fox," she snapped bluntly. "If that disgusts you, then tough. I had a choice to accept it and live, or fight it and die. And I chose to live."

"When did it. I mean how long did.?"

"As far back as I can remember," she told him, her gaze distant. "And I understand if you can't handle it, but the truth is it wasn't that bad. I didn't know any better and he was kind to me, in his own way. I know you can't understand that, but I loved him and I wanted him to love me. He was all I had."She reached for his hands again, but he snatched them back out of reach, tears pouring down his face. "Please don't hate me for wanting to stay alive, Fox," she begged, her voice breaking on his name.

He gasped and choked, swiping his face with the back of his hands and tipping forward off his seat to collapse on his knees at her feet. He buried his face in her lap, his tears soaking through the thin fabric of her dress, his arms clutching her desperately around the waist. "Oh god, Samantha," he sobbed, "I don't hate you. I hate me."

"Why?" she pleaded, her own tears beginning to fall as she leant down and pressed a tentative kiss on the top of his head.

"B.b.bec.because you're a.a.alive," he stuttered incoherently. "And.and.I'm.I'm.."

"Shush," she soothed, her frown of confusion clearing. "You hate still being so relieved to find me alive, now you know the life I've led to stay that way?"

"Y.y..yes," he sobbed.

"Oh, Fox. Welcome to our world. Alex and I are very alike, you know. We both learned very young to accept intolerable choices as the cost of survival."

"I understand the choice you made, Samantha," he admitted, in a pained whisper. "And I'm so damned sorry you had to make it, but I'm still glad you were strong enough to decide to live."

"Are you?" she asked archly. "If you want to accept me, you have to accept Alex too. It's not fair to condemn him for things you're willing to forgive me for. And no matter what you say, if you can't bring yourself to forgive him, I'll know, in your heart, you can't forgive me either."

Mulder nodded. "I know," he whispered reluctantly. "But.but it's hard."

"Life's hard, Fox," she said, her tone far softer than her words.

Mulder sniffled miserably and sat back on his heels. His eyes were haunted and confused as he stared up into her strangely tranquil face with a kind of wonder. "You're so brave," he whispered.

She shook her head, smiling sadly. "Most people would call me a coward," she corrected gently. "I lied when I said I didn't know it was wrong to let Dad touch me like that. I knew. I simply made a choice to accept it."

"And Mannerly had the same relationship with Alex?" he asked carefully.

"To an extent. Alex was sixteen when Mannerly took him in so, he never made the mistake of believing his 'father' loved him. But me? I still actually thought Dad cared about me. I thought the fact I was sleeping in his bed meant he 'loved' me. But the truth was, he didn't even really enjoy fucking me that much," she admitted, with a bitter laugh. "I never was anything to him, except a brood mare."She wiped her eyes, visibly shaking herself as though furious at her own emotional loss of control, and continued her tale in a dull, flat voice.

"After Alex visited the first time, Dad asked me what I thought of him and I said something stupid like I was surprised such a good-looking boy was so painfully shy. I sealed our fates right then and there. My interest in Alex was like the answer to Dad's prayers.

"From then on, Alex was a constant visitor. Daddy always made such a fuss of him. Said he had incredible potential. Made a big deal of how he was much smarter and better looking than Jeffrey. Told me, in front of him, that he had big plans for Alex. Then he started saying how he wished Alex were his son, rather than Jeffrey, so he could make Alex his heir. At the end of the month, Daddy came right out and told us that he wanted Alex to marry me. And .and I was absolutely ecstatic about the idea. I. well, I thought Alex and I would get a house together, like Jeffrey and I had, and that would mean Dad wouldn't.wouldn't." her voice trailed off, and she swiped angrily at her eyes once more.Then she took a deep steadying breath and continued her story. "Alex was.well, a lot less ecstatic. To tell the truth, he looked absolutely scared to death. He made the right noises and then bolted home in a panic. I think he thought Mannerly would protect him. I think he tried to, because I heard Dad having a hell of a row with him over the phone, but the next day Mannerly brought Alex back to our house and left him there.

"Dad drove us both to a wedding chapel that same evening and we were married, just like that, with Alex trembling so much he could barely speak and me feeling sick to the gills. But I honestly didn't understand why Alex was so upset about marrying me, until Dad drove us home. I hadn't realized he was gay."

She gave a small chuff of laughter, completely misunderstanding Mulder's audible gasp of surprise."I know," she laughed. "That sounds incredibly na<ve, considering I knew Uncle Edward was fucking him. But since Alex had no more say in that, than I did in sleeping with Dad, I honestly didn't realize it was significant. Besides, a lot of gay men are perfectly happy to sleep with women too. I didn't realize Alex couldn't even pretend to be attracted to a woman."

Mulder flushed a little and dropped his eyes to his lap. "Some men," he began hesitantly, "are *only* sexually aroused if they're penetrated themselves. It's a relatively rare sexual abnormality."

"I know," she agreed, with a wry smile.

He nodded awkwardly, unable to meet her eyes. He'd spoken without really thinking, and now he was abruptly terrified she'd ask how he was so intimately aware of Alex's proclivities.

"It just came as a surprise," she continued, seemingly unaware of his guilty secret. "If I'd ever given it much thought, I would have imagined that kind of man to be, well, effeminate or something, and Alex is so incredibly male, isn't he?"

When it became clear that Mulder was either unable, or unwilling, to answer, she simply continued her story.

"Dad took us up to my room and told Alex to sleep with me. Just like that. While he watched, of course,. and poor Alex.well, he just wasn't wired the right way to find me attractive. He tried. He really tried. I'd like to say he was trying for my sake, but at that point I think he just really wanted the opportunities that pleasing Dad would offer him. But, regardless of his reasons for wanting to do it, he simply wasn't physically capable. Dad eventually lost his temper and asked whether Alex needed him to show him how it was done."

"Oh god," Mulder choked.

"Dad.Dad raped me, right in front of Alex, taunting him all the time that if he didn't know how to fuck his wife, he'd fuck me on Alex's behalf. Alex just stood there for a long while, either too shocked or too well-trained to even try and stop him. But then, all of a sudden, he went crazy. He jumped on Dad and tried to pull him off me, and they started to fight. Alex was strong and quick and he'd been trained how to fight, but Dad. well Dad was a hell of a lot bigger and meaner. It didn't take him long to overpower Alex and then Dad hurt him..really hurt him. He beat Alex up so badly I thought he was going to kill him, and then. and then he said.he said if Alex could only 'get it up' with a cock up his ass, he'd oblige. He threw Alex down on the bed, and he. he raped him. I was screaming, begging him not to do it, but he.he wouldn't listen. He fucked Alex until.well, until Alex couldn't help getting hard himself, and then he made Alex mount me."

"Don't," Mulder sobbed. "Don't tell me this. I can't. I can't listen to this."

"You started this, Fox. You wanted to hear the truth. Since this is the truth you wanted so fucking badly, you can damned well listen to it all," Samantha spat, angry tears pouring down her cheeks."The next morning, Alex made a deal with Dad. He told Dad he understood he didn't have the right to refuse to be fucked. He'd practically learned that lesson before he'd even grown old enough to say the word 'no'. But Alex told Dad that I was his wife, and that meant he wouldn't allow Dad to touch me. I think Dad wanted to kill him for that. He certainly never forgave him. He took every opportunity to hurt Alex from that point onwards. But Alex never backed down. He let Dad do anything he wanted to him, but promised to kill Dad if he laid hands on me again.

"I didn't understand it," she admitted wryly. "He didn't owe me anything. It was my damned fault he'd ended up in the situation in the first place, and he certainly didn't love me but. I don't know how to explain it except that 'something' in his head, some weird connection, somehow became obsessed on the fact he'd stood in that chapel and said 'I do' to me. And it didn't matter that he'd been practically at gunpoint at the time. He still somehow believed he had to keep the promises attendant in those rote words he was forced to speak to me in that damned chapel.

"Dad still used to come to our room every night and get Alex ready for me. But then he'd at least leave Alex and I alone to make love."She smiled gently at Mulder's wince at her choice of words. "It was making love, Fox. From the very first time, Alex treated me like I was something precious and wonderful. The only person who got raped in our bedroom was my husband.

"Of course, the minute she was finally conceived, Lisita became a living hostage to our behavior. From then on, Dad could just say jump and Alex had to say 'how high?'. So I expected Dad to renege on his deal and insist on sleeping with me again. But he never did. He seemed to prefer Alex. I thought for a long time he just enjoyed being able to humiliate Alex in front of me like that but I suspect he was beginning to regret his original decision to take me, rather than you, Fox, and Alex served as a convenient whipping boy for his frustration."

As Samantha paused to smile wryly at the way Mulder was gaping at her in speechless disbelief, Scully took the opportunity to interrupt the narrative."It doesn't make sense," she argued. "How was Lisita hostage to your behavior? Spender would hardly have harmed her considering how important you've said she was to him."

"Dad wouldn't have killed her," Samantha agreed, "but he threatened to take her away from us and hand her over to the Scientists. In retrospect, I'm positive it was an empty threat, but we didn't know that at the time and we weren't prepared to take the risk. Lisita would have grown up in the lab like the other merchandise. Just like Alex grew up. Alex was prepared to do anything to prevent that."

"I'll bet," Mulder agreed, his tone suggesting that he fully believed Alex was capable of 'anything'.

"Don't you dare sneer like that. Don't you understand that he's never done anything except try to keep me and our children safe? Perhaps he's not 'in-love' with me. Except for the conception of Lisita and Nicholai, which neither of us had a choice in, we've never shared a bed. But he'd die to protect me and our children. And, in that respect, it's irrelevant whether he sleeps in my bed or not. I love him, Fox, and it's a kind of love born out of respect and trust and mutual caring. It's the kind of emotion that lasts forever. Which is a hell of a lot longer than your version of loving him lasted, isn't it?" she scoffed.

Mulder's whole face turned a peculiar shade of red. "You know about us?"

"Of course I know. Dad was so furious when he found out about the pair of you, that he took great delight in telling me Alex acted like a bitch in heat whenever you so much as walked into a room," she replied bluntly.

"So. you're saying he didn't seduce me on Spender's orders?" Mulder asked doubtfully.

She threw her hands in the air and rolled her eyes with frustration. "What the hell purpose can you possibly imagine being served by getting you and Alex into bed?" she demanded incredulously. "You were hardly going to have a damned baby together, were you? Alex wasn't set up as your partner to 'seduce' you, Fox. He was supposed to control your investigations and bridle your obsession to find me. He was authorized to do a lot of things, up to and including killing you as an absolute last resort, but fucking you was definitely not in his job description."

"So why did he?" Mulder snarled.

"You tell me, Fox," she spat, her eyes blazing. "Let's see. we have one man who's been programmed all his life to cheerfully spread his legs for any male authority figure and another man who just happens to be his older, direct supervisor. I wonder which one of them did the damned 'seducing'?"

The color drained abruptly out of Mulder's face. "Oh my god," he whispered, his eyes widening with reluctant understanding. "I was wrong," he gasped. "Alex isn't 'wired' to be a bottom. He was programmed to be one. He doesn't have a sexual abnormality. He's got a sexual dysfunction. All that abuse in his childhood left him incapable of relating to anyone in a normal sexual manner."

"Probably," Samantha agreed, with a heavy sigh. "But what difference does it make why he is what he is?"

"The difference is, you've just told me I raped him," Mulder replied, his eyes dark with self-loathing.

With a bellow of anger, Skinner surged to his feet and took a step towards Mulder. "You little bastard," he roared, grabbing Mulder by the throat and hauling him to his feet.

Mulder just blinked at him in abject misery, not even flinching as Skinner bunched a fist and swung it towards his face.

"STOP IT. BOTH of YOU," Samantha roared, jumping up and physically grabbing Skinner's bicep to hold him back.

Both men looked at her, Skinner angry and confused, Mulder looking almost disappointed at Skinner's failure to strike him.

"Sit down," Samantha said, in a normal tone, and she waited until they had both stumbled reluctantly back into their chairs. Only then did she turn to her brother with an oddly compassionate look on her face."Yes," she said. "I suppose, strictly speaking, you did rape Alex. But it wasn't your fault. You had no way of knowing he was psychologically incapable of resisting when you indicated your attraction to him. And, more to the point, Alex has never considered your relationship in that fashion. As sappy and romantic as it sounds, you completely swept him off his feet." She laughed a little bitterly. "You must have, considering his decision to ignore Dad's threats and continue seeing you. Dad deliberately planted some evidence to make you aware he was a Consortium agent and Alex took the fall for the collapse of his cover. He couldn't tell the Elders it was Dad's fault, without admitting why Dad had done it, and he wouldn't do that because he thought they'd use the fact you'd seduced an agent under your direct supervision to get you fired.

"He was pretty bitter afterwards, though," she admitted sadly. "He was so badly punished for his perceived 'mistake' and he suffered it all silently in a crazy effort to protect you. So he's never quite forgiven you for the way you were so willing to think the worst of him. On the other hand, he's never managed to completely hate you either. Of course, I like to think it's the fact you're a male version of me that makes you so attractive to him but maybe that's just wishful thinking on my part. I accept the fact he's gay, Fox, but sometimes I wish... It's just the consortium stole any chance I had of a normal childhood, and the fact that Alex is gay prevents me having a normal adulthood. I don't even want to imagine how Alex would react to me having a 'boyfriend'."

"He'd be jealous?"

"Insanely," Samantha laughed. "Alex would kill any man who came within five feet of his kids."

"Oh," Mulder said, blinking rapidly.

"Yeah," Samantha sighed. "It wouldn't even be so bad if it was my virtue he was trying to protect, would it? All he really cares about are the kids. He loves those kids, Fox. Even more than he loves you."

"Me?" Mulder demanded, in a strangled yelp. "Alex loves me?"

"Don't worry about it. He hates you too much to do anything about it. I'm sure if he was ever really honest with himself, he'd have to admit hating me too. He's got good reason, don't you think?"

"I don't hate you, Sam. How the hell could you even imagine I could?"

All four of them froze in guilty horror at the husky growl.

"Of course you don't hate her," Teena's voice agreed, her tone clearly confused.

And they all exchanged secretive glances of sheer relief, as they realized that Alex and Teena had obviously only just entered the room.

Samantha turned to face her husband with a soft, apologetic smile. "I was just explaining to them why you should hate me, Alex," she soothed. "You never asked to be part of this craziness, you had every right to walk away from me and the kids, but you never did and I know you never will. We don't deserve you, Alex. But I give thanks every goddamned day that you haven't realized that yet."

Alex's face flushed with a combination of embarrassment and pleasure at her words. He dropped his eyes to the floor, as though desperate to conceal the emotions swirling inside them, and suddenly Skinner could see the shadow of the shy boy Samantha had so fondly described.

He rose to his feet, swallowed nervously a couple of times and then spoke in a gruff, awkward voice."Alex, I understand how you feel about me, and I don't blame you. I thought. well I stupidly thought I could just come here and prove I was telling the truth about not knowing you were my son, and you'd understand you were wrong about me. But..but it's not that simple, is it, son? Like Samantha said, I've come into your life far too late to make any damned difference. I wasn't there when you needed me, and it's no longer just a case of you not wanting me in your life. You've passed the point of needing a father anyway."

He paused and took another breath, clearly struggling with the unfamiliarity of trying to voice his feelings. "But.but the selfish truth is, I need you, Alex. I need to be a part of your life, a part of your family. I think.I think after all that's happened between us, you owe me the opportunity to."

"I don't fucking owe you anything," Alex snarled. "None of you," he added, his glare spreading to encompass Mulder and Scully. "You've all had your pound of flesh off me for the last fucking time." His angry eyes flicked back to Skinner. "You fucking HATE me, Skinner, remember? I'm supposed to think you've just 'forgotten' that just because I'm your goddamned son?"

"Why not?" Skinner countered. "You'd never be capable of hating one of your children, would you?"

Alex flinched visibly, but he snarled with angry denial. "Being a father isn't just about blood, Skinner. I learned that from William. Being a father is about wiping noses, and putting band-aids on knees, and fucking BEING there for them when they need you. That's what makes someone a father, not the insertion of a fucking sperm into an ova."

"True," Skinner admitted sadly. "But, anyway, that's not the only reason for me not to hate you, Alex. I still don't know the whole story, and there are still countless questions in my mind that need answers, but I know enough, already, to accept without doubt that every one of those answers will satisfy me when I eventually hear them. Because I realize, already, you aren't in ANY respect, the person I always imagined you to be.

"I used to look at you and see a self-serving, immoral, conscienceless , treacherous killer. Now I look at you and see a man who's selflessly struggled against overwhelming odds simply to protect his family. I see a man I respect. A man I'd feel proud to acknowledge as my son."

For a long moment, Alex just blinked at him in stunned silence, his confused eyes seemingly too huge for his over-pale face and his bow-shaped lips trembling. Then, after an almost painful pause, he took a deep breath and snarled, "What a bunch of crap."

With a scornful scowl on his face, he stalked past Skinner, slumped into an empty armchair, and then glowered defiantly around the room as though daring anyone to make a comment.

It was Teena who finally dared to breach the uncomfortable silence.

"I think Mr. Skinner's probably telling the truth about not knowing he was your father," she said cautiously, and when Alex didn't immediately respond with his usual profanities, her voice grew a little bolder. "Now I come to think of it, I didn't know anything about the Consortium at all until Fox and I died in '71."

"What?" Mulder demanded, his mouth dropping open in comical confusion.

"You don't remember the car crash," she said, with a sad shake of her head. "I'm not surprised. You were very young. Bill wasn't in the car, fortunately. It's a miracle that he found us and managed to get us back to the house without anyone seeing we were dead. I admit I was pretty hysterical when I woke up again. That was when Bill told me I was one of the 'first ones'."

"The 'first ones'?"

"Alex calls us the 1st gens. We were the first children infected with 'purity'. I didn't know anything about it, before the accident in '71. I had a perfectly normal childhood, as far as I can recall, and when I met and fell in love with your father I didn't realize he was only interested in my genetic heritage."

"By 'father' I assume you're talking about Spender?" Mulder demanded tightly.

She blushed and nodded her head.

"Why did you marry Bill Mulder?"

"Because I was pregnant and Charles was already married to Cassandra," Teena confessed. She tipped her head ruefully in Scully's direction. "In those days, single mothers were.frowned upon."

"Did dad know who my father was?" Mulder asked.

"Charles was the one who arranged the marriage," Teena said, the flush on her cheeks darkening.

Mulder nodded.

"What about me? How did *I* become a hybrid?" Skinner challenged.

"You're a '1st one' too, but you were part of a different first generation experiment," Teena explained. "The Consortium needed a larger gene pool than the aliens were aware of. A clean gene pool. The aliens knew the identities of all of the 'official' first ones. The Elders were sure that the aliens were planning to confiscate all the hybrid offspring. So in '51, they introduced Purity into a new batch of pregnant women. Women with no connection whatsoever to the Consortium. You were one of those children. I doubt your parents even knew you were different.

"All those children, yourself included, were 'abducted' between the ages of eight and twelve and your genetic 'material' was removed. The consortium needed to start the second generation as quickly as possible, so they couldn't wait for you to grow up and have children naturally."

"But why leave me infertile?" Skinner demanded.

"To protect the project. The Elders couldn't risk the aliens becoming aware of the existence of unauthorized hybrids. Any children you had with a normal human woman would have been useless to the experiment but they might still have inherited some hybrid characteristics and that would have exposed the Consortium's plan to the aliens. You weren't important to them in yourself, any more than I was. We were both just breeding stock, Mr. Skinner. And then your son and my children became the second generation breeding stock. Lisita, Nicholai and William are third generation. The experiment should culminate with their children, who according to the Consortium's timetable would be born just before the invasion. Then, using the cloning technology, they planned to use those children as templates to create a whole army of fully-grown perfect Supersoldiers."

"Except that the slaughter of the 3rd gens by the aliens fucked the Project up." Alex interrupted. "The few remaining Elders ran around like a bunch of headless chickens, wringing their hands in despair. By leaving so many of the 1st gens deliberately infertile, they had no way to get the Project kick-started again. They still had plenty of ova from 2nd gen women like Scully in storage, so all they really needed was one viable 2nd gen male and they'd be back on track."

"The problem was," he continued, with a pained laugh, "that almost all the 2nd gens who had been brought up inside Consortium families, like real kids, died in that hangar. As for the lab kids.well, they'd killed most of us off after the conception of the original 3rd gens. We were.unstable, I guess you could say. Given the enormity of the Project it's probably hard to believe, but Mulder and I were the only 2nd gen males left alive after the fire and I. well, I." His voice trailed off and he suddenly flushed and scowled down at the carpet, the knuckles of his right hand whitening as he clawed at his thigh in obvious distress.

With a ragged sigh of sympathy, Samantha took up the story on his behalf. "Alex was left infertile as a side-effect of the black oil. And...um...well, so were you, Fox."

"What?" Mulder demanded incredulously. "When Alex found out about the Russian vaccine, he realized there was a way to harmlessly infect you with the black oil too." "So you did take me there deliberately?" Mulder howled. "You BASTARD!" "For god's sake, Fox, will you shut up and listen?" Samantha demanded. "For several years, the Consortium doctors had been running some parallel experiments along with the original Project, using the ova they had in storage to create a new batch of second gens with third gen characteristics. They were trying to cut a whole generation out of the original Project. But they found out that trying to hurry when you're playing God is like sending out an engraved invitation to Mr. Fuckup. The cloned 2nd gens had inbuilt fatal genetic anomalies."

"Emily," Scully gasped. "You're talking about Emily, aren't you?"

"She was one of them," Samantha agreed sympathetically.

"God," Mulder gasped, gulping as though he was trying not to be sick."But before they created Emily they attempted the experiment with a child created from Dana's ova that wasn't simply a clone. A real child. And because Dad was still determined that his genes should be immortalized in the 'finished product', he convinced the Doctors that it should be your child, Fox. He started making arrangements for you to be 'abducted' so they could extract your sperm." Mulder's only reply was a choking sound of distress.

"If it had been anyone else, Alex would have let it happen," Samantha continued bluntly. "It would have been the best way to protect me and the kids. Alex was never trying to stop the Project. He just was trying to prevent his own children being part of it. If the Consortium had managed to create the predicted new advanced type of 'Adam and Eve', the other 3rd gens, like Lisita and Nicki, would have become surplus to requirement.

"But he just couldn't bring himself to let them use you like that, Fox. That's why he took you to Tunguska to be infected with the black oil."

His face paling in sudden, sickened comprehension, Mulder slumped back in his seat. He turned his head towards Alex, who was still silently glowering at the floor, and, of their own volition, his eyes slid guiltily to the lifeless fingers of Alex's left hand. He gulped a loud gasp of terrible understanding, and was relieved that Alex was still refusing to look at him. While he was too honest not to verbally acknowledge his sudden understanding, he was selfish enough to be glad he didn't have to face the silent accusations that had to be burning in Alex's eyes.

"You thought the black oil would make me infertile too," he whispered. "You were trying to prevent my abduction."

Alex's head snapped up and he met Mulder's guilty eyes with a dark, unfathomable glare. "I didn't try," he spat. "I did. It's not my fucking fault they finally figured out a way to reverse the damage."

"That's why my original IVF treatment failed?" Scully asked, in a small voice.

"Yes," Samantha agreed, when it was clear that Alex and Mulder were too busy glaring at each other to answer. "But it was because of that treatment that the Consortium scientists got hold of enough samples from Mulder to understand how they could make his sperm viable again. Hence the eventual creation of William."Anyway, after Fox returned from Russia infertile, the Consortium doctors used Jeffrey's sperm instead. But that experiment failed, so they made the Emily clones. And then that project failed too. So everyone went back to pinning their hopes on the original 3rd generation until they all died in the fire. So that was it, the end of the Project, as long as no one discovered that Lisita and Nicki had survived." She shrugged softly, and looked towards Alex as though asking him to tell the rest. "That's when Gibson Praise turned up out of the blue," Alex said. "He completely rocked the Consortium's world. Daniel Praise had been one of the wildcard 1st Gens, like Skinner, but he'd apparently managed to regenerate his gonocytes and father a son with an unmodified human woman. Not only that, Gibson was only a 2nd gen, and yet he had full 3rd Gen abilities."

"So that's why you helped the Consortium get their hands on him," Mulder said, with a reluctantly understanding nod. "You were trying to offer them a viable alternative to using your own children, just in case they did find out Samantha and the kids had survived."

"Yeah," Alex grunted. "But that's where I fucked up. It was Gibson who read my mind and realized Sam and the kids were alive."

"He betrayed you to Spender?" Mulder demanded, shaking his head in horrified disbelief.

"Yeah," Alex spat. "Little fucker."

"Be fair, Alex," Samantha sighed. "He tried to keep the secret. He was just a little boy, but Dad still had to take the top of his head off before he gave in."

Alex's only response was a derisive snort, but he still flushed slightly and looked mildly ashamed of himself.

"So Spender found out you were alive," Mulder nodded. He was ashamed suddenly of his earlier taunting comment that he couldn't imagine Alex withstanding Spender's wrath. He had a sudden need to know what Alex had suffered on his sister's behalf. "I don't suppose he was very happy with you, Alex," he prompted gently.

"Fuck off, Mulder," Alex growled.

"Alex," Samantha chided, with a sad shake of her head.

"WHAT?" he demanded, in a furious roar. "The sadistic fucker only wants the putrid details so he can jerk off over them later."

"I just want to understand," Mulder protested.

"Understand this, you bastard. I traded you, okay? I fucking traded you. When nothing else worked, when he finally gave up trying to torture Sam's location out of me, Spender threw me in a fucking hell-hole prison and left me there to rot. Imagine it, Mulder. A one-armed American in a cell with forty Tunisian criminals. I was the belle of the fucking ball. So when he offered me my freedom in exchange for you, I nearly bit his goddamned hand off. That's why I led you to that ship, Mulder. That's why I let you get abducted. Do you get it now?"

Mulder's mouth dropped open in horror, though it was difficult to tell whether he was more shocked by Alex's description of the prison or his admission of betrayal.

"For god's sake, Alex," Samantha snarled, her eyes flashing with exasperation. "If you're going to tell him the truth, at least tell him the whole goddamned truth! Anyone would think you wanted Fox to hate you."

She turned her attention towards Mulder and sighed heavily. "I don't know if you can understand how almost impossible it was to keep the three of us hidden from an organization as large and multi-national as the Consortium. You certainly can't have any conception of how expensive it was. The kids and I were constantly on the run, moving from country to country, changing our identities every few months. That kind of thing takes more money than you can even begin to imagine.

"At first, we lived on the money Alex had made by selling secrets off the DAT tape he stole. The money had just been lying in a Swiss bank account, gathering interest, in preparation for the day Alex finally made a run with us. But although the rebel attack gave him an unexpected opportunity to free us, its suddenness meant he wasn't adequately prepared. There just wasn't enough money.

"When Mannerly died, he unexpectedly left Alex a huge inheritance - guilt money probably - but it was stashed away in a Cayman Island account and the funds could only be collected by Alex in person. With everything else going on, and Alex knowing Dad was watching him like a hawk, Alex still hadn't managed to fly there and access it by the time Dad found out I was alive. So while Alex was rotting in that Tunisian prison with no hope of escape, the kids and I literally ran out of money.

"We were stuck in this rat-infested tenement in Warsaw, with me working two manual jobs just to keep food on the table, and Alex knew the longer we stayed there, the more chance there was of the Consortium tracking us down.

"So, yes, Alex traded you for his freedom, Fox. He sold you out, just to get himself out of that prison, but he didn't do it for his own sake. He did it so he'd be free to collect Mannerly's money and come to the rescue of me and the kids."

"All roads lead to Rome," Skinner muttered, shaking his head in wonderment.Samantha laughed delightedly. "Yes," she agreed, throwing an obviously adoring smile towards her still glowering husband. "You said you wanted the answers to endless questions, Mr. Skinner, but the simple fact is no matter what question you ask, the answer is almost always that he did what he did to protect his family."

"Almost?" Mulder asked suspiciously.

"Well, of course, sometimes he just did things to protect you," she said, with a wry smile.

"And who was he 'protecting' when he stole my baby?" Scully demanded bitterly.

"Oh, give it a rest," Samantha snapped. "You're hardly a poster-child for mother of the year, honey. I'm the one who changed his diapers, and stayed up all night when he was teething. I'm the one he calls 'mom'. I didn't see you mourning that much when you gave him to the Van De Kamps."

"Leave her alone, Sam," Alex snapped angrily. "She's still in shock."

"Don't you dare presume to defend me, Krycek," Scully snarled. "You think I don't know you're the person responsible for my abduction?"

"I wasn't aware I'd denied it," Alex countered.

"No," she agreed, "but we've never quite gotten to the bottom of exactly why I was abducted, have we? I mean the 'specifics' of it. The fact that Spender found out Mulder was gay! How did he find out? Did you tape it? Did you take pictures?"

"Considering the size of Mulder's cock, I didn't need pictures, honey. I just dropped my pants. I was stretched so wide it looked like I'd had a fist up my ass, and his spunk was still dripping out of my hole. I'm surprised I need to tell you that. But, oh yeah, I remember now. He's never managed to get it up for you so how the hell would you know what he's got in his pants?"He smirked as two high spots of color appeared in her wan face.

"You bastard," Mulder yelled, leaping to his feet and bunching his fists. He took two furious steps in Alex's direction, only to be halted by a firm, implacable hand on his right bicep.

"Leave it, Mulder," Skinner said quietly, his eyes dark and unreadable.

"Oh, don't tell me," Mulder snorted in disgust. "It's okay for him to talk to Scully like that, just because he's your son."

"Perhaps I just don't think it's appropriate for you to hit a man, just because he's admitted letting you fuck him, Mulder," Skinner retorted calmly, but his fingers dug into Mulder's arms hard enough to make the younger man wince.Mulder blushed furiously and chewed on his lower lip for a moment, but then his temper over-rode his fleeting feeling of remorse. "Yeah, that's what really bothers you, isn't it?" he taunted. "You don't give a damn what he is, or what he's done. The only thing that really sticks in your throat is the fact your son's a goddamn faggot, isn't it?"

"No," Skinner said, his eyes sparking with fury. "What really sticks in my throat, is the idea that my 'faggot' son had the bad taste to let himself be fucked and discarded by a self-centered, self-pitying bastard like you, Mulder."

"What?" Mulder gasped, sucker-punched by the unexpected attack.

"For as long as I've known you, your life and your actions have been defined by your need to find your sister. Well you've found her, Mulder. She's sitting here, safe and well, the mother of gorgeous healthy kids. And the reason she's here is Alex. He's the one who's been protecting her all these years. He's killed for her. He's even fucking died for her. He's turned his back on any chance of personal happiness, just to protect a wife he never asked for and children he was forced to conceive. He's lived for years with the hate and scorn of the one person I suspect he ever actually fell in love with, and he's put up with that hatred because he always believed that if you knew who he was protecting, you'd understand and forgive him. But now you're here, with everything you ever wanted, courtesy of him. He rescued your sister, your mother, your niece and nephew and even your own goddamned son, and you're still treating him like he's a piece of shit under your shoe.

"Well, let me tell you a few home truths, Mulder. There are only two people in this room who have any right to hate Alex Krycek for the choices he's made, and neither of them are you. Scully's right. If Alex hadn't told Spender you were gay it's 'possible' she wouldn't have been abducted. Possible, but unlikely. It would have just been a matter of time before he'd have tired of waiting for you to get her pregnant naturally. At some point, he'd have taken her. And I'd like to believe she can at least be grateful for the fact that Alex and Samantha have spent the last four years protecting and loving her son.

"The other person with the right to hate Alex is me. He's been torturing and manipulating me for years. I put a bullet in his head and I never once lost sleep over that decision. As far as I was concerned, he was nothing more than a rabid dog that needed to be put down. You think the fact he's my son erases what he did? He buried me, Mulder. You think I'm the kind of sentimental fool who'd protect a murderer, just because he's my flesh and blood? No. The only reason I could ever possibly forgive him is if I truly believe that he had a good and valid and sane reason for everything he did to me. And he did, Mulder. That's the bottom line. He's the father of my grandchildren and every choice he made, every nefarious act he committed, was to protect those children. You might be able to condemn his choices, but in my world, nothing's that black and white. If I had to choose between what I suffered at Alex's hands and the lives of those two children I'd suffer it all again, tenfold."

Although he'd never doubted his ability to present a strong, coherent argument, Skinner was still pleasantly surprised when Mulder's response to his emotive speech was a silently gaping mouth rather than a passionate denial. The hazel eyes looked genuinely stunned and even, if he wasn't mistaken, genuinely shamed.He looked over towards Alex and saw a similarly stunned expression, though the moment Alex became aware of his scrutiny his lips twisted into a defensive sneer of derision.

"I forgive you, Alex," he said softly. "Can't you forgive me?"

A tremble seemed to ripple through Alex's body. He jumped to his feet, his shoulders shaking with some unidentifiable emotion. He glared wildly between Skinner and Mulder and then, for the second time that evening, he simply stormed out of the room.

It was Mulder who first threw off his momentary shock and took a tentative step in the direction of the door. Only to have his way physically blocked by his sister.

"Don't even think about it, Fox," Samantha snarled.

He met her angry glare with wounded confusion."I should.I need." he began, twisting his hands together nervously.

"Leave it," she snapped. "It's not always about you, Fox. It's not you who needs to go after him."

She raised her head to meet Skinner's eyes and a look of understanding passed between them. He nodded solemnly, turned and went in search of his son.

"It's late," Samantha announced, once Skinner had left the room. "We can continue this in the morning. Alex won't let you leave, but you've got the choice of a bed in a guest room or being handcuffed to a radiator in the basement. It's up to you whether you want to be treated as a guest or a prisoner."

"Since you put it that way, I'll take the bed option," Scully retorted firmly.

"It's okay, Red," Samantha snorted. "Mom's already made up a bed for you and Mr. Skinner. I was talking to Fox. He's the one who's likely to get himself into trouble."

Mulder pouted angrily. "Dammit, Samantha. I have no intention of trying to leave this house before I have all the answers I came here for," he protested. Then he blushed and dipped his eyes in obvious embarrassment. "Besides, there's... well, I think maybe Alex and I have things to talk about."

"I'm not talking about you trying to run away and I definitely agree that you and Alex need to work things out between you. I'm referring to your unfortunate tendency to use your fists to talk to him, rather than your mouth. I'm warning you now, if you ever raise your fists to him again I'll make you regret it."

Mulder's blush deepened to a hot, vivid scarlet which just emphasized the fever-brightness of his eyes.

"I have no intention of hitting him," he said, trying to look offended by the very suggestion.

Samantha snorted with obvious derision. "Yeah, Fox. I've witnessed your wonderful 'self-control' for myself."

"He's a grown man," Mulder spat. "He's not one of your kids, Samantha. You don't need to hide him behind your apron strings. Even if I were to lose my temper, he's perfectly capable of defending himself against me."

"That's just it," she cried, her face twisting with frustration. "He's not. Alex can't hit you back. He never could."

"Because he 'loves' me?" Mulder drawled, rolling his eyes sarcastically.

"NO," she yelled, her eyes flashing with disgusted fury. "You still haven't figured it out, have you? He just can't break his fucking programming!"

"What?" he demanded, shaking his head in disbelief.

"He can't hit you, he can't fight you, he can't even raise his hands and try to stop you hitting him, because no matter what the reality is, in his subconscious mind you're still the authority figure he originally submitted to. It doesn't matter that he later fell in love with you, or that you ceased to be in authority over him; he's never been able to shake that deep-rooted subconscious acceptance of your right to abuse him. That's the reason he's never hit you back, Fox. He can't. And that's why you're being a coward every time you raise your hands to him."

"I didn't know," Mulder gasped, his expression nauseated. "I.oh shit, I didn't know, Samantha."

"Well you know now," she said coolly.

He nodded, sickened with the knowledge. He shook his head in violent self-disgust. "I'm not.not the kind of man who abuses helpless people," he whispered. "I.I just, just didn't know. But now I do, I swear I'll never, whatever the provocation, ever hit Alex again, Samantha."

She stared at him stonily for a long moment before her eyes softened slightly, as though she accepted the sincerity of his promise, but she still smiled wryly. "Never say never, Fox. The problem with programmed behavior is it's hard to break. You're probably as incapable of controlling your temper around him as he's incapable of hitting you back."

Mulder shook his head firmly. "No. Because I haven't got a lifetime of abuse to excuse my inability to change my behavior," he admitted. "And, like Skinner said, I haven't even got any valid excuses left for it anyway."

"You really believe that?" she asked, with cautious hope.

Mulder laughed wryly. "Yeah," he sighed. "In my mind I believe it. I just. well, I guess, my heart still hasn't caught up yet."

"Maybe a night's sleep will help," she suggested softly.

"In a bed?" he queried, with a tentative grin.And she finally relaxed and offered him a warm smile.

"In a bed," she agreed, and led them both upstairs.

Skinner found Alex outside, sitting on the steps of the front porch, his shoulders hunched in a posture of miserable introspection. He hesitated for a moment, desperately trying to think of the best approach, then he simply sat down on the stairs himself and joined Alex's silent perusal of the stars.

An interminable time passed, with both men ignoring each other, each locked inside their own thoughts, their eyes fixed firmly on the night sky, and then, with a rough sigh, Alex finally spoke.

"Did you.did you mean what you said to Mulder?"

Skinner's heart clenched painfully at the genuinely confused tone of Alex's voice.

"Every word," he replied gruffly.

"Oh," Alex sighed. "Okay."

And, though they immediately both lapsed back into a silence that lasted until they re-entered the house, Skinner felt the first tiny kernel of hope that Alex's careful defenses against him were beginning to crumble.

Though he hadn't expected to be able to sleep at all, sure the revelations of the day would either keep him awake or would turn into nightmare images that would swiftly chase him back to wakefulness, Skinner slipped almost effortlessly into a relatively dreamless slumber and woke surprisingly refreshed, considering he'd only been in bed for about five hours.From the still dusky light shining through the window, and the animated chirrups of bird song, he judged it was shortly after dawn. It was far too early to rise for breakfast and, as the house was silent except for the faint creaks of its settling timbers, he doubted anyone else was awake yet.

It seemed almost rude to dress and slip out of his room through the quiet corridors and tip-toe down the main staircase, as though he was breaking some unwritten etiquette of how a guest should behave. Particularly one whose 'guest' status had been explained as little more than a polite cover for the fact he was effectively Alex's 'prisoner'. But his gut instinct was telling him that 'asking' to be accepted as a member of Alex's family wasn't going to get him anywhere. He needed to make a full-on attack against the defenses that had been erected against him.

And that attack would begin with his refusal to accept the status of 'guest' at all.

So he made his way quietly to the large modern kitchen and fortunately found cupboards stocked and organized with such military logic that he found what he was looking for with a surprising amount of ease. Within minutes he had a full pot of fresh roast coffee brewing and by six-thirty had prepared the makings of enough food to satisfy an entire platoon. He regarded the bowls of uncooked pancake batter, cheese & pepper omelet, hash browns, buttermilk biscuits and home fries with considerable satisfaction.

Deciding it was reasonable to assume the family breakfasted at the immense oak table in the kitchen, rather than the formal dining room he found through a door to its left, he set the table with crockery and silverware. Then, since there was nothing more to do except cook the actual food, he poured himself a mug of black coffee and wandered to the foot of the stairs to hear whether anyone was rising.

It was still silent upstairs but the front door was slightly ajar and the alarm panel to its right was blinking green suggesting that someone had slipped quietly down the stairs while he was in the kitchen.

He was sure the silent prowler had been Alex, and his stomach gave a tiny pit-patter of nerves at the thought of confronting him, but he steeled himself and then walked out of the door and onto the porch.

But it wasn't Alex sitting on the porch, watching the sun rising on the horizon. It was Lisita.

"Hello," he said, his voice deliberately gentle, unsure whether she was even aware he was alive, let alone in the house.

To his relief, she didn't startle at his voice. And, although she didn't turn her head to greet him, he didn't detect any particular tension in her posture that would suggest she was nervous of his presense.

"Would you... would you like some coffee?" he asked.

After a slight pause, she dipped her head slightly. "Yeah, okay," she said. "Cream, three sugars...uh... please."

His mouth twitched at her typical teenage hesitation over her manners. He was moderately surprised she hadn't rounded on him and demanded who the hell he thought he was to make and offer coffee in 'her' house. He hoped her easy acceptance of his behavior would be echoed by her mother.

Because that was the bottom line. A 'guest' shouldn't have done what he'd done. He'd known that as he did it. But a family member... well, that was different. A family member 'could' take it upon themselves to do chores around the house. And if he acted like family, if his behavior rammed his relationship to them down their throats, then it would be a hell of a lot harder for them to keep him locked out of their lives.

So he cheerfully poured and doctored Lisita's coffee, then returned to the porch and sat down beside her without asking permission. And, just as he had with her father, he silently waited for her to decide whether she wanted them to converse or just sit there together in silence.

By the time he was half-way through his own drink, he concluded she was definitely her father's daughter. She seemed content to simply sip at her coffee and ponder her own internal thoughts.

But it wasn't an uncomfortable silence. It didn't even have the pregnant sense of a pause before necessary speech would start. It was simply her quiet acceptance of his right to sit next to her and share the beauty of an Arizona sunrise.

And when she did finally speak, it felt as comfortable and casual as the continuation of an old conversation.

"It's late afternoon in Khartoum," she said softly. "The sun's probably already starting to set there."

Skinner frowned thoughtfully, considering the sad, longing tone of her voice. "Who's in Khartoum?" he asked.

She turned her head slightly towards him, her eyes cautious. "Dancer," she said.

"Ah," Skinner replied. "He's gone forever? Or just temporarily?"

"For as long as it takes," Lisita replied cryptically, and shrugged as though she didn't care.

"Until it's safe for him to come home," Skinner replied, with an understanding nod. "Of course."

From the corner of his eye, he saw her frown with surprise and then she chewed on her lower lip in a remarkably Mulder-like gesture before taking a deep breath and speaking again. "It's costing Dad an absolute fortune," she announced, her tone oddly challenging.

Skinner frowned himself and considered his reply carefully. He sensed she wasn't boasting to him, as much as testing his reaction to her comment.

"I'm sure your happiness is far more important to your father than any amount of money," he said eventually.

"He could just buy me another horse," Lisita replied, with a casual shake of her head. But he saw her knuckles tighten slightly around the handle of her coffee cup and so again sensed a deliberate trap.

"Dancer isn't just a horse," he said firmly. "He's your horse. You love him. He's not replaceable, is he?"

She was silent for a moment, pondering his reply, and then she said, "I'm sorry about...well, you know..."

The non-sequitur stumped him for a moment, then he felt a sensation akin to pain in his chest as he understood what she was saying.

"It's alright," he said. "It doesn't matter now. It was just a misunderstanding, wasn't it?"

"Was it?" she said, her tone more hopeful than challenging.

"Definitely," he said, then gave a soft chuff of rueful laughter. "Though I think your father's going to be difficult to convince. He doesn't like me very much."

Lisita burst into a bright peal of laughter.

"What?" he asked, his own lips twitching in response to her infectious humor.

"I don't think it matters whether he likes you or not. I mean, let's face it, Dad loathes Nana. The big issue with Dad is trust. So the most important thing you can do, if you really do want to put things right, Mr. Skinner, is convince Dad he can trust you."

Skinner nodded his head solemnly. "That's good advice," he agreed.

"And, of course," she added, with a cheeky grin, "he's always more reasonable when he's got a full stomach. I'd say Dad eats like a horse, but that would be insulting to Dancer."

"You're suggesting I stop talking and go finish getting breakfast ready?" Skinner asked, with an amused smile.

"I'd say the hungry horde are going to start charging down the stairs any minute now," she agreed, rising to her feet. "Come on, I'll give you a hand."

Mulder had spent most of the night pacing up and down his small guestroom, fighting the urge to pound on Alex's door and demand the answers to the questions that were making the idea of sleep impossible.

The tale that Samantha and Alex had woven the night before had supplied so many missing pieces of the puzzle that he could almost see a clear picture inside his head. For the first time ever, he could catalogue and place a thousand seemingly random facts into a coherent pattern. He could see clear connections now that hadn't even seemed feasible before.

Like joining a dot-to-dot picture in his head, he could plot and map a myriad of disparate incidents together, drawing thick mental markers between points that had previously appeared unrelated.

Now he knew why he'd been allowed - or perhaps more accurately encouraged - to pursue his investigations into the paranormal. Every mutated human he'd ever uncovered had been a possible thread for the Consortium to use as they wove their genetic template for the ultimate Supersoldier. The self-healing abilities of people such as Leonard Betts, John Barnett & CecilL'ively. The psychic powers of children such as Michael Holvey and Samuel. The longevity of Eugene Tooms. The possible immortality of Kirsten Kilar. And so on, ad nauseum. How many of the facts he'd uncovered while investigating the X-files had been 'acquired' by the Consortium doctors to further their own experiments?

Where did the creation of the Eves fit into the Project? Were they simply clones of one of the insane 2nd gens? What about the experiments in Delta Glen? Were those children an attempt to create yet another clean gene pool of 1st gens? Was that part of the original project or a different, parallel experiment?

Alex had said that certain people, like Spender, were genetically predisposed to be compatible with the alien DNA. Did the experiment at Delta Glen show what happened when Purity was introduced into people who didn't share that compatibility or what happened when people did? The introduction of Purity into that population had resulted in a vast increase of violence in the hybrid children. Had that been deliberate? An increased capacity for violence certainly seemed to be a positive trait for a Supersoldier.

Was Alex a killer because of his DNA or because of his upbringing?

And he was a hybrid too.

Was he as potentially violent as the Eves, and the Delta Glen children, simply because he had hybrid DNA, or had he inherited that capacity for violent behavior from Spender, who had been compatible with Purity because he was violent? Which was the chicken, and which was the egg? Though, ultimately, did it even matter?

The unavoidable bottom-line was that the Consortium's ruthless and inhuman experimentation had worked. In Lisita, Nicki and William's DNA lay the solution he'd been seeking for so long. They were living, breathing weapons against the proposed alien invasion. An invasion that, unstopped, would destroy the whole of humankind including the children Alex was trying to protect!

The idea of creating a breed of cloned Supersoldiers from the children's genes was, admittedly, as morally repugnant as the idea of doctors using data collected from the atrocities committed under the name of Nazi medical experimentation. But it was documented fact that current medical knowledge had advanced in part because of that abhorrent research, so the survival of the entire human race surely was also too important for anyone to turn their back on the solution just because they objected to the hideous way in which it had been reached.

He wasn't suggesting that Alex and his sister and countless others hadn't suffered horrifically to achieve the possibility of the 4th gens. He wasn't in any way condoning what the Consortium had done. But they had done it. It was too late to turn back the clock. What had been done couldn't be undone. And, surely, having suffered like that, as he now unequivocally accepted they had, it would be better for them to know they hadn't suffered in vain?

But the moment he told himself that, he remembered Skinner's voice saying: "It's funny, but I never saw it before...Any possible similarity between yourself and your father."And, sickened, he finally forced himself to consider what the creation of the 4th gens really would mean: an army of clones, bred to do nothing except fight and die, all marching into battle wearing the face of his grandchild... And, in that moment of clarity, he finally understood Alex Krycek.

Alex hadn't slept at all.

Despite Skinner's dignified guarantee of his parole when he'd left him at the door of one of the guestrooms, and the note Samantha had left on his bed-side table assuring him that Mulder and Scully had also offered a temporary truce, he'd spent most of the night sitting with his back to his bedroom door with a gun in his hands.

His children were sleeping just a few feet down the hallway, and if any of his three unwelcome visitors decided to take a late night prowl in their direction he'd had every intention of shooting first and not bothering to ask questions later.

At about six, he'd heard Skinner's door open and surprisingly soft footfalls creeping down the hallway. For such a big man, Skinner could move like a cat when he wanted to. But, like the rat Mulder and Skinner had so often likened him to, Alex was even quieter. He'd followed Skinner, slinking through the shadows of the house in his wake, certain he was searching for weapons.

He'd been completely non-plussed when Skinner had simply entered the kitchen and cheerfully begun rummaging through cupboards for food, rather than knives. He'd hovered uncertainly, watching with disbelief as Skinner had started whipping eggs and cheese into a large mixing bowl, and then had simply crept back upstairs to resume his vigil on Mulder.

He wasn't concerned about Mulder attempting to leave the house. The exterior windows were alarmed and, even if he did circumvent the house security, the exterior alarms were on a different system. He hadn't bothered disabling the vehicles. He'd simply activated the land mines buried in the driveway and along the perimeter of his property. If Mulder, and it would most likely be Mulder, attempted to escape, his sudden and permanent demise would be signified by a distant explosion.

As he'd told Mulder, they weren't 'immortal'. There were things that even they couldn't survive. Like fires or being ripped to pieces by the shrapnel of an exploding bomb. Though, from what he'd heard, a 4th gen wouldn't be similarly vulnerable. A 4th gen would be capable of full regeneration from the smallest piece of flesh. Like an earthworm, a 4th gen cut in two would regenerate into two 4th gens and, presumably, a 4th gen blown into a dozen pieces would become a dozen 4th gens. It was a pretty horrific idea, one that made him damned glad he was only a 2nd gen. Since the cost of the ability to regenerate his missing arm was accepting the idea his severed limb would have turned into a living duplicate of himself, he was remarkably sanguine about wearing a prosthesis.

Alex was certainly a hell of a lot more sanguine about his missing arm than he was about his no-longer-missing 'father'.

He wasn't stupid. The moment, back in Blakemore, that Skinner had pointed out he'd only been 12-years-old when his sperm had been stolen by the Consortium doctors, Alex had reluctantly accepted the probability that Skinner had been completely unaware of his conception at the time.

Skinner wasn't the only 1st gen who had been used unwittingly in that fashion.

But that didn't necessarily mean Skinner had remained unaware.

Kersh had been similarly innocent, never learning about his progeny until long after she'd been 'put-down' with the majority of the 2nd gen lab subjects. But he hadn't spent any time mourning his 'daughter'. His only issue with what the Consortium had done was the fact he'd been left infertile. Kersh had been more than happy to do a deal with the Consortium in exchange for their use of alien technology to create him a new, fully human son.


And, anyway, even if Skinner hadn't ever known, it didn't change the fact that it was too goddamned late now anyway....


Well, if Skinner was sincere about his feelings about Lisita and Nicki - and that was a big fucking 'if' - then he was Alex's best chance of avoiding a 'permanent' solution where Mulder was concerned. And that was the true bottom line, wasn't it? The fact that he still didn't want to face the possibility that Mulder wouldn't be leaving the house alive.

The smell of food drew Mulder downstairs like a magnet. He followed the enticing scent to a huge kitchen to the left of the room they'd conversed in the night before, pausing momentarily at the doorway to absorb the bright sound of childish laughter. Then he braced himself, set a deliberately polite smile on his face and what he hoped was a non-combatitive posture to his shoulders and pushed the door open.

Considering how nervous he felt about confronting Alex in the wake of his personal soul-searching, he was surprisingly disconcerted to realize that Alex was conspicuously absent from the breakfast table. But then his strange disappointment was momentarily forgotten as he absorbed the identities of the people who were present.

His sister, his mother, his son, Lisita and... well, the other boy had to be Nicki. He was a perfect cameo of his father, all huge green eyes and over-long sable hair. It was only the bright, easy smile the boy cast in his direction that made Mulder falter. The youngster's innocent expression was pure Skippy-rat, and that made Mulder's heart hitch with a sudden feeling of terrible loss. Alex had once smiled at him like that.

"Sit down, Mulder," Skinner said, in a frighteningly cheerful voice. "Grab yourself a coffee. Your omelet's just going to take a minute. Anyone else for any more?"

"I'll have some more of those delicious fries, Mr. Skinner," Teena announced, offering her plate with an approving, and worryingly appreciative smile in Skinner's direction.

"Of course, Mrs. Mulder. But I told you to call me Walter," Skinner replied, with a courteous smile. "Then you must call me, Teena," she announced.

Mulder slunk into one of the empty chairs and cast a worried look in Scully's direction. "Are you sure they aren't clones?" he whispered.

Scully snorted into her plate, and took another mouthful of omelet before replying. "No," she admitted, after she'd swallowed and licked her lips with obvious satisfaction. "But, under the circumstances, who cares?"

He glowered at her in disgust, but when a plate piled high with enough food to feed the five-thousand was slapped onto the table in front of him by a happily grinning Skinner, he had to admit she had a point.

"I can't ever remember having such a lazy morning," Samantha sighed, as Skinner replenished her coffee. "Usually, I'm running around like a maniac trying to feed this lot, while they sit at the table with their mouths open like a bunch of pleading starving birds. I really appreciate this, Walter."

Mulder choked noisily on his mouthful of biscuit at her casual use of Skinner's first name.

"I love cooking," Skinner replied easily, and smoothly handed Mulder a glass of orange juice. "I just don't get much opportunity."

"I'm a terrible cook," Teena confessed, but looked completely unapologetic.

"Must be a genetic trait," Scully laughed. "Mulder's idea of cooking begins and ends with the speed dial on his phone."

Mulder considered a biting retort, but opted in favor of taking another bite of breakfast instead. Skinner was a surprisingly damned fine cook.

Samantha took a last sip of coffee and rose to her feet with a reluctant sigh. "Go get ready for school, Nicki. Can you drive him down to the bus stop, Liss?"

"Sure, Mom," Lisita agreed.

"I'll get started on the dishes," Samantha continued, though she looked less than thrilled at the prospect.

"Sit yourself back down, Sam," Skinner said firmly. "A cook should always clean his own pans. It's the best way of guaranteeing he doesn't burn them," he added with a grin.

"He's definitely a pod person," Mulder muttered to Scully under his breath. "Have you ever seen a smile like that on Skinner's face?"

"No," she agreed quietly. "But then again, I've never seen him happy before."

And Mulder couldn't think of anything to say to that.

He was fucking starving!

The smells wafting out of the kitchen window were tugging on his stomach like invisible strings, trying to lure him inside.

But he was damned if he was going to go in there.

How fucking dare he? How FUCKING dare Skinner think he had the right to insinuate himself into the family like that?

Fucking traitors, the lot of them. Rolling over and showing their bellies to Skinner just because he'd fed them....


He couldn't believe he'd even thought something like that.

It wasn't Sam and the kids' fault. It was his own. He should have put a bullet into Skinner's head the moment he'd seen him slyly sneaking around the kitchen. But if he heard Teena say one more simpering comment in Skinner's praise he was going to string her upside down from the nearest tree.

How dare she fucking flirt with...

...with his father.



He was so damned angry he wasn't even sure what the hell he was angry about. The only thing he was certain about was the fact he was fucking starving!

"Wan' real eggs," William announced, as soon as Lisita and Nicki had left the kitchen. He screwed his face up with sudden undisguised disgust at the remains of his half-eaten omelet.

"Scrambled or sunny-side up?" Skinner replied easily.

"He'll finish what he's got," Samantha replied, with a quelling frown in William's direction. "He always does this, Walter. He gets half-way through his food and then decides he doesn't like it."

"Yucky," William stated firmly, dropping his fork to his plate with a loud clatter. "Wan' Lucky Charms."

Samantha rolled her eyes in Skinner's direction. "Let this be your lesson that it's a waste of time cooking decent food for a four-year-old," she laughed. Then she turned to William. "If you're still hungry, finish your omelet. If you've finished eating, you can leave the table."

"But I wan' Lucky Charms," he announced, his pudgy fingers curling into defiant fists.

"Then that's what you'll have," a rumpled and unshaven Alex announced, as he walked into the room. He pretended not to notice Samantha's silent frown of protest and blatantly ignored the other occupants of the room. He pointedly grabbed two dishes out of the cupboard.

"Walter saved you a proper breakfast," Teena snapped, as she watched him pour cereal and milk into both bowls, hand one to William and then drop into an empty seat with the other one.

Alex's only response was to spoon a heaped mouthful of the sugary cereal into his mouth and chew it with obvious satisfaction.

// Brat // Skinner thought to himself, and smothered a reluctantly amused smile.

"When he throws up, you're cleaning up after him," Samantha muttered, as William followed Alex's example and thrust a huge mouthful of cereal between his lips.

Skinner filled a mug of coffee and placed it in front of Alex.

"I can pour my own fu...." Alex began, then glanced guiltily in William's direction. "I can get my own coffee in my own kitchen in my own dam... my own house," he snarled.

Skinner just shrugged lightly and returned to washing the dishes.

The whole damned situation was too bizarre for belief, Mulder decided. They sure as hell weren't in Kansas anymore!

And Alex looked like crap. He clearly hadn't slept at all the night before. His eyes were bloodshot and deeply shadowed by dark bruises, he was still wearing the, now-creased, clothes he'd been wearing the previous evening and the dark stubble shadowing his jaw just added to his disreputable appearance.

He looked exhausted, dangerous and...

... and, well, down-right gorgeous.

Now his anger towards the other man had been quashed by his understanding of Alex's motives for his behavior, Mulder could no longer fool himself that the hot surge of emotion that had always surged through him whenever he saw Alex's dark persona was hatred. Because he was still feeling it. His whole damned body was alive with it.

He was no longer looking at Alex through his previous filter of hate, and although the unmistakable feralness of the true Alex, that he'd previously perceived as visible proof of his intrinsic evil, was still making his temperature rise and his heart thud with adrenaline, it wasn't distaste that he was feeling.

It was desire.

He blushed furiously and dropped his eyes hurriedly towards the table. He couldn't believe he was sitting in Samantha's house, not five feet away from her, entertaining carnal thoughts about her husband.

// But she knows about the two of you. She practically came straight out and told you she didn't mind //

So maybe the reason he felt so damned reluctant about admitting his reawakened attraction to Alex wasn't the fear of Samantha's reaction to his confession.

Maybe it was Alex's reaction he was dreading.

Skinner made a fresh pot of coffee, waited until Teena had taken William upstairs to wash and brush his teeth, then silently filled five mugs, took them to the table, and sat down.

"We've a conversation to finish," he said, his tone firm.

Alex gave him a glancing look of deliberate boredom, but reached for his coffee mug without audible complaint. Samantha and Scully both sighed quietly and nodded their agreement. Mulder, surprisingly, didn't react with his typical verbosity. He just grunted softly and continued writing invisible doodles on the table-top with his forefinger.

"We all have a lot of questions," Skinner started, "and I'm sure they'll all be answered in due course, so I'd like to avoid a petty argument about the reason behind every incident of real or perceived injury caused by any one of us to another, if at all possible. We've already established that Alex always acted, rightly or wrongly, out of the belief he was ensuring his family's safety. I see no point, whatsoever, in nit-picking those individual choices in a pointless attempt to prove he should have found other options."

He paused and frowned at the unexpected silence. "Are you listening to me, Mulder?"

Mulder just nodded quietly and continued to doodle.

His face scrunched in confusion, Skinner met Scully's eyes. She just shrugged as though to say she had no idea what was going on in Mulder's head either.

"So," Skinner continued, with a slight shrug of his own. "I suggest we cut to the chase and discuss the most important issue."

Alex's eyes narrowed in suspicion, and he offered Skinner a warning glare.

Unfazed, Skinner continued in a steady, no-nonsense tone. "I want to know what your alternative is to the creation of the 4th gens."

Mulder's head shot up suddenly and his eyes flicked rapidly between Skinner and Alex, before setting on Alex. "Of course," he muttered, in an atypically humble voice. "Why the hell didn't I realize you must have thought it all through far enough to know your kids are as much at risk from the aliens as they are from the Consortium?"

"Because you were too busy kicking my ass and calling me the scum of the universe?" Alex suggested sweetly.

"Alex," Samantha warned softly. "Be nice."

"Well he was," Alex spat. "He never fucking stopped to ask me before, did he? It never fucking occurred to him that I might actually have a reason for what I was doing!"

"No," she agreed quietly, with a slightly resentful glance in Mulder's direction. "But he's asking now."

"And I'm sorry," Mulder said, loudly and distinctly. "I'm sorry, Alex."

Skinner and Scully gaped at him in disbelief. Samantha looked equally surprised although her eyes softened considerably as she nodded at her brother in quiet approval. Alex just blinked at Mulder slowly, his mouth gaping open in amazement, his eyes clouded with obvious emotion, the skin between his eyes puckered into a completely confused frown.

He shook his head ponderously, as though the attempt to absorb Mulder's apology was causing him actual physical pain, and then he shot abruptly to his feet.

"I don't fucking believe this," he snarled, and swung around as though he intended to storm out of the room.

"Alex, if you go through that door, I will come after you, pick you up and CARRY you back in here," Skinner barked.

Alex's face darkened with fury. "Who the fucking hell do you think you are, talking to me like that?" he demanded.

A grim smile slipped across Skinner's face at Alex's unthinking opening.

"I'm your father, boy," he stated firmly. "I didn't know that before but now I do know, you'd better understand how damned seriously I take my obligation to you."

"What fucking obligation?" Alex sneered. "You can stuff your fucking sense of 'obligation' where the sun don't shine, Skinner."

"Unless you want to spend the rest of this conversation face-down on my lap with a red ass, I suggest you shut up, sit down and stop acting like a brat, Alex Skinner!"

The color drained out of Alex's face and he wobbled on suddenly unsteady legs.

"Alex?" Samantha said, jumping to her feet in concern. She cast a furious look in Skinner's direction, sickened that he'd even suggest applying corporal punishment to a man who'd grown up as horrifically abused as Alex had.

"Did...d...d...did you... d..did you h...hear him?" Alex stuttered wildly.

"Yes, honey," she soothed. "I heard him." She gathered him protectively into her arms, as gently as though he was one of her children, while Skinner, Scully and Mulder all looked on in shocked disbelief at Alex's abrupt loss of composure.

"H...h...he.... h...he ca...ca...called m..me...A...A...Alex....Sk..Sk...Skinner," Alex gasped.

"Oh, sweetheart," she sighed, her eyes filling with sudden comprehension. She spared Skinner a slight, apologetic smile over Alex's shoulder, then pressed her lips gently to Alex's trembling forehead. "Of course he did. He is your father, Alex."

While she helped Alex back into his chair, Skinner removed his glasses, fumbled in the pocket of his pants for a handkerchief and unashamedly wiped his suddenly watering eyes. Scully rose to her feet silently, slipped through the connecting door to the living room and reappeared a few moments later with a stack of glasses and a bottle of whiskey.

"Doctor's orders," she snapped, at Mulder's surprised look.

So, despite his own doubts as to the wisdom of drinking hard liquor at barely gone eight in the morning, Mulder obediently poured out five shots of whiskey. Then, watching Skinner and Alex both take grateful gulps from their glasses, he sipped cautiously at his own drink and found its soothing warmth so unexpectedly pleasurable that he downed it in one swallow.

When he finally stopped coughing, and his eyes had stopped watering, he refilled everyone's glasses and took a deep, steadying breath.

"So," he said, with a nod in Alex's direction. "You were about to tell us your plan for preventing the invasion."

Fortunately, Alex still seemed too shell-shocked to remember he'd actually been about to charge out of the room in a temper tantrum.

"The black oil," Alex mumbled into his whiskey.

Mulder frowned with confusion, raising his eyes to Skinner's in a mute appeal. Skinner just shrugged, obviously equally bemused.

"You're...um... talking about the vaccine to the black oil?" Mulder queried hesitantly.

"No," Alex said, shaking his head emphatically. Then he paused suddenly, as though re-thinking his denial, and corrected himself. "Well, yes, but no."

Mulder hurriedly suppressed his automatic irritation at Alex's vague and incomprehensible answer. It was clear that Alex was really not capable of holding a coherent conversation at that moment. The psychologist in him fully understood how shattering Alex had found Skinner's casual gift of name and identity to a man who had been born and raised as 'merchandise'. And it finally struck him that Alex's loyal obsession with the family he'd been forced to acquire wasn't as surprising as Samantha had suggested.

As a young child, Alex must have yearned to belong to a family. It must have seemed like the ultimate, unreachable dream to him. He hadn't clung to Samantha and the kids out of an altruistic belief in the sanctity of his enforced wedding vows, he'd grabbed hold of them like they were a life raft thrown to a drowning man. Alex had tried to turn Samantha and the children into the family that he'd been so cruelly denied. But, in a way, Alex had never been able to see them as his family, as much as the family that agreed to include him.

Samantha, and the children, all bore the name Mulder. Teena was a Mulder.

But Alex? Well, Alex had had nothing but the fake identity of Krycek, until the moment that Walter Skinner had granted him the right to use his own name.

That had been, perhaps, the first moment that Alex had truly perceived that Skinner was his father. He might have known it as a fact, he had sure as hell resented it as a fact, but, Mulder realized, Alex had never truly understood it as a reality.

No wonder Alex was incapable of concentrating on something as comparatively minor as an alien invasion.

"Our plan is three-pronged," Samantha said, when it was clear that Alex was too distracted by his own thoughts to reply to Mulder's question. "Two parts involve mass-production of the vaccines against the black oil and the virus that creates Replicants. Now they've both been proven to be fully effective, we've invested a vast amount of money in several factories around the world. They've already produced enough vaccine for two-thirds of the world's population."

"Exactly how much money did Mannerly leave you?" Scully asked, her expression doubtful as she considered the enormity of the operation Samantha was describing.

"We're not using his money for that. We're using my father's. You wouldn't believe how much he managed to squirrel away right under the noses of the other Elders. When I inherited his estate, four years ago, I literally became the richest woman in America."

"No wonder your house is so damned big," Mulder muttered. "You've got more bedrooms than most of the motels I stay at."

Alex stiffened angrily, but quietened when Samantha patted him soothingly on the shoulder. "We bought this house before Dad died," she corrected firmly. "While Mannerly's money was undoubtedly gained from the same sources as Dad's, it doesn't seem to hold the same taint of 'blood money'. Alex would rather cut his other arm off than touch a cent of the Spender fortune," she added bluntly.

"Excuse me for pointing out the obvious," Skinner growled suddenly, "but what's the point of distributing a vaccine against the black oil, if it's going to leave the population infertile?"

Samantha frowned in confusion, then her brow cleared and she laughed. "Sorry, we inadvertently misled you last night. The vaccine doesn't make a normal human infertile, it only has that effect on a hybrid."

Scully and Skinner both shook their heads in bemusement, but Mulder's eyes widened in sudden comprehension.

"That's the third prong of your solution, isn't it?" he demanded eagerly, slapping his forehead as though to chastise himself for his earlier stupidity. "That's why you sent us the data on the labs, wasn't it?" he added, turning his bright gaze on Alex. "It wasn't just a smoke screen to keep me from finding out about the Project. You honestly were hoping I'd be able to uncover something in their research to help your own plans."

Alex nodded cautiously. "I had to conceal the data about the Project," he admitted quietly, "but the rest of the data... well, we were hoping you and Scully would uncover and make sense of the medical data relating to how the Consortium doctors managed to reverse your own sterility."

"So you still haven't found a viable solution?" Mulder mumbled, his face falling.

"Oh, we've found the solution," Samantha interrupted sadly. "The only problem is it's fatal to hybrids like ourselves. We can save the world, Fox. We just haven't discovered a way to save ourselves, if we do so."

"What solution?" Scully demanded impatiently. "What the hell is this third prong?"

Surprisingly, it was Mulder who answered her. "If infection by the black oil only makes hybrids sterile, it means that some property inside it is toxic to the Grays. They're not only two separate alien species, Scully. They're each other's Achilles' heel."

"He's right," Samantha agreed, with a proud look of appreciation for her brother's quick intelligence. "We've developed an air-borne biological weapon, based upon the black oil, that will be released into the upper atmosphere. And, when it rains, a blanket of spores will be spread over the entire surface of the planet. The spores will be fatal to the Grays on contact."

"Which leaves nothing but the rebel aliens to be dealt with," Alex added, "and they're satisfied to simply go home as soon as the weapon has been deployed."

"The weapon which will kill every one in this room," Skinner pointed out softly.

"Yeah, well that's why, regardless of his feelings about me, Mulder's hopefully going to be smart enough to agree to help us devise an antidote," Alex said earnestly. "We need your help, Mulder. I'm sure that's why Kersh, damn him, deliberately slipped you the file on Lisita. He thought the risk to Sam and the kids was worth it. He was assuming, of course, that you'd manage to shut up long enough to listen to our explanation of what was really happening.

"And we need your help, Scully. Somewhere inside those laboratory records, there has to be a solution. I know you hate me for what happened to Melissa, God knows I'd feel the same about you if you ever did something to one of my family, but even if you don't care what happens to my children, I'm praying you care enough about William and Mulder and yourself, to see why we need that antidote."

"And if I don't?" she challenged softly. "If I refuse to help you?"

"Then none of you leave this house," Alex admitted reluctantly.

She nodded to herself. "Then it's just as well I believe you, isn't it?" she said, with a wry smile. Both Samantha and Mulder released the breaths they'd been holding and exchanged a look of relief.

"What about me?" Skinner said. "What can I do to help?"

Alex just shrugged and pouted sulkily, as though unwilling to admit Skinner might have anything to offer him.

// Gotten over your temporary shock, then. // Skinner grunted to himself, as he witnessed Alex's defensive walls slamming back up.

"Surely there's something I can do to help?" he said, although he was fully expecting Alex's refusal.

"We need you like a fish needs a bicycle," Alex retorted, with a smug smile. "Why the hell do I need a mere AD in my pocket, when I've got Kersh? He might be a two-faced bastard, but he's a 1st gen too, Skinner. He's got every reason to support Mulder and Scully's search for an antidote."

"So you don't need me to help," Skinner repeated, as though to get it perfectly clear in his head.

"I don't fucking need you," Alex spat, his expression exasperated.

A smug, satisfied smile crept across Skinner's features. "Good," he announced firmly. "That means I can stay here and get to know my family."

And even Samantha snickered at the look of complete offended shock in Alex's eyes as he realized Skinner had just deliberately played him.

"We're leaving," Mulder announced softly. "I managed to get us a flight out tonight."

Alex didn't turn around to acknowledge him, he just nodded slightly to show he'd heard and continued staring off the porch towards the empty horse paddock.

"We'll...um... contact you as soon as we find anything. Samantha gave us the secure numbers and I already know your email address," Mulder said, "and, of course, you know how to contact us if you need to. Though, I guess, you'll be in touch with Kersh..." He let his voice trail off, realizing he was babbling, unable to say the words he so wanted to say.

But, as Alex continued to ignore him, Mulder doggedly decided to try again.

"Samantha...um... Samantha invited us for Thanksgiving, anyway. So we'll be back in a couple of months. Scully can't... she can't wait to get to know William better," he added, hoping that that at least would needle Alex into replying.

But except for a slight tremor that seemed to run through his spine, Alex didn't respond.

"And...and...and I want to get to know you better, Alex," Mulder added, in a pained whisper.

"How much more do you fucking need to know?" Alex snarled, still refusing to turn and face him. "You've already had your cock up my ass and last night and this morning you had a good old trample on my fucking soul. There's not a whole fuck else to know about me, Mulder."

Mulder winced slightly at the bitter words, but stepped forward and tentatively touched Alex's back. Alex flinched and half-stepped away, a full-body tremble seeming to ripple through his whole frame, but still he wouldn't turn around.

"I want to know your heart, " Mulder whispered, pressing up against Alex until he was pinned against the porch railing, and then dropping his head against the top of Alex's shoulder. "I want to know your heart, Alex," he repeated, whispering the words into his neck.

This close, he could see the frantic heaving of Alex's chest, the hot flush on his neck, the profile of his bowed head with its tightly pursed lips, closed eyes, and the soft sparkle of wetness on the overlong lashes.

"Fuck off, Mulder," Alex husked, the words emerging harsh and cropped through his clenched teeth.

"No," Mulder said, with a soft, sad smile. "I might be leaving, Alex, but I'm coming back. And I'm going to keep coming back, until you admit it."

"Admit what?" Alex growled.

"That you love me, Alex," Mulder said, with the ease of total certainty. "That you always did, and you always will. You love me, Alex. And, no matter what's happened between us, that's never changed. I understand that now. I understand a lot of things now."

Alex's eyes snapped open and he turned enough to sneer directly into Mulder's face. "Well, fucking good for you," he spat, the sarcasm dripping out of his mouth like venom. "It's too fucking LATE, you arrogant bastard."

Mulder shook his head. "No it isn't, Alex. And maybe I am arrogant, but that doesn't mean I'm wrong. You still want me. I know you still want me."

He ran a finger down Alex's cheek for emphasis and was rewarded by the sight of Alex closing his eyes and gasping loudly, as though totally overcome even by so small a touch. But then Alex stiffened, his whole body going rigid, and Mulder instinctively knew that, unable to handle the emotions Mulder was inspiring in him, Alex was going to flee.

So he stepped back, allowing Alex enough space to recover his composure.

"You love me, Alex," he said softly, "and, it just so happens that I seem to love you too."

Alex's eyes flew open and he regarded Mulder with confused suspicion.

Mulder just smiled sadly. "I'll leave you to ponder that. See you at Thanksgiving, Alex," he said, and then he turned and walked away, confident that at least Alex's confused eyes would follow his exit.

"I'm so glad you're staying," Samantha said, her expression clearly approving.

"I'm glad someone is," Skinner chuckled wryly. He hadn't seen hide nor hair of Alex since Mulder and Scully's departure several hours previously.

"The kids are going to be thrilled," she replied quietly, holding her hand out in a silent request for the pan of potatoes he'd just finished peeling.

He carried it over to the stove for her and grabbed a bag of beans off the counter on his way back to the table. Then he proceeded to top and tail the vegetables as they talked.

"I'm looking forward to getting to know them," he admitted. "You can't... well, I'm not sure I can explain how much it means to me to have found a family, Samantha. I'm not, well, I'm not renowned for my ability to express my feelings."

"You do okay, Walter," she said, with a soft smile. "Believe me, you do okay. Besides," she added, at his look of polite astonishment, "I have a four-year-old 3rd gen child who still hasn't learned not to eavesdrop on people's private thoughts, so it's practically impossible to lie in this house, even by omission."

"I hadn't thought of that," he admitted, flushing slightly.

"That's why I know you're sincere, Walter. And that's why Alex knows it too. It's just... well, it's just going to take him a long time to come to terms with the idea of having a real, honest-to-god father of his own."

"I understand that," he said, with a solemn nod.

"And I don't know whether he's ever going to come to terms with the idea of you chastising him like you did this morning," she laughed. "But... well, between you and me, I think it's what he secretly wants."

"Wants?" Skinner repeated, with obvious bemusement.

"No one's ever done it before," she explained. "The Elders just beat him into submission, Fox bullies him, Teena tries to nag him into doing what she wants, and the kids and me...well, we're too damned awed by the sacrifices he's made for us to ever dream of criticizing him. But... well, it's difficult to always strive to be good if no one expresses a genuine interest in your behavior, isn't it? I think...I think it really affected Alex when you told him you were proud to call him your son. It definitely stunned him when you gave him your name."

"I know," Skinner agreed, rubbing his knuckles against his eyes as they threatened to tear up again.

"So all I'm saying is, don't give up on him, Walter. Just be yourself, and open your heart to him, and one of these days he's going to stop fighting you and give in because it is what he wants. He's just frightened of reaching out to you, because he's been hurt so much in the past."

Skinner nodded his understanding and silently continued to work on the beans for a few minutes, before softly saying, "And what do you want, Samantha? How are you going to cope if Alex and Mulder..." He paused, unable to find a gentle way of putting it.

"When," she corrected gently. "Not if. When. Just like the fact I know Fox and Dana will find the antidote. Just like I know your relationship with Alex will work out. It's just a matter of time. No matter how wild and untamed Alex is, both you and Fox are eventually going to manage to rope and tie him in your own individual ways."

"And how do you feel about that, Samantha?" he asked, his expression clearly concerned.

She just laughed at his worried expression. "Happy, glad, sad, all of the above. I love him, Walter. I want him to be happy, even if that happiness is at my expense. Besides, whatever happens, he'll never leave me or the children. Both you and Fox are going to have to fit into my world, not the other way around. Alex will always put me first. How many wives are lucky enough to be able to say that with complete and absolute certainty?"

"Not many," he agreed, with a sad smile as he remembered his own neglect of Sharon. "Not many at all."

"So," she said brightly. "Now we've arranged the saving of the world and discussed the hopeful resurrection of Alex's long neglected sex life, what do you say we go find Alex and see what we can do about kick-starting a bit of father/son bonding?"

Skinner blinked at her in mild surprise and then shook his head in silent awe. Though he was so glad, for his son's sake, that Alex had Samantha at his side, it seemed almost criminal that such a brave, strong, compassionate and, let's face it, beautiful, woman was married to a man who had no physical interest in her.

"You're one hell of a woman, Samantha Skinner," he announced.

She looked at him in shock, and then laughed delightedly. "I like the sound of that, Walter. I like the sound of that a lot."

And, as she hooked her arm through his and tugged him out of the kitchen in search of her husband, he had the peculiar feeling that she'd meant a hell of a lot more than just the sound of the name.

"I did," she snickered.

He spun around and looked at her in surprise.

She shrugged. "So, maybe William isn't the only one around here who's rude enough to poke in other people's heads," she confessed, with a wicked smile. "But don't worry. I'm only a 2nd gen. My ability comes and goes."

He was just breathing a sigh of relief, when she squeezed his arm and said, "And I think you're pretty damned attractive yourself, Walter Skinner."

As he spluttered with a mixture of embarrassment and pleasure, her laughter burst out like a peal of bells, and that happy sound continued to echo throughout the house as they went to find Alex.

The End


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