cover image

Title: Deliverance From Evil
Authors: Jacquie LaVa and Tess
Category: MSR, post-col
Rating: R to NC-17
Disclaimer: These characters belong to CC and company -We're just using their clones to show how we think the mytharc will play out
Spoilers: Up through Season 7 "All Things", and FTF

Author Notes: At the end of the story! Feedback: We would adore it: char@chaffin.com, and tnv099@aol.com

Summary: Mulder and Scully discover the horrifying truth about the alien colonization - and the ensuing battle will test their strength and their commitment to each other.

 


~ Prologue ~

"If I quit now... They win."

But 'They' had already won; They'd already defeated the world. When he spoke those words to Scully in the dim hallway outside his apartment, three years ago and mere minutes before a deceptively innocuous looking bee unwittingly became a catalyst for the upcoming battle... Mulder didn't know just how outnumbered they really were -how outnumbered they had always been. And he had no sort of grasp on how far back it went, how many decades the Colonizers had walked among the human race... and how many of them actually populated the earth.

By the time he and Scully found out - really found out... it was too late. Colonization, as they had feared, was happening everywhere -and actually had been happening for a very long time.

Slowly... insidiously... relentlessly.

Irreversibly.

It seemed as if one day was normal, just like any other day in the life - and the next was insanity... but that's not really how it went down. It had been going insane for years and years, but Mulder thought it was just your normal 'world-is-changing" sort of shit. Cities growing bigger and meaner and more drugged-out... less people believing in a Supreme Being, and more people out for only Number One.

Maybe that would have happened anyway, but not as rapidly - not as gruesomely. And he supposed so many people like Scully and him, good people who worked hard and did their best to make a difference in the world... those people went about their regular business and never saw the evidence of it because they had been living in it all their lives. Another culture, that's what it was... how could they have fought against it? They grew up in it. Their parents, if not completely taken over by it at a young age, at the very least allowed it to happen. There was no stopping it; Mulder could see that now.

On the day before he had begun to somehow understand, and believe, what had become of their world as they knew it - and what was about to continue to happen... on that day he and Scully had made a monumental decision for themselves - had decided to put it all behind them, and leave the Bureau. This decision had not come about lightly; they had agonized over it privately and in shared conversation, for a long time. Yet they had ignored what their hearts and minds told them about the state of their careers - had ignored the obvious, that it was time to stop it before the weariness and desolation of their lives threatened to steal their very humanity.

Both of them were so tired of the personal loss and the heartache and the loneliness and uncertainty of life itself. Their birthdays had come and gone, with the gaining of another gray hair or two and losing another year. Then, a case - a monstrous case of murder - and yes, they had seen worse... but this one was the final, proverbial straw. This one broke them - and made them decide, once and for all.

Made them decide that they wanted a life - what there was left of it, they wanted it. Together.

And when, close on the heels of that decision, came the knowledge of their world ending all around them - together they fled, when there appeared to be no other choice...

~ Chapter One ~

The quiet stillness of the garden was shattered by the sound of sandaled feet approaching. One person broke free of the crowd and stepped forward, embracing the man who waited for him peacefully. As his lips brushed over the man's bearded cheek, he cried out as if struck by lightening and stumbled away, clutching his head in agony.

The crowd surged forward and several men laid their hands on the quiet figure. Violence erupted briefly before the crowd dragged their captive from the garden. As peace settled over the garden once again, he held his head in residual pain and watched the retreating figures of the crowd as they led their prisoner away. The man fell to his knees as his soul did battle with his demons. Dragging himself to his feet, he followed.

As the sun rose, regret was an acrid taste in his mouth and he took himself to those who had conscripted him. Railing at them bitterly, he threw their blood money at their feet and left. Standing on a hilltop, seeing what he had wrought with his greed and anger, he fell against a tree and was sick. Collapsing to his knees, he coughed and heaved, expelling the sickness and evil within him in an oily, black pool of vomit. Lurching to his feet, unable to live with his sins, he prayed for forgiveness - and in the dawning pink light of that Friday morning, Judas hung himself.

"Scully, I don't know about you - but I'm tired." They were sitting very close together on her sofa, empty wineglasses on the table in front of them and a low- burning fire flickering in the fireplace. Scully had leaned her head on his shoulder, one hand twined in his and her breath soft and warm in his neck. Warm - she was warm and vital and alive, and Mulder's fears at that moment seemed really silly - yet he couldn't shake it. Even before the events of the past week it had been nagging at him - and every day it got a little stronger. He was certain something monumental was about to happen...

"I'm wiped out too, Mulder. Why don't we call it an early night? I think we could both use the extra sleep, don't you?" She'd looked up at him through heavy lashes, smothering a yawn against his sweatshirt, and Mulder had squeezed her shoulders and dropped a kiss on top of her head. He'd hated to leave; it was cold out and beginning to rain - he didn't want to drive home. But they both needed some decent sleep; they'd talked long and hard that evening about the decision to quit the Bureau.

It wasn't the first time they'd discussed it but for some reason they always stayed, always took that next case. This time, however... just talking about it wasn't going to work.

They'd come off a grueling case; a man who'd killed his entire family, of a wife and eight children... for the simple reason that they made too much noise while he was watching the evening news. The only reason he could give the investigating team, his eyes calm and his manner placid and eerily sane as his deep voice had uttered the excuse. Then he'd held out his hands for the cuffs to be slapped on... and had walked to the patrol car with a confident stride.

Scully had lingered next to the blood- spattered crib, with its burden of identical twin infant boys, no more than three months old... and her face had been awful to see. She had needed the support of Mulder's arm when she walked down the blood-slippery staircase.

In the equally-bloody foyer the murderer, Darrell Moore, had paused by the fallen body of his wife, Marjorie; for an instant he'd gazed down at her with vague regret in his face, then he'd looked up and met Mulder's unblinking stare, before allowing police to pull him from the house.

Mulder had watched the patrol cars drive away, stepping aside for the last of the stretchers to enter and take away the last of the bodies. He'd turned to Scully, wondering if she'd noticed the look Moore had given him and the odd sheen of his dilated eyes... but the face she presented was too pained and too heartsick - and he wisely remained silent. He'd put an arm around her shoulders, not caring if anyone noticed and wondered at the familiarity of the gesture -needing her contact and warmth as much as she welcomed his.

Now Mulder stood and stretched his stiff legs, knowing he should leave before it got any later; they were both exhausted. Scully stood as well and detained him with one small hand as he moved toward the door.

"Mulder, stay... it's late and nasty out; I don't want to be alone and I think you don't either. We still have so much to decide -" She stared up at him with soft, tired eyes; the day had taken its toll on her and they still had the bulk of the investigation to work through. "Tomorrow we can think about what we want to do. Right now I just want to sleep."

Mulder nodded and followed her back to the bedroom, snapping off lights as he passed them. He didn't question whether Scully wanted him in her bed, and Scully didn't ask. Neither of them wanted to be separated by so much as a wall between a sofa and a bed. They left the lights off in the bedroom; Scully turned back the covers on both sides while Mulder brushed his teeth with her spare toothbrush, and he stripped down to boxers and undershirt while she ran water in the sink and prepared herself for sleep. When she came out of the bathroom clad in her blue satin nightshirt he was already in bed.

Mulder watched with sleep-heavy eyes as Scully slid between the pale peach sheets; lying on their sides they regarded each other with serious intent. He traced her pale face with a worried finger; this day had been especially tough on her. The killing of children had always been horrible to contemplate, but Scully had the hardest time with it, her innate professionalism and impartiality taking a nosedive when their cases turned up this sort of atrocity. He leaned in closer, until his lips could touch her, kissed her mouth gently and whispered against her lips, "Sleep, okay? Sleep now..." She returned the soft pressure with a barely audible, "Um-hmm..."

They slept.

The tall, slender figure in the draped black wool cloak wouldn't speak to him in words. Instead she stood there with her equally-slender hands held palms-up, at waist-level - and stared hard, as if just by staring her message would get across. Although her stare was tangible he could not quite see her face, but in this instance it didn't seem to matter, for Mulder understood every word without the benefit of identity.

'It's time. You know it - your woman knows it.'

"My woman... are you referring to Scully? What do you know of Scully?"

'I know of her. She's your woman - she has always been yours - and it's time. Get her away from here.'

"Why? Why should we leave? I don't understand."

'Yes, you do. You know what I'm talking about. You've always known. The world as you know it will cease to exist - and you will not live if you don't leave as soon as you can.'

"What's going to happen? Can you at least tell me that much?"

'You know. The oil...' At the mention of the word 'oil', the figure in draped black wool raised her slender fingers and eased back the hood covering her head; he could see a glint of deep reddish-brown wavy hair - and something about the way it curled around the edges of the wool made him think of...

"Samantha!"

Mulder awoke with a choking gasp of panic, drenched in a cold sweat. Eyes wide with residual fear, the dream was so vivid in his mind, the word 'oil' reverberating through his suddenly aching head. He glanced down when a small movement beside him caught him unawares; in his nightmare- state he'd forgotten Scully lay beside him still deeply asleep. In the grip of the dream he must have reached out for her comfort, for his fingers were laced tightly through hers. On his back staring up at the ceiling, Mulder forced himself to take deep calming breaths as he filtered the details of the dream past his still- pounding head.

He could still feel her presence, smell her. She'd smelled the way he'd remembered the adult Samantha had smelled - that same delicate perfume. Although the face had been obscured in some way, he still knew her. And though he knew the adult Samantha was not really his sister, not really human... she'd been as close as he'd ever gotten to having Samantha all grown up. And the sense of loss was just as great, because this time she had only been in his dream to warn him.

If there had at least been a voice... but no, she had communicated with him using thoughts instead of words. The feeling radiating from her had been urgent; Mulder had felt it and had reacted to that urgency with an elevated heartbeat and a cold panic. As he lay next to Scully and reconstructed the dream Mulder could feel again the way this Samantha's thoughts had curled around him, thick and tangible.

Once, he and Scully had found themselves stranded in McGrath, Alaska; on the tail end of a manhunt that had dragged them from Atlanta to Anchorage they had gotten snowed in during the worst winter on record in Interior Alaska and had not been able to fly out when scheduled.

Walking back to the motel from a small café where he and Scully had eaten lunch, Mulder had felt ice fog curl around his face and invade his throat as he struggled to keep his breathing shallow; the frozen condensation was thick and tangible... just the same as this mental conversation had been, invading him within the dream. It had chilled him then and the remembered feel of something so viscous and alien was doing a number on him yet again.

"Mulder, what is it? You're shivering..." He gave a start - so deep within his thoughts that he'd never felt Scully stretching beside him, or sitting up next to him and laying a hand on his tense arm. He shook his head to clear it and looked down into her sleepy eyes, kissing the top of her head.

"I had a dream, Scully - and I think we need to talk..."

She thought he was a nut... he could tell. After he'd replayed the dream for Scully, she'd looked at him with worried eyes. "Mulder, it was a dream, nothing more than that. Not surprising that you'd have a disturbing dream; God, I've had my share of them! And today was awful for both of us. Add that to all the talking we've been doing, about leaving the Bureau... I'd be more surprised if you didn't have a nightmare."

Mulder leaned up against the headboard; all through the telling of it he'd been sitting straight up in bed as stiff as could be. Now he tried to relax and winced at the ache in his abused back.

"This wasn't a nightmare, exactly - more like a warning. She was warning me - us - to leave, Scully. And she knew about the black oil." Mulder rubbed at his eyes, then met Scully's still-worried gaze. "Over the years I've learned to trust my instincts, and right now every instinct I have tells me to run a mile and take you with me." He reached out a hand and wound his fingers through Scully's, noting their icy feel. She returned the squeeze of his grasp but her voice showed her skepticism.

"Mulder, think about it - where would we go? If this is indeed some sort of telepathic warning, if in some way you have been contacted about the possibility of alien colonization... then where could we run? Wouldn't that colonization be everywhere? Wouldn't it be impossible to escape? All this time we've been told that once colonization began it would be irreversible. If we believe it, that there are aliens waiting to harvest us like a crop of potatoes..." Mulder's angry retort broke through her reasoning.

"If? IF, Scully? Jesus!" He jumped up and away from the bed, pacing around in frustration. "After all you've seen, all that both of us have seen... you can still find a way to doubt? Just as you said, we've been told. Over and over again we have been told about it, been involved in it, dragged into it. Are you forgetting the virus? Forgetting what you went through, how you almost died? No, actually worse than that... how you almost became a little sustaining meal for one of those bastards' offspring!"

He reached her side and a hand shot out, grasping Scully's arm and jerking her to her feet. Mulder pulled her up against him until they were nose to nose.

"I haven't forgotten, Scully. What it felt like to stand there in front of a vat of green death, seeing you floating in it, knowing you were a whisper away from something that horrendous. This time a worse fate than death... nurturing one of those... things... inside of you. Knowing that when it burst from your chest the Scully I knew would be nothing more than a memory and I'd have to find a way to kill something that had been a part of you, no matter how hideous that part truly was..."

He found himself shaking with anger, not so much at his partner but against everything they'd fought - always fighting an enemy of some sort. Always another monster, either human or otherwise. God, he was tired of it. He leaned his newly aching forehead against Scully's and shuddered when her arms slowly came about him; he eased his grip upon her arms and hugged her as tightly as she was holding him. She ran a soothing hand along the back of his neck and her small whisper was hoarse in his shoulder.

"I'm sorry, shhh, Mulder... so sorry. Of course I remember; I've never forgotten it either, though I wish to hell I had. I knew what was going to happen to me, I really did - somewhere in my consciousness I knew. That I was going to die in the most agonizing way, that my mind would be cognizant of everything as it happened to me. What was growing inside me... God, Mulder..."

She pulled her wet face from his shoulder and stared at him. "It communicated with me. It was only an embryo of sorts but it had a fully developed mind - it told me. Horrible things... it told me and as it told me it was enjoying itself, Mulder - enjoying the pain and the overwhelming fright I was feeling." She shivered and her eyes flooded anew with hot tears as the torturous images she'd held inside for so long were finally allowed to escape.

Mulder cradled her in his arms and rocked her back and forth, nonsensical murmurings of comfort warm against her temple. In a moment of shared reflection he found himself fighting to banish her nightmares, instead of the other way around... and glad to be the one at her side in the night, giving her support.

~ Chapter Two ~

Scully came awake slowly. She could hear Mulder's soft murmur coming from the other room. His voice took on an urgent quality and she slipped from the bed to investigate. Entering the living room, she saw him hang up his cell phone and make some quick notes on a pad of paper.

"What is it?" she asked.

Mulder glanced up. "I'm sorry," he murmured. I didn't want to wake you yet." She walked across the room to stand next to him.

"What is it?" she asked again.

"Darrell Moore," he sighed. Mulder's hand slipped to the back of her neck, cupping her sleep-warmed skin. "He was scheduled to be arraigned today but has been rushed to the hospital instead."

"Why did they call you?" she questioned.

"I asked them to keep me informed," he told her.

"Why, Mulder?" she cried. "This isn't an X-File. Please, let's just leave it behind us and let the police handle it."

Mulder clasped her icy-cold fingers in his hands. "I don't know why, Scully. I can't explain it," he said. There had been something about the man's eyes, Mulder thought. Something... "Look, I'm just going to run out there, hopefully get a chance to talk to the guy."

Scully shook her head and turned toward the bedroom. "Give me twenty minutes," she said over her shoulder. Mulder stepped forward and laid a hand on her arm.

"No, Scully," he said, turning her to face him. "I'll go."

"Mulder," she protested.

"Look Scully. I just think it would be better if you let me go alone."

"I'm a professional," she reminded him icily.

Mulder clamped both hands on her shoulders. "Scully," he chided. "This has nothing to do with your abilities to do the job and you know it." His thumbs stroked along the sides of her neck. "But this case...I saw what it did to you."

"Mulder..."

"No, you listen to me, Scully. I practically had to carry you out of that house yesterday!" He took a deep breath and deliberately softened his tone. "You are a great agent, but sometimes everyone needs to step back." His eyes were solemn. "I think that time is now for you. Please."

Scully stared at him for a long, uncomfortable moment before she acquiesced. She let him pull her close and wrapped her arms around his waist. "I'll meet you at the office in a couple of hours," he told her as she pressed her cheek against his shirt. She stepped back and played with a loose thread on his collar.

"I know we still have some things to talk about," she began. "But we've pretty much made our decision, haven't we?"

Mulder stroked the soft skin of her face with gentle fingertips. She closed her eyes briefly and nestled her cheek in the palm of his hand. "Yeah," he nodded. "We're going to finish this case, wrap up some loose ends at the office and then we're going to tender our resignations."

Scully bit her lip worriedly. "Are you... are we sure this is the right thing to do?"

"Do you remember what you told me last night?" he asked softly.

She nodded. "I said that every day I felt a little more tired and a lot less human."

He nodded sharply. "I want us both to be human, Scully... human and alive and full of life and energy - so we can figure out what we really want from this life - and from each other." He stared at her intently. "I know what I want, Scully... do you?" She met his probing gaze with one just as serious and unsmiling. And she nodded, taking a deep breath and releasing it in a shuddering sigh.

"Okay." She straightened her back and set her shoulders. "This time, I'll let you go alone and I'll meet you at the office. I have some research to do."

"What research?" Mulder asked curiously.

"Vacation spots, Mulder. I expect you to take me someplace warm and sunny where the only thing we have to do is lie on a beach and just be." Her smile was impish as if simply the thought of lying on a warm stretch of sand with him was enough to lift ten years off her battered soul - enough to fill an eternity with exactly what she wanted from that life they both strove to retain.

"Don't forget to pack a bikini," he tossed over his shoulder as he grabbed his keys and opened the door.

Scully stumbled into Mulder's office several hours later looking wildly around the room for him. She sank shakily into the chair behind his desk. It can't be, she thought. It isn't possible. She reached for the telephone on the desk, intent on finding Mulder and jumped out of the chair when her cell phone rang shrilly. Clapping one hand over her pounding heart, she pounced at the sound of her partner's voice.

"Where the hell are you Mulder?" she demanded.

"Scully, listen to me for just a minute," he said urgently.

"No, Mulder! I need you to listen to me," she said tightly, her voice rising to be heard over his. "There's been a cult suicide--"

"A cult?" he interrupted. "Listen Scully, what I have to tell you is urgent. It can't wait!"

"Mulder!" she said sharply, demanding that he listen to her. "There are several survivors. One of them is conscious and in a hospital. He told the police that the leader of the cult... that his eyes..." her breath caught. She cleared her throat and reached for a piece of paper. "He said that the leader's eyes were clouded with a 'black haze of evil'," she said reading from the paper.

"Oh God!" she heard him gasp.

"Mulder... Skinner has already approved everything. I need to get out there, do the autopsy before anyone else does. We... we need to interview the survivors quickly."

"I'll stop at your place and grab your bag," he said. "What time is our flight?"

She gave him the flight information. "I'll see you at the airport in three hours."

Scully hurried through the airport to the gate where their plane was already boarding.

"Mulder!" she called, rushing over to him.

"Let's go," he said, following her onto the plane. They stowed their bags and sat down. Scully lifted the armrest between their seats and twisted to face him.

"We're flying to Philadelphia and then we hop a commuter flight into Scranton-Wilkes Barre," she said, explaining their travel itinerary. "From there we rent a car and drive to a town called Centralia, PA."

She reached under the seat and pulled out her briefcase. Flipping open the lock, she withdrew several sheets of paper. "Reports are just starting to trickle in, but this is what I've been able to find out so far. Jason Martin, aged fifty-eight, was the leader of the cult. He was the fourth child of George and Nancy Martin and raised in the coal regions of Pennsylvania. George was coal miner as were Jason's two older brothers. Rather than become a miner himself, Jason entered the seminary and began to study to become a priest, making his mother extraordinarily proud." Scully flipped through her notes, handing several pieces of paper to Mulder who scanned them briefly before looking back at her, as she continued.

"He washed out of the seminary in his third year. I haven't been able to get his school records from the seminary yet - a field agent from the local office is working on that right now. He was married and widowed twice. I'm requesting the death certificates to ascertain the cause of death of his wives..." She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and consulted her notes again.

"Anyway, he drifted from job to job and tried his hand at many different forms of organized religion. Apparently, Jason had a problem with authority figures and that was why he was unable to keep a steady job or settle into any church. Finally, in 1992 he formed Eden's Promise - a cult that promised to lead its members back to Paradise."

The flight attendant passed their row with the beverage cart and Mulder signaled for two cups of coffee. Scully shifted the pile of papers around on her lap and gratefully accepted the steaming beverage from the attendant. Mulder sipped his coffee and ran his eyes over the notes that he had spread out on the tray table.

"I assume that the price of admission into Paradise was all of a person's worldly goods?" he asked.

Scully tapped the tip of her nose with her forefinger. "Right."

"Okay, tell me the rest."

"Well, details of the cult's activities are kind of sketchy right now. We should know more when we get there."

"And where, exactly are we going again?" Mulder asked.

"Centralia, Pennsylvania," Scully reminded him. "It's an old coal town. Back in 1962 a fire started in one of the mines and no one was ever able to put it out. The fire has been burning now for almost forty years. In 1998 the federal government bought the houses and business of the almost thirteen hundred residents of the town and relocated them into surrounding communities." She flipped through her notes again. "As of 1998, only forty-two people remained in Centralia - mostly the elderly who refused to leave their homes."

"Nice, remote area... not a lot of need for a police presence with only forty-two residents... good place to go to avoid prying eyes," Mulder speculated.

"Exactly," Scully agreed. She played with the papers on her lap, organizing them and stacking them nervously. "Mulder," she began. "What the survivor said about Martin's eyes... you don't... I mean, it's not possible that it's..." her voice trailed off as she looked at him pleadingly.

"Scully," he said, taking one of her hands in between both of his. "When I got to the hospital today, Moore was waiting for me." He lifted his eyes to the overhead bins, remembering the scene he had encountered when he had arrived at the hospital. "Moore was dying and no one could figure out why. His heart rate was elevated; brain activity was haywire - all over the place. His internal organs were shutting down."

Mulder gently chafed the soft skin on the back of her hand beneath his thumbs. Swallowing hard, he continued. "I walked up to Moore's bedside. The doctors and nurses were running all over the place but he was oddly quiet and calm. He looked me in the eyes and asked me, 'Do you know what makes an ordinary man turn on his wife and baby boys; his sweet little girls? It's a dark, bitter evil - a sickness that you didn't even know was growing inside of you...'" Scully watched quietly as Mulder swiped his hand over his eyes. "He told me that it was as if one moment he was a regular guy and the next moment so consumed by a black, caustic rage that he couldn't control. The next thing I knew every machine in that hospital room began shrieking and whistling. The doctors and nurses pushed me out of the way and as I stepped back I saw Moore's eyes roll into the back of his head and Scully... I swear... I know I saw that same black film slide over his eyes."

He trembled and Scully slid closer, pressing her body into his for support. "He died a few minutes later. There was thick brackish-colored blood streaming from his ears and nose, seeping into the sheets. Blood so dark it looked black... I started flashing my badge around; ordering the sheets to be burned and the body to be placed in the refrigerators at the hospital morgue until you could come down to do the autopsy. Then I called you and, well... here we are."

Scully shivered and stuffed the papers back into her briefcase. She tucked it back under the seat and settled her head on his shoulder, her hand gripping his leg through his trousers. They spent the rest of the flight quietly lost in their own thoughts.

The police had barricaded the main road into Centralia many years ago because of the fire raging in the underground mines. There was a crack, reminiscent of an earthquake fault line that ran directly across Route 61 and all over the town; steam and acrid smoke poured up from cracks in the ground. The hillsides around the town were sprinkled with scorched, bared trees. Mulder drove slowly through the dying town, now bustling with the activity of police, federal agents, members of the National Guard and coroners. Bodies were being tagged and placed into black bags before being stacked onto Army trucks for transportation to the county coroner's office.

Mulder and Scully pulled out their badges and stopped a young police officer that directed them to the agent in charge.

"Agents Mulder and Scully out of the Washington office," Mulder told SAC Scott Dannon.

Dannon looked up with a face weary and sick from the carnage surrounding them. "Yeah, A.D. Skinner called and told me to expect you. What can I do for you folks?" he asked briskly, trying to hurry the conversation along. He wanted to go home, take a shower for about ten hours and then crawl into bed with his wife and maybe never crawl back out.

"We were told there were survivors, one of whom was apparently interviewed by the local police," Scully said. "We'd like to speak with him as well as the officer who took his statement."

"There were eight survivors," Dannon said shaking his head. Eight people out of five hundred..." He blew out an unsteady breath and forced himself to focus on the agents standing before him. "All of the survivors were taken to the closest hospital." He rubbed his hand over his face, leaving trails of soot over his cheeks.

"Logan!" he shouted across the field. A young police officer looked up and jogged over.

"Yes sir?"

"These are Agents Mulder and Scully. FBI - from Washington. Give them directions to the hospital where the survivors were taken," he ordered. Turning to the man and woman standing before him, he continued. "You'll send me copies of your interviews?" he asked, happy to turn some of his duties over to someone else.

"Absolutely," Mulder agreed.

Dannon nodded curtly and strode off and the rising steam and smoke of Centralia's burning mines quickly obscured him.

Scully squinted at the directions Officer Logan had hastily scrawled on a scrap of paper. "Turn left at the next light," she instructed. "The hospital should be one block up on the right." Mulder flicked on the turn signal and glanced over at her as he waited for the light to turn green.

"What are you thinking?" he asked quietly.

She shook her head. "Truthfully, Mulder, I don't know what to think," she told him. He nodded and stepped on the gas pedal, turning the corner and following the signs to the visitor's parking garage at the hospital.

They strode quickly past the reporters gathering outside of the hospital doors and into the building, flashing their badges at the woman seated behind the reception desk who directed them to the emergency room. Several minutes and another flash of their badges later, they were talking to one of the attending physicians.

"Two of the victims are in critical condition," Dr. Campbell told them. "I don't know that they will make it through the night." He flipped through a stack of charts on the counter at the nurses' station. "Four others are still unconscious, although at least two of them are showing marked improvement and I am hopeful that they will regain consciousness shortly."

The doctor looked up at the two agents before continuing. "Mr. Gilbert is conscious and will be moved to another floor when a bed is available. His condition is guarded but stable." The doctor set down the charts and smoothed his hands over them. "The final victim, Veronica Holland, died en route to the hospital."

"Would it be possible for us to speak with Mr. Gilbert?" Mulder asked quietly.

Dr. Campbell frowned. "I would rather you wait until tomorrow," he began. Mulder moved impatiently and Scully laid a restraining hand on his arm.

"It's vital that we speak with him as soon as possible," she urged the doctor. "I understand your concern for your patient's well-being, but 493 people have died today. Surely you can appreciate our need to move quickly." Scully's tone was polite and professional but beneath it was the faintest hint of urgent pleading.

The doctor sighed and nodded. "All right. But I will trust you not to overwhelm Mr. Gilbert," he cautioned strongly.

"Of course," Scully soothed, looking at Mulder for his agreement. He nodded and Dr. Campbell led them down the hall and past the guard stationed outside of the patient's room.

"This is it," he told them. "Thirty minutes," he warned sternly before turning on his heel and returning to his other patients. Mulder and Scully entered the dim room cautiously. Scully glanced at her partner and tilted her head slightly toward the bedridden man, indicating that Mulder should take the lead in questioning him.

"Mr. Gilbert," Mulder began. "I'm Agent Fox Mulder of the FBI. This is my partner, Agent Dana Scully. We're hoping that you are feeling up to talking to us for a few minutes about what happened this morning."

"I already gave my statement to the police." Dennis Gilbert looked back and forth between the two agents wearily. A big, muscled man in his early thirties, Scully noted that his eyes seemed sunken and his face held an unhealthy pallor.

"Please, Mr. Gilbert," Scully urged. "We won't stay long. I know you have been through a terrible ordeal, but we really need for you to help us understand what happened today."

The room was silent for a moment following Scully's plea. "Mr. Gilbert?" Mulder prompted softly.

Dennis Gilbert looked toward the window. "I met Reverend Martin eight years ago. My girlfriend, Sandy, had heard about him from some friends of hers who were always raving about the good work he was doing at the church he had started. Sandy went to one of his services one week and was instantly hooked." Gilbert's eyes traced restlessly around the room, never settling on any one object for very long. "She talked about the Reverend all week, incessantly. Finally, I agreed to go with her to his service the next week."

He picked at the sheet draped over his legs and looked at Scully. "He was mesmerizing. He said things that made such sense to me on a base level, you know?" His voice was pleading. "I had a very strict, religious upbringing. My parents had a very literal interpretation of the Bible and growing up in their household was a living nightmare. As soon as I was old enough, I left home. I floundered for years trying to find a church where I felt comfortable. I found that at Eden's Promise."

He sighed and rolled his head against the pillows, once again staring out of the window. "Jason Martin told us that Heaven was attainable, here on earth. He said that God never intended for us to have to die to find rapture. He said that we had to sacrifice our worldly goods and follow him and only then would we attain paradise; that we would enter Heaven's gate in this world and follow it into the next."

Mulder stepped closer to the bed. "Mr. Gilbert... did Jason Martin speak often of the need to bring about your own deaths in order to achieve Nirvana?"

"No!" Dennis Gilbert swung his head toward Mulder and then turned to look at Scully. "No," he said again, softer this time. "He spoke of a simple life. He said that paradise could be found working with the land, living in a community of like- thinkers, away from the distractions of modern society." His eyes brightened with unshed tears as he tried to explain the seductive pull of the fallen cult leader. "But then something changed. Reverend Martin became reclusive and withdrawn. We wouldn't see him for days on end and then suddenly he would be walking across the compound, muttering to himself and tearing at his hair. Then at dinner last night, he told us all to gather in the meeting hall before breakfast this morning."

Gilbert took a deep breath and scrubbed trembling fingers over his face. "When we gathered in the hall this morning, Reverend Martin was dressed in his ceremonial robes. He told us that he had experienced a vision, that enemies to this world were upon us. He said that our time was fast coming to an end and that creatures of the dark would destroy us and we would be unable to enter Heaven if we did not find some way of stopping it. He ranted and cajoled; his voice was thunderous -booming throughout the hall. I looked around the room and could see the people were enthralled, hypnotized by his words. He painted a picture of destruction and carnage, where people's bodies would be torn asunder and the earth would be consumed by fire and blight."

He shook his head. "And then... then his voice grew soft and compelling. He told us there was a way out, a way to save ourselves and to enter paradise together. The side doors opened and several members of our society wheeled in huge metal urns. They began pouring and distributing paper cups filled with orange juice. The Reverend told us that we would share this last drink and be together forever."

Dennis Gilbert's head dropped forward, his chin pressed into his chest. "I looked around the room and everyone was looking at the cups in their hands. They looked scared but determined. Sandy was standing next to me, nodding." His voice dropped to a whisper. "Reverend Martin lifted his cup and said 'Drink, my friends. Drink and we'll find Eden's Promise together.' Then he began to walk around the room, urging people to drink."

His voice broke on a sob. "People began to drink and within minutes, they were falling to the floor around me. Sandy wrapped her arm around my neck and kissed me and she pushed my cup toward me." Tears were streaming down his face. "I didn't want to do it... didn't want to die... but I didn't want to be without Sandy and all of these people who had become my family. In the end, I was a coward. I took a small drink, but it was enough to knock me on my ass. I collapsed to the floor next to Sandy and pulled her into my arms. I could feel myself losing consciousness and I looked up. I saw Reverend Martin standing nearby. His eyes... God, his eyes..." His voice trailed off.

Scully stepped forward and laid a comforting hand on his arm. Gilbert lifted a tear-streaked face to hers and she nodded encouragingly. "His eyes... his eyes had always been this startling blue, but this morning, they were black and so evil. I was so scared and I wondered whether we had followed him into heaven or into hell. He stopped next to me and looked down and for a moment I could see the clear blue of his eyes peer through the darkness and there was such a look of utter sadness and despair in his gaze. But then the blackness was back and he lifted his cup to his mouth... I guess I passed out because the next thing I knew, I was waking up here."

They spent a few more moments, soothing the distraught man. When his sobs had subsided, Mulder called for the nurse and spoke to her quietly. She returned a few minutes later with a sedative. Scully leaned down and spoke softly to the grief- stricken man.

"Thank you, Mr. Gilbert," she said. "I promise, we'll be in touch again." He nodded and clasped her hand in his briefly before sliding into the sleep provided by the medication.

They stepped into the hall. "I'm going to hang around here, see if any of the other survivors wake up," Mulder told her.

Scully nodded her head. "Okay, I'll go to the coroner's office - do the autopsy." Mulder stayed her with a hand on her arm when she would have turned away. She looked back at him, noting his worried eyes.

"I don't want you in the autopsy bay alone with that... person. I'll stay with you while you work - or else find someone to go in there with you." Scully shook her head at his fretting, thinking he worried too much - then she recalled some very unwelcome memories so recently dredged from her ordeal in Antarctica... and thought maybe another human in the room might not be a bad idea. She smiled reassuringly at her partner.

"I'll find someone - I promise, Mulder. Please don't worry - and go do what you need to do."

Mulder nodded, clearly relieved, and pulled the car keys from his pocket. "Be careful," he warned.

"Always," she promised, pressing a small and warm palm against his cheek briefly, before she tuned to go.

Scully was slumped on a bench in the hallway of the coroner's office. She rubbed the back of her neck with her hand and rolled her head against the wall.

"Scully."

She opened her eyes to see Mulder standing at the end of the hall. She watched him walk toward her, fatigue evident in every step.

"How did you get here?" she asked.

"Agent Dannon stopped by the hospital and had one of his men give me a lift," he told her, dropping down onto the bench next to her. "You look tired," he said, studying her face.

"They're swamped here," she said nodding toward the autopsy bay doors. "After I finished with Martin, I gave them a hand."

Mulder nodded knowingly. "You ready to go?" he asked.

"I have to get changed," she said picking at the scrubs she was wearing.

"Come on," he said, standing and holding out a hand. "You can get a shower at the motel." Scully nodded and stood wearily.

They made the trip to the motel in silence; each lost in their own thoughts. When they arrived at the motel, Scully headed directly to the shower and Mulder picked up the phone to check his messages. He was standing by the window when Scully stepped out of the bathroom, wrapped in her robe.

"Finished," she told him, toweling her hair dry. She walked across the room and laid a gentle hand on his back. "Mulder?"

He turned and nodded absently, slipping around her to go into the bathroom. Fifteen minutes later, the bathroom door opened and steam billowed out into the bedroom. Scully was lying in one of the beds, wrapped in a pale blue nightshirt. Mulder glanced across the room to the other bed where she had piled both of their suitcases and then back at her. Scully lifted the covers and tilted her head toward the pillow next to hers.

Mulder turned off the lights and reached for a pair of pajama bottoms from his suitcase. Scully watched in the dim light as he dropped the towel wrapped around his waist; a sliver of moonlight slanting in through the half-closed draperies illuminated his nudity, causing a brief flare of longing which she firmly tamped down. Now was not the right time... they were both exhausted. Turning away from her Mulder picked up a pair of soft cotton pants and stepped into them. He slid under the covers and pulled her into his arms.

Scully rested her cheek on his shoulder and played with the sparse hairs on his chest. He turned his head, burying his nose in her hair, inhaling the floral scent of the shampoo she had used and running his hand down her back.

"I was able to speak briefly with two of the other victims," he said, his voice a rumble under her ear.

"And?" she asked.

"They both supported Dennis Gilbert's story that Martin had begun acting strangely lately, and one of them mentioned an odd darkness in his eyes while they were gathered in the meeting hall," he told her.

Scully's hand swept down his side, her fingers tracing patterns over his ribs. She closed her eyes. "It was there," she sighed against his chest. "I found traces of it in the ocular and nasal cavities, as well as in the canal of the ear. I had it packaged as a biohazard and shipped back to D.C. for analysis."

"What about the body?" he asked.

She shrugged. "His parents are dead. If his siblings don't object, we'll arrange to have it cremated. It's the safest way." She felt his chest rise and fall in a heavy sigh.

"What are you thinking, Mulder?"

He smoothed a hand over her hair. "I think it's starting," he said heavily.

She drew in a shaky breath. "Mulder?"

"Yeah, Scully?"

She lifted herself up on her elbow and placed a small hand on his chest. "What if..." she bit her lip. "What if it's been going on for a while already?"

**

~ Chapter Three ~

Georgetown University Library had barely opened its doors when they parked in the visitor's lot and hurried inside the old building. Not entirely sure what to look for but knowing they had to start somewhere, they had decided to feed key words and terms into the Library's massive Netlink information system and see what might pop up.

As the lobby elevator doors closed behind them, Mulder leaned back against the brass railing and regarded Scully with concerned eyes; she looked so tired. Neither of them had gotten any sort of decent sleep after she'd raised the unwelcome question about the possibility of long-term colonization. The thought of it happening far earlier than Roswell was too frightening to contemplate - and if true, it changed everything.

They'd flown home on an early flight, the trip long and tense with the worry each of them carried inside. They'd spoken softly to one another, holding hands and trying to pretend it was just a regular trip back to DC - but they couldn't fool themselves. And Mulder knew as soon as they hit town they'd be spending a great deal of time digging for anything they could. They made it to Scully's apartment and scrounged enough odd food combinations from her cupboards and fridge to give them both indigestion, and fell into bed with upset stomachs, holding hands all through the night. In the morning they dressed silently and made their way to Georgetown U.

On the third floor of the huge library the main Netlink databank fed out and retrieved information not only to all the library systems in the DC area, both public and private, but also to key library databanks around the world. What couldn't be found on the main link would most likely be available on microfiche. Scully sat down at the first microfiche she found as Mulder began digging through Netlink. Looking up briefly from the screen, she murmured quietly, "Okay. What do we search for? Oil? Unexplained viruses?"

Mulder thought for a moment while he waited to log in. "Well, I doubt we'd get anything worthwhile if we only searched on 'oil'. And unexplained viruses may get us too far off track. I don't want to waste any time; I've got a feeling from now on time will be at a premium for us..." He rubbed at his eyes with one hand and pushed the mouse around with the other, thinking. "It would seem that a search on a repeated phrase might work - didn't everyone mention a film over the eyes? Maybe we should start with that."

Scully nodded and got down to serious business, flipping through the catalog. "I'll try it - 'black film'; maybe I should just do that first. If I find anything I'll yell - quietly, of course - respect for where we are and all that." She sent a weary grin Mulder's way and he echoed it briefly before settling in with the mouse.

It took two and a half hours before she found anything viable, and her exclamation was quietly issued as promised - but Mulder heard it just as his twenty-seventh full- scale search came up with squat.

"Mulder, you have to look at this. I think I hit the mother-lode." Mulder left his chair, stretching stiffly as he walked behind her chair and looked over her shoulder at the screen. Scully traced the text with her fingers as she read. "Jesus, listen to this... I can't believe what I'm seeing..."

**

The man entered the theater and made his way towards the staircase. Dressed in black, his new spurs jingled quietly as he climbed the stairs and slipped through a doorway. Raising his hand, he aimed his derringer and fired. John Wilkes Booth had fatally wounded Abraham Lincoln.

An officer seated near the fallen President leapt to his feet in a belated attempt to protect his commander-in-chief. Recoiling in horror at what he saw in the assassin's eyes, he hesitated and Booth lunged forward, stabbing him with a concealed knife before climbing over the edge of the President's box and leaping toward the stage. His spur caught in the red, white and blue bunting decorating the box and he fell heavily to the stage floor. Shaking off the pain, he raced from the theater amid the screams of the panicked crowd.

He raced through the night stopping for ammunition and a whiskey to dull the pain of his broken leg. Fleeing his pursuers and unable to bear the pain any longer, he stopped to have his leg set. The next day, holed up in a barn, surrounded by soldiers, he was shot in the neck and captured.

Booth lived for three hours. A young soldier tending to the injured prisoner tried to give him some medication.

"It's useless," Booth rasped painfully.

The soldier knelt and lowered his canteen to the wounded man's lips. He sprang back in fear as a film of dark hatred clouded Booth's eyes. Blood, so dark and oily it appeared black, trickled from his nose, seeping into the dusty earth beneath him.

"Oh my God," Scully breathed, turning fearful eyes away from the screen and up to where Mulder hovered over her shoulder. "How long has this been going on?" Her worried eyes met his, equally concerned, and he shook his head in amazement.

"How did you find this, Scully? Just by popping in 'black film'?" She nodded, and printed out the text before backing up the roll.

"Not quite. I had to wade through a lot of useless garbage before I found it. One article led to another, and then into actual events, then jumped into eyewitness accounts. Testimonies and gossip, some of it too far-fetched to be of possible use. I hit and missed a lot until I started looking for accounts of black film coinciding with abhorrent or deviant behavior. Once I found that roll, all sorts of fun things began to float to the top. This was only the first. I don't know if I want to find out anymore..."

She rose from the chair, shaky and stiff; Mulder folded her into his arms and held her very close, rocking her a little as she clutched at him. He threaded a hand through her soft hair and pressed her cheek into his neck so she could feel the vibration of his reply.

"We have to. We've traced it back to the mid-nineteenth century, and it's only taken us less than three hours. If there's more we have to see it. I think continuing to search for this on the Internet will prove useless; judging by the look of some of these rolls, they've been around for a long time. I wouldn't be surprised to see this suppressed like crazy out on the Web." Mulder gave her a gentle squeeze that she returned, then let her go; Scully sat back down again and gazed at the screen as he continued.

"What I can't understand is how easy it was to find these old rolls of microfiche, when almost everything else has been transferred to sheets, and more lately the Internet. And even microfiche sheets are about obsolete. I assume this story is from a newspaper - which one?" He bent over Scully's shoulder again as she flipped back through the faded text.

"The Pardee Examiner... small, local paper, I'd bet. An anonymous article, from the looks of it - probably one of many stories circulating at the time, concerning the Lincoln assassination. It's hard to say if anyone believed what they read, all those years ago." Mulder retrieved the printed copy of the article and skimmed it, then looked down at Scully.

"Well, somebody believed it... and they went to some lengths to bury it in an old roll of film, and keep it off the Internet Highway. Now I have to wonder why it was so relatively easy for you to find these rolls..." Scully frowned at the screen, then raised one inquiring eyebrow at Mulder as he worked at the puzzle.

"Well, yes - I guess I'd wonder the same thing. After all, three hours or so of searching shouldn't dig up something like this. Makes me wonder what else we could discover. Do we really want to?" His nod was firm and immediate as he repeated what he'd said only minutes before.

"Scully, we have to."

The library kept long hours, which meant time, was relatively on their side. Once they knew where to look and what to ask for the rest of the rolls surfaced with alarming ease. Not that there were that many - but what they contained was explosive. Mulder couldn't help but believe that somehow they'd been conveniently left behind for somebody to find... somebody who would understand the significance of what this little foray into history meant for the rest of the world.

Later that evening they would re-read the printed sheets they'd made, and the intensity and import of those pages made them shudder. The worst moment for them both came when they discovered evidence of the virus at Auschwitz. Sitting in the silent library with the only sound the whirring of the rolls, Scully read the account aloud, of witnesses who claimed to have seen "blackest evil" in the eyes of not only Hitler but the more sadistic of the camp guards as well. Her voice shook as she read, finally breaking when the recorded account revealed it had been offered by a fourteen year old camp survivor by the name of Gerda who had died mysteriously shortly after her interview.

Now she shuddered anew and Mulder held her close to his side as they huddled together on the edge of her bed. He turned his head from the pages held loosely in Scully's cold hands and pressed a kiss to the side of her head, whispering into her temple.

"We've got to find out who left those rolls of film for us to discover, Scully. I really believe something like this would have stayed buried forever, quite nicely - in fact, it should have stayed hidden. Somebody wants us to read it - and know the real truth behind the colonization."

Scully turned in his arms and molded herself closer; she was now shivering. As if she couldn't get warm - and Mulder knew how she was feeling. He'd been cold all day long. He lifted her into his lap and held her like a child. They sat that way for the longest time, neither one speaking - easing each other's fears as best as they could. Finally Scully pressed her mouth into his neck and gave him a kiss meant to reassure him as much as it did her. She raised tired eyes to his and her voice was hoarse when she spoke.

"Stay... I don't want to be alone, ever again. I feel as though the world is crashing all around us and we're the only ones who really know what's about to happen." Mulder nodded and kissed her soft cheek, trailed his lips over to the corner of her mouth and kissed her there as well, before he covered her mouth more fully and kissed her again. Not a comfort kiss... not a desperate end-of-the-world kiss. Just the kiss of a man who had the woman he loved in his arms and wanted her to know she was cherished. He spoke against her cheek.

"I'll stay tonight - then I want you to move in with me for a while, Scully. You'll feel safer there and I'll feel better just having you with me. We can do it tomorrow - and we'll make an easy day of it and take some time to think this out and decide what we want to do. Okay?" He felt her take a deep breath before she answered him.

"Okay. I'll put some things together tomorrow. Right now let's just go to bed. I'm so tired..." Mulder helped her to stand and then came up beside her, hugging her one last time.

Unfair, he thought... so unfair. Just as they were finally beginning to find their way as more than friends; almost ready to take that final step and solidify a love that had been growing steadily for seven years... this had to happen. They hadn't been in a hurry; content to date and get to know each other as future lovers, not needing to rush a thing - and now he was in a panic... now they were scared. He murmured against her temple and this time his voice broke on the endearment he sent into her heart.

"I know you're tired and scared, baby... so am I."

It would be days later before he realized that he'd called her 'baby'.

**

~ Chapter Four ~

Scully watched through half-closed eyes as Mulder climbed out of bed the next morning. When the bathroom door closed behind him, she sat up and reached for her robe, slid out of bed and headed toward the kitchen to start the coffee. She was pulling the orange juice from the refrigerator when he entered the room.

"Morning," he rumbled from behind her as his hands settled on her hips, pulling her back against him. Scully turned in his arms and rested her cheek against his chest.

"Good morning," she whispered into the white cotton of his T-shirt. "Did you sleep well?" she asked, knowing that sheer exhaustion had forced her mind to shut down long enough to allow her body the sleep it so desperately required.

"Hmmm," he murmured into her hair.

"The coffee is almost ready," she told him, "and there are bagels in the bag on the counter. I'm going to take a quick shower." He nodded and was already digging through the bag of bagels as she left the room.

When she returned to the kitchen a short while later, she saw that he had laid out plates and knives and had poured the orange juice. She laughed lightly when he pulled her cinnamon-raisin bagel from the toaster oven, cursing softly as he burned his fingers on the hot bread. Dropping the bagel onto a plate, he set it down on the table, glaring at her amusement and shaking his hand.

Scully reached out and caught his arm, turning his wrist so that his hand lay palm up in hers. "Poor baby," she whispered, examining his fingers for injury. Clucking softly over the pink tips of his thumb and two of his fingers, she lowered her head, brushing her lips lightly over the injured digits, her tongue darting out to soothe the sting. Mulder let out a quick gasp, his fingers curling involuntarily in the wake of her caress.

Still holding his hand in both of hers, Scully peered up at him. "All better?" she asked, wide-eyed and innocent. She suppressed a smile as he sucked in a deep breath and fumbled a reply.

"Umm... yeah - it's good... uh, thanks," Mulder said before turning back to the counter. He lifted his mug with trembling fingers and coffee threatened to spill all over the floor before he used both hands to steady the mug. He took a bracing sip of the hot liquid and Scully watched the play of his shoulder muscles beneath his T-shirt as he shifted uncomfortably for a minute or two before joining her at the table.

"So what's the plan for today?" she asked, deciding to have mercy on him.

Mulder leaned across the table and stole one-half of her cream cheese laden bagel. He took a gigantic bite and dropped the rest of the bagel back onto her plate, deftly avoiding her slapping fingers. Chewing quickly, he mumbled, "As I said last night, I'd like to pack up some of your stuff to take back to my place." He sucked cream cheese from his thumb. "Does that sound all right to you?"

Scully found herself too preoccupied by the sight of Mulder, licking his sticky fingers while he waited for her reply.

"Scully?" he prompted softly.

"Huh?" she blinked as she stared at him from across the table. "Uh, yeah. Sounds good. Let me just clean up this mess first," she said, standing and carrying her plate and juice glass over to the sink. She busied herself with cleaning up the kitchen, wondering how Mulder could so easily distract her when the whole world was turning upside down.

Leaving the dishes to drain in the dishrack, she joined him in the living room. "Well," she said as she looked around the room, "I should take my laptop."

Mulder nodded and began to disconnect the computer. Scully disappeared into the bedroom and returned a moment later with her briefcase. She stuffed all of their notes into the leather bag and set it down on the desk next to her laptop. She glanced around the room again.

"I guess I really just need to pack clothes..." She led Mulder into the bedroom and pulled her luggage from the closet. "Did we bring my overnight bag up from the car the other night?" she asked distractedly.

Mulder jerked his head toward the door. "It's in the other room," he told her. Scully nodded and left to fetch the bag in question. She went into the bathroom and began to gather up supplies. Opening up the linen closet she stuffed new bottles of shampoo, shaving gel, shower gel and a fresh razor into a small bag. Tossing a box of tampons and some aspirin in the bag, she could hear Mulder moving about the bedroom. Curious to know what he was doing, she poked her head out of the door.

Mulder had been busy pulling her clothes out of the closet and her bureau. The bed was piled high with jeans, T-shirts and blouses and a good number of her business suits were draped over a chair.

"Mulder?" she asked stepping through the doorway.

Mulder was kneeling on the floor in front of her bureau and his head jerked up at the sound of her voice.

"How long are you expecting me to stay with you?" she asked, inclining her head toward the mountain of clothing piled up on her bed. She inhaled sharply when he looked up at her with eyes that said 'forever'. He stood and his fingers clenched around the silky fabric of the pajamas he clutched in one hand.

"As long as you need," he said. He lowered his gaze to the carpet beneath his feet and then looked up again. "As long as you'd like."

Scully worried the soft flesh of her lower lip between her teeth and her eyes tracked over the piles of clothing before settling on the warm sunlight spilling through the budding trees outside of the window.

"I keep my sweaters in there," she said pointing toward the armoire. His smile was brilliant as she retreated to the bathroom to finish her packing. She stared at her reflection in the mirrored medicine cabinet, then resolutely she swung open the door and carefully tucked her favorite scented lotions and perfumes into the bag.

It took several trips up and down the elevator of Mulder's apartment building to drag in everything they had packed. He immediately went into his bedroom to empty several drawers in his bureau and pushed aside the expensive suits lined up in his closet in order to make room for hers. While Scully carefully placed her pajamas and lingerie into the empty drawers, Mulder settled on the floor in front of the closet, quickly bringing some order to the jumble of shoes and sneakers piled there. Within a few hours, they had put everything away.

"Do you want to go out to dinner?" he asked as they slumped together on the sofa, weary from the hurried unpacking. She shook her head and yawned.

"I don't feel like dealing with a crowd tonight," she told him.

"We could order out," he said as he reached into the drawer of the table near the sofa for his collection of takeout menus. Scully reached out and placed her hand over the phone when he would have picked it up. "Let's just make something here," she said softly.

"I don't think there's anything edible in the kitchen," he groaned.

Scully stood and reached out for his hands, pulling him to his feet. "Then we should get to the supermarket," she said. Mulder nodded, yawning; stuffed his wallet into his back pocket and grabbed his keys, following her out of the door.

Later, with the dinner dishes washed, dried and put away, Scully went into the bedroom intent on changing into her pajamas. The day had been pleasant as they ruthlessly steered clear of the subject at hand, but she knew they couldn't avoid it forever. She wanted to be comfortable when they got back into it.

She hit the light switch on the wall, sending a flood of soft, golden light spilling into the room. She pulled a pair of pale blue cotton pajama bottoms and a white ribbed tank top from the drawer. Toeing off her shoes and socks, she tugged her T-shirt over her head, unsnapping her jeans and pulling down the zipper. Turning, she threw the T-shirt onto the bed and stopped suddenly, staring at the linens covering his mattress.

"Mulder!" she called, her voice quivering. She could hear his feet hit the floor and thud hurriedly across the apartment. He stopped, his hands braced on the doorjamb as his eyes scanned the room, looking for the source of the commotion.

"What?" he asked. "Scully, what?" His voice was urgent. Wide-eyed, she pointed toward the bed. He crept closer to the bed, inspecting it closely and looked at her in confusion. "What?" he asked again.

Scully eased over to the bed and lifted the edge of the quilt which was neatly turned back at the foot of the bed, rubbing it between her fingers. She eyed the muted colors of the floral print and then looked back at him with a question in her eyes.

"Your quilt?" he asked, blowing out a relieved breath. "I packed it and a couple sets of your sheets before we left your apartment." He smoothed a hand over the soft cotton covering one of the pillows. "I wanted you to feel at home," he shrugged.

Scully sniffed once. "Thank you," she murmured, knuckling tears away from the corners of her eyes. "I think that's the nicest thing you've ever done for me, Mulder."

She smiled fondly as he shrugged again and dropped his gaze to the carpeting. His eyes traveled over her bare feet, taking in the pink polished toes; slowly his gaze swept up her body. Her smile faded when she saw his breathing quicken as he eyed the pale blue fabric of her panties peeking out from between the metal teeth of the open zipper of her jeans. She heard his harsh swallow as his gaze settled on the fullness of her breasts encased in a matching bra. He stepped closer and wrapped one arm around her waist, yanking her against him; Scully's breath left her in a whoosh as she collided with his chest.

"Mul..." she managed, as he lifted his free hand, tracing the swell of her breast as it rose out of the cup of her bra. He slipped one finger under the lace edging of the bra and swept it slowly, hypnotically over the soft flesh he found there. Scully's head fell back as he moved again, cupping her breast in his hand and opening his mouth over the silky fabric covering her nipple. His breath was hot and moist as it feathered over her and she clutched his shoulders with both hands.

She gasped as he slid his arm under her legs, sweeping her off her feet and cradling her against his chest. She flung her arms around his neck to keep her world from spinning out of control.

"I... I... I thought we were... were going to - Oh God!" she panted, as his lips found the erratic jumping of her pulse along her neck and settled there to nuzzle. She swallowed hard. "We were going to go... go over our notes..." she stuttered.

"Not tonight," he said against her skin, as he lowered her onto the crisp sheets and followed her down. He grasped the open waistband of her jeans and tugged them down her legs, settling between her thighs as naturally as if he had done so every day of his adult life.

"But I..." She moaned as Mulder's mouth closed over hers in a kiss unlike any they had ever shared before. Although they had spent several nights wrapped in each other's arms, their previous kisses had been sweet and romantic. Full of love and hope for the future, they had been restrained and at times hesitant, not quite ready yet to allow passions or emotions to overflow. But this kiss, she thought hazily... this was all about unbridled passion and desire. Hot and needy, their mouths moved greedily and their hands swept over each other's bodies. Scully's mind was swirling madly as her brain urged her to slow things down and her body cried out for more. She moaned and arched her back as Mulder flicked open the clasp of her bra and slid the straps down her arms, his mouth latching onto her nipple hungrily.

Oh God, she thought as the pleasure center of her brain began to shut down all other thought processes and she melted into the sheets beneath her. Fingers fumbling for the snap of his jeans, she tugged until Mulder lifted his hips from hers and gave her some room to work. They both froze when the phone rang.

"Ignore it," he muttered against the fragrant flesh of her throat. Scully twined her fingers into the hair on the back of his head and tugged gently as the phone continued to ring insistently.

"Mulder," she said quietly. She soothed her hands up and down his spine as he settled his weight back onto her. Struggling to control his breathing, he reached for the phone, keeping her trapped beneath him.

"Mulder," he said harshly. He listened, then murmured, "Huh? Yes. Yes, of course, Sir." Scully slid out from under him and slipped into her pajama bottoms, tugging the tank top over her head. Turning, she listened to him wrap up his conversation with their boss.

"Yes. Tomorrow morning. 9:30? We'll see you then, Sir. Yes, I'll tell her." He disconnected the call and sighed, hanging his head for a moment before looking up at her. She recognized the disappointment glinting in his eyes - she was sure it matched her own - as he took in her now- clothed form. She rubbed the sole of one foot over the top of the other, suddenly nervous and a little uncomfortable around him.

He sighed again and placed the handset of the phone into the cradle, sliding to the edge of the bed to place his feet on the floor. "I guess it's just not our time yet, huh?" he asked wryly. She swallowed convulsively as she watched him brace his elbows on his knees and pinch his nose between his thumb and forefinger. Her fingers twisted together nervously and her voice was agitated when she began to speak.

"Mulder, I..." She stopped, unsure of how to explain that part of her was glad they were interrupted. Mulder looked up and held out a hand to her. She stepped closer and he buried his face against her stomach. She stroked his hair with one hand.

"Mulder, you know I want to..." she stopped, at a loss to put her thoughts into words. "But maybe now isn't the right time," she finished lamely.

He nodded against her belly and she could feel the heat of his breath through her tank top as he spoke. "I've wanted you in my bed, wanted to make love to you for so long now, but..." He rolled his head back and forth, rubbing his forehead against her. "I'd like to be able to concentrate on you fully and I don't want anything else to be on your mind when we finally do make love."

He hooked a strong forearm around her waist and tumbled her onto the mattress again. Looming above her, he stroked a hand over her tousled hair and brushed his lips chastely over hers. "Having you in my bed is enough for now."

She smiled.

The elevator bell pinged softly and Scully stepped through the doors as Mulder held them open. They had spent several hours discussing their next course of action before falling asleep the night before.

"I think we should hold off on tendering our resignations," she had whispered in the darkened bedroom as she stroked gentle fingers through his hair. She felt him tense and he lifted his head from where it had been resting against her breasts.

"We need the resources," she told him. "And you know the badges will open a lot of doors that would be locked otherwise," she said reasonably.

Propping his elbow on the pillow next to hers, he braced his head on his hand. "Skinner wants our reports on the cult suicide," he said slowly. "But, Scully, all of the other stuff that we've found; I don't know..."

Scully nodded. "We'll give him our findings on the suicide, including the witness reports on the black film over Martin's eyes and my autopsy report. But we'll sit on the rest of what we found until we know more," she said thoughtfully.

"Okay," he agreed, sinking back down and nestling his head between her breasts. She had kept her breathing slow and even and rubbed soothing fingers through his hair and over the tense muscles of his neck, allowing the steady beat of her heart, the measured slowness of her breathing and the gentle stroking of her fingers ease him into sleep.

Now she looked up at him as he strode down the hallway to Skinner's office beside her. He looked rested and healthy and she knew that the tension and worry that she saw in his eyes was evident only to her.

After giving their reports to Skinner and promising to keep him informed of anything else they found, they left his office. Scully looked up in surprise when Mulder punched the elevator button for the lobby instead of the basement. "Where are we going?" she asked.

"Someplace where we can talk in peace," he said, leading her out of the building and sliding his sunglasses onto his face. They walked in silence to the memorial and sank down on their bench.

Scully squinted up at Mulder in the bright sunshine and he apologized, switching places with her so that her back was to the sun. "Okay," she said. "What do we know?"

"Well we're long on supposition and short on facts," he said. "Let's just brainstorm here for a few minutes. Kurtzweil said it would happen over a holiday, when people are away from their homes..."

"Memorial Day was a couple of weeks ago," Scully said, looking around the small park. It was only mid-morning and the lunch crowds weren't out yet. The tourists were fixated on the memorial and no one was looking their way. Toeing off her shoes, she reached deftly beneath her skirt, tugging her pantyhose down and off her legs. In deference to the warmth of the early summer sun, she stripped out of her jacket and slipped her discarded pantyhose into one of the pockets. Folding the jacket neatly, she curled her legs up onto the bench and draped the jacket discreetly over her lap.

Mulder smiled wolfishly at her and pulled off his own jacket, loosening his tie and rolling up his sleeves. He leaned against the back of the bench, stretching his arms out along the slats of wood and spread his legs, comfortably lifting his face to the sun.

"How do you think it's transmitted?" he asked from beneath the dark lenses of his sunglasses.

"Bees?" she began.

"I haven't heard any reports of swarms, have you?" he asked.

"No," she said slowly, but it doesn't appear to be widespread." Her voice was thoughtful as she spoke. "Maybe the bees have been released in small quantities over the years..."

"Bio-engineered crops," Mulder suggested.

Scully nodded, then frowned. "But Mulder, that technology has only existed for a short while now. What we've found goes back hundreds of years!"

"Scully, that technology is new on this planet. Who's to say how advanced the aliens are?"

She nodded again and then blew out a breath. "I can't believe I'm sitting here - agreeing with you on this!" Her laugh was self-mocking.

Mulder's smile was leering. "It's been a long-standing fantasy of mine," he said, waggling his brows at her suggestively. Scully eyed him with mock-severity.

"Sexually transmitted?" she asked.

Mulder blinked and he gaped at her for a second or two before his mind switched from teasing her back to the topic of discussion. He thought for a moment, then nodded.

"Do you think?" he asked slowly.

She shrugged. "Why not?" Mulder sighed and nodded again.

"All right, let's consider this for a moment. When you were exposed to the bee sting, I found you in one of those pods surrounded by hundreds of other people who were gestating those things inside of them." He kept his voice flat and emotionless and Scully held herself stiffly, forcing herself to stay analytical and not to become lost in the horrific memories.

"Jason Martin and Darrell Moore showed no signs of anything like that," Scully said. "But the firefighter that we found in Dallas, do you remember what his tissue was like?" She rubbed her fingers together at the memory.

Mulder nodded. "It would help if we knew how Martin and Moore were infected."

Scully murmured her assent and then continued. "Let's assume that there are various ways of being infected, and that the method of infection dictates the effects of the virus on the victim."

Mulder bit his lip, nodded eagerly. "Right. So those people who are infected with the virus through a bee sting become incubators. Maybe people who are exposed to products made from the engineered crops are affected in a different way."

Scully spoke softly, her voice taking on a rambling quality. "It seems that the virus can alter a person's neurological patterns, causing them to act in an abhorrent manner." Her voice cracked as she remembered the blood-splattered cribs in Darrell and Marjorie Moore's house.

His hand settled over hers and she tangled her fingers with his. She opened her mouth to speak again and her breath caught as a dim spark of a memory fought its way to the surface. Abhorrent manner... Her lips moved rapidly but she didn't utter a word. Mulder drew his sunglasses from his face and leaned down to her.

"Scully?" he called softly.

She squeezed her eyes closed and held up one hand, holding him at bay while she thought. Finally, her eyes popped open. "Oh my God," she whispered. Her breathing was labored and she looked up at him with horror-filled eyes.

"Mulder... God. I just remembered..."

"What? Scully!" Mulder's voice held a hint of panic.

"We've got to go back to the library," she said, stuffing her feet back into her shoes and slipping her jacket on. Mulder stood and towered over her, gripping her elbows and shaking her gently, urgently. She licked her lips. "When I was scrolling through the microfiche, I saw something and I flipped right by it and then we started finding the rest of the events and I just let it go... oh!" She was panting and her nails were digging into his arms.

"Jesus, Scully! Just spit it out!" he urged desperately. She took a deep and shaky breath, before continuing.

"Mulder, there was a reference to Judas Iscariot - it seemed so bizarre and I skipped past it. I didn't think... I didn't want to believe we were really going to find anything. But think about it - Judas betraying Jesus, Booth killing Lincoln..." Her eyes were wild. "We've got to go back and check it out. I'm guessing that if we check further, we'll find that with each generation or two - they're systematically killing off the best and the brightest of us!"

~ Chapter Five ~

Tunisia - June

Shimmering heat radiated on the dry horizon, and an equally-hot wind offered no relief. For miles and miles in any given direction there was nothing but sand dunes and small scrubby plants here and there. The dune-rider progressed at a slow but steady pace, wending its way over the hot sand. As it cleared a small rise, the sudden green of a corn field was a truly incongruous and disbelieving sight, to anyone but the man who brought the vehicle to an abrupt stop, and climbed out.

Before the engine completely died out he was pulling a crumpled cigarette from the pocket of his sweat-stained shirt and lighting it, drawing the nicotine deeply into lungs as dry and brown as the sand beneath his feet. Inhaling again and again, his shoulders hunched against the searing wind, the man surveyed the surrounding crop with a satisfied smirk. A good crop... very good. The burning cigarette hanging from his lips, he climbed back into the rider and drove it down a small incline, pulling up next to a large Quonset hut. He got out and walked slowly on stiff legs, toward the main door.

Stubbing out his cigarette, the stooped- shouldered man drew a keycard from his pocket and swiped it through the control panel to the right of the door. The tiny red light changed to green and he pulled the door open after hearing the locks disengage. He used the keycard again to open the door of his office, stopping abruptly at the sight of the white-haired man seated behind his desk.

"I need a status report," the man told him in a heavy German accent. His bushy eyebrows drew together in distaste as he took in the overall disheveled appearance of his associate, the man he usually referred to as 'Smoker'... the unhealthy pallor of his skin and the way his clothes hung loosely and untidily on his body. His steady regard unnerved the other man, who patted his pockets and began to withdraw a cigarette, then stopping at a frown from the German.

"No." One word, spoken softly but with a command that he could not afford to ignore. The man dropped his hands to his sides, two nicotine stained fingers cradling an unlit cigarette, and recited his report.

"Everything is moving according to schedule," the Smoker said in a gravelly voice which sounded thick and hoarse from years of tobacco abuse. "The crop will be harvested in a week and will be sent to the processing plants where it will be made into everything from corn chips to cooking oil." He rolled the unlit cigarette between his fingers. "Approximately two weeks after these products are shipped to stores around the world and begin to make their way into people's homes, the hives will be divided and the bees will be released in the most populated cities of the world and their surrounding areas."

The German nodded and gestured for the Smoker to continue.

"As you know, the corn from the last crop was processed into feed and was shipped globally to cattle ranchers and poultry farms. The stock will be slaughtered and will reach the markets simultaneously with the corn-based products. Everything is moving smoothly," he assured his superior. "Those people who are infected by the bees will be gathered up and brought to the containment camps located on each continent for the remainder of the gestational period. Most of those who are infected from consuming the biologically-engineered corn products or from ingesting the contaminated meat will perish either from direct exposure to the virus or at the hands of those who experience viral-induced dementia." The Smoker paused, fingering again the cigarette in his hand, debating whether he could get away with lighting it. The narrowed eyes of his superior quickly changed his mind and he squelched the strong need for nicotine, and continued his report.

"Finally, of course, we expect that there will be a number of survivors--strong, healthy, young adults whose genetic makeup for whatever reason will allow them to withstand this first assault. However, we anticipate that the majority of these survivors will be infected to some degree or another. The virus will be spread through sexual intercourse and the next generation will be unable to survive in the womb. If all goes as planned - and there isn't a reason to think it should not do so - in less than five years, the human race will be exterminated."

The German stood. "Very good," he murmured with a slight smile. Striding to the door he looked back over his shoulder. "I want to be kept informed as each phase is put into motion." For an instant his eyes went black and hard, affording a glimpse into the true manifestation of evil that lived behind the human mask of Conrad Strughold... then it was gone, as he sent a short nod in the general direction of his associate.

"Of course," the Smoker assented, lifting the cigarette to his mouth and lighting it. He squinted at his boss through the smoke curling around his head and watched him pull the door closed behind him. Pursing his lips thoughtfully, he left his office and took an elevator down to the subterranean levels, a rasping sigh leaving his throat as the temperature around him immediately dropped. Hard to believe this sort of cold temperature could be successfully maintained when the earth above was a boiling dry pot...

The Smoker walked down row after row of pods containing hundreds of human victims who were the most recent test subjects of the bee-sting transmitted virus. Finally, he reached the end of one row and he stopped to peer into one pod. Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes and allowed his body to morph into its natural form. Stepping closer to the pod, he lifted one hand and tapped the razor sharp talons against the greenish structure.

"You made your deal and then you had a change of heart," he said, his huge eyes blinking slowly at the man whose likeness he had appropriated weeks earlier. "Well, it's too late for you now," he continued, fascinated by the look of horror frozen on the face of his former collaborator. "It's too late for all of you." His fleshless lips lifted in a grotesque parody of a smile and he strode down the row of pods containing the last remaining members of the betrayers of the human race... a consortium of dreamers.

The air conditioner was on the fritz again - on one of the hottest days in June, it had to go out on them. Just their luck... Slamming the fridge door a bit harder than necessary, Mulder took a glass full of ice cubes to the sink and topped it off with cold water, then took a huge gulp and re- filled the glass. Wiping perspiration from his neck with his free hand, he walked into the living room, resisting the urge to rub the cold glass all over his face.

Scully looked up as he held out the glass of water. Taking it in one hand, she downed the icy liquid in several long swallows before turning back to the reams of printouts surrounding her on the living room floor. Mulder squatted down next to her.

"It's time we go to Skinner with this," he said gesturing to the piles of paperwork scattered about the apartment.

Scully opened her mouth to protest but stopped abruptly, rubbing her aching forehead with the palm of one hand. "The Fourth of July is in two weeks," she said. "If Kurtzweil was right about it happening over a holiday..."

Mulder shook his head. "I've been giving this some thought and I don't believe it's going to happen on the Fourth," he said slowly. Scully cocked her head to one side, waiting for him to finish. "That's why I want to go to Skinner with all of this now. The Fourth falls in the middle of the week," he said, explaining his theory to her. "But Labor Day is always a long weekend and more people will be away from their homes and cut off from familiar surroundings. I figure we've got about eleven more weeks before all hell breaks loose." He sat down near her and poked at the litter of papers on his carpet, starting a bit when Scully laid her hand on his arm to get his attention.

"What about the bees? We keep hearing about scattered cases of bee stings gone bad; do you think swarming has started already?" Her worried eyes focused on Mulder's face, watching as he thought a moment and then shook his head decisively.

"I don't think so. We would have heard something about it in the media; bee swarming is always a big deal on some news station somewhere. Besides, I told Frohike and the guys to let us know if they run across any news concerning swarming... just in case. To their credit, they were refreshingly non-nosy - just said they'd be on alert. I think they know, the same way we do... it's gonna hit soon." Scully nodded, but the worried frown didn't ease; she sighed and leaned her head against his arm, next to her hand, speaking softly.

"You know, Skinner may not believe us. We have proof but it's not nearly as conclusive as we know he requires. When you think about it, all we really have are some old, scratched rolls of fiche, a lot of print-outs, some of which come off as extremely old 'National Enquirer' copy... a few recent eyewitness accounts from the half-crazed survivors of a radical cult, a lot of supposition." She rubbed her forehead on his arm, trying to relieve the headache she could feel brewing behind her eyes. Mulder shook his head again and pressed his palm along her forehead to help her alleviate the pain.

"No. Not supposition. We have proof undeniable, Scully; it doesn't matter how old the account or how antiquated the rolls of film. Not to mention the comparative ease of finding those rolls in the first place. Somebody planted it in a place where we'd find it, which means that someone is watching us. Someone may also be setting themselves up to be our "In-The- FBI" friend... that little undercover bonus died out when we lost X. Maybe we have another buddy."

Scully sighed and nodded, unwilling to wrap her still-aching head around anything else at the moment save her partner. Mulder took his hand from her forehead and curved it along the back of her neck, pulling her close for a lingering kiss, smiling against her lips when they opened easily and she invited him inside. Her tongue curled around his gently and he returned the favor, both of them enjoying the unhurried flavor of the kiss they shared... as if they had all the time in the world to sprawl on Mulder's living room floor and spend out precious moments kissing and holding each other.

And at that moment in their time, sharing sips of ice water and heated yet gentle kisses... they had all the time in their world. Tomorrow would bring God-knows-what new horror into their lives; right now they needed the comfort that only they could provide, each to the other.

Mulder lowered her carefully to the carpet, cushioning her head on one hand as he leaned on his side over her, never breaking the kiss which was slowly heating up. Scully sighed into his mouth, taking pleasure as well as desire from the way his body tensed alongside hers, and the increased tenor of his breathing when she let her tongue play with his. She kept her eyes open as they kissed, needing to see the myriad emotions flitting across his face and spilling from his dilated eyes as his kisses grew in intensity and he groaned against her mouth.

"Scully... you'd better stop me now, unless you want to take this to the next level. I want you so badly... but our timing sucks. We've got so much to do..." His voice trailed off as her teeth sank into his earlobe and bit him there, then she blew a gentle breath onto the mark she'd created, and her hands moved up and around to cup his head. He shuddered when her low reply ruffled the soft hair on his neck.

"I know... I know, Mulder. I just... I had to get my mind off this horrible headache and find a way to momentarily escape what we have to face, so soon. It's just too soon! I'm not ready for it... Jesus, how can anyone be ready for something like this!" Her voice broke on a choked sob and she buried it in the collar of his shirt, refusing to give in to emotion. Not now... if she had anything to do with it, not ever.

Mulder's arms tightened, cradling her as Scully managed to get herself under control, big hands running soothingly up and down her back. She pulled her face from his shirt and stared up at him with glittering eyes, fingers tugging at him until he lay full-length upon her... then she twined both legs about his lean hips and felt him cover her like a protective blanket. Mulder pressed down into her, both hands holding her face and gazing down into her eyes with a wealth of love evident in his - and the kiss he gave her melted her heart and most of her struggling resolve. He murmured into her mouth, "You getting back your control, Scully? Feel free to use me as your strengthening tool any old time." She laughed shakily and nipped at his full lower lip before she deigned to give him a reply.

"You're an idiot, Mulder..." He grinned.

"Yeah, but I'm your idiot."

~ Chapter Six ~

The volume on the television was turned down to a quiet murmur. Scully idly listened to the local news, but her attention was focused elsewhere. Specifically, it was focused on Mulder, as he slept with his head nestled comfortably in her lap. The recently repaired air- conditioner hummed softly in the background. Her fingers played gently with a lock of dark hair that had tumbled onto his forehead. Too busy with their research to get to the barber, his hair was growing out of the short cut he had adopted over the last two years. Scully found the longer look of it very sexy; she'd get around to admitting this discovery to Mulder, sooner or later. She smiled at the thought of his reaction to her admission.

Mulder frowned in his sleep and shifted on the sofa. Scully feathered gentle fingers over his brow, soothing him and jealously guarding his sleep from anything that would disturb it, even bad dreams. She watched the tiny creases in his forehead smooth out and his mouth once again grow slack. He hummed her name softly and burrowed his face into the soft cotton of the T-shirt covering her lap. His breath was warm and comforting against her.

Fingers still toying with his hair, she reflected on the changes wrought in their relationship over the last few months. She was continually amazed that in the depths of the living nightmare into which they had been plunged, they managed to carve out small moments of peace and happiness and normalcy. She didn't know what the future held for the world, but she knew that her future was inextricably bound to Mulder's.

Breaking free of her reverie, she glanced toward the television. Immediately, her attention was caught and held by the reporter on the screen. Fumbling with one hand to turn up the volume with the remote control, she shook Mulder awake with the other.

"Huh?" he said, eyeing her blearily. Scully scooted to the edge of the sofa, nearly tumbling Mulder onto the floor. "Hey!" he said indignantly as he sat up. "What are you... mmmpf!" His words were cut off when Scully clapped a hand over his mouth.

"Shh!" she demanded, her eyes never leaving the television screen. Mulder turned to see what had captured her attention.

"...that's exactly right, Jim," the reporter said as she held a microphone to her mouth, "This is the fourth such attack by a swarm of bees in the Southwest in recent weeks." She glanced down to a piece of paper in her hand and then looked back into the camera. "About thirty-five people were stung in this most recent outbreak. They were all brought here, to Mercy Hospital," she said indicating the building behind her. "But a hospital source tells me that FEMA -the Federal Emergency Management Agency - has ordered the evacuation of all of the victims and that they have been taken to a quarantine center that has been established here in the Southwest for treatment."

Scully could feel Mulder's fingers digging into her thigh, but her attention was still riveted to the reporter who was pressing a finger to her ear, apparently listening to someone's question over her earpiece.

"No, Jim. Nobody has said where these swarms are originating. Of course, there is speculation among the local population that these are the killer bees we've so often heard about over the years, but there is no official confirmation of that. Live from Sedona, Arizona, I'm Lisa Sanchez."

The local D.C. anchor thanked their sister station from Arizona for the report and then turned the news over to the sports reporter. Scully finally turned when Mulder tugged insistently on her arm.

"Quarantine center, my ass... those people are going into incubation. I saw it on that ship at Wilke's Land... hundreds of those goddamn pods filled with green alien shit. Every one of those poor innocents are going to become involuntary food for alien embryos. It's time to talk to Skinner," he told her.

She nodded, feeling sick to her stomach at the thought of what was happening and would continue to happen to so many. "First thing in the morning."

"Look Agents," Skinner said as Mulder finished briefing him. "I need evidence. I need something that I can take to the Director. If what you are saying is true, then I need concrete proof - because eventually I'm going to have to release a statement which can be taken and presented to the White House."

Mulder snarled in frustration and leapt to his feet, pacing around the office. As always, nobody could just accept - with everything they'd presented their AD, and with what he'd already seen over the years with his own eyes it still wasn't enough... He turned to Scully just as she stood and walked around Skinner's desk. Leaning down next to him, she dug through the papers scattered across the desk, sorting through them rapidly. Quickly choosing some pages and discarding others, she began to lay them out neatly. Looking up, she beckoned to Mulder.

"Come on, Mulder. Sit back down. We'll go over this slowly and methodically."

Mulder dragged his hands through his hair and sank down into the visitor's chair in front of Skinner's desk. "We don't have time for slow and methodical," he ground out through clenched teeth.

Scully's smile was soft and meant only for him. "Mulder, you've already convinced your most difficult audience. I believe you. If you can convince me..."

Turning to their boss, she tapped her index finger on top of one page. "Just follow along, Sir. It all makes a kind of horrifying sense." She led him through page after page of ancient journal entries and witness accounts. She brought his attention to numerous police reports as well as articles in newspapers, both national and international, dating as far back as the early 1800s all the way up to the present.

"We're still not sure what was going on in the Sixties and early Seventies," she told him. "Maybe there was a step up in the testing, but instead of sporadic reports of the black oil, there is a great deal of documented evidence to show that they had accelerated their activity in some way." Her finger skimmed over the highlighted portions of the documents they had collected. "The assassinations of John F. Kennedy, his brother, Bobby, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Charles Manson. The incredible brutality found not only in the jungles of Viet Nam but also among the demonstrators at home. Kent State University..." Her voice trailed off.

Mulder leaned into Skinner's field of vision. "Things seemed to quiet down a little in the latter part of the 1970s, although we did find something in an interview given by one of the American hostages after their release from Iran where he mentions a 'darkness emanating from the eyes' of their captors. The pace picked up again in the early Eighties. The attempts on Pope John Paul II's life as well as on President Reagan's life. The murder of John Lennon." His eyes pleaded with his boss to make the leap.

Scully picked up the recitation again. "In the Nineties the focus seemed to move away from world leaders. It was as if the most important and influential people of the modern world had been eliminated and now Joe Public could have a turn... the virus seemed to be manifesting itself in ordinary people committing extraordinarily heinous crimes." She dug through a file and pulled out a sheaf of photocopied documents.

"Here," she said, slapping a piece of paper onto the desk. "A young mother, who by all accounts was a woman who doted on her children, suddenly turned on them one morning while they were sleeping. She butchered them in their beds." Her breathing hitched and she squeezed her eyes closed, searching for, and finding control quickly.

"Here," she continued, pointing to another highlighted portion of text. "A young boy, only fourteen years old, took his father's hunting rifle to his school and methodically murdered five of his classmates while they were playing on the schoolyard during recess."

Mulder took the file from her hands and grabbed another handful of papers from it. "It's all here," he said urgently. "Here and here and again, here." His voice was tense as he set page after page onto Skinner's desktop. "Each and every time, there is some mention of a black film, or a 'black evil' that covered the perpetrator's eyes. He spread his hands imploringly. "No one has ever made the connection before. Until now."

Scully watched him walk over to the window and peer through the blinds. Following him across the room, she took her partner's hand into her own and turned back to their boss.

"Mulder believes that these reports of scattered, deadly bee stings and people being taken to quarantine centers will continue to escalate over the next few weeks and that the virus will be released in a full-scale attack beginning over the Labor Day weekend. I agree with him." She drew in a deep breath and squared her shoulders, standing between her boss and her partner. Her back was pressed into Mulder's chest and she continued to clasp his hand in her own in a physical display of unity.

"Our research shows that historically, there have been periods of time when the level of the aliens' movements against the human race have seemingly been heightened for no apparent reason. The recent incidents involving Jason Martin and Darrell Moore would seem to bear out this pattern. However," her voice was firm and steady as she emphasized her point. "At no time before in history has this violent behavior been coupled so closely with a large number of reported outbreaks of swarming bees."

She glanced over her shoulder and smiled at the man standing quietly behind her. He nodded and set his hands onto her shoulders, squeezing lightly. They had to make their superior see... it was time to take as much control over the situation as possible.

"If you wait to gather more evidence, it'll be too late, Sir," Mulder told their boss.

Skinner nodded and looked at the papers strewn across his desk. Ruthlessly tamping down a rising sense of panic, he lifted his head and eyed the two agents standing near the window. It was a beautiful day, he noted. The sky was a brilliant blue and the sunlight streamed through the blinds, gilding the hair of the couple standing so earnestly before him. How could such natural earthly beauty disguise such an ugly, malignant undergrowth such as this? It was beyond his comprehension... it had always been so. Of the three of them Mulder had been the only true believer. Now it seemed the skeptics had no choice but to accept, and believe.

"What do we do?" he asked grimly.

Mulder got his first taste of media scorn when he tried to arrange an official press conference to break the news. With Skinner's assistance and collaboration they contacted both local and national broadcasting stations and scheduled the conference. Newscasters and reporters alike, always eager to exploit stories about anything extraterrestrial, agreed to bring their cameras and their live feeds, and showed up at the conference in record numbers. FBI agents who'd been involved on the fringes of past X-File cases and who now found themselves ridiculing what they believed to be 'Spooky's latest weirdness', soon discovered that not only did his partner believe and accept but that AD Skinner did as well - and they began to listen. When the time came for the conference they were there to lend their support and quantification. Unfortunately the rest of the world didn't much care to hear, much less heed, the warning that Mulder and Scully tried to impart.

If Mulder would have had one memory to take along with him that day, it would be the way Scully stood up for him against the mass of reporters who shot out derision- laden questions and remarks at them both as they stood before the tangled web of microphones on the podium in front of them.

"Agent Mulder! Agent Mulder! Do you really believe that we are being systematically killed off..."

"...that all of the evil in the world can be traced..."

"Are you telling us you believe that Hitler was infected with this virus which caused him to do the things he did?"

"Agent Mulder!"

"...bees? Bio-engineered crops? Alien incubators...?"

"Agent Mulder, according to your FBI file, you were recently admitted to a psychiatric ward and hospitalized for an unexplained neurological event... could this event have possibly triggered some sort of imbalance in your reasoning and your ability to properly function as a Federal Agent?"

"Agent Mulder! These 'X-Files' that you work on - you chase ghosts and other paranormal phenomena. Are the taxpayers really funding the bill for these kind of investigations? Are they aware that they pay for you to do a sort of 'GhostBusters' routine in the name of the FBI?"

"Agent Mulder!"

"Agent Mulder!"

His senses were blinded by the lights and the confusion. It was almost like that time, not so long ago, when he had been bombarded by sound and other's thoughts. Too confusing to sort through - and once again he was nearly driven mad. For a moment he panicked and his heart sank as he realized that, as before, he was not to be believed. The reporters would present all of his and Scully's research as the ravings of a lunatic and the public would ignore it. There was a sudden movement at his side as Scully stepped up to the podium...

It took all of his control not to punch out a few lights of the reporters who faced off against her as she stood tall at his side and her low but firm words of conviction rang out over the crowd. Above the white roar of anger in his head her voice was an anchor which he gladly clung to, her petite form suddenly inches more than it had been five minutes prior.

"Agent Mulder is telling you the truth. There is a worldwide threat happening right now, this minute - and re-hashing past personal moments in his or anyone else's life will not change that fact. We have proof - ample proof which shall be provided to the media. Documented reports of alien colonization have been ongoing for hundreds of years - and before that, as far back as almost two thousand years, there were more obscure but just as faithful documentation of alien life on this planet. This is not a hoax. It's not a joke or a publicity stunt or the ravings of a disturbed mind. I am a forensic pathologist as well as a Federal Agent and Agent Mulder's partner. I am also a scientist, and believe me when I say that for years I was the most skeptical of all. But this I cannot refute - this I cannot discount. It is real - it is happening. And the Federal Bureau of Investigation has a moral and legal responsibility to inform you of these events so that you can in turn report it to the media."

Through her entire monologue Scully had remained calm and rational. Mulder was, as always, in awe of her demeanor - he would have liked nothing better than to jump up and down on a few heads out there in the crowd - but Scully kept her cool. That she also defended his reputation as a Federal Agent and as a man with his full mental capabilities... Mulder decided that he'd assure Scully knew without a doubt what her public support meant to him.

Five minutes later, three FBI Special Agents and a handful of their colleagues discovered exactly how much their earnest plea to the media had been believed - and accepted.

"I don't fucking believe this. How can so many people be so stupid?"

Mulder stood in the middle of his living room watching the evening news. In between mounting reports of bee attacks still scattered locally as well as nationally, and a report of a particularly nasty attack nearby Belfast, Ireland... newscasters were showing bits and pieces of the press conference of the day before, and snickering openly about the idea of bees and the virus they were carrying. A female reporter, one of the more snidely vocal at the conference, was standing in front of a home in Gary, Indiana; an entire family had been attacked when about twenty swarming bees poured in through a hole in their screen door and stung the family as they sat at the dinner table. Three children aged two through eleven had been stung along with their parents and maternal grandmother, plus a niece who had been staying with them over the summer.

The reporter, having been at the press conference only hours before this most recent report, had obviously high-tailed it over to Gary as soon as the news broke. During the newscast of the bee attack on the Indiana family, not once did she mention anything about the press conference and the evidence that had been revealed. The public was led to believe that once again a bee attack had happened for no apparent reason, and the family, four of whom were still alive, would be taken into quarantine by FEMA.

"Jesus! What's it gonna take? Aliens just busting out all over in front of those humans still left standing?" Mulder paced in a tight circle, Scully watching helplessly. Stopping in front of the window, he rubbed his hands over his face, hard. He was so angry and pissed and just plain defeated... he didn't know what else could be done. At a gentle touch on his arm from Scully, he turned to face her, looking down into her sympathetic eyes. His own burned with weariness; he'd gotten little sleep last night for worrying. He reached out his hand and slipped it around her little waist, pulling her tightly against him and burying his face in her soft hair. Scully ran a soothing hand over his shoulderblades as she whispered to him.

"Mulder, we did everything we could. We alerted the media in the correct and proper manner. We were completely honest with them. They can't - won't - accept it. At least, not yet. Maybe by the time they do it'll be too late." She pulled her face out of his neck and framed her hands around his jawline, her eyes holding his earnestly. "Sadly there's nothing we can do for those who don't believe - but we can save the ones who do. I think I'd better try getting hold of Bill and Charlie, and Mom. I'm going to make some phone calls before we eat, okay? Are you even hungry?"

Mulder shook his head, dropping a light kiss on her mouth, before releasing her. "Not really - but I suppose we should try. Let me see what I can find; I'll think of something. You go call your family."

~ Chapter Seven ~

Scully set the phone down quietly. She could feel Mulder watching her worriedly from across the room and she lifted frightened eyes to his.

"Three days, Mulder." She clasped her hands tightly in her lap and began rocking back and forth in her seat. "It's been three days and I still can't reach any of them."

Mulder hurried to her and sank down on his knees in front of her. He pried loose her tightly clenched fingers and held them in his own. She was shivering and her hands were icy despite the warmth of the late summer evening. She was bone-achingly weary, unable to sleep with mounting worry over her inability to contact her family.

"I'm sure they are fine, Scully," Mulder soothed, chafing her hands between his warm palms.

"No," she shook her head vehemently. "No, Mulder. Something's wrong. I can feel it." She pulled her hands free of his grip and ran them through her tangled hair. "Why don't they answer, Mulder?" she asked, gripping her aching head in her hands. "Don't you think it's strange that none of them are home?" She blew out a frightened breath. "What if... what if they are being targeted?" she asked. "What if the aliens specifically picked them out in order to punish me?" Her voice was raw with anguish. "What if they're all--"

"Scully," he interrupted in a firm voice. "You're letting your imagination run wild now."

"But Mulder, I went to Mom's this morning and she's not home," she told him, despite the fact that he accompanied her to her mother's home. "Her mail was piled up on the floor inside the front door and I only get the answering machines at Bill's and Charlie's." Her hands gripped his wrists tightly. "I waited too long," she berated herself. "I didn't think they would believe me and I waited too long. If anything has happened to them, I'll never..." Frightened tears trickled down her face.

"Shh," he whispered, pushing her hair off her damp cheek. "Scully, you haven't slept in two days and you've barely eaten anything. Your imagination is getting the best of you..." Scully shook her head so hard her hair flew into her reddened eyes.

"No. Mulder, something's not right. I..." She jerked as the shrill ringing of the telephone interrupted them. Lunging out of her chair, she snatched up the receiver and thumbed the talk button.

"Hello?" she said hesitantly. "Billy!" Her voice was joyful. "Thank God! Where have you been? I've been trying to reach you for three days now!" Scully's eyes closed with relief at the sound of her brother's voice, which was booming over the telephone wires loud enough for Mulder to catch snatches of his end of the conversation.

"Dana? What the hell is going on up there?" Bill demanded. "Tara and I took the kids camping this weekend and I come home to find about twenty increasingly frantic messages from you on my answering machine, not to mention your face plastered all over the newspapers!"

"Bill, look. I know you don't believe anything that you've read, but I promise you. It's all true..."

Her brother snorted into the telephone. "Jesus, Dana! I prayed that you would leave that partner of yours before this happened. You sound as crazy as he does. And what are you doing? Are you LIVING with him now? God in heaven! My baby sister is shacking up with a refugee from an insane asylum."

Scully let him rant and rave, wallowing in the sheer pleasure of hearing his voice. He could scream the house down as long as it meant he was healthy and whole. But when he stopped to take a breath, she spoke quickly before he could start up again.

"Bill, I'm worried about Mom. I went over to her house this morning and it looks like she hasn't been home in days. The mail is piled up..."

"She's at Charlie's."

"What?" Scully asked in confusion.

"She went to visit Charlie and Jeannie and the kids," Bill told her. "Didn't she tell you?"

Scully's eyes fluttered closed as she remembered her mother discussing just such a trip with her a couple of weeks earlier. She started to sag with relief until she remembered that she had not been able to contact her younger brother and his family either.

"Bill, then why aren't they answering?"

Bill huffed impatiently into her ear. "Christ Dana! I don't know. Maybe they went away for the weekend too."

She shook her head. "No, Bill. I don't think... I just have a really bad feeling that something has happened to them."

Bill sighed, a twinge of apprehension flaring briefly as he listened to the panic evident in the voice of his normally unflappable sister. "Look, if it will make you feel better, I'll drive down there tomorrow and check up on them."

Scully's eyes widened and she latched onto the idea with both hands. She was tired of sitting around waiting. She needed to do something. "I'm going with you," she told him.

"Dana, it's a long enough drive for me. There's no reason for both of us to go. Besides, when I get there I'm sure they'll be safe and sound. I think you're worrying for no reason."

"I pray you're right, Bill. If you are, I give you permission to say 'I told you so' until you are blue in the face. But I'm still going with you."

Bill sighed again, recognizing that note of determination in her voice. It was the same tone their mother always used; the tone that meant she wouldn't tolerate an argument. "Fine," he said. "Why don't you leave first thing in the morning. It's almost a four hour drive from D.C. to Norfolk. I'll look for you around 11:00 a.m. If we drive straight through, we should be at Charlie's in time for leftovers."

Scully smiled softly into the phone. "I'll see you tomorrow," she said.

"See you then," he said, lowering the phone to his side.

"Bill!" she cried out urgently and he lifted the phone back to his ear.

"Yeah?"

"I love you, Billy," she whispered.

He exhaled harshly. "Love you too, Dana." He set down the phone, listening to the sound of Tara putting the children to bed. Poking his head into Matthew's room, he watched his wife tuck a teddy bear into the bed with Matty. Bill crossed the room and pressed a kiss onto his son's forehead. "Goodnight, Matty," he said softly. The sleepy child wrapped tiny arms around his father's neck. "Night, Daddy," he whispered drowsily. Bill hugged him in his strong arms, allowing the smell of baby shampoo and little boy to soothe away the tension generated by the very real fear he had heard in his sister's voice.

The smile Scully turned on Mulder was brief but happy. "They're okay," she said.

He smiled back. "I'm glad." His smile faded as his voice took on a serious note. "You do know I'm going with you tomorrow, don't you?"

A picture of Bill's face when he saw Mulder riding shotgun flashed briefly through her mind and she lifted her fingers to her temple in anticipation of the pounding headache she was sure to have about 45 minutes into the trip, but she wouldn't have it any other way.

"I know."

Mulder looked away for a moment before turning back at her. He opened his mouth to speak and then closed it abruptly. "There's one more thing we need to talk about," he said finally.

Scully looked at him expectantly, patiently waiting while he gathered his thoughts.

"We need to start thinking about leaving here," he said. "And we're going to need to convince your family to come with us."

Scully's head snapped back in surprise at his unexpected announcement and Mulder once again crouched in front of her. He settled his hands on her knees and traced his thumbs over the soft skin of her legs from knees to the hem of her denim shorts.

"We both know there's no way to stop this." He looked at her steadily. "We need to go someplace else, someplace where we stand a chance of survival. We need to do everything in our power to stay alive."

Scully's eyes rounded. She had been so intent on their research and had struggled so hard to accept that invasion and colonization was really happening, that she had not really thought any further. She was stunned to realize that they would have to leave their homes and all that was familiar to start a life elsewhere. She looked around Mulder's apartment, her eyes skimming over the aquarium and the bookcase, the familiar sofa where they had spent so many nights wrapped in each other's arms over the last few months - and nodded.

"Someplace cold," she murmured, staring into his eyes. After their ordeal in Antarctica, Scully had grown to hate the cold. Now, she thought, what had nearly killed them before might save them. "Where?" she asked.

Mulder shrugged. "I've been thinking about Alaska. As far north within Alaska as we could go." He stood and pulled her to her feet. "Listen, we don't have to decide this tonight. I just wanted you to consider it before we reach your family."

Scully turned toward the computer. "Maybe we should do some research on Alaska," she suggested.

Mulder caught her by the arm. "I've already started," he told her. "You can read it in the car on the way to Norfolk tomorrow. He steered her toward the bedroom. "Right now, you need to get some sleep."

"Mulder, I can't sleep," she protested. "I'm too nervous."

"Scully, you can't keep going without sleep," he told her. "You're going to need all of your strength just to make it through seven hours in the car with Bill and me."

She made a face and heaved a sigh. "I just don't think I'll be able to stop worrying long enough to fall asleep," she admitted.

"What about those sleeping pills you sometimes force down my throat?" he asked.

Scully pursed her lips and resolutely shook her head. "No."

Mulder leveled his gaze on her. "Scully."

She ground her teeth in frustration. "Fine. Okay." She went into the bathroom and opened the medicine cabinet. Rooting through the various prescription bottles, she found the one she was searching for and shook one pill into her hand. Mulder handed her a tumbler filled with water and she swallowed the pill under his watchful gaze.

"All gone, see?" she said, opening her mouth to show him that she had swallowed the pill.

He grinned quickly and pressed his lips to her forehead. "Good girl."

Scully pushed him out of the bathroom and quickly finished getting ready for bed. When she stepped into the bedroom, she saw that Mulder had pulled back the covers. She changed into a pair of striped cotton pajama bottoms and a ribbed tank top and slid into bed. Mulder settled onto the mattress and pulled her feet into his lap.

"I'll stay here until you fall asleep," he told her as he began to rub her feet.

"Aren't you coming to bed?" she asked.

"No, I'm gonna watch some television - hopefully unwind a bit first," he said as he dug his thumbs into the arch of her foot.

She nestled her head into the pillow. "Don't stay up too late," she said, hiding a yawn behind her hand. She blinked at him through heavy lashes.

Mulder continued to gently rub her feet until he saw her breathing even out as she drifted into sleep. He drew the sheet over her and kissed her softly on the lips.

"Sleep well," he whispered. "I love you."

She murmured softly in her sleep, and smiled.

His eyes opened very slowly; it felt as if weights were pressing into them. He wasn't sure of what had awoken him... he looked around and saw mostly a darkness obscuring the corners of the room. He sat up slowly, suddenly alert. That smell... delicate perfume.

'You're stubborn, Fox. You should have left long before now, you and your Dana.'

He squinted in the darkness, barely able to make out the soft edges of her cloak.

"Samantha... it IS you. Please, is it too late for us? I should have listened to you..." He could see her covered head nodding slowly in agreement.

'Yes, you should have. You've almost left it too long. But you have to leave, now. You're not safe here. Take her and get out, Fox - get out now. You're in danger. Someone is coming for you...'

The panic set deeply within, almost painful. "Who? Who's coming? Tell me, please tell me..."

'No. It's a waste of time to linger, waiting for names and faces -go now. Please, Fox. Do you want to end up like this...?'

She threw back her hooded drape. And at first her dark curling hair hid her face - but only for a moment. She shook back the long tresses, and a bee fluttered from her hair... then he could hear the buzzing, of many bees. He didn't want to look; he squeezed his eyes tightly shut...

He had to look.

Oh God... no face. Where her sweet face should have been... there were only bees. Hundreds of squirming, swarming bees... He screamed.

** He screamed...

Mulder jolted awake with a start. Scrubbing his hands over his face, he shook off the remnants of sleep, and a nightmare so vivid it still danced across his closed eyes. Placing a hand over his pounding heart, he concentrated on regulating his breathing, opening his sleep-crusted eyes.

"What time is it?" he muttered, squinting at the illuminated dial of his watch. Midnight. Rising from the couch, he rubbed his hand over his aching neck and turned the television off. A sound from outside captured his attention and he looked out of his living room window. "Shit!" he cried, sprinting for the bedroom.

"Scully!" he whispered loudly. "Scully! Come on, baby. I need you to wake up."

He pulled her into a sitting position and shook her lightly. She moaned and her head lolled back onto her shoulders. Oh God, he thought. The sleeping pill. Shit. Bracing himself, he slapped her lightly across the cheek.

"Mmm... what? Mulder?" She peered at him drunkenly. He grabbed their guns from the night stand and shoved his wallet, keys and cell phone into his pockets.

"Scully!" he said harshly, demanding that she pay attention. "We've got to get out of here. Now!" He wrapped his arm around her waist and grabbed her sneakers from the floor with his free hand. "Come on!"

Mulder pulled her out of the bedroom and stopped in the living room. Creeping over to the door, he pressed his ear against the wood and listened. The hallway was quiet and he eased the door open and drew her into the hallway. Throwing the lock on the door, he quietly pulled it closed behind them and cocked his head, listening. Blinking against the harsh florescent lights, Scully opened her mouth and he hushed her, placing his fingers over her lips. Eyes wide with fright, she nodded. He stopped again at the door to the stairwell and held his breath. He could hear booted feet climbing the steps as well as the sound of the elevator as it creaked upward. Shoving her sneakers at her, he slid the safety off his gun. Grabbing her by the hand, he entered the stairwell cautiously and they quickly and soundlessly ran up two flights. Scully was wide awake now with the force of the adrenaline rushing through her system and she turned anxious eyes toward him.

"Soldiers," he breathed into her ear.

"How many?" she asked as she took her gun out of the waistband of his jeans.

He shrugged. "Six."

"Are you sure?" she demanded quietly.

He nodded confidently. "Yeah. I counted them."

"Okay," she said. "Do you have a plan?"

He shook his head and they tensed as the soldiers continued to slowly and quietly make their way up the stairs. Mulder and Scully tightened their grips around their guns, hoping that surprise would be on their side. They watched from their perch between the fifth and sixth floors as the soldiers eased open the door of the stairwell and slipped into the hallway. They warily crept down one flight of stairs.

"Was that all six of them?" Mulder asked, his voice a mere breath.

Scully nodded, her eyes and gun trained on the door below them. When they heard the splintering sound of wood coming from the hall, they sprinted down the stairs. They crept outside, alert for any signs of danger. They could hear the raised shouts of the soldiers as they realized that their prey had escaped. Glancing down the street to Mulder's car, Scully shook her head. "We'll never make it. We'd be better off on foot right now," she hissed in his ear.

"Let's go," he said. They raced down the street and slipped into a dark alleyway on the next block. They continued to run through alleys and driveways until they were about two miles from Mulder's apartment building. Collapsing onto the sidewalk in the shadow of a darkened restaurant, they fell into each other's arms.

"Oh my God!" Scully panted into his neck. "Oh God! Mulder that was so close."

"We're okay, we're okay," he chanted, stroking his hands under the cropped hem of her tank top, pulling her flush against his body. "We're okay."

Forcing much-needed oxygen into her lungs, she pulled back to look at him. "Now what?" she asked.

Mulder bit his lip and looked around.

"We need help," she whispered.

Mulder nodded and pulled his cell phone out of his pocket, quickly dialing a number. He waited while the phone rang three times before being answered.

"Sir?" he said in hushed tones into the phone. "It's Mulder. We need your help." He swiftly explained the events of the last thirty minutes. "Can you pick us up?" he asked. Mulder listened for a moment and then spoke again. "I'd like to put a little more distance between us and them," he said. "We're going to keep moving," he told their boss. "We'll meet you outside of Sardelli's in an hour," he murmured. "Yes sir," he nodded. "We will. See you soon."

He ended the call and stuffed the phone back into his pocket, then helped Scully to her feet. She winced, sucking in a painful breath. She had run the entire way without shoes and the soles of her feet were scraped up. She sank back down onto the pavement and Mulder slid down with her. He lifted one of her feet in his hands and studied it in the glow of the street lamp. He gently brushed away the grit and dirt. "Thankfully, you're not bleeding," he told her. "I'm sorry."

"For what?" Scully asked, stroking disheveled hair from his forehead. "For saving us?" She slid her sneakers onto her feet, grimacing slightly as she stood. "It's not that bad, really. We should get going."

He nodded and once again they set off through back streets and alleys until they reached the popular restaurant that was their rendezvous point with Skinner. The restaurant was closed and they sat down on the sidewalk along the darkened side of the building, keeping out of sight of the road. Scully tucked herself into Mulder's embrace and rested her head against his chest, wrapping her arms around his waist. He hugged her tightly with one arm, and held his gun loosely in his lap with the other hand. Now that the rush of adrenaline had worn off, Scully could once again feel the effects of the sleeping pill. She struggled to stay alert but it was becoming difficult for her to keep her eyes open. Mulder smoothed his hand over her head, wanting to tell her it was okay for her to sleep, but afraid for them to let down their guard until Skinner had safely picked them up. They both tensed at the sound of tires crunching over the gravel driveway and Mulder peered around the side of the building cautiously. Sagging with relief, he pulled Scully out of the shadows and they hurried forward.

Skinner jumped down from the driver's side of a Ford Excursion and Mulder eyed the huge vehicle wonderingly. Skinner glanced over his shoulder at the dark blue vehicle and then back. "It'll give us a lot of protection," he said.

Mulder nodded and started to lead Scully toward the truck. She hung back, self- consciously crossing her arms over her breasts. "Thank you for coming out to get us, Sir," she said, a blush staining her cheeks.

Skinner nodded and cleared his throat, studiously averting his gaze, but not before taking in her tousled hair and flushed cheeks, the drowsy blue eyes; the unbound breasts, the pale skin of her stomach exposed by the cropped tank top and the thin cotton pajamas covering her legs. She looked like a woman who had just crawled out of a man's bed. Climbing back behind the steering wheel, he watched Mulder tenderly settle Scully into the back seat, urging her to lie down and try to sleep, and he knew that that was exactly where she had been before all hell broke loose. "We better get going," he said gruffly. "Where to?" he asked after Mulder hauled himself up into the passenger seat next to him.

Mulder twisted in his seat to look back at Scully. Their eyes met and she nodded. He turned back to his boss.

"Norfolk."

~ Chapter Eight ~

The Excursion ate up the miles and spit them out in a flume of exhaust, quiet engine reflecting the equally-quiet interior of the vehicle. In the spacious back seat Scully slept like the dead. Once the rush of adrenaline from their escape had worked its way out of her tired body she'd crashed hard, actually snoring very softly. Mulder stared out the windshield and tried to hold in a tired grin. The sound of that tiny little snorting snore was so endearing... He turned his head a bit and caught Skinner eyeing him sideways as he drove on through the darkness, the electronic dashboard display casting a greenish glow over his stern features. Skinner cleared his throat and his voice was low and gruff.

"Didn't know Agent Scully snored..." Mulder shook his head and the grin broke free and wreathed his face as he replied in an equally low voice.

"Neither did I. Must be that sleeping pill she took earlier, before... well, before. She'd had about three hours of heavy sleep under the influence, then I had to get her on her feet in a hurry and I guess her instincts took over." Mulder rubbed at his tired eyes and refilled both their cups; Skinner had remembered he carried a large thermos in the vehicle and they had stopped at a Stop N Go and had filled it with hot coffee. He handed Skinner a full cup and his AD grunted his thanks, draining half the hot liquid and holding out the cup for a top-off, before speaking again.

"Agent Mulder - did you recognize any of those men, or weren't you able to see them clearly? If we could establish who'd sent them -" Mulder interrupted him with a firm shake of his head.

"No. I didn't see their faces. But I know who - or should I say 'what' - they are. Consortium go-fors; that's what I figure. They may have been human or they may have been alien. Maybe a little of both. Doesn't matter. They meant to kill us and leave no evidence behind."

"How did you know to get out of there so quickly?" Skinner was curious. Mulder shrugged, unwilling to talk about his dream, knowing how strange it would sound to anyone else. And yet, Skinner had seen some things in his seven years with him and Scully... he decided to try it.

"I had a dream, Sir..." And he proceeded to tell it.

Ten minutes later Skinner gulped down another half cup of now-tepid coffee, shot Mulder a frowning glance and commented, "You know, Mulder... most guys have hot dreams when they're sleeping in the vicinity of the woman they love. But not you, huh?"

Hearing the word 'love' popping out of his bosses' mouth so casually about gave Mulder heart failure and he almost dropped his coffee in astonishment. How...? The look on his face must have been priceless even in the dim green of the front cab. Skinner caught it and barked out a snicker.

"Jesus, Mulder! How stupid do you think I am? You're together at some ungodly hour on a weeknight running through the streets of DC with killers on your asses - and Agent Scully's in her jammies. What else could it be, if not love?" Skinner shook his head and laughed when Mulder's jaw dropped again.

"Look, it's okay, Agent. The whole fucking world could come crashing down around our ears any day now. If you can find someone special in that kind of disaster, then I say go for it. You and Scully are very lucky. Never forget that." And with one hard nod in Mulder's general direction, Skinner turned his attention back to the road, fiddling with the radio until he found a station playing soft blues. Mulder relaxed in his seat and brought the cup to his mouth, smiling as he drank his coffee... thoughtful.

Relaxed, for the first time in days. Somehow, it was going to be all right. Odd, but with Skinner's approval came a feeling of safety along with the acceptance. And in that one moment it dawned on Mulder just how much importance he'd placed on his AD's blessing. Now, more than ever it wasn't just Mulder and Scully against the world. Skinner had joined the fray.

It was comforting...

They drove on through the night.

Scully awoke slowly, stretching luxuriously. She dragged her eyes open and smiled sleepily at Mulder who was perched on the edge of the bed.

"Good morning," he said softly.

"Morning," she mumbled, fighting to suppress a yawn. She relaxed into the pillows again, her eyes drifting closed until she remembered the events of the previous evening and sat up with a gasp. "Mulder, where are we?" she asked, looking wildly around the unfamiliar room.

Mulder eased her back against the pillows. "Skinner and I figured that we would be at Bill's house around five-thirty in the morning if we drove straight through and we were both pretty tired. We decided to stop here for the night and get some sleep."

"Oh," she said, leaning forward to wrap her arms around his waist and rest her cheek on his shoulder. "Good idea."

Mulder slid his hands under her shirt and Scully arched her spine, enjoying the feel of his big hands running over her back. She was considering the possibility of going back to sleep for a little while longer when there was a tap at the door. Skinner walked in carrying a cardboard tray filled with coffee cups and two bags.

"Coffee," he said, setting the tray onto the table by the door. Scully gasped and flung herself out of Mulder's arms, hastily pulling up the sheet and drawing her knees up to her chest. Skinner popped the lid from one cup and took a sip of the steaming liquid. "There's a convenience store across the street," he said. "I also bought bagels, the morning paper, toothpaste and some toothbrushes." He rummaged through one of the bags and withdrew a plastic encased toothbrush and a small tube of toothpaste. "Good morning, Agent Scully," he said as he passed her on the way to the bathroom.

Mulder tried to pull Scully back into his arms, but she squirmed out of his grasp. "Mulder!" she said, throwing a worried look at the bathroom door. "Stop it!"

"It's all right, Scully," Mulder told her. "He knows about us." She glared at him and Mulder threw his hands up. "Hey," he defended himself. "He figured it out on his own last night." Scully continued to resist his attempts to pull her back into his embrace, nervously eyeing the bathroom door. "Scully." Mulder pressed two fingers against her jaw, forcing her to look at him. "Relax, he approves. In fact, he gave me his blessing last night."

Scully sighed and nodded, grateful that she wouldn't have to face Skinner's disapproving face all day long. "Okay," she said, relieved. "But I can't parade around in front of my boss dressed like this." She plucked at her skimpy clothes in agitation. Mulder grinned at her and stared admiringly at the cropped shirt.

"Scully, you're wearing more clothes than you would if you were at the beach!" he reasoned. "I think you look great."

"Since I have no intention of ever wearing a bathing suit in front of our boss, that isn't exactly comforting," she hissed. Scully scrambled out of bed and stood in front of him. "Mulder, look at me!"

Mulder felt a surge of lust curl low in his belly as his gaze skimmed over the soft, natural shape of her breasts, down to the peek-a-boo glimpse of smooth skin exposed beneath the hem of her shirt before settling on her bare feet - and he realized that she had a point.

"Scully," he said reasonably. "He knows I had to drag you out of bed last night." She moaned and buried her face in her hands.

"We were running for our lives," he reminded her. "It's not like we had time to pack." She nodded unhappily. Mulder tried again. "Skinner is a gentleman and he's always treated you with respect. That isn't going to change just because he saw you in your pajamas." He looked at her reassuringly. "Want some coffee?" he asked.

She followed him to the table and carefully moved one of the chairs behind the table, settling herself into it. "Don't smirk, Mulder," she said as she caught him hiding a smile behind his coffee cup. "I'd like to see how you would react if you had to spend the day with him wearing nothing but your boxers!"

Mulder choked on his coffee and Scully resisted the childish urge to stick her tongue out at him. Instead she took the only cinnamon-raisin bagel out of the bag and was nibbling on it delicately when Skinner emerged from the bathroom.

"Good morning, Sir," she said calmly, gathering courage from her hiding place behind the table.

They ate quickly and Scully gave Mulder a grateful look as he arranged a little private time for her to get ready. "Sir, why don't we take the truck across the street to the convenience store? We can fill up the gas tank and refill the thermos while Scully calls Bill to let him know we'll be early."

Skinner palmed his keys and ambled out to the parking lot. "Thank you," Scully whispered as she pressed a grateful kiss to Mulder's lips.

"We'll wait for you outside," he told her; kissing her gently, he headed for the door. She quickly washed up and brushed her teeth, then used her fingers to try to smooth the worst of the tangles in her hair. Next she called Bill and informed him that they would be there shortly, telling him that she would explain why when they got there. Hanging up the phone, she slid her feet into her sneakers and tugged down the hem of her shirt before opening the door. Mulder was standing alongside the car and Skinner was intently studying a map as she stepped out in the morning sun. Her lips tilted upward in a fond glance at both men as she climbed into the back of the car.

Thirty-five minutes later they pulled into the driveway of Bill and Tara Scully's house. Bill was waiting at the door and stepped outside as Scully hopped down to the ground. "Bill," she cried as she hurried to her brother. Bill leaned down and wrapped a strong arm around her waist, lifting her until her feet dangled an inch or two above the ground. Mulder rounded the car and leaned against the hood, watching a tiny smile bloom across Scully's face as her brother whispered something in her ear.

He set her down onto the driveway and pushed her back so that he could get a better look at her. "Dana," he asked. "Why are you wearing your pajamas?"

She grimaced. "It's a long story - I'll tell you about it inside." Bill slung an arm around his sister's shoulders and turned to face the two men waiting by the car. Scully drew her brother forward. "Bill, I believe you've met my boss, Assistant Director Walter Skinner." The two men nodded and shook hands. "And, of course, you know Mulder." She tilted her face up to her brother and shot him a warning glance. Bill bared his teeth at her in a parody of a smile and held out his hand to Mulder.

"Mulder."

Mulder clasped the other man's hand. "Good to see you, Bill."

Bill grunted noncommittally. "Let's go in the house," he said. He pushed open the screen door and they filed into the house. Tara stepped into the living room and hurried over to the small group gathered by the door.

"Dana!" she exclaimed, hooking one arm around Scully's shoulders and brushing her lips across her cheek. "You look... Dana - why are you wearing your pajamas?" she asked in confusion.

Scully groaned and returned Tara's kiss. "Give me a minute and we'll tell you. But first..." She held out her arms and Tara transferred her eighteen-month-old daughter into her aunt's care.

"Hey Meggie," Scully murmured, bouncing the child in her arms. "It's Aunt Dana. Can you say hi?" The baby pulled her fist from her mouth and waved glistening fingers at her aunt. Scully laughed and lifted her over her head, kissing the baby's belly and making her shriek with glee.

"Aunt Dana!" Little feet galloped down the stairs and three-year-old Matthew Scully raced into view. Scully handed her niece back to Tara and bent down to scoop him up, grunting as she hefted his sturdy body in her arms. "Whoa, Matty! You're getting huge. Pretty soon, you're gonna be taller than me!"

Bill muttered something under his breath and Scully turned her head toward him. "I heard that, Bill. No short jokes," she warned. Turning back to her nephew, she said. "Tell him, Matty. No picking on Aunt Dana." The little boy giggled and buried his face against her shoulder. Scully closed her eyes and rested her cheek against his hair, swaying back and forth.

"Um, Dana?" Tara asked. "You were going to tell us why you're wearing your pajamas," she reminded her sister-in-law. Scully opened her eyes and looked over Matty's head at Mulder. The smile faded from her face and she turned to her brother and his wife. "We need to talk," she said solemnly.

Tara looked at her son. "Matty, Blue's Clues is coming on in a minute. Why don't you take your sister into the other room to watch it?" Matthew's head popped up from Scully's shoulder. "Don't I get a kiss?" Scully asked her nephew as he squirmed to be put down. Matty screwed up his lips and planted a sloppy kiss on her mouth. She set him down and he grabbed his baby sister by the hand and dragged her toward the other room. Tara looked at her sister-in-law and the two men towering over her on either side and gestured toward the kitchen. "I made coffee. Let's sit down."

"Jesus," Bill swore, pushing his cup away. Tara's eyes were wide. "Soldiers?" she asked. "United States military?"

Scully nodded, looking back and forth between her brother and his wife. Fixing her gaze on her brother, she spoke. "Bill, I know you don't want to believe any of this. I resisted for years. But I cannot deny the evidence. The threat is real and imminent."

Bill shook his head. "I believe..." His jaw worked as he marshaled his thoughts. "I believe that the two of you stumbled into something. Something that the government doesn't want you to know. Somebody wants you to be quiet and they are willing to kill you to do so." Bill could not refute this part of their story. The arrival of his always impeccably dressed sister on his doorstep wearing her pajamas and a hunted look was all the proof he needed on this point. "I'm grateful that you were there to get Dana out of the house safely," he said directing his gaze at Mulder.

Scully knew it took a lot from Bill to thank Mulder. She was well aware of the fact that Bill thought Mulder was the reason she was in danger in the first place. She rose from her chair and stood next to Mulder. Stroking her fingers through his hair, she let her hand settle warmly on the back of his neck. Mulder tilted his face up to hers, surprised by her sudden public display of affection, and wrapped his arm around her legs, anchoring her at his side. Their embrace was easy, affectionate. Comfortable. Scully turned her attention back to her brother and raised her brows challengingly. She was determined that Bill understand and accept the fact that Mulder was a permanent part of her life. Mulder, Tara and Skinner watched the silent battle between the siblings until Bill finally huffed out a disgusted breath.

He broke away from his sister's fierce look. "As I was saying, I am grateful to you for Dana's safety, but as for the rest of the story..." He shook his head and looked back at his sister. "Killer bees. An alien invasion that you think dates back to the time of Christ..."

"It probably goes back further than that," Mulder interrupted. "But that was the earliest documented evidence we were able to find."

Bill rolled his eyes. "It sounds like something from a science fiction movie," he muttered.

Scully spoke again. "Look. We aren't going to settle anything right now. I'd like to get on the road so that we can get to Charlie's as soon as possible." She turned to her sister-in-law. "Tara, do you think I could borrow some clothes?" she asked.

Tara pushed her chair away from the table and stood, sending her husband a warning glance. "Sure. Let's see what we can find," she told Scully. Looking back over her shoulder, she spoke to her husband. "Bill, it's too quiet in the other room. Why don't you go see what the kids are up to."

Scully followed Tara upstairs. Tara pulled a pair of shorts out of a drawer, as well as a clean pair of underwear. "These should fit you," she said, holding out the shorts to Scully. "This way, we won't have to worry about the length," she said, noting Scully's shorter legs.

"Thanks," Scully took the clothes into her hands.

Tara was rooting through her closet. "I don't think my bras will fit you," she called out.

"Probably not," Scully sighed.

Tara emerged from the closet and nearly laughed at the wistful expression on Scully's face as she compared her petite build to her sister-in-law's more ample proportions. Tara lowered her mouth to Scully's ear. "Mulder seems content," she whispered conspiratorially, handing her a short-sleeved denim shirt. "Here. I think you'll feel a little more covered up in this than you would in a T-shirt."

Scully's cheeks had flushed when Tara mentioned Mulder. She cleared her throat. "I... uh... I'm just going in there to get changed," she said, escaping into the master bathroom. She emerged a few minutes later, happy to be dressed in clean clothes. "Thanks for the loan, Tara," she smiled. Tara handed her a hairbrush and Scully walked over to the mirror on the dresser to bring some order to her hair. Tara sat down on the bed and regarded Scully in the mirror.

"Dana," she began slowly. "Don't worry about Bill." Scully frowned into the mirror. "I mean don't worry about what Bill thinks about Mulder," Tara continued. Scully put down the brush and turned to face Tara, who gave her a tiny smile. "He takes his role as older brother and protector very seriously."

Scully laughed softly. "That's one way to put it."

Tara's smile was sympathetic. "He wants you to be safe. Wait! Hear me out," she said as Scully moved impatiently. "He wants you to be safe," she repeated. "But mostly, he wants you to be happy." Scully sighed and shook her head. "I can see that Mulder makes you happy. It's obvious to anyone who is looking how much you love each other. When Bill sees that - and someday, I promise you, he will -when he sees how happy you are with Mulder, then he'll accept him." She leaned back, bracing her hands on the mattress. "Now," she said, glancing quickly toward the door. "If you don't mind indulging me in a few minutes of girl talk, I want to know... how is it?" She smiled impishly at her sister- in-law.

Scully flushed again and she looked down at the floor. "Oh, Tara. It's not like that. We haven't..." Tara seemed surprised and Scully sank down onto the mattress next to her.

"Why not?" Tara asked gently, all traces of a teasing smile gone from her face. "You've been living together. You obviously adore one another. So what's holding you back?"

Scully ran one finger along the side seam of the shorts she was wearing. "We had only decided to take a chance on a more personal relationship a few weeks before all of this happened." She sighed. "I don't know, Tara. The timing has always been wrong."

Tara picked up Scully's hand. "Listen, Dana," she said earnestly. "You never know what's going to happen. If you wait for the perfect moment... well there is no such thing."

Scully nodded. "I know."

The two women were quiet for a few moments and then Tara lifted her head. "Dana, I need to ask you one more thing."

Scully looked up expectantly.

"Everything you told us downstairs... the bees, the corn, the ali...aliens," Tara stumbled over the incomprehensible thought. "Do you really believe all of that?" Scully nodded, reaching out a hand to grip her sister-in-law's cold fingers.

"Tara," she began. "I have never wanted to be wrong about anything as much as I want to be wrong about this but, yes. I do believe it. The world as we know it is going to cease to exist."

Tara trembled and her pretty green eyes filled with tears. "God, Dana. What are we going to do?"

Scully gripped her hands tightly. "We're going to survive," she said fiercely. "We're going to get Mom, Charlie, Jeannie and the kids and we're coming back here. Then we're all going to leave this place together."

Tara looked up, fear and hope warring in her eyes. "And go where?" she asked.

"North, for sure. The bees and the virus can't survive the cold," Scully explained. "Tara, while we're gone you need to start getting ready. Dig out the kids' winter clothes - snowsuits, thermals, boots, and gloves. Pack sweaters, jeans and heavy socks and then do the same for you and Bill."

Tara looked up with frightened eyes. "Oh God. Dana..." Scully took hold of her shoulders and stared into her eyes.

"Mulder, Director Skinner and I will do our best to convince the others that we have to go, but Tara..." her gaze was determined. "In the end, it may be up to you to convince Bill. He listens to you. He may fight you, but you have to stay strong. You have to, Tara. If you want Matty and Meg to have a chance to grow up, you have to convince him to go."

Tears streamed down Tara's face and Scully was afraid that she had pushed her sister- in-law too hard. But Tara was a military wife and she was made of sturdy stuff. She took a deep breath and visibly pulled herself together. "Okay," she sniffed. "Okay."

Scully handed her a wad of tissues. "All right then. One more thing and then we're going to get going." She stared into Tara's eyes. "While we're gone, I want you to keep the children in the house. Lock the doors and the windows. The bee attacks have been random so far and there's no way to know where or when they'll strike next. Mulder and I believe that a series of large scale attacks will begin over Labor Day." She paused and took a deep breath. "That's less than three weeks from now, Tara." She pulled her sister-in-law close and wrapped her arms around her. "No matter what happens, I promise you that we'll be back here for you and the children tomorrow."

Although she had slept soundly the night before, Scully's eyes grew heavy with the hypnotic blur of trees and other cars rushing past the window. They had been on the road a little over three hours and the air in the car was rife with tension. Sitting next to his sister in the back seat, Bill was brooding over the information that she, Mulder and Skinner had given to him and Tara earlier in the day and the others were reluctant to push him any further. Skinner glanced into the rearview mirror and then caught Mulder's eye, gesturing toward the back seat. Mulder looked over his shoulder to find Scully fighting to stay awake. Her head would fall forward and she would quickly jerk it back up, her eyes opening briefly before sliding closed again.

"Scully," he called softly. Her head lifted at the sound of his voice. "Why don't you get comfortable and go to sleep. You still have a little catching up to do and we won't be at Charlie's for hours yet."

Scully shook her head. "I'm fine," she protested, sitting up and forcing her eyes open. Bill's sigh was exasperated. He reached over and slipped her sneakers from her feet. "Come on," he said. "Curl up and get some sleep." He adjusted her seat belt so that she would be comfortable. "Go to sleep, Dana. We'll wake you before we get to Charlie's."

Bill's gaze met Mulder's briefly before sliding back to stare sightlessly out of the window.

She awoke a few hours later to arguing voices. She kept her face pressed against the window and could feel her pulse begin to pound behind her closed eyes.

"Look, Bill!" Mulder said hotly. "Don't you think I want to keep her safe too? Knowledge is what is going to save us. The fact that she knows what is going to happen will help her to survive."

Bill swore softly. "You know, you really kill me Mulder. My sister had a promising career ahead of her until she was partnered up with you. From the first day you met, you've been dragging her from one dangerous situation into another. And now! Now you've got her actually believing all of the crazy shit that you've been spouting for years..."

"Stop it!" Scully's voice was quietly commanding. "Just stop it." She rolled her forehead against the glass and drew in a shuddering breath. Turning toward her brother, she looked at him solemnly. "Bill, I know that you love me and that you want what is best for me. You've known me all of my life. Look at me." His eyes flicked toward her briefly before sliding away. "Bill!" she said through clenched teeth. He turned his head to meet her gaze. "Look at me," she said again. "Do you really think I'm crazy?" she asked in disbelief.

Her brother hung his head. "No. I know you're not crazy."

She laid her hand over his. "I know what is going on inside of you, Bill. The fear. The denial. But blaming Mulder isn't going to change what's going to happen; what is happening. If you listen to him... if we work together, we might find a way to live through this." Her eyes glistened with unshed tears. "I love him, Billy... and I need him. He's not going away so you'd better learn to deal with it." She sniffed and rubbed the back of her hand under her nose and turned her attention to Mulder. "As for you," she said leaning forward. "He's my big brother and he's spent a lifetime trying to protect me. So you'd better learn to deal with that."

About twenty miles outside of Charlotte they stopped for food and gas, stocking up on snack-type items and bottled water. No one felt like eating in a restaurant and the overall mood of the group was subdued. They were tired, as well - Skinner had insisted on driving the entire way and Mulder hadn't been inclined to argue. Bill had been mostly quiet, especially after Scully's declaration of a few hours past. She'd stood up to her big brother again, for him - this time letting her feelings be known not only in front of Bill but Skinner as well. Mulder's heart had been so bursting with love for her that even her stern admonishment to figure out a way to deal with her brother's attitude... well, it just glossed over him lightly.

His Scully... she loved him. Publicly she'd said it, and he'd read the words in her eyes, too. And in spite of the rockiest, most unsure future he'd ever experienced, Mulder felt like the luckiest guy in the world.

He sat in the open doorway of the big Ford and watched her walk across the parking lot toward him, hands laden with plastic bags of what Skinner the ex-Marine had disparagingly referred to as 'pogey-bait'. He'd wandered off toward a nearby Burger King with orders of hamburgers and fries - "real food", as he'd so subtly put it, for him and for Bill, who was now standing next to the gas pump topping the tank off. Replacing the hose, Bill glanced up just in time to see the naked love on his sister's face as she drew nearer to the vehicle and saw Mulder gazing at her; swinging that glance to Mulder he couldn't help but see the look returned a hundred-fold. He cleared his throat gruffly and Mulder tore his eyes from Scully with reluctance and faced her brother.

"Mulder, tell me the truth. How much danger are we really in?" Bill's voice was low and calm, but Mulder could hear the worry beneath the surface. Bill was trying to be strong but Mulder knew he had to be going out of his mind where Tara and the kids were concerned. It had taken all his will to get in the car and leave them behind when they left Norfolk. Bill deserved to know the unsugared, unvarnished truth, Mulder decided, as he turned to face the big tough Naval officer.

"A lot of danger, Bill - I won't lie to you and I refuse to candy-coat it. Within three weeks there will be a massive widespread outbreak of bees and the beginning of a planned Armageddon of the human race. Each bee is carrying a lethal virus, for which the modern world has no defense and no likely cure. At one time there was a very weak vaccine against the virus. I don't know if that vaccine is still available." Mulder eyed Bill Scully, wondering how much stark honesty the man could handle... figuring he may as well go for it. As Scully stopped in the middle of the parking lot to wait for Skinner who also had his hands full of food, Mulder spoke rapidly.

"Your sister and I have both been exposed to the virus. Scully was infected much worse than I and the vaccine was administered to her, with obvious success. At this point we're not sure but we think we're both immune. The bees that carry the virus are Africanized honeybees, which means they will sting without much provocation. One sting is all it takes, Bill - just one. And I figure you will have trouble swallowing any and all of this truth until you see it for yourself... and although I know we'll be witness to it sooner or later I really hope you'll be spared the sight of what the virus does to a human being."

There wasn't time to say much more; Scully and Skinner were now walking to the car. Bill nodded, once; murmured, "It's a lot to accept, Mulder... a lot. But I appreciate your honesty. As for what I can swallow - well, we'll have to see." Mulder nodded and opened the doors, helping Scully maneuver the bags and herself into the high-sitting vehicle. She eyed both men suspiciously as she fastened her seatbelt and accepted a bottled water from Mulder.

"What have you guys been discussing?" Bill shrugged and climbed in beside her, his bland gaze meeting Mulder's equally non- committal expression. Skinner stopped fastening his belt and stared at all three of them. Mulder calmly got into the driver's seat and started the Excursion, replying in typical Mulder monotone.

"This and that, Scully - mostly that. A lot of that, actually..." Bill grunted in affirmation. Scully's narrowed gaze took in the look that passed between her men, and her voice held an ominous ring as she ripped the cap off her water bottle.

"Bill, you better not have been fighting again -" Her brother's aggrieved sigh filled the confines of the Ford.

"Jeez! I get blamed for everything..."

The miles wore on, through the north- central section of South Carolina. They stayed on the Interstate most of the way and made decent enough gas mileage not to need another pit stop. Skinner and Bill dozed some of the way; Scully managed to stay awake and spent a great deal of time staring out the window occasionally leaning forward and stroking gentle fingers over Mulder's neck as he sat in the driver's seat and kept a steady sixty-five MPH. They didn't speak much, each immersed in their own thoughts. Mulder knew Scully was very worried, although she was outwardly calm. He knew all the signs: subtle lip- chewing, light drumming of her tapered fingertips on the armrest between her and Bill, an occasional sigh. She hid it well but it was hard to get the mind to stop grinding out possible scenarios and other associated shit. Mulder had tried his best, to no avail.

He didn't have any family left to cause him to worry. In itself a sobering thought, nevertheless it was a relief and a pity all rolled into one. Maybe that was why becoming close to Scully's family had become so vital to him... it was really all he had left besides Skinner and the guys. If they were to make it up north, really make it - they would have to evolve into a new family, of sorts. And they would have to welcome and enfold into their tight sphere anyone else who needed a haven; needed hope.

About fifteen miles from Myrtle Beach Mulder pulled into a rest stop and consulted the map that Bill had drawn, of the directions to Charlie's place. On the outskirts of the city proper, it looked to be about a mile from the beach. 1874 De LaCroix, didn't appear to be that difficult to find. He opened the door and hopped down, taking a few minutes to stretch his legs; Bill and Skinner did the same on the other side of the big Ford, and Scully also grabbed an opportunity to stretch and snuggle with Mulder for a few minutes. She leaned against him, front to front; Mulder wound his arms loosely around her shoulders and nuzzled her hair. His voice was a tired vibration against her temple.

"You okay, Scully? We're almost there. Another twelve miles or so. Do you want to call ahead?" Scully shook her head and kept her cheek pressed to Mulder's shoulder.

"It wouldn't do any good; I already tried a few times as we've been driving along. Either the phone is off the hook, or they're all gone... or something's wrong. I can't shake this feeling of doom, Mulder. Something's horribly wrong." She stared up into his warm eyes and fought to contain her rising panic. "The baby is only two weeks old... in this heat and humidity they wouldn't be spending this much of time away from the house! I have such a bad feeling..." She buried her face against his neck and Mulder sighed and rocked her in his arms, feeling the worry and helplessness surging inside of him as well. He had to remain calm for her - it wouldn't do to let himself weaken just when she needed his strength the most.

Around the corner of the Ford Bill had appeared, taking in the sight of his usually unflappable sister quietly flipping out in her partner's arms, and the glance he sent Mulder's way was equally disturbed. Mulder gave a small shake of his head, mouthing to Bill, "Take her," and Bill nodded and stepped forward to wrap an arm around Scully's shoulders as Mulder set her away from him with a whispered, "Please don't worry, Scully..." Bill could see her spine stiffen and her features even out into a bland mask - before she attempted a smile for Mulder and let her brother pull her over to the car.

Mulder sighed heavily and got back into the driver's seat; as he started the engine his eyes met Skinner's, and both men nodded. This was it - and they could only hope that when they reached Charlie Scully's house everything would be fine. They'd be out back, maybe having a picnic or a cook- out... the baby would be chubby and hairless and pink and sweet in his little bassinet in the family room, and Maggie Scully would be rocking him gently... Charlie and Jeannie would have the two girls on a swing-set in the back yard and the high sweet giggle of their little-girl voices would be a wonder to hear... the air would be thick with the good smells of charring beef. Mulder could almost smile at the mental image he fed himself, as the big Ford scarfed up the remaining ten miles to De LaCroix Street.

Fifteen minutes later they pulled into the circular driveway of a modest Cape Cod- style saltbox, with neatly trimmed foxbriar hedges and two large magnolias dripping with blooms decorating the front lawn. The doors were closed and the window blinds drawn - and as Mulder climbed down and went around the side to open Scully's door, he noticed the dead quiet. No humming of the centralized air conditioner that sat on the roof of the house... and it was at least ninety sweltering degrees outside and the humidity had to be eighty or more per cent...

Shit. This was not good. Even if they were not home the air conditioner would be running. Nobody in their right minds would turn off centralized air in the heat of the summer, not in the South.

In their right minds... oh, fuck!

He left Scully at the car and strode up to the front door, surreptitiously pulling at his Sig; on the other side of him, Skinner was doing the same... and behind him he could hear Scully's angry voice, directed at her brother who no doubt had a restraining grip on her arm: "Bill, let GO! I have to go in there...!" Vaguely Mulder registered Bill's answering, "No, Dana... let them go in first..."

Then Mulder was jiggling the door, which was locked... he was stepping aside to let Skinner work the lock with one of his picks... the door was creaking open... it was dim and shadowed in the small foyer... no sounds at all, anywhere... they took a cautious step into the house...

And Mulder smelled it first. And his eyes grew big with mingled fright and awareness, as he whipped his head around to stare at Skinner, whose eyes mirrored the same expression... and they proceeded very cautiously, both fighting to keep down their rising gorge, at the smell of it; the metallic smell of blood... Mulder sent one low command to Bill Scully, standing in the front yard holding his frightened sister in his trembling arms.

"Bill, Scully... please... stay back, okay? Don't come in here..."

Mulder's low-voiced plea jolted through Bill causing him to loosen his grip on Scully long enough for her to break free. "Dana!" he cried out as she sprinted into the house. Mulder spun around and caught her in his arms. "Please, Scully," he begged. "Don't go in there."

She fought wildly to escape his restraining arms. Skinner held Bill back from barreling ahead and watched as Scully slapped, kicked and screamed at Mulder, pleading with him to let her go. Finally, she sagged in his grip. Pushing sweat-soaked hair out of her face, she looked up at her partner. Her eyes were drenched with pain. "Please," she begged. "Mulder, please. You can't protect me from this. I need to see."

Mulder nodded reluctantly and Scully gratefully accepted the supporting arm he wrapped firmly around her waist. Skinner fell into step beside Bill as the foursome made their way further into the house. Rounding the corner of the living room, Scully's knees buckled and a low moan escaped her. "Oh no. Oh, Jeannie," she whispered as she knelt down beside her fallen sister-in-law. Jeannie Scully was lying face down on the hardwood floor and Scully reached out to grasp her shoulder and pull her onto her back. Her hand flew up to cover her mouth. "Dear God, no," she sobbed. Wrapped in her mother's arms was two-year-old Katie. The little girl's eyes were closed and if it hadn't been for the fact that her silky blonde hair, so like her mother's, was matted with blood, one would almost believe she was sleeping. Scully reached out with trembling fingers, searching in vain for a pulse. Shaking her head, she buried her face against Mulder's shoulder.

A low cry from across the room drew their attention to where Bill was standing. Bending down, he lifted four-year-old Rachel from the sofa cushions. A small arm dangled lifelessly as Bill clutched the child to his chest and her auburn hair streamed over his arm. His face was ashen, tears streaking his cheeks; the grief in his eyes was terrible to behold.

Scully stumbled to her feet. "Mom?" she called. "Charlie? Where are you?" Her voice quivered. "Charlie!" She pulled away from Mulder's grasping hands and raced toward the kitchen. "Mom? Mom, answer me!" Her scream bounced off of the kitchen walls and the others rushed in only a step behind her. She was kneeling on the floor next to her mother. "Mom... please. Please, don't..." Her hands fluttered over the blood-soaked cotton of Margaret Scully's robe. "Oh God, Mama, please, please don't leave me." Bill sank to the floor, wrapped his hands around his mother's bare feet and lowered his head, his huge shoulders shaking with suppressed sobs. Scully gathered her mother into her arms and began to rock, keening sobs tearing through her slender frame.

Skinner pulled off his glasses and roughly wiped his eyes as he watched his agent cradle her mother close and beg her not to go. Mulder sank down to his knees on the other side of Margaret's body and wrapped his arms around both women. Scully lifted her head to his shoulder, trembling violently in mingled shock and agonizing grief. "Oh God, Mulder. Oh, Mulder. I don't... I can't take this, I just can't.. my mom, Mulder, she's my... I can't lose her, not now, oh, God -" She raised her pounding head and for a moment, her eyes met Mulder's own tear-filled sorrowful gaze. Suddenly, she gasped and her eyes widened. Moving away from Mulder, she gently lowered her mother's lifeless body to the tiled floor and looked past his shoulder. "Charlie," she breathed.

Everyone turned their heads - and collectively gasped. Seated on the floor behind the kitchen table, bathed in the rays of the setting sun was Charlie Scully. His clothes were spattered with blood. He cradled his two-week-old son, Joshua, in one arm and in the other hand, he held a gun. Shakily, Scully crawled on her hands and knees to him, fresh tears pouring from her eyes. "Charlie? Charlie, it's Dana," she said in a trembling voice. "Charlie, are you all right? Is the baby okay?"

Charlie lifted the hand with the gun and Mulder lunged forward to drag Scully back but she fought him off. Bill hunched down next to Mulder and Scully. "Charlie," he said holding out his hand to his younger brother. "We just want to see if you're okay." He kept his voice soft. "Why don't you put down the gun and come out from behind there?"

Charlie raised his head at the sound of his brother's voice and a shaft of sunlight fell across his face. Bill recoiled at the sight of the black film moving over his eyes and Scully moaned, pressing back into Mulder's chest. "Oh, no," she breathed. Mulder held her in a protective curve of his body, wishing for far more than just skin and muscle to protect her from the unimaginable evil that had torn her family to shreds.

Bill turned to look at her. "Dana, what is that?" he asked fearfully. Her breath was coming in harsh pants and she shook her head. "No, no." she whispered. "Not this, please God... not this, I can't bear it..."

Mulder leaned down to Bill's ear. "It's the virus, Bill," he said softly. "Charlie's been infected." He wanted to drag them both out of the house but they were each frozen in place. The very horror he had prayed they would both be spared... and here it was, in a pretty saltbox house sitting under the late summer sun, sweet magnolias in the front yard... unspeakable. A waking nightmare - and they were all sharing in it.

Bill stared at Mulder in mounting horror, then at his brother. "Are you telling me that Charlie... that Charlie did this? That he killed... no! I can't... Jesus Lord, I can't -" His voice broke on a disbelieving sob.

Charlie lifted the gun. "No! Charlie, don't!" Scully shrieked. He tightened his finger around the trigger, squeezing. Click. Click. Click. With each pull of the trigger, her body jerked in Mulder's arms. At the last click her body slumped against him and she sobbed anew. Mulder cradled her and murmured to her in broken hoarse whispers.

Charlie turned to face his siblings. The black film swirled eerily, and then suddenly he stared at them through clear blue eyes. "It's empty," he whispered hollowly. Scully nodded and as Bill leaned forward, Charlie scuttled back against the wall. "Stay back," he pleaded. Bill aborted his forward movement but held out his hand. "Please, Charlie. Let us help you."

Charlie shook his head and turned his attention back to his sister. "Dana." His voice was pleading. Scully shuddered in pain; she knew... somehow knew what was coming. But Bill, oh God, Bill... he still didn't have a clue. There was no way she could spare him. No way she could spare herself.

Bill lifted his hands soothingly and carefully leaned forward again. "Charlie, give me the baby. Let Dana see if he's okay."

Charlie trembled violently and lowered his lips to the baby's forehead. "He's dead." His eyes were devastated when he looked back up. "I killed him." His voice broke. "God forgive me, I killed them all."

Bill swiped his hand over his eyes. He could not fathom this; it was beyond him. The big tough Navy officer crumbled in the face of something too monstrous for him to assimilate. "Charlie... why?"

Their younger brother swallowed hard and looked down at his son. Tears spilled from his eyes and fell on the child's sweet infant cheeks. Placing the baby gently on the floor, he carefully wrapped the blood soaked receiving blanket around the still body. "Dana understands. Don't you?" She nodded, tears slipping from her own pale cheeks. "Dana, please. You have to help me." He stared into her eyes and she nodded again and slowly stood. Her little brother needed her help. She'd always helped Charlie when he needed her; today was no different.

Mulder scrambled to his feet beside her and Bill watched in stunned disbelief as she pulled her gun from where it was tucked against the small of her back. She scrubbed her hand over her cheeks and then wiped her wet fingers against her shorts. She was crying steadily, thick tears wetting her shirt and running into the corners of her open, sobbing mouth.

"No!" Bill leapt up and tried to wrestle the gun out of her hands. Skinner moved forward and wrapped an arm around Bill, forcing him to step back. Bill strained against Skinner's hard grip; it was all Skinner could to do hold onto the big, distraught man. "Don't! Dana, don't do it. For God's sake Dana, its Charlie... it's Charlie," Bill sobbed.

Scully looked down at the bloodstained figure at her feet and for a moment, she saw not a killer or a monster, but her baby brother. She remembered the day her parents had brought him home from the hospital. She had thought he was her own living doll and had fallen in love with him from the first moment she had laid eyes on him. She'd learned how to feed him a bottle and change his diapers... learned how to love a child unconditionally, when she received her Charlie into her little-girl arms. He had always been hers, more than Missy's, more than Bill's. Sometimes more than even their parents. She understood him and he likewise had always known her heart. God, Charlie... her little brother... and here she stood with a gun cocked and pointed at his head. Her hands shook; she couldn't do this! She closed her eyes and begged the Heavens above for enough strength to pull the trigger...

When she looked down again through swimming tears there were those blue eyes, so like her own; they pleaded with her and she raised the gun, sighting along the barrel just as she had been trained.

"No," Bill moaned again. "Dana, please. It's Charlie." Skinner raised a shaky hand and tried to push Bill's face into his broad shoulder, to shield him from the sight, but Bill wouldn't let him.

Scully raised her gaze to her older brother. Saw the frozen shock in those blue Scully eyes. He didn't know... couldn't know. Her poor brother... "No," she said softly. "Billy, it's not him. Not Charlie... not anymore." Bill dropped his gaze to Charlie's bloody face and shuddered as the black film swirling over them once again obscured the blue of his little brother's eyes. He nodded once and turned his face away, allowing Skinner to hold his head securely against his shoulder. He clutched at the other man's arms and sobbed like a child. Skinner held him tightly and his low broken words of comfort swirled over him as he cried.

Scully swiped her arm over her streaming eyes and lifted her weapon again. She felt Mulder's hand settle on the small of her back, the warmth of it lending her the needed fortitude - and she straightened her stance, bracing her body for the recoil of the shot. "I love you, Charlie," she whispered as she squeezed the trigger.

The acrid smell of gunpowder hung heavy in the air, mixing with the still-present odor of too much blood - and Scully collapsed into Mulder's waiting arms. She clung to him for seconds... minutes... hours, it seemed. Mulder could not imagine the sort of strength of it had taken for Scully to do as her baby brother asked - and he hoped to God he'd never be asked to perform such a deed for anyone he loved. Finally, Scully pulled free of his embrace and turned to Bill, gently removing him from Skinner's arms. Gathering her older brother close, she rocked him as they both sobbed. "I'm sorry, Bill. I'm so, so sorry." Bill shook his head and buried his face in her hair. Both of them inconsolable, the loss they had suffered here today was not to be imagined.

Mulder well knew that sort of loss. He'd experienced it all: the loss of a sibling, torn from him when he was still too young to understand the future of his world; had held a father who bled to death in his arms, killed by a walking scourge of humanity - had not been there to comfort and perhaps prevent the voluntary suicide of his mother. He'd lost them all and the pain of it bit at him every day of his life. The only cushion he'd ever had against that much hurt, had been Scully.

He hated it that she'd had to be exposed to this. After all she'd suffered, over the years - to be subjected to this inconceivable situation. It was intolerable; he wanted to maim and mutilate those who'd brought their world to this. His hands clenched and unclenched as he fought to get his murderous rage under control.

Skinner, understanding and worried about what he knew had to be brewing under Mulder's surface, caught his attention and drew him away from the grieving siblings. "Mulder, something's not right."

Mulder looked at the carnage surrounding them and laughed harshly, dashing hot tears from his face. He hadn't even felt them as they'd been shed, he was that numb. "Yeah, you could say that," he said bitterly.

Skinner shook his head. "No, this neighborhood. Didn't you notice? There's no sign of life anywhere." He peered out of the kitchen window. "Every house that I can see is shuttered up tight." Mulder moved next to his boss and pulled back the curtain, his eyes searching the street for movement.

"Oh... oh God. You're right. This entire neighborhood could be infected." He peered out of the window into the lengthening shadows as the sun sank beyond the horizon, looking for bees - not really seeing much of anything, even flies. South Carolina was a buggy place, but he recalled that bees liked the shade most of the time. They might not be in plain view but he'd be willing to bet there would be plenty of them keeping cool in the trees and bushes.

Skinner nodded, also noticing a viable lack of insect movement and attributing it to the stifling heat. "If we're right, it won't be long before other people find out," he said warningly.

Mulder shrugged wearily, feeling an ache in every muscle of his body. "They're probably already on their way. We've gotta get out of here." He looked over Skinner's shoulder to see Bill pull away from Scully and move toward Charlie's still body.

"No! Bill, don't!" Scully called out in a panic, grasping her brother's arm in her hands and pulling him back.

He turned to her in disbelief. "Dana, let go. I want to..." he gestured toward their brother.

Scully slipped in front of him and placed both hands on his chest. "You can't touch him, Bill," she said sadly. "You could become infected too." Bill looked closely at his brother and for the first time saw the black oil... seeping from his nose, ears and eyes, dripping onto the tile floor. He gagged and turned away.

Mulder moved forward. "We need to leave NOW," he stressed. He stood next to Scully and grasped her arm to help pull her to her feet.

Scully lifted bruised eyes to his. "Do we have time to bury them?" she asked in a small voice. "They should be buried, together. They need to be together, Mulder..." She choked back another sob.

Mulder raised his hand and brushed it over her cheek. He shook his head. "Skinner and I think we're in danger staying here any longer," he told her. "I'm sorry, sweetheart." He leaned into her and his warm lips pressed into her temple as he held her close and tried to warm her cold skin.

A tear tracked down her cheek and she nodded. Turning back toward her mother, she dropped down onto her knees and slipped her hand into the pocket of Margaret Scully's robe, pulling out the tiny silver rosary that she had always carried. Clutching the beads in her fist, she prayed in a soft voice. "Eternal rest grant unto them, oh Lord and let perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls and the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace."

"Amen," Skinner whispered hoarsely as he watched her bend low and press her lips to her mother's forehead before she straightened and moved back into the comfort of Mulder's embrace. Skinner wrapped an arm around Bill's shoulders and guided him toward the door. Bill shuffled along like an old man, head down and sobs still shaking his big frame. Scully leaned on Mulder and as he opened the car door, she lifted her face to the heavens. Her eyes fixed on the first star as it appeared in the twilit sky, her lips moving soundlessly as she clutched her mother's rosary. Skinner had settled Bill into the front passenger seat and Mulder climbed into the back. Scully turned as he called her name softly. She took his hand and he pulled her into the car and onto his lap. She leaned her head against him like a weary child. Mulder cradled her cheek in one hand and looked back at the little cul de sac.

It was a pretty place. Once upon a time he'd imagined himself finding a place like this, a little house in a nice neighborhood with nice neighbors and kids and dogs and garden hoses in the front yards of houses just a hop, skip and jump from the local elementary school. It really was the American Dream... in this case, gone horribly wrong. Once, this was what he had wanted out of life. But it took those years on the X-Files to make him realize that this particular American Dream would never be his to claim. He sighed and rested his cheek against Scully's bright hair and sent another round of thanks Heavenward that she was safe - and a prayer for those beloved family members they'd lost today.

Skinner pushed the door closed behind her and settled into the driver's seat. As they drove away, Scully watched the house grow steadily smaller through the rear window. And as they left the neighborhood and merged with other traffic, they could hear the wail of sirens and the beating of helicopter blades in the distance.

They were safe - for now.

~ Chapter Nine ~

It should have taken them almost eight hours to get back to Norfolk and Tara and the kids. The urgency to make it back, knowing the threat of swarming bees would be ever-present and uppermost in their minds - all of them now beside themselves with worry for Bill's family - kept them from stopping for food or bathroom facilities. Not that anyone was hungry - they weren't. If they hadn't needed gasoline they would not have stopped at all. But they couldn't risk running out of gas. Every minute was now vital to them... every second it took to get back to Tara was a second carved from their future. Without words they had all decreed that their days were numbered. And with that decree came acceptance, as well as a determination that regardless of the length of that future they were now, for all intents and purposes - a family.

When Skinner stopped for gas, by mutual agreement he left the engine running and stepped out of the Ford only long enough to get the nozzle placed and gas flowing. Scully had fallen asleep in exhaustion and lay in Mulder's lap like a little girl. He stroked his fingers soothingly through her hair and pressed a light kiss to her forehead. His baby, now more than ever... his to protect and care for; his to love.

Above her nestled head Mulder's eyes locked with Bill; face so tired and stained with more tears than he'd ever had to shed in his life. Eyes rimmed with the same exhaustion they all felt and a frown settling between his thick brows. He opened his mouth twice but nothing came out. Mulder quirked a brow of his own and waited patiently.

Finally, Bill cleared his throat and his rusty voice broke over the silence in the confines of the car. "Mulder... I'm sorry - sorry I didn't believe you... Jesus I've seen it with my own eyes now and I still can't..." He shook his head, shoulders hunched. Mulder nodded and placed a reassuring hand on the strong arm resting along the back of the front seat.

"I know... I know. You've got nothing to apologize over; this whole thing is like the worst sort of nightmare. I think you can better appreciate the place your sister and I have been forced to live, though - the world as we have known it. It's the sort of place you can never imagine exists, and when you get to see a small glimpse of it the rational being inside of you is in instant denial." He sighed heavily and shifted Scully's warm weight in his arms, smiling a little when she muttered his name and burrowed her mouth into his neck. Bill watched the little interplay and the ghost of a grin flickered over his face.

"I can see how much you love Dana. I think I'm glad." At the almost comical widening of Mulder's eyes at the admission, Bill actually chuckled a little. "Yeah, I know - go figure. I have wasted a lot of years purposely estranging myself from my sister and cursing the ground you walked on, Mulder - because it was easier to blame you for everything than take the responsibility of trying to learn what you were fighting for. But if today has given me anything worthwhile, it's let me see the value of time and the preciousness of life. I have no intention of wasting it, ever again." He slowly put out a hand and Mulder met him halfway, clasping Bill's fingers hard. They sat there for a few moments like that, each of them finding leftover unanswered questions within a set of blue and a pair of hazel eyes - and coming to an agreement.

In that moment they got very close to becoming friends... and both men jumped a little when Scully's sleepy voice broke over their stiff but sincere male bonding moment.

"God, I love you both..."

Once again the Excursion was eating up the miles. They had been on the road for nearly three hours and had just passed the turn-off for Smithfield, when Bill noticed the snarl of traffic ahead in the distance. He sat up and stretched his neck to get a better look as they were forced to slow down, but couldn't see the hang-up. In the deepening twilight it was difficult to see much of anything. Skinner rolled down his window and stuck out his head as he reduced speed. He sighed and cursed under his breath as he came to a full stop behind a dusty Lincoln Continental. To his left a Peterbuilt and behind him a mini-van; they were neatly blocked in on three sides. Mulder twisted about in his seat looking for the source of the jam; Scully gulped tepid bottled water and looked worried. Skinner rolled up the window, then met Mulder's eyes in the mirror and shrugged.

"Hard to tell from here - maybe more than one car. Definitely an accident of some sort." From their vantage they could see the flashing lights of several police cars and ambulances. They kept the motor running and the air on; it was still hot and sticky outside. Scully passed the bottle to Mulder and her soft voice was concerned.

"I don't like this. We can't afford to sit here very long... we could run out of gas." Bill nodded and glanced over at Skinner who was leaning against the window. Skinner looked down at the gauge and was relieved to see the tank level at more than two- thirds full. He smiled reassuringly at Scully.

"We'll be all right, Scully - we have plenty of gas."

Three hours later they had not moved one inch.

It had become obvious that they were about a half-mile from a massive pile-up of cars. >From where they sat there was a bit of a curve in the road, enough to see ahead and make out the edges of the pile-up which in the dark looked like a large twisted lump. At first they'd talked quietly amongst themselves, carefully avoiding the horrible events of the day and opting instead to begin outlining and planning their immediate future. They had decided not to go back to DC on the off chance that their original pursuers would still be searching for them; had figured Bethesda might be a good bet.

It was decided they would contact the Gunmen as soon as they could and ask them to go with them. Privately, Mulder doubted the guys would want to come along - he had a feeling they would want to stay and monitor the events of colonization. It would be just like them to want to try breaking down this conspiracy; they seemed to thrive on that sort of thing.

After the third hour Skinner looked worriedly at the gauge. If they did not start moving soon they would have to stop again for gas. Bill was visibly panicked, beside himself with worry over Tara and the kids. Scully had not been able to pick up a strong enough signal to call her and see how she was doing. She tried for the fourth time, checking the signal even though she knew it wasn't there. It kept her busy, more or less. She didn't want to get out and walk around. Even though her legs were cramped, the interior of the Ford was blessedly cool. Standing around in the night heat was not appealing - and over the course of the jam she had noticed that very few people had actually left their vehicles, choosing to leave their motors running and wait in comparative comfort.

Ten minutes later Bill was fed up. Not the most patient man by nature, he was ready to jump out of the car and run the half-mile up to the first cop he could find, and shake some urgency into him. He muttered, "I'm gonna see what's taking so long..." But as he put out his hand to grasp the door handle Mulder, who had been staring intently out the side window, stopped him with an urgent hand to his arm.

"Bill, no! Don't open the door, or the windows! Look over there!" The others turned to see where Mulder was pointing; Scully cried out in despair and Skinner swore a blue streak... and Bill sat as if turned to stone and groaned.

For not ten yards from their vehicle, a woman had stepped from her little VW Beetle, probably just needing to stretch her legs. Maybe she had decided to finally give in and brave the heat to save her aching joints. In the dark, several other figures moved around outside their cars and trucks... but as the woman closest to them shut her door and turned to look in the direction of the pile-up, she suddenly jumped violently, clutched her leg, and fell to the ground, convulsing. Three seconds later a man walking by her open car door stopped to see what was wrong with her, and as he bent down, he suddenly slapped at his face - and his entire body stiffened as he swayed on his feet and then toppled over beside her.

"Shit! Goddamn it to Hell!" Skinner hit the over-lock button and all the door locks engaged; he hurriedly twisted the air flow control to 'interior circulation' and whipped around in his seat to face Mulder and Scully, who turned from the window and stared back, shocked and frightened.

Under his breath, Bill was muttering, "Jesus... where the hell did they come from?" For suddenly, there were bees, everywhere - even in the dark they could see them, outlined by the headlights of so many cars. Judging by the faint screams they could hear from the interior of their car, enough people had been standing out in the night air to afford the bees quite a healthy sting-fest. Scully buried her face in her hands and turned into Mulder's shoulder; he wrapped his arms tightly around her and his voice was low and hoarse as he spoke.

"We've got to find a way to get out of here. If they're swarming at night they'll swarm any old time. They may have become attracted to all these headlights or they may just be flying around in a daze because they've been uprooted and their hives are gone. It doesn't matter. They're just aggressive enough to sting anything that moves -and I can guarantee the virus is very fast-acting."

As if to prove his very words, a man staggered by the back windows on Scully's side; as she looked up and out the window, horrified... he tried to grab onto the door handle and open it. In the strange half- illumination outside, his face was a study in abject horror and fright: mouth gasping open, eyes black with oil and wriggling streams of it underneath the dead-white skin of his face. Scully screamed and jumped back into Mulder's arms, shaking with revulsion. "Sweet Jesus, no," she moaned. "Not again." Mulder soothed trembling hands over her back and tried to calm her down. Bill shut his eyes from the gruesome sight outside their windows, and fought down his own mounting panic. He turned to Skinner.

"Mulder's right - there has to be a way for us to get out of here -even if it means driving on the side of the embankment. I have to get home - now - God only knows what's happening back there!"

Skinner nodded grimly, and revved the engine to assure the gas gauge was correct. They had a little more than half a tank. They would have to get more gas; they had no choice. Skinner was angry at himself for hanging out here so long, assuming it was just another pile-up on the highway and the police working the accident would move it along quickly. It was now apparent to him what had happened.

"I'll bet somebody was driving along with their window open and a bee got in somehow and stung them. Something like that could cause a chain reaction of crashes - and more than one person could have become stung. You can bet your ass that after three hours somebody would call a high enough authority to get FEMA in here; they've been busy little assholes lately. We're getting the fuck out of here." He popped the emergency brake, revved once and turned the wheel a hard right - then mashed down the accelerator and effectively pushed aside the big Lincoln in front if him as if it were an ant. The driver inside the luxurious car never moved an inch. Scully's voice was hushed in the silent cab.

"Dead. They're probably all dead... God..." Mulder shushed her and she pressed her head back into the curve of his neck, not wanting to see any more. She had seen enough death today.

Working his way as carefully as possible, Skinner managed to push the Lincoln enough to get around it - and found himself with a very narrow strip of median; barely enough to squeeze by. There were water barrels stretching along the edge of the median; these could really tear up a car and they couldn't afford to damage the Excursion. Maneuvering carefully and slowly, they eased forward, only scraping the barrels once.

Bill watched the road ahead, suddenly calling out to Skinner in excitement, "Up ahead about a hundred yards! I see an exit; looks as if it's been blocked off... what do you think? Could it be safe enough to try?"

Skinner ground his teeth in determination as he roared ahead, an open free area allowing him to gain speed. "It's gonna have to be safe enough; we don't have a choice." And there ahead of them was indeed an exit; a temporary block placed in front of it and small red lights flashing intermittently. The sort of block road workers would put up for the night if they intended to continue work in the morning - and it was just lightweight enough for Skinner to ram without causing any major damage.

And ram it he did - going full-speed, the passengers in the Excursion bracing themselves, he charged forward and hit it hard. The block snapped in two and the impact threw everyone forward but Skinner held onto the steering wheel and they flew through the jagged remains of the block and roared down the unfinished, bumpy exit. About fifty yards from the end of the exit the bumps and potholes turned into broken pavement and large upturned stones; the Excursion bounced over it easily. Another five teeth-clattering minutes later they found themselves dumped onto a small access road. It was narrow and ridged with cracked blacktop but it was a viable road. Skinner floored it and they got the hell out of there. And inside the cab, four people drew a collective deep breath of relief, and settled back in their seats...

Safe again.

They drove for at least thirty minutes, unsure of which direction they were heading, but desperate to put some miles between themselves and the pandemonium they had left behind. As their heart rates slowed, they began to think more clearly. Skinner directed Bill to pull a map out of the glove compartment and they began searching for road markers. Finally figuring out where they were, they plotted out the quickest route back to Norfolk. Bill looked at the illuminated dial of his watch and sighed heavily. Their second escape of the day had tacked another hour onto the trip.

Scully had curled her legs up onto the seat and was leaning against the window. She knew Mulder was worried about her; she could feel his concerned gaze resting heavily on her. His warm hand was wrapped around one of her ankles, his thumb sweeping in soothing strokes over her skin. Scully stared dully out of the window but instead of the passing scenery, she could only see the carnage and horror they had left behind in South Carolina.

She remembered that the last time she had seen Charlie had been less than six months earlier. He had been in D.C. on business and had taken her and their mother out to dinner. They had spent the evening catching up each other's lives and he had proudly pulled an envelope of pictures out of his briefcase. Scully had smiled over pictures of her nieces excitedly tearing into their Christmas gifts or grinning into the camera as they splashed in the tiny wading pool he had set up in the yard. Another photo was of a radiant Jeannie, her hand smoothing the fabric of her maternity blouse, proudly displaying her swollen belly for the camera.

She remembered thinking as she had flipped through the photos, that she shouldn't let so much time go by; that she should make time for family. She remembered hugging Charlie goodbye and promising to come down for a visit when the baby was born. She remembered squealing as his hands had slipped inside her jacket, tickling her just like he had done when they were children. She remembered all of that, but what she saw in her mind's eye was her beautiful nieces and their lives cut tragically short. She saw Jeannie curled protectively around Katie's tiny body and she wondered at the fear and confusion her sister-in-law must have felt as she tried to shield her daughter from her husband. She saw her mother lying in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor, fragile and vulnerable in her robe and bare feet. She saw her nephew, whom she had never had a chance to hold, his life snuffed out before it had even started and she saw her little brother, dead by her own hand. Her eyes burned and her throat ached as she wondered when this nightmare would be over; knowing that it had only just begun.

She was startled from her despondent thoughts as Skinner pulled off of the highway and into a well-lit rest area. She straightened in her seat, her whole body pulled taut as he drove the Excursion up to the gas pumps. Mulder let go of her ankle and reached for the door and Scully burst into motion. Her hands latched onto his arm. "No!" she cried as she tightened her grip on him. "Mulder, no! Don't go out there!" Her eyes were panicked as she looked wildly around the rest area. "It's not safe."

Skinner and Bill turned as Mulder eased across the back seat to pull her into his arms. She was shivering and he wondered if she had finally reached her breaking point. "Shh," he soothed, rocking her gently in his arms. She clung to him as she fought to bring herself back under control. Mulder ducked his head so that his eyes were level with hers. "We're just going to fill up the tank and then we're going to drive right up to the front doors of the rest station." She started to shake her head again. "Scully," he said softly. "We're only going to stop long enough to use the bathrooms. We've been on the road for hours and we still have a long trip ahead of us."

Blowing out a quivering breath, she sat back. "Okay," she whispered. "I'm okay." She smiled shakily at the two men who were watching her worriedly from the front seat. "I'm all right," she reassured them. "Let's just make this quick." She nodded at Mulder and he hopped out of the Excursion, quickly unscrewing the gas cap and stuffing the nozzle of the gas pump into the tank. She watched the electronic numbers on the pump scroll past at a torturously slow pace before the pump clicked off when the tank was full. Skinner offered to let the others go into the rest area first, while he waited with the engine running. Scully blinked as they entered the harshly lit building and Mulder pointed in the direction of the ladies room. "I'll meet you out here," he said, nodding toward a vending machine. She agreed and disappeared into the ladies room. When she was finished, she washed her hands and splashed cold water on her face. She hurried out of the bathroom and saw Mulder leaning against the vending machine. "Where's Bill?" she asked.

Mulder inclined his head toward the door. "He's back in the truck," he explained.

"Well let's go then," she said.

"We're waiting for Skinner. He should be out in a minute." She nodded and for the first time she noticed the blood staining Mulder's T-shirt in an odd pattern. Fresh tears flooded her eyes as she realized that her own bloody hands had caused the stains as she had clung to him earlier. Her eyes darted down to her own clothing and she could see the blood stains there as well.

"We're lucky this place is almost deserted," she said as she lifted a trembling finger to touch one of the marks on her shirt. "If anyone saw this, they would think we had killed somebody." Her voice broke on a choked sob and she leaned against him for support. She felt his hands move soothingly over her back and she clutched him tightly in her arms, breathing in his scent and taking strength from his strong arms and his whispered 'I love you' in her ear.

When Skinner joined them, she stood up straight and eased away from Mulder's supporting arms. She kept his hand gripped tightly in hers and the three of them hurried toward the waiting truck. Mulder pulled open the driver's door. "Why don't you let me drive for a while," he suggested to Skinner. His boss nodded and climbed into the back seat with Bill. Scully boosted herself into the passenger seat and buckled the seat belt as Mulder steered the Ford back onto the highway.

The sky was pink with the early morning sun as they took the final exit that would bring them into Norfolk. Scully was leaning forward in her seat, as if willing the miles to disappear faster. From the corner of her eye, she could see Bill nervously rocking in his seat. No one had spoken in the last thirty minutes as they were each lost in their own thoughts. And then, finally, they were clearing the guard shack at the base gate. Mulder navigated the winding streets of the naval base as carefully and as quickly as possible and within minutes they were pulling into the driveway. Bill took his keychain from his pocket and used the remote control to open the garage door. Mulder pulled the Excursion into the two-car garage. He cut the engine and all four doors swung open as they spilled from the interior of the truck.

"Tara?" Bill bellowed as he pushed his way into the kitchen from the garage. The house was deathly quiet. Mulder and Skinner checked the downstairs as Bill and Scully raced up the steps. The bedrooms were empty; all of the beds neatly made. They ran back down the steps and met up with Mulder and Skinner in the living room.

"They aren't here," Bill panted, his eyes wide with panic. Scully braced a hand on his back and looked around the room, willing Tara and the children to appear.

"Is there a note?" Mulder asked and Bill ran back into the kitchen to check the corkboard where Tara always tacked his phone messages. There was nothing there.

"Tara!" he howled, as fear crawled with icy fingers up his spine. He ran back into the other room. "Matthew! Meggie! It's Daddy. Where are you?" He dropped his head into his hands. "Oh God," he said brokenly. "Where are you?"

Scully was rooted in place in the kitchen. "Notagainnotagainnotagain," she chanted under her breath. There was a sudden noise behind her and she spun, her hands instinctively reaching for the gun at the small of her back. She heard a scraping sound in the corner and she eased across the room to inspect the source. "Bill? Mulder! You'd better get in here!"

The three men hurried into the room and she heard Bill gasp before he flew over to the corner. Kneeling, he lifted a metal ring that was hidden near the wall and pulled a section of the floor up. Scully looked at Mulder and Skinner and they realized that this was the entrance to a cold cellar. Tara's blonde head appeared at the top of the steps and Bill lunged forward, pulling her and the children into view. He collapsed onto the floor, dragging his family down with him and smothered them in his arms, pressing frantic kisses on any part of their bodies he could reach. The children squirmed out of his grasp but Tara clung to him tightly.

"Oh God, Bill. I was so scared," she gasped into his shirt. Bill crushed her in his arms and Scully gathered Matty and Meg into her embrace.

"What happened honey?" Bill asked. "Why were you hiding in the cold cellar?"

Tara snuggled into her husband's embrace. "I was cooking dinner last night and watching the news. There was a report about another attack by a swarm of bees somewhere near Williamsburg. They said fifteen people had been rushed to the hospital. I was just putting dinner on the table when I looked out of the window and I could see bees near the flowers. I panicked. There were probably no more than ten or twelve bees - certainly not a swarm. But I grabbed the kids. The only place I could think that we might be safe was in the cold cellar." Her face was chagrined as she looked up at the others. "I feel silly now, but after what you told us yesterday..."

Scully looked at Bill, Mulder and Skinner. Everything had appeared normal as they drove through the base. People were coming and going on their way to work; the guard waved them through the gate easily. There was nothing to indicate that anything sinister had happened here. However, given the events of the last two days, they weren't going to take any chances. Bill pulled Tara to her feet and she took her first good look at them.

"Oh my God!" she cried out as she took in their blood splattered clothes. She looked around the room and out of the window. "Bill..." she asked slowly. "Where are your Mom, Charlie and his family?" She licked her lips and eyed them nervously. Her gaze bounced over Skinner's solemn face to Mulder's pained expression. Scully had moved closer to Bill and Tara looked into her grief-stricken eyes and knew. "Oh. Oh no," she whispered looking into her husband's stark features for confirmation. "Oh sweet Jesus, no." Bill pulled his wife back into his arms and buried his face in her hair. Tara closed her eyes and wept into his shirt. "How?" she asked.

The children seemed frightened by their parents' display of grief and they clung to Scully's legs. She knelt back down and gathered them into her arms, forcing a smile onto her lips for their benefit.

Mulder cleared his throat and stepped forward. "I'm sorry," he said gently. "Bill. We need to get going."

Bill lifted his head and fine strands of Tara's hair clung to his damp cheeks. Tara wiped her face on his shirt and took a step back, her hands lingering on her husband's chest. She peered deeply into his eyes and he nodded to her, letting her know he was going to be all right. Scully stood and held the children's hands in her own.

"Tara," she asked in a low voice. "Did you pack the things we talked about yesterday?"

Tara nodded distractedly. "Yeah... I um... while the kids took their nap yesterday, I pulled everything out."

Scully nodded approvingly. "That's good. Where is everything?"

Tara waved a hand toward the garage. "I put the suitcases in the back of the minivan," she said.

Skinner stepped forward. "Then let's make this fast. Bill, Mulder -why don't you change into clean shirts. Same goes for you Scully." The others nodded and hurried upstairs. Bill pulled two T-shirts out of a drawer and handed one to Mulder while Tara drew a clean blouse out of her closet and gave it to her sister-in-law. Bill tugged the T-shirt over his head and he and Tara went back downstairs. A strange humming noise from outside captured Scully's attention and she pulled back the curtains to take a look, her heart rising in her throat. Bees. Dozens of them, swarming in a neighbor's yard. "Mulder," she called and he came over to the window. They bolted from the room.

"We've got to get out of here now," Scully yelled as she flew down the stairs.

"Dana! What is it...?" Tara cried out. Her eyes widened as the buzzing sound grew louder. The adults burst into motion. Bill and Tara scooped the children up and they all raced into the garage. Skinner had found a can of kerosene in the corner of the garage and he and Mulder were soaking rags in the liquid and stuffing them into the cracks of the garage door to keep the bees at bay. Scully yanked open the rear door of the minivan and hauled out the suitcases that Tara had packed and quickly stowed them in the back of the Excursion while Tara tried to unbuckle the children's car seats from the van.

Skinner climbed into the truck and started the engine. "Come on! Hurry," he urged them.

Mulder pushed Bill toward the Ford and turned to Tara. "There's no time Tara. Leave them!" he shouted. She nodded and hopped out of the van. Bill climbed into the third seat of the truck and helped his wife in. Mulder scooped up Megan and swung himself up into the Excursion, handing the screaming baby to her mother. Scully was standing by the side of the truck, ready to hand Matty into Mulder's waiting arms. Her terrified eyes were fixed on the garage door and she watched in horror as one bee wiggled its way through a gap around the door.

"Oh God," she gasped. "Here they come."

~ Chapter Ten ~

One bee, then another... squirming their little bodies over each other in their eagerness to come in from the heat. Not letting a little kerosene smell deter them from their purpose in life: to sting the shit out of every human in existence and die as soon as they succeeded...

At the moment the humans in existence wanted nothing more complicated than to bust their way out of a garage that had suddenly become a bit more crowded than they preferred.

The first bee managed to worm its way out from underneath its less aggressive brother, and as soon as it had wing clearance it took flight. It had an agenda. There was a job to do and it was just the bee to do the job... it flew straight for the open door of the large Ford Excursion -

Five seconds later the bee bit the dust on the hastily rolled up side window as the vehicle barreled forward through a garage door only partially open. The relatively flimsy door was no match for the thick protective grate on the front of the Ford - a custom addition meant to keep the grille from damage in the event of hitting a massive animal such as deer or moose.

Or something as large as a garage door.

Inside the cab the passengers and driver heaved a sigh of relief. Mulder wiped the sweat from his face and turned around in his seat to check first on Bill and Tara, who each had a child on their laps, doing their best to calm the screaming children. He then turned his attention to where Scully lay sprawled on the floor near his feet. He had snatched Matthew out of her hands and pushed him toward his father, before turning back and grabbing Scully by both hands as she scrambled into the high- riding truck. She'd pulled her feet into the vehicle and Mulder had slammed the door shut behind her, screaming at Skinner "Go! Go! Go!" In the driver's seat Skinner wasted no time maneuvering through the still-quiet neighborhood, on alert for military police who could stop them for driving above the twenty-five mile per hour base speed limit.

They gained the front gate and put the naval base behind them. It was just starting to get busy on the streets outside base grounds; they got through a series of intersection lights without hitting a single red. Down the main thoroughfare to the outskirts of town, they set a course for Bethesda.

The three-hour drive into Maryland was accomplished in relative silence, as if each passenger in the Ford Excursion needed to be lost in his or her own thoughts. Tara and the children had fallen asleep almost immediately; they were emotionally drained and had gotten little sleep huddled together in the cold shelter. Bill held the baby in his arms, the child draped across his chest like a tiny blanket, and Tara lay with her head in his lap and her arms firmly around Matty who lay spooned alongside her. Scully had stretched out on the middle seat and her soft little snore was soothing in the quiet interior of the big Ford. In the front seat Mulder stared out the windshield with dry, reddened eyes and tried not to think too hard about their immediate future. Tough to do because it seemed to be the only thing on his mind...

"We've got to have a plan. Any ideas?" Skinner's low rumble broke into his thoughts, and Mulder rubbed the heels of his hands over his eyes and yawned hugely.

"Yeah. We need to go someplace very cold, although I'm sure the rest of the group will hate me forever for that suggestion. At least Scully might - she has despised the snow ever since Antarctica. But I don't see a choice here. I'm thinking Alaska. The bees can't survive the Arctic - if I remember correctly the Alaskan Range is fairly nasty all year long. They would have to clear the Range to settle in the northernmost regions of Alaska, and Barrow comes to mind, since it's beyond the Range. It's fairly populated but I'm not sure about access. It might be fly-in only. We can travel across Canada into Alaska. That'll take us close to Fairbanks, I think. From there we can get the supplies we need and drive up the highway to Prudhoe Bay. I think it's the Dalton Highway that we want." Mulder paused and tried to remember his geography. As a child he'd been fascinated by Alaska and had studied it minutely. Now this stored knowledge might come in handy.

"Alaska it is, then. I don't think anyone will truly mind. The point is to survive the immediate threat and find us a safe place to wait out colonization. Alaska may be our best bet." Skinner snapped on the radio and fiddled with the dial until he found a station playing oldies. The familiar music floated softly in the background and Mulder smiled faintly at the good feelings the tune could instill:

'Put your glad rags on - join me Hon -Gonna have some fun when the clock strikes one - We're gonna rock around the clock tonight Gonna rock rock rock 'till the broad daylight -'

Both men relaxed in their seats as they drove on in the morning sunshine.

They made it to Bethesda in two hours and forty-five minutes, not intending to speed and risk getting pulled over, but an underlying urgency to find a place indoors and away from the bees was uppermost in their minds and lending Skinner a bit of the lead foot. Staying away from the downtown congestion they found a small but nice hotel on the southeast exit and decided it was good enough. Pulling into a Hampton Inn, Mulder noticed the place was just about deserted. He remarked, "Well, at least we won't hear a lame excuse about vacancy..."

While Skinner went in to get the rooms, Bill and Tara woke the children who were understandably cranky, and Scully stretched and finger-combed through her hair, trying to untangle it. In the front seat Mulder turned around and watched her tenderly, quipping, "Leave it alone, Scully - I like the wild-woman look. It suits you." Scully snorted and resumed her grooming.

"You haven't seen my wild side yet, Partner... you're in for a big surprise -" A wicked grin from Mulder stopped her from saying anything more revealing, and from the back seat Bill sighed and his aside to Tara broke the small bit of tension in the cab.

"Well, if nothing else, they'll keep us entertained on the trip..."

They ended up with three rooms, all on the same floor and close to each other. With a tired, "Later, People," Skinner disappeared into his room and Mulder unlocked the door of the middle room and ushered Scully inside. Tara's soft voice called to him just as he started to follow.

"Mr. Mulder, wait - I have some fresh clothes, for both of you. I guess we'll have to get more later, before we travel - but at least you'll feel better wearing clean things." Mulder waited patiently in the hallway as she hurried to open the suitcase and pull out clothing; Bill leaned against the wall and stared Mulder down, doing his best big-brother routine to make Mulder sweat a little.

"I should ask you what your intentions are toward my baby sister, but I guess I already know the answer to that one, don't I?" The rueful growl made Mulder smile tiredly.

"Oh, yeah. I'm gonna do the nastiest, most sexually deviant acts upon her dainty person, Bro - but first I'm gonna sleep next to her. Maybe I'll work up enough energy to attempt the other stuff, and if I manage anything of import I'll let you know and you can beat the crap out of me later, after I've caught a few Zs, okay?" Both men fought to keep the smiles at bay as they faced off. Finally, Bill cracked a reluctant smile and as Tara reappeared with folded clothes in her hands, he gave Mulder a short abrupt nod and a parting shot.

"Put a line of pillows down the center of that bed, Mulder... and kiss Dana goodnight for me." Tara handed the clothes to Mulder and her gentle admonishment to her husband made them all laugh.

"Shut up, Bill... and get into your own bed... now!" As Mulder shut the door behind him he could hear Bill Scully's gravelly pout to his wife.

"Jeez, Tara... you gave him the blue shirt! That's my favorite shirt..." And Tara's louder, more insistent, "Shut UP, Bill...!"

Mulder smiled as he threw all the locks and deadbolted the door.

**

'God never gives us more than we can bear.' It was an old expression and one of her mother's favorites. In the darkened hotel room, curled up in the wing-backed chair by the window, Scully questioned the wisdom of those words. She had slipped out of bed a few hours earlier, careful not to awaken Mulder. She had slept so hard and so often over the last two days that she was finding it difficult now to sleep. Now she craved sleep and the respite it would give her from the overwhelming grief and sense of loss that threatened to crush her. Glancing at her watch, she wished for morning to arrive so that she could lose herself in their feverish plans for escape. Lose herself in the work and forget, just for a little while, all that had transpired in the last two days. How was it possible for an entire world to crumble in less than forty-eight hours?

Looking at Mulder, she searched for the sense of peace she always felt while watching him sleep, but tonight it eluded her. What were they doing, she wondered? How can you run away from the end of the world? And even if they were successful in surviving the approaching onslaught, what kind of world would be left for them? What kind of future were they offering to Matty and Meg? Was it one of hope and rebirth or was it one of fear and sadness?

Tracing Mulder's features with her eyes, she also worried about the present. She knew that she was holding onto her self- control by a thread and she was afraid that it would take very little to snap that gossamer thread. At a time when Mulder needed her more than ever before, she feared she had nothing left to give him. One of the first lessons every child learns quickly, is that life isn't always fair. The second lesson that life had been trying to teach her was that she simply wasn't meant to be happy. She had resisted that particular lesson all of her life, telling herself that someday... Someday she would graduate from school and have a wonderful career where she would make a real difference in the world. She sighed, bitterly aware of the fact that the world as she knew it was going to cease to exist and that she was helpless to stop it. Someday she would meet a wonderful man and they would be blissfully happy together. She had been half-right. She had met him but she had wasted so much time pretending that they could be no more than partners and friends. And when they finally agreed to take a chance on each other, she had told herself that now - now was her time to be happy... Someday, she had believed, someday she would marry that wonderful man and they would raise a family...

Scully knew that she was teetering on the edge of a depression so dark and deep that if she fell into it, she didn't know that she would ever find her way back out. She needed Mulder to hold her and tell her that everything was going to be okay, but how could she ask that of him? Of Mulder, who was literally carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders as they all looked to him to guide them to a safe haven? Mulder, who had lost so much himself, at so young an age but who had used those losses to mold himself into the courageous, beautiful man with whom she had fallen in love. She could not lean on him now when there were so many other things demanding his attention; so many other lives depending on his strength.

Mulder rolled over in the bed and mumbled her name softly. She watched him drag her pillow into his arms, nestling his cheek into the cool cotton of the pillowcase. He shifted, his arms and legs moved restlessly under the sheets. Scully stood up and walked over to the bed. She crawled onto the mattress and stretched out on her side next to Mulder. He turned his face toward her and she reached out to stroke gentle fingers through his hair.

"Scully?" he asked huskily.

"Shhh." She brushed her lips over his forehead. "Go back to sleep, sweetheart."

His eyes slid open lazily. "Sweetheart?" he whispered, as he nuzzled his face into the soft skin of her throat.

"Shhh," she said again, curling her body around his. She slid one hand over his bare shoulder in a gentle caress. Resting her cheek against the top of his head, she stared into the darkness. She thought he had fallen back to sleep and was startled to hear his voice.

"Can't sleep?" he murmured against her skin, pressing his lips into the hollow of her throat.

"I feel as if that's all I've done for two days," she admitted softly. Mulder leaned back, resting his head against the pillows. Scully propped herself up on one elbow and placed her hand on his chest. "Just because I'm awake, doesn't mean you shouldn't sleep," she told him.

Mulder's hand closed over hers. "Do you want to talk about it?" he asked. She shook her head.

"I can't."

"Can't or won't?" he asked. She shrugged awkwardly, her eyes meeting his and then sliding away.

"Either... both. It doesn't matter. We don't have the time for me to wallow in self-pity." She tried and failed to hide the quiver in her voice.

"Scully," he chided. "You aren't wallowing and it isn't self-pity. You are entitled to mourn." He looked up at her and stroked his hand over her cheek. Scully turned her face and pressed her lips into the palm of his hand.

"Do you know that verse from the Bible... to everything there is a season?" she asked. Mulder nodded slowly.

"A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to reap; a time to kill, and a time to heal... a time to mourn and a time to dance..." he quoted softly.

"Right," she nodded. "A time to weep, and a time to laugh... a time for love, and a time for peace. But it's not true. That verse implies that in life, everything is balanced out. A time for the good, and a time for the bad. But that's not how it works." She rolled on top of him, nestling her hips against his and propping herself up on his chest. "There is no time. No time to mourn and grieve; no time to bury and say goodbye." She lowered her cheek to his chest and her voice was a tiny whisper. "No time to dance or to laugh..." Her voice trailed off into a whisper. "Mulder?"

His fingers sifted gently through her hair. "What, Scully?"

"Do you... if you didn't have that picture of Samantha on your desk, do you think you would remember what she looked like?"

Mulder pulled his head back into the pillow, surprised by her question. "I don't know," he told her.

She lifted her head. "I'm... I can't remember what my father looked like," she admitted. "Oh, I could describe him if I had to." Her brow was furrowed as she tried to focus on the memory of her father's face. "But, I can't *see* him anymore. Do you know what I mean?" she asked.

Mulder nodded and waited for her to continue.

"I don't want to forget what they looked like."

He stroked his hands over her back. "I know."

Scully rubbed her cheek against his chest, pressing her ear over the steady beat of his heart. She knew he was waiting for her to continue and she struggled to put her feelings into words. "I have nothing left of them. I feel like there's nothing for me to hold onto," she told him. "My family... my faith."

"God, Scully," he exhaled harshly. "You can hang onto me."

Scully lifted her head from his chest, saddened by the hurt note she had detected in his voice, devastated to know that she was its cause. "I'm afraid to," she admitted.

"Why?" he asked, scraping her hair off her face. She licked her lips nervously.

"I'm afraid that I'll need you too much. That I'll drag you down with me."

Mulder rolled over, pushing her onto her back. Rising up on one elbow, he loomed over her. "Scully, you have been the only thing holding me together, more times than I care to remember," he reminded her. She nodded, closing her eyes and rolling her forehead against his bicep. Mulder whispered to her in the silent room and his words gave her some of what she seemed to need.

"You don't need pictures of your family to remember them. Your mother was pretty, petite and one of the two strongest women I've ever met in my life. Your brother was funny, handsome and he adored you. Your sister-in-law loved Charlie and made him happy; your nieces were smart and precocious. Your nephew was precious."

He kissed her lightly on the lips and stretched an arm behind him, to lift something from the nightstand.

"You learned about love and life and faith from them." He lifted her hand and poured her mother's rosary into her palm, closing her fingers over the silver beads and placing her fist over her heart. "Your memories of them will fade and their faces will dim in your mind's eye, but the gifts you received from them, from being a part of them... those you'll have forever."

His thumb stroked over her cheek and she stared up at him, her eyes shining with love and hope.

"There is a time for everything," he promised. "Tonight you may mourn and tomorrow you may laugh."

Scully twined her arms around his neck, tugging his face down to hers. "I love you," she whispered, smiling against his lips. He kissed her and tucked her into the curve of his body.

"Try to sleep now," he admonished. She lay with her head on his chest, rising and falling with each breath that he drew in and released. She closed her eyes... and she slept.

He lay with the woman he adored nestled safely in his arms - and worried about the future with an anxiety so deep it threatened to suck him into those very depths which he'd just assured Scully she was safe from falling.

Mulder was doing the very thing he'd tried to stop Scully from doing... dwelling on that which could not be controlled, by him or anyone else. A thousand tiny details were skittering though his brain as he lay next to Scully - things like dentists and eyeglass prescriptions and auto mechanics... perishable foodstuffs and vegetables and apples. Things they took for granted - things that could be found anywhere. Schoolbooks and heating oil... drinkable water and aspirin. He had begun a list of supplies but he knew the Excursion, while a very large vehicle, could never hold everything they would need to begin such a long trek north. Eventually they'd have to travel in several vehicles, and he worried about where they'd find these vehicles - and what else they'd discover when they began to travel.

Mulder knew the anxiety was mostly a temporary state of being and things would look brighter in the morning. A new day would bring so many tasks to accomplish and such a short time in which to put their plans into action. He knew that keeping busy was the best way to keep these worries at bay - and that he was most vulnerable to his thoughts during the night.

He took much comfort in the knowledge that, for now - Scully was sleeping peacefully and soundly - a sleep she'd desperately needed. For as much as she'd claimed to have slept these past few days, it had not been the kind of soul-reviving, refreshing slumber necessary to function.

In his arms Scully stirred a little and her hand slipped down his chest and rested against his abdomen just below his navel. Warm and small and capable of so much tenderness... Mulder covered her fingers with his own and pressed them gently into his skin. He could feel his body stirring to life and rather than feeling frustration because he couldn't satisfy his needs at this very moment... he chose instead to celebrate the natural processes of his libido and welcome the very normalcy of his needs, the reassurance that everything was in working order, so to speak. Their time would come; Mulder knew this. Just as Scully had said to him, there would be a time to love. An extra day or three - or four - would not matter. Their time would come and when it did it would be exactly right, for both of them.

Mulder took that comforting thought and let it, and Scully's warmth against his side lull him to sleep.

~ Chapter Eleven ~

"Hey - it's me." The voice on the other end of the line whooped in excitement.

"Jesus, man! Where've you been? We've been worried out of our friggin' minds! You wouldn't believe the rumors..."

"Oh, I'd believe it... listen. I need your help, but I don't want to get into very much over the phone. I am going to email you something - and when you get it I need you to do exactly what the email says, and when you've done it email me back and let me know. I'm sorry to have to be so mysterious - but I've got good reason."

"It's okay - I understand. Everything's still secure over here - we swept about ten minutes ago. Email away..."

After the click in his ear signaled the end of the call, Byers turned to Frohike, and spoke reassuringly. "He's okay - and I'd bet Agent Scully and Skinner are with him. He needs our help..."

Mulder disconnected his cell phone, and smiled in relief. Turning to his laptop he tapped out the remainder of the list he'd been furiously typing as he'd spoken to Byers, then hit 'send'. As an afterthought he emailed the guys again and asked them to dig out the Triple Fat Goose parka and bibs he'd worn to Antarctica; Langly had borrowed them months ago and had forgotten to return them. No sense in buying another set of arctic gear when he already had a perfectly good set; they'd need to save as much of their money as possible.

Money... another problem. Mulder sat back in the under-padded hotel chair and rubbed at his face, pondering their best angle on the money situation. Scully had left everything behind in his apartment when they'd fled. Her ID and badge, all her credit cards... useless now because there wasn't a safe way to go back there. No doubt the building had been under surveillance all this time. These people did not make mistakes. Skinner would be able to access his funds, as would Bill and Tara. And Teena Mulder's estate still sat safe and gaining interest, in three different banks. Even if Scully couldn't touch her account, they'd be good for money, at least enough to get them everything they needed for the trip and to take with them to use until paper money ceased to be of value.

Mulder didn't doubt that time would come, and quicker than they'd like to see. He shut down the computer and prepared to find Scully and Skinner and see how far they'd come on their own lists.

Scully sat on the floor in Skinner's room as they made notes of all the supplies they would need to take with them. First and foremost on Scully's mind were medical supplies. "Most of the things we'll need we can get at a local pharmacy, but the drugs are going to be a problem," she said.

"Can't you write a prescription?" Skinner asked.

She shook her head. "No prescription pad for one thing," she told him, patting the pockets of her borrowed clothes. "Besides, it would be too suspicious to write that many prescriptions. No pharmacist would fill them all."

Skinner peered at her over the top of his glasses. "We can go to several different pharmacies," he suggested.

She shook her head again. "No. I don't want to take any chances that their computers are linked. I don't want my name throwing up any red flags - not when we're so close to getting out of here."

Skinner nodded and frowned. "I'm open to suggestions."

"Well..." Scully tapped her pen on top of her notepad. "I have an idea but I don't know how legal it is." She looked up at her boss with troubled eyes. He gazed back down at her for several long minutes weighing her words thoughtfully.

"You're not suggesting that we go out and buy them on a street corner, are you?" he asked doubtfully.

Scully grinned. "No, Sir."

"In that case - extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures," he intoned solemnly. "What's your plan?"

She was busy scribbling down the names and dosages of the drugs she thought they would need. "The Lone Gunmen," she said, looking up from her list. "Mulder is going to contact them to ask them to bring some of the other things that we'll need and to try to convince them to come with us. I'll ask him to give them this list. If anyone can get what I want, those three can."

Skinner peered over her shoulder to see what she was writing. Scully twisted around to look up at him. "What have you got there?" he asked, nodding toward the list.

"Well, I can think of a dozen more things I'd like to ask for, but this will have to do," she said, reading off the names of several antibiotics and medicines for pain, as well as medications to control high blood pressure, a prescription for migraine relief and a few others. "Who knows what we're going to find when we get to wherever it is that we're going, Sir?" she explained.

Skinner nodded and flopped down into a chair, bracing his elbows on the arms of the chair and studying her over the tips of his steepled fingers. "Listen... we're going to be spending a lot of time together in some pretty cramped quarters," he said. Scully frowned and nodded. Skinner regarded her seriously, and continued, "I'm not really your boss anymore. In all honesty, you and Mulder are the leaders of this group now."

She shook her head and opened her mouth to argue. Skinner held up his hand. "The point I'm trying to make is that I don't think we can go through the rest of our lives calling each other 'Sir' and 'Agent Scully'."

Scully smiled shyly. "No, I guess we can't."

"The name is Walter," he said softly. "Or Walt, if you prefer."

Scully looked up. "It's going to take some time to get used to this... Walter."

"That it will, Dana."

She heaved an exaggerated sigh and picked up the telephone. "I'd better get this list to Mulder before he calls the guys," she said, dialing the phone. The phone rang three times before Mulder answered it in their room.

"Mulder?" she asked. "Do you have a minute?" She listened for a moment and then nodded at Skinner. "Good," she said into the phone. "Would you come down here then?"

She set the receiver back into its cradle. "He'll be right down," she told Skinner. A minute later there was a knock at the door and Skinner opened it, stepping aside to allow Mulder to enter the room. Mulder immediately walked over to where Scully was sitting on the floor, still making notes on her pad. He set his hand on the top of her head and she looked up smiling.

"What's up?" he asked.

"Have you called the Gunmen yet?" she wondered. He nodded.

"Yes, but I can call them again in a little while. Why?"

"Just this." Scully tore a piece of paper out of her notebook and handed it to him. "Walter and I have been working on a list of medical supplies," she told him. "This is a list of things I don't think we'll be able to get on our own. I'd like you to ask the guys about them - see if they can get them for us."

Mulder raised arched brows at her casual use of their bosses' first name. "Walter?" he said slowly.

"Dana and I have come to an... understanding," Skinner said with an evil smile on his face. Mulder scowled at the older man and Scully stood up, placing her hand on his chest.

"That's right, Mulder," she said. "Walter pointed out that he's technically not our boss any longer. He suggested that since we are going to be sharing... intimate quarters - " She threw a teasing glance over her shoulder at Skinner, "it's silly for us to be so formal." She smiled sweetly at Mulder. "I told him that he could call you Fox." Mulder choked and Scully clapped a hand over her mouth to stifle a giggle.

"You don't mind do you Fox?" Skinner asked with a devilish smile. Getting into the silliness of the moment, Mulder slung an arm around Scully's shoulders and his answering smile was just as evil.

"No problem, Skinman." Scully could not contain the laugh that burbled up at the astonished look on Skinner's face.

"On second thought," Skinner said, "I think I'll stick with Mulder."

Mulder grinned. "Sounds good, Walt." Skinner heaved a long-suffering sigh.

"Don't you have a phone call to make?" he asked pointedly.

"Right." Mulder looked down at Scully, pleased to see a tiny smile still playing on her lips. "Anything else that you want me to ask them to get for you? I've been emailing them - I can send another one right now."

"Weeelll," she said slowly. "Maybe one of those portable defibrillators - like the ones that they carry on airplanes now?" she asked hopefully.

"I'll see what we can do," he promised. "How is the supply list coming?" he asked. Skinner lifted the notebook from the table.

"We're pretty much finished," he said. "We've done our best to whittle it down to the basics - clothes, bottled water and non-perishable food items. We also decided on some camping gear - a camp stove, pots, pans, metal plates, utensils." He flipped the page and ran his finger down another list. "Medical supplies, towels, cloth diapers for Meggie, and personal care items like toothpaste, soap, shampoo and deodorant." He looked up from the list with a crooked grin. "We're going to spend a lot of time together in a confined space over the next couple of weeks... might as well smell good!"

He handed the notebook to Mulder. "We still need to pick up car seats for the kids." He sighed and scratched his head. "We'll have to wait until we're settled someplace to get whatever else we need."

Scully took the notebook from Mulder's hands and tore several pages from it. She handed one list to Skinner, another to Mulder and kept the rest. "Let's get started."

Scully and Tara trudged wearily through the shopping mall. While they shopped Mulder had gone to the pharmacy to pick up the miscellaneous medical supplies and other personal care items that were on the list while Bill and Skinner had been sent out to buy the camping equipment and car seats. They were also having the Excursion outfitted with a roof rack to accommodate their supplies.

Tara blew a strand of blonde hair out of her eyes and the smile she directed at Scully was thin from weariness. "Under different circumstances, this would be fun," she said in an equally tired voice. She and Scully had taken on the Herculean task of buying clothes for everyone. They were doing their best to keep their purchases to a minimum, knowing that space in the Excursion would be at a premium. Still, buying enough clothes to outfit seven people for a harsh winter, even if they were only buying the basics, was a daunting task. They had quickly realized that they were not going to be able to lug all of their purchases around the mall and had made arrangements to have their packages delivered to the mall management office for safekeeping.

Scully glanced at her watch and groaned. "We have less than ninety minutes before they come back to pick us up," she told her sister-in-law. "Let's get this over with."

Seventy minutes later they only had a few items left on their list and were making their way through the mall toward a sporting goods store where they hoped to find a parka and boots for Scully, when she suddenly stopped in front of a toy store.

Tara looked at her questioningly. "Let's go in," Scully said impulsively. Tara followed her sister-in-law into the store.

"What are you doing, Dana?" she asked.

Scully looked up from a display of stuffed animals. "I want to get something for the kids," she said. Tara looked at the list in her hand and then back at Scully.

"But Dana... we don't have much room," she reminded her helplessly. Scully grabbed her hand.

"Look - they won't understand any of this and they're going to be scared and confused." She licked her lips as she tried to explain. "God, Tara... they're children. They should at least have a couple of toys."

Tara smiled and her eyes were bright with tears. "Thank you, Dana," she whispered. "I've been thinking the same thing, but I was afraid to ask."

Scully shook her head. "Listen, Tara. If you have an idea or a suggestion don't be afraid to speak up. We need all the good ideas we can get our hands on!"

The two women quickly brought a stuffed rabbit for Meggie and a coloring book and crayons for Matthew as well as a few other small toys and storybooks. Time was running short and they hurried to the sporting good store to make the last of their purchases. They went to the management office to collect all of their bags and settled down on a bench near the mall entrance to wait for their ride.

Tara leaned her head wearily against the back of the bench and watched the doors for any sign of Bill. Scully was skimming over the list one last time making sure that they had bought everything they needed. She looked up at a small sound from Tara. "What's so funny?" she asked seeing a tiny smile playing around the corners of her sister-in-law's lips.

"I was just thinking," Tara said slowly. She rolled her head against the back of the bench to look at Scully. "How much would you have paid to see the expression on Mulder's face when he put a six month supply of tampons down on the counter at the drugstore?"

Ten minutes later, they were still grinning as they helped the men load their purchases into the Excursion.

"I wish you guys would change your minds, and just come with us now. I don't like the idea of you hanging around in DC." Mulder loaded the rest of the gear in the back of Langly's beat-up old Volvo. He'd taken a cab from the drug store, figuring he'd borrow the Volvo long enough to take the supplies back to Bethesda and then turn it over to Byers who would take it back to DC.

Now Mulder turned to face his three friends as they helped him pack up the last of the items on the list. Byers hefted the defibrillator into the back hatch; Mulder was dying to know where they'd found it but figured he'd be better off not knowing. Frohike glanced at the printed list in his hands and nodded, then his eyes met Mulder's and he grinned in response and replied in his gruff voice.

"Come on, Mulder... you'd deny us our fun? We wanna see what goes down. We'll come, really we will - but not yet. Not until we see what we can do to muck up the works around here." Byers turned from the hatch and added his two cents' worth.

"It's better if we stay for a while, Mulder... I'm still trying to get hold of Suzanne. I wouldn't be able to assure my own safety until I know for sure that she's okay... preferably with me but in the off- chance it's not possible, at least safe somewhere." Mulder nodded. He understood, but it was still tough to just let them stay not knowing for sure if they'd survive. He clasped Langly on the shoulder with one hand and gripped Frohike's stubby fingers with the other.

"Don't leave it too long, okay? Use your heads. And the guns, but only if you need them." He nodded toward the small arsenal he'd piled in an empty box, then eyed Langly with a stern glare. Langly had been enchanted by the new additions to their personal stash; none of them had ever gotten around to buying guns and it had always bugged Langly that they'd been lacking in the firearms department. The blonde haired man shrugged and grinned.

"I'll behave! Jesus, why does everyone always assume I'm the irresponsible one?" Langly was miffed. Mulder laughed and one hand reached out to tug on a hank of Langly's hair.

"Could be those Goldi-locks and the Buddy Holly glasses... or maybe the way you can't resist playing with things. Just take it easy and don't get happy with the target practice... that's all I ask. And don't shoot your eye out." Mulder climbed in the car and buckled in, while Byers jumped in the passenger seat. Frohike shook Mulder's hand again and gave him some last-minute instructions while Langly cuffed him lightly on the shoulder.

"Take care, Mulder - and take care of the delectable Agent Scully. Tell her I'm sorry we couldn't all come up there to say goodbye but somebody has to stay here and make sure our stuff doesn't get stolen. And Langly here is such a chicken-shit he'd probably hide under the bed if those bastards came knocking." Mulder shook his head and gunned the engine, partially drowning out Langly's injured squawk at his buddy's callous remark. He eased out into the street, leaving them bickering on the sidewalk. With one last holler to them to take their argument inside where it was safer, Mulder drove off, Byers adjusting his seat belt and stretching his long legs in the passenger seat.

They had been driving in companionable silence for about ten minutes before Byers spoke up. "Mulder... can we fight this? Realistically -how much of a chance do we have?" Mulder glanced sideways at him as he turned onto the Interstate.

"We can live for a while, if we go where the bees can't follow. One thing I can tell you: a handful of uninfected rebels with a few guns and a lot of prayers will not stop colonization. We need a way to stop the virus and that means finding a vaccine. That's why we needed the lab equipment you guys dug up for us. Scully wants to experiment once we get settled up north. I wish you'd all reconsider, and just come with us." Byers shook his head and the smile he threw on Mulder was meant to reassure.

"We'll be fine. I promise as soon as we can, we'll come north. You'll keep in touch somehow and we'll come to you when we can. It'll be okay, Mulder... we'll be okay." Mulder smiled back but the gesture felt empty - and it scared him to think he might never see his friends again. But he refused to let on to Byers that he was anything but confident and sure about their future.

And Byers refused as well, to show his fear.

**

~ Chapter Twelve ~

"So anyway, I was probably ten years old, which would have made Charlie seven," Scully said. "Mom and Dad were out at a party at the Officers' Club. Bill and Missy were supposed to be home watching us, but Bill had a hot date and Missy had slipped out to go down the street to her friend, Becky's house, to watch 'Donnie and Marie' and do each other's hair." She made a face and took a sip from the bottle of beer she was holding. She was sitting on the floor between Mulder's legs; her head and back propped up on his chest. The children were asleep in the bedroom and the adults were gathered in the living area of Bill and Tara's small hotel suite, sipping beer and talking. Skinner was sprawled out in one of the chairs, sleepily listening to Scully's story while Bill and Tara were snuggled up on the sofa.

"Who was the hot date with?" Tara asked, arching a brow at her husband. Bill shrugged.

"She's making all of this up," he said loftily.

Scully leaned forward. "Her name was Cindy Beckman," she said. "She was very tall and had long, dark hair and big breasts," she confided throwing a look over her shoulder. "You would have liked her," she told Mulder. He smiled wolfishly and waggled his brows at her.

Scully sat back, squirming to get comfortable against his hard chest. "Where was I?" she asked, propping the bottle on Mulder's leg. "Oh, right. So Charlie and I are alone in the house and we're bored. Charlie pulls out a football and we start throwing it back and forth."

"Mom always said don't play ball in the house," Tara intoned quietly. Scully laughed and pointed her beer bottle at her sister-in-law.

"Right! Well I threw the ball at Charlie but he wasn't paying attention and it sailed past him, crashing into a bookcase. One of Bill's baseball trophies fell off the shelf and it broke into three pieces. We both stood there for a second or two and then suddenly Charlie just freaked out. He was running around in circles, crying, 'Bill's gonna kill us; he's gonna kill us.' I grabbed him by the shoulders and I shook him hard and sent him into the kitchen to get the glue while I picked the pieces up from the floor. Charlie brought the glue back and we very carefully glued the whole thing back together. Then every morning we would wake up and come downstairs to make sure the glue was still holding. After about two weeks, we forgot all about it. A month later, Bill was dribbling his basketball in the living room while he was talking on the phone with Cindy. The ball got away from him and hit the same bookcase and down came the trophy. Mom took one look at the broken trophy and left the room. A minute later she was back with the bottle of glue. She handed the bottle to me and said, "Here, Dana. Why don't you and Charlie help your brother glue that back together.'" Scully laughed again. "I have no idea how she figured it out, but she knew."

Bill scowled at her. "I loved that trophy," he muttered into his beer.

Skinner straightened up in his chair. "To the Scullys," he said, lifting his bottle into the air. Scully smiled and blinked back a tear as everyone lifted his or her drink in salute. They drank; Mulder put down his empty bottle and the hug he bestowed upon Scully was warm and comforting and exactly what she needed the most. She leaned her head back against him and her smile was teary, but filled with good memories... only good ones.

It was late in the evening when they finally gave in for the need to sleep; everyone had been having such a good time it was hard to stop. Their first true bonding together as a new family and no one had wanted to give it up; it was vital and precious to them. After Tara's third yawn and Bill's snoring doze on the sofa, however... it was decided to call it a night.

Scully watched fondly as her brother and sister-in-law helped each other walk a straight line to the door of the second bedroom in their suite. Bill had roused himself just enough to grumble a disparaging remark over his shoulder about sound-proofing in the walls, before Tara shushed him with yet another, "Shut up, Bill!" Skinner had barked out a laugh and had gathered up all the beer bottles and thrown them away, before tossing a smile and a goodnight at Mulder and Scully and letting himself out of the suite to head over to his own room.

Scully stood and stretched, the thin cotton of her tank top riding up and affording Mulder a glimpse of soft white skin and little bellybutton. He leered at her comically and she huffed out a sleepy laugh, then held out her hand and helped him to his feet.

"Don't make fun of my navel, Mulder... at least it doesn't collect lint!" She looked down at it; being a little "outy" of a navel there wasn't any room for lint storage. Mulder pretended to be injured at her admonishment.

"I would never poke fun at your navel, Scully - I happen to think it's cute." To prove his point he touched it gently with the tip of a finger; that one touch giving Scully a lovely shiver which she didn't bother to suppress. Mulder stared down into her sleepy eyes and his murmur was low and a little shaky against her ear.

"Bed-time, for both of us. We have a very long day tomorrow." She nodded and leaned into his chest for a quick snuggle before they left Bill's suite and headed next door to their own. She disengaged the lock and entered; Mulder pushed the door to their room closed behind them. Scully turned into his welcoming arms, felt his hands move over her back and she nestled closer, wishing she could freeze this moment in time. They were leaving tomorrow. The Excursion was packed; they only had a few things left to carry down with them when they checked out. In the morning they would leave the East Coast and all that was familiar behind and she didn't know if they would ever be back.

"Hey," Mulder whispered against her hair. Scully looked up.

"I have an idea," he told her as he pulled her toward the bathroom. She watched him tug back the shower curtain and turn on the taps, testing the water temperature on his hand. When it was adjusted to his satisfaction, he rummaged through the basket of complimentary soaps provided by the hotel and dumped the contents of a small bottle of shower gel into the tub. She looked at Mulder and then back at the small hotel bathtub. She wasn't sure if he wanted them to take a bath together, but she knew that there was no way they would both fit. She tilted her head back as he leaned down to her.

"I don't know when you're going to have a chance to enjoy a bath again," he said, a note of apology entering his voice. "I'm afraid that it's going to be showers for a very long time." Scully's eyes slid shut as he kissed the tip of her nose. "Go ahead," he murmured. "I'm going to watch some television."

She waited until he had pulled the door closed behind him to slip out of her clothes. She eased into the tub; a happy sigh escaping her as the hot water immediately helped to relax her aching muscles. Scully stretched out an arm and grabbed a towel from the vanity, folding it up and stuffing it behind her head. She could feel the tension drain out of her tired body and into the hot water as her thoughts turned to Mulder. She had never known that she was capable of loving another person so much. Love had crept upon her one day when she wasn't paying attention and then she had spent years trying to deny it. Now though, she was free to express her love for him and lavish her attentions on him.

Scully idly picked up a small bar of soap. She didn't know how she would have survived the last few days without Mulder's loving presence, she thought as she slid the sliver of soap over her arms. Each night he had held her in his arms, hushing her tears against his strong chest until she slept, wrapped in his protective embrace. His soothing whispers of love and comfort had buoyed her and his gentle kisses reminded her that there was still a life to be lived.

She rolled her head against the towel. What would it be like, she wondered, to forget about everything else and simply concentrate on Mulder and the way he made her feel? Her hands drifted restlessly in a line down her throat, her fingers skimming across the tops of her breasts. She cupped one hand around herself and imagined that it was Mulder's hand testing the small weight of her breast - his fingers tracing teasingly around the nipple. Behind the closed lids of her eyes, she could see him leaning over the tub, the heat of the water and desire bringing a flush to his cheeks. She touched her fingers to her lips, feeling Mulder's mouth moving over them - his hands lovingly kneading her breasts. Her hands - his hands - slid over the smooth skin of her stomach, fingers dipping into her belly button briefly before continuing their journey down her body. She gasped as her fingers trailed along the soft skin of her inner thigh -teasingly, tantalizingly close. A tiny moan escaped her as her fingers finally slid between her legs and she shifted restlessly in the water as she imagined his lips trailing the same path down her body as he whispered words of love and praise against her tender flesh.

Every muscle in her body tightened under her phantom lover's teasing and skillful touch. Wanting to see his face, she opened her eyes and gasped with disappointment. Alone. Her fingers slowed, then stopped and she buried her face in her hands. Alone. Why - when everything she wanted was in the next room? Scully stood up abruptly and pulled the plug from the drain letting the water swirl around her feet as she climbed out. She ran a towel over her wet body, quivering as the roughness of the terrycloth chafed her over-stimulated flesh. She wiped her hand over the fogged mirror and studied her reflection. Her eyes were wide and dark; her cheeks pink and her hair curling softly around her face in the humid air. She wondered what Mulder saw when he looked at her tired little face... then she expelled an impatient breath. Jesus - what was wrong with her?

In the next room was a man who loved her without reservation -without artifice. And she stood in the bathroom staring anxiously into a steamed-up mirror looking for imperfections. Scully shook her head in self-disgust. She had wasted enough time...

In the dim light of the bedroom Mulder lounged near the foot of the bed and idly flipped through television stations. With no cable this hotel's viewing choices were limited to three news stations and a public broadcast station, and one free channel that mostly played really lousy Muzac versions of such classics as "Tie a Yellow Ribbon". For a fairly classy hotel the TV sucked, Mulder thought with a resigned sigh. He shut it off and tossed the remote down on the nightstand, then stretched out with his arms behind his head. Thinking vague thoughts about the journey tomorrow, he knew the first thing they needed to do was fine-tune their basic route north. They would travel through an enormous portion of Canada; Mulder hoped their exposure to the effects of the virus would be slim. He didn't want Bill and Tara or the kids to see that kind of carnage. Nor did he want to see Scully suffer any more of it and think about the way it had destroyed her beloved family.

Scully... God, he loved her so much! Mulder stared up at the ceiling with unfocused eyes, thinking about the way she'd felt in his arms when they'd stood in the doorway of their room. So soft and small... so much of a woman contained in that delicate frame of hers. Beauty abounding and the courage of a hundred men... how could someone that tender and fragile in appearance have the sort of fortitude necessary to do as her brother had asked, and end his suffering? Mulder was humbled by it... by her.

He could hear faint splashing behind the closed door of the bath. Usually they left the door open when one or the other of them took a shower, but tonight Mulder had pulled the door closed behind him, wanting the steam of the hot water to stay with her and help to ease her sore muscles. He'd wanted her to have an extra measure of seclusion and privacy knowing that both would be in short supply as they traveled north. All of them would be living in each other's pockets; there would be little time for modesty, much less anything else.

Including intimacy.

Mulder sighed and let his mind drift, allowing himself the luxury of imagining Scully surrounded by soft fluffy bubbles and steamy hot water. Her hair would curl into irresistible little ringlets in that humid atmosphere; he'd seen it happen in DC on the weekends when it was summer-damp outside. Enchanting... enticing too, the slope of her rounded shoulders rising above all that silky foam. He could see it all in his mind, and he let it wash over him and welcomed the tightening of his body as he played the images behind his now-closed eyes.

Her sweet breasts would be buoyant in the water, their rosy tips visible above the bubbles floating on the surface of her bath. The elegant line of her throat would be displayed to innocent advantage as she leaned her head back against the rim of the tub; Mulder could imagine trailing his lips up and down that arch of perfect skin. She would smile against his lips when he raised his head from her throat to kiss her... one hand would press into his bare shoulder and trail down his chest on a curious trek toward the heavy throb of his groin... Mulder let his hand wander that path her hand would take, over and around each of his sensitive nipples and heading in one determined trail until his fingers could reach the buttons of his fly and flick them open. Those tender fingers of hers would tickle through the springy hair covering his already rapidly-growing erection; he let his - now her - hand delve into the opening he'd made in his jeans; let her phantom hand find him, and wrap around the hard flesh. He stifled a groan against the arm he'd flung against his face, picturing the naked desire in her eyes as she watched her fingers stroke and pull at him - the way she'd helplessly lick at her lips as her face moved into him, closer and closer, until he could feel her soft uneven puffs of breath on his overheated skin, anticipate the exact moment that lush mouth of hers would open up and take him inside -

"Mmmm, Scully..."

Wrapping a towel securely around her body, Scully opened the bathroom door and was immediately stunned motionless. Her heart thudded wildly in her chest and the sight that met her eyes transfixed her. The light from the bathroom filtered over the bed illuminating Mulder as he reclined on top of the rumpled blankets. His head was turned away from her and he seemed unaware of her presence in the room. One arm was thrown over his eyes; he was bare-chested and his jeans were open. Scully leaned against the door frame watching as his free hand moved slowly over his body - down his chest and over his stomach - taking the same path along his body as she had taken over her own only moments before. She bit back a moan when he reached into his jeans. His hand closed lightly around his penis and his fingers moved languidly over his hardened flesh. He groaned under his breath and his hips rocked in time with the slow pumping of his hand. Her name escaped his lips on a fractured sigh and she must have made a sound because he lifted the arm shielding his eyes and lazily turned his head toward her. Scully swallowed hard and her eyes met his for a moment before they drifted down his body, hungrily watching his stroking fingers.

Without embarrassment Mulder lifted his other hand and held it out, beckoning to her. She moved across the room, stopping when she was about a foot away from him. He sat up and caught the tips of her fingers with his own, pulling her forward until she was standing directly in front of him. He tilted his head back and Scully knew he was waiting for her to make the first move.

She hesitantly placed her hands on his shoulders and felt his stroking hands on the back of her thighs, his fingers flirting with the edge of the towel wrapped around her body. Licking her lips, she leaned down and cupped his face between her hands, lowering her mouth onto his. Her kiss was tentative at first but with the familiar taste of Mulder on her lips, she quickly grew bold. Her tongue teased the corner of his mouth, begging for entrance and his lips parted beneath hers on a sigh.

His hands reached between them and he tugged on the towel, baring her to his touch. Scully gasped against his mouth as his hands slipped up to cup her breasts, his thumbs teasing her nipples - just as she had imagined him doing in her solitary bath - but better... so much better. She broke away from their kiss and leaned her forehead against his. Mulder's hands drifted down to settle on her hips and he urged her to kneel on the floor in front of him. This time he framed her face between his warm palms and rubbed his mouth over hers and she was quickly lost again in their kiss.

She tasted like heaven... more delicious than ever because this kiss was sweetened with the knowledge that there would be no more waiting -no more interruptions. Mulder licked at her full lower lip and stifled another groan against it when her tongue mimicked the action and then dipped inside for a longer sip of him. Slipping along his teeth and burrowing inquisitively into the inside of his cheeks; stroking the roof of his mouth and then twisting sensuously with his tongue... she was maddeningly thorough in her investigation of the inner recesses of his mouth. Mulder let her explore, feeling as if they had all the time in the world to taste, and feel... and love.

Scully broke from the intense kiss and his faint moan of protest was lost in the shudder he released as she trailed curious fingers along his denim-clad legs; he inhaled sharply when the back of her hand brushed against his stomach. She stroked hesitant fingers across the straining tip of his erection. So hard... so full. God...

"Show me," she pleaded as she wrapped her hand in a loose fist around the base of his penis. She smiled softly when she felt a quiver move through his body and his hand covered hers, guiding her into a slow, lazy rhythm. She bent her head, watching her hand move softly, delicately over his flesh. He felt amazing; steely and hot and silky and thick; the musk of his body such a powerful aphrodisiac that she felt almost light-headed from the effect on her senses. Mulder brushed his fingers across her cheek and she lifted her head, allowing herself to drown in it, opening her mouth under his lips. Scully lifted both hands to his chest and pushed him back, taking control. She reveled in the sound of his distressed groan at the loss of contact with her hand, and shushed him gently.

"Lean back a little," she whispered, nodding approvingly when he braced himself on his elbows. "That's good," she said. Her hands trailed down his chest and she pressed her lips to his in a brief, hard kiss. Against the roughness of his cheek she repeated it. "So good..." She rolled her mouth down over his stubbled chin and licked a path along the line of his throat, nibbling on the tendon on the side of his neck, feeling his pulse pounding against her lips.

"I love you," she whispered, rasping the flat of her tongue over his nipple, and Mulder shuddered beneath her touch. Her mouth traveled in a series of nibbling kisses down his torso and her hands traced patterns over his chest and ribs before settling onto his hips.

"Let's get rid of these," she suggested, curling her fingers into the open waistband of his jeans. Mulder lifted his hips and she peeled them down and off his legs. She slid up his body and he fell back onto the mattress. Scully nuzzled her cheek against his belly and stroked her thumbs over his hips. She could feel him twitching against her breasts and she raised her head, propping her chin on his stomach.

He was being driven slowly out of his mind... and adoring every second of it. No other woman had ever lavished such unselfish attention upon him. In his years of experience with the opposite sex he had always found that his bed partners had been mainly focused upon their own goals of satisfaction and their brief and distracted caresses had left him wanting and bereft. He'd never failed to bring them to orgasm but any pride that he might have taken in his prowess as a sensual man had usually flown out the window as soon as it was over.

Not so with this woman... not with Scully. How could it be anything less than perfect? With each touch of her soft hands, each kiss and lick and bite and breathless moan she told him without words how she desired him - loved him. It humbled him anew, the depth of love Scully gave to him without reservation... he had to give it back, needed to show her in the same deep measure. He was suddenly urgent in his need to show her. He looked at her and the hot gleam in her eyes actually made his mouth water.

"Come up here, Scully," he said hoarsely. She shook her head, smiling with shaky resolve. She wasn't ready to release him, to let him take over. She needed this right now; needed the control, the aggression...

"Not yet, Mulder," she whispered. Scully slid down his body, her hair trailing over his stomach and across his hips. She inhaled deeply, drawing his musky scent into her lungs. Her tongue darted out in a long, exploratory lap and she raised her eyes to his when she felt him sit up. Her hands slipped into the curve of his lean hips and she held him fast as she stared into his dilated eyes.

"I want to know everything about you that I don't already know," she told him and he groaned deeply as her hot, moist breath washed over him. Scully lowered her head again and Mulder leaned forward, tunneled his hand under her hair, and then cupped her cheek as she took him into her mouth. He chanted her name on a rough thread of sound, praising her; begging her as she caressed him with tugging lips and swirling tongue, her fingers scratching lightly over his hair-roughened thighs. When she lifted her head again she saw that his face was flushed and beads of sweat were standing out on his forehead as she rose up on her knees to kiss him again. Their mouths met and mated in a kiss both gentle and insistent as her hand moved gently over him, fingers sliding on the wetness she'd left on his skin.

Mulder wrapped his arms around her and her world tilted as he lifted her onto the bed and stretched out alongside of her. "I want a turn too," he told her as his swept his hand down her body from shoulder to thigh. Scully shivered under his touch and she cupped the back of his neck in her hand.

The look of her against the white sheets of their bed was unlike any fantasy he'd ever produced in the video of his mind; Mulder was in awe of the perfection he found beneath him. He traced a bruise on her rounded hip and an appendectomy scar glistening white and puckered there on her skin; she trembled as he let his mouth follow the path of his fingers. Badges of honor, every bruise and imperfection -they only made her more perfect in his eyes. He murmured a teasing, "Lips before hands, Scully?" into her cute little navel and waited for her breathless comeback, uttered into the scarce air between them.

"Hips, Mulder... hips." He smiled into her navel and his retort was roughly tender.

"Well, I've got them covered as well, baby..." Then he gave up trying to talk and love her at the same time and concentrated on just the loving. There would be plenty of time for talk... lots of minutes and hours to tell her all the secrets of his soul. Right now he had his own slice of heaven between his hands, and he didn't want to waste a minute of dwelling there.

Over the delicate blades of her ribs, up the left side and curling his tongue around the tight little nipple, Mulder tasted her with an endless hunger. Across the collarbones and down the right side, on a trek to nirvana - affording her other nipple the same attention, as Scully shivered and moaned beneath his mouth and tongue. His hands were never idle; caressing and stroking every inch of her as his mouth roamed in a random pattern over her skin, around and down, down toward the place where she would taste the sweetest.

And he needed more than anything, to taste her there; to know her in the same way she'd just learned of him... but he wanted to be sure she was ready for this sort of intimacy. Though she'd taken the first step toward oral gratification, it just seemed different for a woman, somehow - that she would release that last sacred part of herself to someone else. It was silly - he knew it. But he was just insecure enough to need that last assurance from her. He lifted his head and caught her glistening eyes; moved up her body, enough to meet her, face to face. His voice came out in a broken rasp.

"Scully - are you... okay... with this?" Her smile was sweetly loving and her words went a long way toward giving him that reassurance he needed.

"I've wanted this for so long," she told him in a tremulous whisper. "But I'm a little scared."

Mulder smoothed the hair from her forehead. "Of what?" he asked tenderly. She slid her hand down his back and curved her fingers over a bare cheek.

"I want this to be perfect," she admitted. He smiled in relief and kissed the tip of her nose.

"It will be," he assured her. "It's just you and me - and anything we do together will be perfect," he promised. Scully smiled shakily.

"I know," she whispered. She sighed happily when his mouth settled over hers. Her hands clenched in his hair as he moaned and slipped his tongue into her mouth. His lips molded lightly to hers, rubbing over her mouth teasingly and she gripped his hair tighter as she sealed her mouth over his, deepening the kiss, her lips moving hungrily against his. He moaned again and broke away.

"Slow down," he whispered as his mouth played over hers, pressing feathery kisses at each corner and tracing his tongue over the outline of her mouth. His mouth slid over hers, always moving, always teasing.

"More," she moaned against his lips.

"Patience," he chided as he buried his mouth against her throat. Scully gasped and arched her neck as his tongue curled into the hollow at the base of her throat. He opened his mouth wider and pressed against her frantically beating pulse.

Lifting his head, he ran his hand from her throat down to her breasts. Cupping one soft mound in his hand, he lowered his mouth and encircled the aching tip between his lips, taking another long drink of her. Scully cried out brokenly as he drew strongly on her nipple then smoothed the softest of kisses to the hardened flesh. She lifted her head and bit down on his shoulder; Mulder jumping a little at the feel of her sharp little teeth sinking into his skin. She pulled his face down to hers, her teeth nibbling his lush lower lip, then rolled onto her side, rubbing her knuckles over the quivering muscles of his stomach. Mulder traced his fingers over the silken curve of her hip; wrapping them around the back of her knee, he lifted her leg over his thigh. He slipped one hand between her legs, his fingers delving into her moist heat.

"Oh," she gasped and her breath came in tiny pants. Mulder tunneled his other hand into her tangled hair and his lips grazed over the tiny dimple on one side of her mouth.

"You look so beautiful like this... so beautiful." His voice was hushed and reverent as his eyes roamed over her face, memorizing the flushed cheeks, sparkling eyes and swollen lips of his lover.

On her side against the pillows with her hair all wild and curling around his fingers, Scully was a vision of desire and sensuous womanly beauty. And she was his... Mulder felt like the most fortunate man in the world. And her smile told him more than any single word, as she lay in his arms and opened herself to him. He ran a hand down her side and his body slid alongside hers, keeping her leg propped against his shoulder; in this position she was fully revealed to him and the soft, wet pink perfection he saw there was his undoing. He couldn't wait... he couldn't stop. He had to have the tiny button of nerves he spied hidden in her soft auburn curls.

Mulder leaned into her and breathed deeply of the wondrous scent of her - the pure clean scent of an aroused woman. That it was Scully; at last it was she who lay there exposed to him and radiating this much scented heat... almost too much to assimilate. He buried his mouth into the silk he found there and registered her breathless cry mere seconds before all his cognizant senses shut down and his world became one vital focus, of loving her.

She tasted like everything good and true; of all he'd ever needed in his life and had up to this moment been denied. He ran a careful tongue around the swollen folds and let it flick against her tight little clit; with each movement of the tip she shuddered and her hips rocked into his face. He could feel her fingers clenching and unclenching in his hair; it should have hurt but her fingers were gentle even in the throes of her desire. Mulder smiled and hummed his pleasure into her skin and she moaned and thrust herself more fully against him.

He could have gone on this way forever; adoring the taste and the feel of her as he rubbed his tongue over her flesh and probed deeply into the narrow cling of her... but he wanted it all, this first time. Wanted the first flush of her climax to pull at his throbbing flesh and not just at his mouth, although that would surely be as amazing. That could wait a bit; it was more necessary for their first release to be as together as possible. With regret, Mulder pressed one last deep kiss into her and slipped up her body until he again had her positioned with her leg flung over his hip and aligned face to face and center to aching center. He looked into her heavy- lidded eyes, and gasped at the look of her on his pillow.

Jesus... she took his breath away. He cupped her face and silently worshipped.

Scully turned her face into the hand that was cupping her cheek and pressed an open- mouthed kiss into its center. Still breathless with the enormity of what he'd made her feel just a few seconds ago, she skimmed the point of her tongue over the palm of his hand and wrapped her lips around his forefinger, drawing it deep into her warm, wet mouth. Her eyes were hooded with desire as she slid his finger from her mouth, biting down on the tip and then laving it with her tongue. Keeping her leg twined firmly around his hips, she wrapped one small, strong hand around his neck and rolled onto her back, pulling him over her body, locking her ankles around his back. Her entire body was thrumming with need - she could not wait another second.

She didn't need to wait; between them his flesh was hard and burning with heat and need - it was time.

Her smile was feline as she arched sinuously beneath him, her hand reaching between their bodies, guiding him to her wet, aching flesh. "Now," she whispered. "Please." Mulder groaned, and nodding, he sank several inches into her body. She uttered a low cry and arched her hips, causing him to slip even deeper within her. Mulder slid his arms under her, his hands cupping the back of her head as he drove all the way within.

"Oh, God..." he groaned against her temple. Scully unlocked her ankles and slid her legs down his thighs, curling the soles of her feet around the backs of his calves. She clenched her inner muscles tightly about him, when he would have withdrawn.

"No," she whispered brokenly. "Don't move... not yet." Her tongue darted out to moisten her lips and Mulder swooped down, crushing her lips with his own. His mouth moved hungrily over hers and he pulled his hips back slowly, so slowly until he almost slipped out of her, then he pushed forward until he was fully embedded in her clinging warmth. He began stroking her smoothly, in and out; she wrapped her arms around his neck, pulling him down to her. Her lips clung to his and she stared into his eyes as her hips met every thrust of his body.

The feeling was incredible; how could she have survived all these years without experiencing this? Mulder, inside her - inside where she had needed him to be. Inside her heart, her very soul... feeding her bites of heaven and sustaining her when she needed that sustenance the most. The waiting they had both inflicted upon themselves... what a waste. Never again, she vowed. Not a second more would they throw away.

He was in Heaven; had died and gone to Heaven. He used to think that trite phrase was stupid in the extreme, but not anymore. Nothing had ever felt this good... nothing. Her body fit his perfectly; her skin slid against his in the most delicious feeling of friction, as they rose and fell together. Together... at last, together.

Why the hell had they waited so long? All this time, they could have had this...

Then again - perhaps they wouldn't have appreciated it half as much had they begun a relationship years ago when they were both too selfish to partake and share of themselves. No this was right... this was good. In the same place at the same time and cherishing every movement, every small moan and gasping cry... this was perfect. He breathed it into her mouth as he pulled her hips up more tightly against him and felt himself taken even deeper.

"Perfect..." She echoed those words right back to him. She was moving fiercely against him, a small explosion of breath forced from her lungs with every thrust he took. He never thought about the difference in their size, that he might hurt or overwhelm her. He never worried about crushing her petite frame underneath his driving body; Scully gave as good as she got. Tight and wet and hot... deeper and deeper until it was impossible to find the ending of him and the beginning of her... so right... he wanted it to last forever.

He knew it couldn't last much longer... it was too good. In his experience the good things of life didn't last very long...

She shivered when Mulder swore softly by her ear as he fought back his climax and she planted her feet onto the mattress as she bucked up into his driving hips. His name broke over her lips on a sob when he slid his hand between their bodies, dipping his fingers into her slippery folds. He touched just the right spot and her legs trembled as her orgasm bore down on her; she buried her mouth against his throat, muffling her cry as her body convulsed.

Mulder braced himself on his elbows and dropped his head onto her shoulder. His breathing was ragged as he pounded his body into hers. So close... he wasn't ready for it to end but he was on the edge; had been on the edge almost before they'd begun. He bowed his back over her, pumping his hips against hers - feeling it come up fast and unstoppable. Groaning, he pulsed against her welcoming flesh, emptying himself within her. One last shudder and he was sinking bonelessly down into her cushioning embrace.

Home... at last, home.

Scully wrapped her arms and legs around his quivering body as he sank down atop her, crushing her into the crumpled sheets. Her hands stroked through his sweaty hair as she whispered words of love against his temple. Her lips sought his in a tender kiss as their racing hearts slowed. Her lover, finally. Those words had never sounded sweeter than when she whispered them into his ear and heard his answering sigh of contentment. He leaned back a little and looked down into her eyes with love shining from his own.

"Are you all right?" he asked as he scraped damp tendrils of hair from her cheeks. Scully smiled and nodded, fighting back reactionary tears.

"I feel so good," she told him. His smile was so adorable; Scully couldn't resist one last kiss. Mulder's lips curled against hers as he slipped from her body, sighing with resignation. He'd wanted nothing more than to remain inside her forever... or all night, whichever would come first.

Scully rolled onto her side, drawing one of his arms around her and resting her cheek on the inside curve of his other arm. Mulder's hand curled possessively around her breast and he buried his face against the silken skin of her back. Scully felt, more than heard, his whispered 'I love you' against her skin. Snuggling her hips against him, she tumbled into sleep.

In the watery early-morning light the room was silent and cool -they'd forgotten to turn off the air conditioner. Mulder turned and flopped onto his back, still in that netherworld of waking yet dreaming. Next to him Scully still slept deeply, her fingers twined through his and a shapely leg pinning him down. Slowly his eyes opened; he yawned and stretched, careful not to disturb her. Mulder turned his head and watched his Scully sleeping. He'd done this before but this morning it felt different to watch... he felt different. And it went so far beyond sexual satisfaction...

Because for once in his entire sorry life Mulder felt loved -completely, thoroughly loved. If he died five minutes from now he'd die a happy man, with his only regret being the wish that they'd had forever to love like this. He'd lost everyone he'd ever cared about, yet in one amazing night Dana Scully had restored to him all he'd lost. Every tear he'd shed for his mother and father, his sister... all redeemed and given back to him. Every disrespectful utterance against him and his reputation... restored. All his immediate worries, current fears and anxieties for the future... all had been drained from him mere hours ago. And yes, these problems would come back a hundredfold... but for now Mulder was saturated with Scully and life was very, very good.

Kissing her face gently, he slid carefully from the bed, taking care not to wake her. It was still very early and they did not need to be up for at least another hour. Padding naked to the desk, Mulder flipped open his laptop and booted up, preparing to check his email one last time before they hit the road. He brought up his mail server; he had three messages. The first one was from Frohike, wishing them a safe and speedy trip and promising to follow as soon as they felt they could no longer be of service in DC. Mulder smiled as he deleted the message; they would all miss the guys.

The second message was from his investment broker - his monthly financial report. Mulder scanned the two-page report, noting it had returned a healthy little dividend. He sighed, knowing he had to try getting the rest of it out this morning before they left town. He'd removed a goodly portion yesterday but since he hadn't wanted to appear too suspicious he'd gone easy on the withdrawal.

The third email made him sit up at attention. He sucked in a sharp breath as he read:

'Agent Mulder: Do not enter Canada by way of Niagara Falls. Do not enter Canada at any border except North Dakota. When you arrive there, you, Agent Scully and Assistant Director Skinner must not be seen. People are looking for you. You must find any possible way to become invisible to the border patrol. Agent Scully's brother and his family must appear to be the average American family driving into Canada on vacation.

'Do not consume meat, Agent Mulder. Stay clear of any and all meat products, either fresh or canned/frozen. Do not consume corn products - any variation of those products. I cannot go into detail at this time - just heed my warnings.

'It is not important for you to understand how I know what you are about to accomplish today - let's just accept that I know. You will transact necessary business at your financial institution. When you finish your business you will enter the men's room on the first floor and go to the third stall. Taped behind the tank is a safe-deposit key. The key will open safe number thirty- four, and inside that safe you find there are two packets of identification. Mr. Scully and his family should use them when approaching the two borders you must cross.

'I know you are an intelligent man, Mr. Mulder - which means I know approximately where you may try to settle. You will succeed if you go there - you will be safe. You and Agent Scully must remain safe at all costs. You are the future.

'Remember: you will always have a friend at the FBI, even though the world as we know it may dissipate before our eyes.

'Never stop seeking your truth.'

Mulder re-read the email three times, then sat back in his chair and expelled the breath he'd been holding. A friend... the same friend who planted old microfiche at Georgetown Library, perhaps? Who made it blatantly easy for them to discover the truth about the alien colonization in the first place?

A friend who wanted them alive and safe and moving across the US border in a no doubt obscure area of North Dakota, intelligent and intuitive enough to understand they had to move to Alaska to survive and even second-guessing which of them would be making the trip. Maybe a friend worth listening to, worth keeping - maybe not. Mulder sighed and rubbed his eyes; he didn't know what to think.

Two warm hands curved around his neck, causing him to jump a little. In his deep contemplation he hadn't even heard Scully walk into the room. She leaned over his shoulder and pressed a string of light kisses across his cheek then caught his mouth in a deeper caress. Mulder slid a hand into her hair and held her head close as he enjoyed the leisurely kiss, refusing to think of anything beyond the sweetness of early-morning kisses from the woman he loved.

Scully released his mouth and came around his chair, insinuating herself between the desk and him, straddling his lap and gazing down into his eyes with mischievous baby blues; then she put her mouth close to his ear and her whisper tickled his lobe.

"Am I to presume that I'm playing second fiddle to your laptop, Agent Mulder? What's it got that I don't, hmmm? More memory? More powerful gigabytes? A keyboard that won't quit?" Her silly banter made Mulder smile and he wound his arms around her bare waist and nuzzled that smile between her soft breasts.

"My keyboard can't hold a candle to you, Scully... its shift keys are way too small." He pressed an open-mouthed kiss on each of her little pink nipples, licking at the tender points gently and loving the way her sighs filled all the needful places in his heart. He held her very close and kissed her good morning everywhere he could reach, then determinably set her away, turning her around on his lap until she faced the laptop screen. Tapping a finger on the screen, he instructed, "Read that - and tell me what you think."

Scully did exactly as he'd done; she read it several times before saying a word. Turning back around, she regarded Mulder with worried eyes. "Mulder, this person knows a lot about us and our plans. He knows Bill and Tara and the kids are with us. He probably also knows we've contacted the Gunmen and have stocked up on supplies, for God's sake! Do you think he's watching us?" Scully was very uneasy. Mulder rubbed his hands up and down her back as he thought about what this sort of knowledge might mean for them.

"I don't know, baby. This could be another situation like X or Deep Throat - we have talked about the possibility before. Whatever it is, there's nothing we can do. We're leaving today. We have to go to the bank one more time and clear out as much from my savings as we can without arousing too much suspicion."

"Are you going to do as the email instructs? Check out the safe and use these ID packets?" Scully looked at him curiously, still snuggled in Mulder's lap. He nodded slowly, stroking her back.

"Yes, I might as well. If I'm being watched then so be it. I'm not letting anything stop us from leaving today - but I'm not throwing away any possible help, either." Mulder stood up with Scully still straddling him; she gasped and flung her arms around his neck and hung on as he carried her back into the bedroom. Sinking down upon the bed, he steadied her atop him and kept himself pressed between her thighs, wiggling his brows suggestively at her when she pretended to frown disapprovingly down at him as she balanced her hands against his chest.

"So, Mulder - whatcha got on... your mind?" He chuckled and his hands cupped around her saucy little bottom, feeling her open softness and her silky curls caressing his rapidly growing erection. He made one tiny adjustment and lifted her up, then brought her down over him and felt himself slip deep. He groaned softly in tandem with her gasp of rekindled desire; he sat up a little and wound his arms around her waist and buried his face against her breasts as she held onto his shoulders and began to rock upon him. Gently... slowly... rocking easy and taking him to a hot, dark place where he never wanted to leave.

Soft, the movements they made against each other; it was early in the morning and they had another hour to be alone and in love - making love - before their day would truly begin. Before they would buckle themselves into a large vehicle loaded with supplies and begin a trip into the unknown.

They had an hour, and they took full advantage of it, using every precious minute of their time together - cementing their commitment, and celebrating their joined life. They kissed endlessly and held on to each other - and when they climaxed they both cried out softly and shuddered; gripping tightly and letting the moment spool out until there was nothing left but cooling flesh and wildly beating hearts - And all the love in the world.

~ Chapter Thirteen ~

Later they would look back on the first days of their journey and think how easy they'd had it, though at the time it was, in their opinion - rough.

Five adults and two young children all confined to a fairly large vehicle cabin, yet not seeming large at all when hours upon boring hours of sitting still were slogging by. Meggie was fussy and cried easily; teething problems, mostly. Everyone took turns holding her, distracting her or comforting her. Oddly enough she was most content with Skinner... who'd been as flummoxed as her mommy and daddy when it seemed that no one but the big tough Ex-Marine could make the dainty little girl happy. The first time Skinner held her awkwardly on his lap, Meggie had twisted around in his grip, tears of self- pity still rolling down her chubby little cheeks - and her hand came into abrupt and determined contact with his glasses. Miraculously her tears had stopped and her gleeful chortles echoed around the interior of the Ford as she tore them from his surprised face and waved them about for all to see, a new plaything/trophy to be admired. Mulder had to bite down hard on the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing out loud.

>From then on Meggie would demand to be the center of Skinner's attention - and after a few shaky lap-holding sessions and a horror-filled episode with a soiled diaper, Skinner welcomed the little girl with open arms. It kept him busy when he wasn't slated to drive, as all the adults were taking a turn at the wheel - and it left him with a good excuse to not have the pressure of holding a conversation with whomever happened to be sharing the seat next to him. It wasn't that Skinner didn't care for the social aspects of traveling - far from it. These people were rapidly becoming vital to him; they were his new and final 'family'. But sometimes it was nice to relate on nothing more strenuous a level than an eighteen-month old child. Skinner was falling in love with Meggie Scully, and the feeling was mutual.

Scully thought it was sweet and tended to get all misty-eyed over the newly formed connection between her niece and her ex-AD. That first long day, she and Tara regularly got sniffly over the sight of Meggie snuggled on Skinner's lap, tiny fingers playing with his much-larger ones while he hummed to her in a rich baritone. Sometimes Matty could be found in the curve of his arm as well, a tiny bit jealous of the attention his baby sister was getting even though the sheer size of Skinner still intimidated him. Not so with Mulder, however... whom Matty promptly adopted the moment he realized that Mulder could roll his tongue.

Mulder had been at his wits' end by the end of the first day, sitting in the front passenger seat while Bill drove. Tara and Scully were asleep in the back and Skinner was in the far back seat bonding with Meggie as usual. How in hell he was going to keep this enchanting yet wildly energetic child busy? Matty sat on Mulder's lap and bounced up and down all over his poor knees; the kid was tall for his age and built like his daddy. Mulder had run out of goofy things to say, snatches of equally-goofy songs, and recitations of remembered rhymes and such - and when Matty rubbed his little bottom on Mulder's kneecaps for about the fifth time, Mulder decided something had to be done to distract the excited child.

"Hey, Matty - watch this!" The little boy eagerly turned around on Mulder's lap, rubbing his left knee again. Mulder gritted his teeth into a semblance of a smile and frantically tried to think of something he could do that he hadn't already done, in the name of kid- entertainment. Then he remembered one of his odder abilities, and opened his mouth and rolled his tongue. Matty was fascinated and impressed, especially when several attempts to mimic Mulder revealed he could not roll his tongue at all.

The next half hour was spent with Matty cuddled in Mulder's arms, giggling every time Mulder rolled his tongue and performed any number of silly acts with it, from trying to talk through the little circle of flesh, to attempting to touch his nose with it rolled up. After a while Mulder found himself laughing so hard he couldn't make his tongue cooperate any longer, but that was fine - because by then Matty had fallen asleep with his little cheek pressed onto Mulder's neck. Over the child's unruly curls Bill's eyes met Mulder's, and he smiled.

"You'd make a good father, Mulder... and somehow that doesn't surprise me nearly as much as I thought it would. You want kids someday?" As soon as the words left Bill's mouth his face fell, no doubt remembering that his sister couldn't have children, and also realizing that Scully's children were the only ones Mulder could ever want. He opened his mouth to apologize, but Mulder waved it away with a tired smile.

"Hey, don't even worry about it. S'okay, really. Yeah, I'd like children someday. So would Scully, very much. And we haven't exactly talked about it lately, what with alien colonization waltzing through the known world." His grin was infectious and Bill responded with a relieved one of his own as Mulder continued. "But I am thinking that somewhere around here, where we're headed, there may be children needing a mommy and a daddy. Maybe several sets of both. I figure Scully and I will have our chance to be parents, one way or another."

He smiled again and laid his cheek against Matty's soft hair and the child sighed in his sleep and snuggled closer. Mulder tightened his arms around Matty and settled himself a bit more comfortably in the seat. He glanced into the rear view mirror he got an eyeful of two very sweet sights... the dual teary-eyed smiles of Tara and Scully, who'd caught most of the conversation and were suitably blubbery over it - and Skinner in the far back seat asleep with his head leaning back on the head rest and Meggie's little face nestled in his neck. Mulder turned in his seat and air-kissed both Scully and Tara, who sighed and cried harder - then he faced front again and stared idly out the window, thinking about nothing more strenuous than the strange satisfaction of being fully accepted by Bill Scully.

He found that he liked it.

Seventy five miles north of Indianapolis they stopped for the night. It had been Skinner's hope to travel further but the kids were impossible to manage any longer and Tara was at her wit's end trying to find a way to keep them calm and happy. Mulder had wanted to drive through the night but as inexperienced as he was with children he could still see that Matty and Meggie were overtired and under-exercised.

It was very late and they were miles away from an exit with motels, so it was decided to just sleep in the car; they'd found a well-lit rest stop with full bathroom facilities. With both front bucket seats fully reclined and the far back seat also reclining, it worked out better than expected. Mulder and Scully volunteered to sleep in the front seats and Skinner offered to take both children with him in the middle seat, affording Bill and Tara much-needed room to stretch out in the reclining rear seat.

They took the kids for a long walk, keeping on the access road in front of the bathroom where it was bright as day. Mulder and Skinner ran Matty ragged with a Nerf football while Scully and Tara walked a giggling Meggie between them and Bill stood guard watching for bees. As late at night as it was the chances of bee activity was thankfully slim.

In a quiet, reassuring voice Mulder had explained to Bill and Tara about the problems they would have with eating meat and foods containing corn and corn by- products. Tara had been understandably confused and Bill had looked worried as Mulder told them of the email he'd received from their unknown 'friend'.

"The contact that arranged your IDs - he warned me about the dangers of eating any sort of meat, and anything processed with corn. I'm afraid meat is out - all meat. Probably because almost all meat is grain- fed... or corn-fed. We'll have to be very, very careful." Bill frowned at Mulder and Scully.

"I don't understand. Corn? I thought the threat came just from infection from the bees." Tara nodded in agreement, and Scully hastened to explain.

"The bees are the main source of infection. But the corn crops were intended to be a way to mass-spread the virus - Mulder and I could never quite figure out how. We are still not a hundred percent sure, but what we decided was based on the warning we got from Mulder's contact. If the corn has been processed for use, either as food for livestock or into various foodstuffs demanding corn - or corn oil -then we must assume eating these products will infect us. And we can't be sure that standard food processing using heat will kill the virus living in these foodstuffs. Therefore we avoid meat and anything corn-related." Bill sighed and nodded, then squeezed Tara's hand.

"Well, luckily I can live without meat; looks like we don't have much of a choice. I think we'll be fine and I doubt we'll starve." Tara nodded and some of the worry eased from her face as she leaned into her husband's embrace and let him cuddle her. Mulder nodded and swung Matty into his arms, tossing the sturdy little boy into the air and delighting in the shrieks of childish glee as he was alternately tossed and tickled. It helped them all to forget their troubles for a little bit, and pretend they were on nothing more complicated than just another camping trip.

Later, they ate apples, cheese and crackers for dinner. They drank a lot of water, used the rest rooms and prepared to settle in for the night. Locking the doors behind them... adjusting seats and pulling out blankets, finding articles of clothing to use as makeshift pillows - it didn't take them long to get the kids to sleep, one child nestled in each of Skinner's strong arms. Within minutes both yawning children had conked out and Skinner wasn't far behind them, growling out a rusty goodnight and rocking the cab a bit as he adjusted himself and the children on the wide seat.

In the front, Mulder reclined in the drivers' seat and glanced over at Scully as she struggled to bunch up one of his sweaters into an acceptable pillow. In the combined moonlight and security lights her tired face was just visible enough for him to see the yawn she stifled with the back of her hand as she finally got the sweater wedged comfortably under her head. She caught him staring at her and reached out a hand to run lightly over his face.

"Whatcha thinking about, Mulder?" He smiled against her fingers and his voice was a mere whisper of low sound in the quiet cab.

"How gorgeous you are." She snorted softly and tweaked his nose playfully.

"Oh, yeah, Mulder - I'm a raving beauty queen. Not a lick of makeup to be found on my face, red-rimmed eyes, I'd bet - wrinkled and baggy clothes with kid-finger- shaped grub stains all over them... my deodorant quit sometime around Cincinnati and what hair on my head that isn't sticking straight up is a tangled, matted mess. I'm so lovely to behold it's sickening." Her deprecating remarks brought a tender smile to Mulder's lips as he gazed at the love of his life and wished like hell they were alone so he could show her just how delectable she really was. He settled for placing his hand in a warm cup over the buttoned fly of her jeans, and letting the feeling flow through him from his heart to his fingertips. Scully squirmed a bit under his touch and her eyes glittered in the moonlight as she turned to face him, careful not to disturb his hand. Her voice puffed out in a little sigh.

"Mmm, that feels so good. I miss your hands, Mulder. I think about them - and I think about your mouth. I miss your mouth, too..." Her voice trailed off at his harsh intake of breath as Mulder soaked in her tender words.

"God, Scully..." His whisper was almost non-existent in the silent cab but the words vibrated between them. "I want you so badly I'm going crazy over here. I'm not gonna be able to get any sleep at all tonight with you so near and me unable to do anything about it..." His fingers stroked restlessly over her denim-covered center, toying with the metal buttons; managing to get one unfastened before her hands pressed into him and stilled his hands, her voice squeaking out in a hushed echo of shock.

"Mulder, we can't! Not here, Jesus... I want to, so much... but we can't!" Mulder grinned at the panicked tone, thinking he'd like nothing better than to quietly drive her out of her mind - deciding to do just that. Scully was so tired - overtired, in fact. She needed some sort of release - and there had to be a silent way to do it. And at that moment his needs were ignored completely as he set about a bit of noiseless seduction. He leaned into Scully's seat space and kissed her mouth hungrily, keeping his hand pressed down into her and beginning to work the rest of her buttons.

Scully moaned soundlessly into his mouth, giving up all hope of stopping him. Her tongue swirled around his in a fury of need as Mulder upped the urgency of the kiss and his fingers unbuttoned the rest of her, then slid inside and dipped underneath the lacy edge of elastic. Finding her damp heat with unerring fingers... curling an index digit within the soft flesh and swallowing the gasp she sent down along his tonsils. Mulder kept his mouth locked to hers as he gently probed and stroked, building the embers slowly and carefully as she shivered against him and hung onto his shoulders. One final hard press of his finger against her swollen clit and Scully shuddered and bit his lip hard as she climaxed; Mulder held her and kissed every shiver and every moan, until she was limp in his arms and her breathing returned to normal. She lay her head against the seat and stared up into his face with damp eyes. Her shaky voice was a thread of sound between them.

"Oh, God, Mulder... I can't find the words..." He kissed her soft lips and smiled at her tenderly when he pulled back to look into her beautiful face.

"Shhh... it's okay, Scully. I know how you feel. I'm glad you liked it... glad I could make you feel good, baby. Do you think you can sleep now?" She nodded and yawned, leaning back fully in her seat.

"Mmm, yes... I'll sleep wonderfully. But what about you? Mulder... I can't leave you in this condition..." Her hand slid over him gently, probing along his aching ridged flesh underneath the fly of his jeans. Mulder pressed her hand hard into his erection and stifled a groan at the exquisite feeling. He shook his head regretfully when she would have unbuttoned him.

"No, baby - can't. Too messy. You know we can't... and I'll be all right, I promise. Rain check, 'kay? You'll owe me. Just keep your hand there - feels good. Just hold me tonight - just like that." And she nodded and reached over to kiss him goodnight and she turned toward him in her seat and kept a hand over him, fingers gripping him along his hard length. Warmed by her hand and the soft breaths she released into the small curve of air between them as she dozed off, Mulder finally followed suit - and slept.

They spent another mind-numbing and ass- numbing day in the truck. The first day had taught them that asking the children to cope with more than ten hours a day on the road was more than could rationally be expected of them. They were six hours into the second day of the trip and were traveling down a section of highway that wound past a suburb of Chicago when Skinner flipped on the turn signal, pulling into the exit lane. Scully had been dozing in the passenger seat and she lifted her head to look questioningly at her ex-boss.

"Do we need gas?" she asked, stifling a yawn behind her hand and glancing at the gas gauge. Skinner shook his head.

"No. I saw a sign for a shopping mall about three miles from this exit," he told her. "We need to get out of the truck for a little while and stretch our legs. But I don't want to be outdoors for any length of time," he said significantly. "Besides, I'm already sick of fruit and cheese and granola bars," he chuffed. "Does anyone else want a pizza?" he asked, looking up into the rearview mirror.

"Pizza," Bill moaned. "Yes. Let's definitely stop for pizza."

Mulder's eyes rounded with interest at the mention of pizza, but he looked worriedly at the map spread out over his lap. Scully turned in her seat and called for his attention.

"We'll still make it to the Canadian border on Thursday," she told him. "But I think it would do us all some good to get out of the truck for a little while." Mulder nodded and folded the map. Leaning close to Meggie, he touched the tip of his finger to her tiny nose.

"Whaddya think Meggie - do you want some pizza?" he asked playfully.

"Peetz!" the baby shouted, clapping her hands. Mulder looked up at the others and smiled.

"I guess we're stopping for pizza," he told them.

They spent two hours in the mall eating pizza and stretching their legs. They used the bathrooms and let the kids run around a bit. With their bellies full, both children were drooping and had to be carried back to the truck. The children slept heavily for almost two hours and they pressed on, driving another four hours before they stopped for the night. No one was anxious to repeat the night spent sleeping in the truck and they stopped at a motel. The place was clean looking but small and they were only able to get two rooms for the night. Skinner shared a room with Mulder and Scully. Some part of Scully knew she should be uncomfortable sharing a room with her ex-boss but she was too tired to care. Stepping out of the bathroom modestly clad in a T-shirt and a pair of shorts, she climbed into bed. In the dark she pressed a chaste kiss to Mulder's lips before curling up and promptly falling asleep.

"What's taking so long?" Skinner asked early the next evening, tapping the steering wheel impatiently. Tara laughed.

"Everything takes twice as long as it should where Matthew is involved. Haven't you learned that yet?" She looked out of the window. "Here they come now."

Scully glanced idly out of the window watching Mulder and Matthew walking across the grass. They had made an emergency stop at a small picnic area along Rte. 94 approximately forty miles outside of Fargo when Matty announced that he 'had to gooooo!'. Mulder was holding Matty's hand and was trying to herd him back to the truck as the little boy danced around him. Scully smiled fondly as Mulder bent at the waist to bring his eyes level with the child's. He said something to Matty and Scully saw his teeth flash in a wide grin.

She frowned when Mulder's head jerked up. Suddenly, he pushed Matthew onto the grass and threw himself on top of the boy. And that's when Scully and the others saw it. Bees - at least twenty-five of them - swarming around Mulder and Matty.

"Matthew!" Tara screamed as she reached for the door handle. Scully grabbed her and pulled her back.

"Tara, don't!" she cried. Tara's head whipped around.

"That's Matty," she shrieked, pointing toward the window. "And Mulder! Jesus, Dana, maybe you can sit there and do nothing, but I have to get to my baby!"

Scully flinched at Tara's harsh words but continued to hold fast to the other woman's arm.

"Tara, we can't." She inclined her head toward the back of the truck. "Meggie," she reminded her. Tara's eyes closed in defeat and Scully loosened her grip, turning to Skinner who was staring out the window in horror, his big hands gripping the steering wheel.

"Walter, let's try to get as close to them as possible," she said in a low, urgent voice. Skinner nodded and started the engine, driving the big vehicle over the curb and up onto the grass, pulling as close to Mulder and Matty as he could. Scully's mind raced as she tried to figure out the best way to pull Mulder and Matthew into the truck without allowing the bees in as well.

"Bill," she called. Her brother rose from the back seat where he had been holding a squalling Meggie. He buckled the baby into her car seat.

"Tara," Scully turned toward her sister-in- law. "Get behind the wheel," she said. "As soon as we pull them into the truck, you get us the hell out of here!"

Tara nodded jerkily and crawled into the driver's seat that Skinner had just vacated. She wrapped white-knuckled fingers around the steering wheel. The two men crouched near the passenger door with Scully.

"What's the plan?" Bill asked. Scully shook her head.

"I don't know." She firmly tamped down on the panic that threatened to overwhelm her. "Whatever we do, we need to do it fast." She looked around the truck. "Bill, grab two of the blankets from the back," she instructed. Scully looked up at the two men. "What if we drape one blanket over the open door? Mulder can climb up under the blanket and hopefully, the bees won't be fast enough to follow him."

Skinner and Bill looked at each other and shrugged.

"I can't think of a better idea," Skinner admitted and Bill handed the blankets up to them, scrambling back into place. Scully grabbed the end of one blanket and set the other one by her feet.

"Walter and I will hold the blanket in place," she said. "Bill, when Mulder starts to climb up, you pull them in." Bill nodded and wiped his sweating palms along the sides of his jeans. Skinner took the other end of the blanket and nodded to Scully. She reached behind the blanket and threw the door open.

"Mulder!" she called, kicking the second blanket out of the truck. "Hurry!"

Mulder cautiously eased his body off Matthew's and grabbed for the blanket lying on the grass near him, throwing it over the frightened child. Bundling him into its protective folds, he pushed the little boy under the blanket covering the open door. As soon as he felt Matty being pulled safely into the truck, he scrambled in behind him.

Tara was pulling away, tires squealing even as Scully was pulling the door shut. Skinner checked the interior of the truck to be sure that none of the bees had slipped under the blanket, while Scully and Bill frantically checked Mulder and Matty for stings.

"Were you stung? Matty? Tell Daddy, did a bee sting you?" Bill asked as he pulled the boy's clothes aside, looking for any sign that he had been stung. Scully was frantically doing the same to Mulder and her eyes met his fearfully.

"Oh God," she breathed. "Mulder..." Her fingers swept gently over his right arm.

"Don't touch them, Scully!" he cried as he jerked his arm out of her grasp. Everyone looked at Mulder in alarm as he reached for one of several stingers still embedded in his flesh.

"Stop!" Scully grabbed his wrist in her hand. Mulder looked up at her fierce tone. "Stop," she said again, softer this time. "Don't pull at the stinger," she told him. "It holds the venom and you'll re-sting yourself." She snatched up a paper cup and used the plastic lid to gently scrape the stinger out of Mulder's skin. Cracking open the window, she flung it out of the truck.

She turned back and reached for him again. "How do you feel, Mulder?" she asked. "Any chest pains or trouble breathing?" She tried to remember the symptoms she had experienced after her own encounter with an infected bee.

"Maybe it wasn't an infected swarm?" Tara asked, glancing into the rearview mirror with frightened eyes. Mulder looked up at Scully and shook his head.

"Guess we're going to find out whether or not I'm immune, huh?" he said wryly. Scully grimaced. Again her mind raced as she tried to figure out what their next step should be. "Mulder, I need you to tell me how you're feeling," she said.

"I have a little bit of a headache," he admitted. "And I feel hot and achy like I have the flu." Scully looked up.

"Tara, I saw a sign for a motel a little while ago," she said. "It should be about three or four more miles up the road. Tara pressed down on the accelerator. Skinner and Bill turned to Scully.

"What are you planning to do?" Bill asked. Scully pulled Mulder's cell phone out of his pocket and handed it to her brother.

"Mulder and I are going to get out at the next motel and get a room. We'll wait and see if the symptoms get worse," she said with a break in her voice. "I want the rest of you to drive a few more miles and find someplace to stay for the night. Keep in touch with us. We should know by morning."

Bill protested. "Do you plan to spend the night alone with him?" he asked incredulously. "What if Mulder is infected? You're putting your own life at risk!"

Mulder lifted feverish eyes to hers. "Scully," he said, "You can't... I won't let you." Scully looked at him and then back up to her brother.

"Would you leave Tara alone?" she demanded fiercely. She swung her gaze back to Mulder's. "Would you leave me?" She lifted her head and her pleading eyes met Tara's in the rearview mirror. "Hurry," she urged.

Tara nodded grimly. Ten minutes later the tires crunched over the graveled parking lot of the motel as Tara pulled the car up to the office. The parking lot was nearly deserted and Scully leapt out of the truck to pay for a room. Hurrying back to the car, she directed Tara to drive to the far end of the lot and stop in front of the last room. She climbed into the back of the truck and grabbed several bottles of water and a large plastic box that contained most of the medical supplies they had purchased in Bethesda. Skinner helped Mulder out of the truck as Scully opened the door to their room. She propped her shoulder under Mulder's arm.

"We'll keep in touch," she promised her ex- boss. "Call and let us know where you'll be staying."

Skinner nodded and backed out of the room, pulling the door closed behind him, a worried frown on his face. Scully eased Mulder down onto one of the beds and pulled his T-shirt over his head. She flicked open the button on his jeans and slid the zipper down, helping him to breathe a little easier. She grabbed an ice bucket from the desk and disappeared into the bathroom. She returned a moment later and sat down on the edge of the mattress, placing the bucket filled with warm, soapy water on the nightstand. She dipped a washcloth into the water and gently washed Mulder's arm. The skin around the bites was red and swollen.

Mulder sucked in a painful breath as the coarse washcloth abraded his injured arm. "I'm sorry," Scully crooned as she dropped the washcloth into the bucket. She took the bucket into the bathroom and dumped the now tepid water down the sink. "I'll be right back," she told him as she opened the front door and slipped outside. The sun was setting and the night was growing cool as she hurried to fill the bucket with ice.

Returning to the room, she set the bucket of ice onto the floor and disappeared into the bathroom again. She carried a plastic cup into the bedroom and dug through the medical kit, pulling out a small box of baking soda. Mulder watched wearily as she tore open the box and dumped some of the fine, white powder into the plastic cup. She twisted the top off one of the bottles of water and poured a small amount of water into the cup, using her finger to mix it into a thick paste. She set the cup aside and rifled through the medical kit once again. She pulled out a bottle of aspirin and fumbled with the childproof cap. Finally yanking the cap from the bottle, she grumbled in frustration as she plunged her thumb through the foil safety seal and pulled a small wad of cotton free. She shook two tablets into her hand and then reached for a small box of Benadryl. She punched one of the over-the-counter antihistamine tablets out of the foil packet and scooped up the bottle of water. Scully handed Mulder the three pills and helped him sit up, holding the bottle to his mouth.

"The aspirin is for your headache," she told him. "The antihistamine helps in the event of an allergic reaction to the stings," she said, knowing that she had nothing in her medical kit to save him if the virus took hold. Easing him back against the pillows, she picked up the plastic cup she had set aside earlier and smeared the paste over the bee stings.

"What are you doing?" Mulder wheezed.

"This won't help if you're infected," she told him honestly, "but I remember my mother used this whenever we were stung by an insect. It helps take the sting and the itchiness out."

"Good thing you pack baking soda in your medical kits, Doctor," he rasped. "Weird, but good." Scully concentrated on spreading the thick paste liberally over the affected area and shrugged.

"It's just one of those things my mother always packed along with the Bactine."

Mulder's head rolled restlessly against the pillows and Scully laid her hand across his forehead. "You have a fever," she said worriedly. Once more digging through the box, she pulled out a digital thermometer and placed the plastic tip into his ear. Seconds later, she pulled the thermometer away from him and turned it so that she could read the digital display.

"102 degrees," she announced. Less than an hour had passed since he had been stung. She put her hands on his cheeks and used her thumbs to life his eyelids. "No sign of the oil." Her wobbly smile was meant to be reassuring. She stood and Mulder grasped her hand in his own, pulling her back down onto the mattress.

"Scully," he said as he forced his eyes open to meet hers. "If I'm infected... you know what you have to do," he told her solemnly. She recoiled and tried to pull her hand away.

"No!" Her face was tortured. Mulder pulled her back, pressing her head down onto his chest. His fingers sifted through her hair and his heart ached. He was afraid that it was too much, too soon after Charlie to ask this of her, but if he was infected...

"It may be the only choice we have, Scully," he told her softly. "We don't have a vaccine this time." She lifted her head from his chest.

"No!" she said again. "You aren't displaying any of the symptoms that I did when I was infected and you aren't showing any of the symptoms that we've seen with the other victims. I think you might be immune to this now, but Mulder - you have to believe. You have to try! Please promise me."

Mulder stroked his thumb over her cheek. "I don't want to leave you," he told her. "I won't give up easily. I promise. But you have to promise me - that if we're wrong, you'll do what has to be done. Scully... if I'm infected... we can't allow it to live."

Scully nodded and avoided his eyes. "Okay, but I don't want to talk about this any more," she said in an attempt to placate him. Mulder held onto her and forced her to meet his eyes. Scully sighed, knowing he wouldn't rest until he had extracted a promise from her. "I promise, Mulder," she vowed, her eyes tearing up.

He blew out a breath and smiled gently. Scully dashed the wetness from her eyes impatiently and laid her hand back over his forehead. "Tell me how you feel," she demanded softly. Mulder rubbed his forehead against her cool palm.

"Tired. Achy. Like I have the flu," he said. "I'm hot," he said fretfully. Scully stood and took the ice bucket into the bathroom. She dumped out most of the ice and filled the bucket with cool water. She grabbed another washcloth and returned to the bedroom. Setting the bucket onto the nightstand, she dipped both washcloths into the water. Wringing out one cloth, she folded it lengthwise and laid it across Mulder's aching brow.

"Better?" she asked. He nodded and closed his eyes. Scully squeezed out the second cloth and began to run it over his chest and down his arms. She laid it across his stomach and tugged his jeans off, draping them across the foot of the bed. She dipped the cloth back into the water and ran the cool cloth over his belly, lifting his head from the pillow and wiping the back of his hot neck.

She repeated the process over and over again for the next hour or two, dumping the water out of the bucket when it became tepid and refilling it with cool. She bathed his feverish body and forced aspirin down his throat throughout the night as he tossed and turned in a fitful sleep. In the middle of the night Mulder abruptly sat up.

"I feel sick," he said hoarsely and Scully helped him out of bed. He leaned on her heavily as she guided him into the bathroom. He collapsed onto the floor and she sank down onto her knees next to him, holding him as he vomited into the toilet. Scully's stomach clenched in a painful knot as she saw him expel long strands of a black, oily substance from his nostrils, heaving it from his stomach. She whispered soothing nonsense to him as his body shuddered and convulsed, fighting to expel the alien invader. After what felt like hours, he sank weakly against the rim of the toilet. Scully pulled him back and he slumped against the bathtub in exhaustion. Scully handed him a wad of toilet paper and he mopped his mouth and blew his nose, tossing the paper into the bowl.

Scully slammed down the lid of the toilet and hesitated as she reached out to flush it. Terrified to introduce the virus into the municipal sewer system and equally terrified not to get rid of it, she raced out of the bathroom, returning moments later with the box of baking soda, a bottle of rubbing alcohol, a pack of matches and a fire extinguisher. Setting everything down on the floor, she turned her attention back to Mulder for a moment. Soaking a towel in hot water, she tenderly wiped his face. Pulling him to his feet, she mixed a small amount of the baking soda in a glass of water and handed it to him. "Rinse your mouth out with this," she told him. When he was finished, she twisted the cap off of the tiny bottle of mouthwash provided by the motel and gave it to him.

"Now use this," she instructed. He tilted his head and poured half of the contents of the bottle into his mouth, swishing the liquid around furiously. He spat into the sink and she nudged the bottle back up to his lips. "Use all of it," she told him.

Mulder eyed the items she had brought into the bathroom and looked at her with reddened eyes. "What are you going to do?" he asked. Scully glanced toward the toilet.

"Burn it?" she said, a question in her voice. Mulder considered their options and nodded.

"I can't think of a better idea," he agreed. Scully grabbed his arm and steered him back into the bedroom.

"I want to help," he protested. Scully shook her head.

"And, I want you as far away from here as possible," she countered. Mulder opened his mouth to argue further.

"Listen," she said. "I may have to move really fast and the further you are from the bathroom, the closer you are to the front door," she told him reasonably. Mulder stepped out of the bathroom but stubbornly stood near the door, watching her.

Scully sighed and turned back to her work. Using her foot, she flipped up the lid of the toilet and gingerly leaned over the bowl to look in. The long strands of oil were lying still on top of the water. She didn't know if they were dead or not and she didn't care to analyze them too closely. Cracking the seal on the bottle of alcohol, she poured a small amount into the bowl. Picking up the fire extinguisher, she disengaged the safety switch and set it back down, keeping it close at hand. Grabbing the book of matches, she pulled one off and struck it, touching it to the rest of the matches in the pack and threw the burning matches into the toilet. The alcohol ignited instantly and flames shot up quickly. Scully reared back and grabbed the fire extinguisher. She could feel Mulder breathing down her back and she slid an exasperated glance over her shoulder at him. Turning back, she saw that the flames had subsided as the alcohol quickly burned off.

As the flames flickered out, she looked into the bowl. Charred bits of ash floated on top of the otherwise clear water. She quickly flushed the toilet and turned back to Mulder who was leaning weakly against the doorframe.

"You should be in bed," she admonished him as she led him into the bedroom. She looked at the rumpled bed, the sheets damp with Mulder's sweat and the water she had been bathing him with, and she pulled back the covers on the other bed, urging him to slip between the dry sheets. Mulder rested his head on the cool pillows and looked up at her.

"Lie down with me," he pleaded and Scully peeled off her jeans, climbing into the bed with him and laying her head on his chest. She rubbed her cheek against his skin and ran her hand down his side, forcing her body to relax. A moment later, she popped back up.

"Don't leave," he whispered petulantly. She twisted on the bed and reached for the thermometer on the nightstand, placing the plastic tip into his ear. Mulder groaned. "Not again. Scully, you've taken my temperature a million times tonight."

Scully looked at the digital readout and slumped gratefully. "Your fever is down," she told him. "99 degrees." Her eyes were bright with unshed tears. Mulder grinned tiredly.

"Sleepy," he told her. Scully leaned back against the pillows and pulled him into her arms. He nuzzled his face against her breasts and she stroked her hands down his back.

"I know you're tired," she murmured against his ear. "Go to sleep, Mulder." She rested her cheek against his hair and turned her face toward the window, watching for morning and praying that his condition would continue to improve. She held him a bit too tightly for his comfort, she knew - but she'd been so terrified. If she'd lost him she would have gone completely mad...

Scully hung up the phone and turned around when she heard Mulder stirring in the bed behind her. He stretched his arms over his head and peered at her blearily.

"That was Tara," she told him. "They found a place to stay about fifteen miles up the road. The kids are still asleep."

"How is Matty?" Mulder asked hoarsely. Scully smiled and sat down on the edge of the bed.

"Fine. He wanted to know why were weren't staying at the hotel with them." She rubbed her eyes and glanced at her watch. "They still have to get the children up and dressed. Tara said they should be back here in about an hour." She laid her hand across his forehead. "How do you feel?" she asked.

Mulder stretched again, analyzing each body part as he tightened and released his muscles. "Pretty good," he told her. " A little achy and I'm still tired but all in all, much better."

Scully held up the thermometer expectantly and he rolled his head to the side, exposing his ear to her. A moment later she looked up with a happy smile.

"Normal," she announced. Mulder sat up and swung his feet onto the floor.

"Do I have time for a shower?" he asked. Scully nodded.

"Sure."

Mulder stood up and swayed, grabbing onto the headboard for support. Scully wrapped an arm around his waist. "Maybe you should hold off on that shower until you're a little steadier on your feet," she warned.

Mulder looked down into her earnest face. "Or, you could take one with me and hold me up," he suggested. Scully blushed.

"Mulder, you could have died last night. I don't think you're in any condition to --"

Mulder interrupted. "I'm not suggesting hot shower sex," he told her. "Come on, Scully. I really want that shower. I reek of alien vomit." Scully made a disgusted face at the hideous description of his prior condition and he fought down a grin and looked at her hopefully.

She sighed, relenting at under his pleading gaze. A lack of sleep combined with the overwhelming fear that Mulder would succumb to the virus had left her exhausted. The idea of a hot shower was a welcome one. "All right," she said. She took a step away from him, her hands lingering briefly on his waist until she was sure he was steady on his feet. She let go of him and unbuttoned the short-sleeved denim shirt she was wearing. Under Mulder's watchful gaze, she reached behind her back to unfasten her bra, peeling the straps down her arms, then quickly skimmed her panties down her hips, tossing her clothing in a heap on the bed. Naked, she took Mulder by the hand and led him into the bathroom.

Scully pushed back the shower curtain and leaned over the tub to turn on the shower. She glanced over her shoulder, raising her brow as she took in his boxer-clad form. Mulder braced a hand on the countertop surrounding the sink and hurriedly pulled the boxers off. Scully stepped into the tub and turned on the shower, ducking her head under the spray. She held out her hands and helped him step carefully over the lip of the tub and pulled him under the hot spray of water with her.

Mulder groaned as the hot water pounded on his aching muscles. His groans turned to sighs of pleasure as Scully rolled a miniscule bar of soap through her fingers, running her slippery hands over him, washing away the sweat and grime of the fever from his skin. She picked up a small bottle of shampoo and poured a tiny amount into her hand, stretching up to work the lather into his hair. Mulder's head dropped forward and she could hear a tiny humming noise coming from the back of his throat as his body swayed slightly under her massaging fingers. She pushed him under the shower to rinse off while she quickly washed herself.

Reluctant to leave the warmth of the shower, Scully bent down to turn the tap, sending even more hot water into the spray. She leaned against his back, pressing a kiss between his shoulder blades as she wound her arms around his middle. Mulder's hands slid over hers as they let the hot, pounding water relax them. Scully smoothed one hand over his stomach and she trembled with the knowledge that once again they had cheated death. Mulder felt the tremor ripple through her body and he twisted in her arms, pulling her into his embrace. He pressed her head against his chest and ran his hands down her back, cupping her cheeks in his big hands. Scully clutched him tightly, listening to the steady thud of his heart beneath her ear, so thankful to hear it and feel it. She looked up, blinking against the spray of the shower and drew his mouth down to hers in a tender kiss.

Her tongue skimmed over his parted lips before stealing inside his mouth for a quick taste. Mulder banded his arms around the backs of her thighs, pulling her high and hard against him as his mouth nipped at hers.

"I changed my mind," he gasped against her ear. "I do want hot shower sex." The doctor in Scully was telling her to say no, that it was too soon, that he had been too sick but the woman in her was shouting yes. She wanted to draw Mulder into her body where she could keep him safe and whole. She bit her lip and leaned around his body to turn off the shower. Yanking back the curtain, she stepped out of the tub, snatching two towels from the rack and holding one out to him. Mulder climbed out of the tub. Taking the towel from her outstretched hand, he moved toward her, crowding her against the sink, trying to lift her onto the countertop, dripping water all over the floor. Scully grasped the counter behind her with both hands, gasping as he cupped her wet breast in his hand.

"Not in here," she whispered. Using her towel, she quickly ran it over his body, then led him back into the bedroom. She stopped next to one of the beds, pushing on his shoulders, and Mulder sat down, spreading his legs wide and pulling her between them. He leaned forward to nab one rosy nipple between his teeth and Scully shuddered as his hot mouth closed over the sensitive tip. She wound her fingers in his hair and arched her body closer to his.

Mulder let her nipple slip out of his mouth and he pressed his lips against the soft swell of her belly. Scully placed both hands on his chest and pushed him back onto the bed. He grabbed her hips between his hands and tried to pull her beneath him but she resisted. Crawling over him, surrounding him with all four limbs, she lowered her face to his. Her hair spilled around them in a coppery curtain as she caught his lower lip between her teeth. Reaching down, she slid her fingers over his quivering flesh, guiding him to her center, whispering to him softly. "Let me..."

Twenty minutes later, they heard the Excursion crunching over the graveled parking lot. "Ready?" Scully asked, her hand on the doorknob. Mulder placed on hand over hers, preventing her from opening the door and wrapped the other hand around the back of her neck.

"Don't know when I'm gonna have the chance to do this again so..." He lowered his head, brushing his mouth softly over hers. His lips trailed over her cheek and he scraped his teeth gently across the soft skin on the underside of her jaw. "I love you," he breathed.

Scully sighed and burrowed deeper into his embrace, enjoying these last few moments of privacy. "I love you too," she murmured. She felt his lips curve against her skin and she reluctantly pulled away from his arms. "Let's go," she said. He nodded and she pulled the door open.

They climbed into the truck and flopped into their seats. Meggie banged her tiny fists on the cushioned restraint of her car seat, babbling happily as she caught sight of Mulder and Scully. Matthew leaned forward against his seat belt.

"Aunt Dana. Why come you and Uncle Mulder didn't sleep with us last night?" he asked. Scully laughed.

"Because Uncle Mulder wasn't feeling well last night, Matty," she explained. Matthew nodded wisely.

"Cause he gotted stung by the bees?" he wondered. Scully nodded and ruffled his hair with her hand.

"That's right. The bee stings made him very sick," she told the little boy. A tiny frown wrinkled Matthew's nose and he peered closely at Mulder who was sitting on the other side of Scully.

"But you made him all better, right Aunt Dana?" Matty looked up at her with curious blue eyes. Mulder leaned across Scully so that his face was close to Matty's.

"That's right, Buddy. Your Aunt Dana made me all better," he told the child. Matty smiled and placed a smacking kiss on the tip of Mulder's nose.

"Dat's good!" he announced. Reassured that all was well, he turned to more pressing matters. "Mommy, I'm huuunnngry!" The adults groaned and Bill put the truck in gear, pulling out of the parking lot.

On the road again.

~ Chapter Fourteen ~

Factoring in rush hour traffic, they were less than five hours from the Canadian border. The children were surprisingly quiet, seeming to pick up on the sober moods of the adults. Scully was driving and Mulder had pulled out the identification packets provided by their mysterious benefactor and reviewed the plan with Skinner, Bill and Tara. When they were less than thirty minutes from the border crossing, Scully steered the truck off the road and into a deserted picnic area. She pulled up alongside the public restrooms and everyone piled out to use the facilities. After yesterday's scare, however, they moved quickly to once again reach the relative safety of the truck.

They sorted through the supplies in the back of the vehicle and moved as much as possible onto the roof rack. Bill flipped down the back seat of the Excursion and held the rear door open. Scully climbed in first and curling into a ball, squeezed herself under the middle seat. Mulder scrambled in behind her and settled on the floor between the middle and rear seats. Finally Skinner crawled in and folded his large frame up in the back of the truck, effectively spooning behind Mulder, all three of them hardly daring to breathe. Bill and Tara stacked boxes on the folded- down rear seat and draped two blankets over the boxes, shrouding the hidden passengers in a makeshift tent. They piled the rest of the camping gear, blankets and supplies on top and climbed back into the cab.

"Are you all right, back there?" Bill called. Scully uttered a muffled 'yes' while Mulder and Skinner groaned in discomfort.

"Mommy, I wanna hide too," Matty whined from the middle seat. He was squirming against his seatbelt trying to see Scully as she hid under his seat. Tara glanced worriedly at her husband. Despite all the plans they had made, they hadn't considered the fact that one of the children would give away their secret.

"No Matty," she said. "Only the grownups are going to hide right now. And you can't tell anyone that they are hiding, okay?" she turned solemn green eyes toward her son.

"Ooookayy," he said in a long-suffering voice. Tara smiled approvingly.

"That's my good boy," she smiled. When they were less than half a mile from the border station, Tara reached down and rifled through the diaper bag at her feet. "Matty," she called. "Look what I found!" She pulled out a Star Wars coloring book and an eight-pack of crayons and handed them back to her son. Matty's eyes lit up and he was laboriously coloring in a picture of the Millennium Falcon when Bill pulled to a stop near the guard shack. "Smooth," he said as he looked at his wife admiringly. A glance in the rearview mirror showed that Matthew's attention was focused on his coloring. He was seemingly unaware that they had stopped. Tara nodded and slipped a cassette of children's music into the tape player and she twisted in her seat and began to sing with Meggie as Bill inched closer to the guard shack.

"Good morning," Bill greeted the guard as he rolled down his window. Tara leaned forward, her smile open and friendly as she glanced at the guard who was holding out his hand for their identification. The guard took Bill's driver's license and the vehicle registration and consulted the clipboard held in other hand.

"Kimberly and Brian Quinn?" he asked. Bill nodded and kept a friendly look on his face as he surreptitiously watched a second guard who was slowly walking around the vehicle.

Scully held her breath as she strained to hear the conversation between her brother and the border guard. She felt Mulder's hand tighten on her hip and she fought an insane urge to pull her gun from the waistband of her jeans. She could hear Skinner's controlled breathing from behind Mulder and she turned her face into the thin carpet on the floor of the truck as she willed the guard to let them pass.

"Where are you headed, Mr. and Mrs. Quinn?" the first guard asked. Bill glanced over at Tara and then back at the kids before returning his gaze to the guard.

"We're taking the kids up into Saskatchewan," he said, reciting the pre- arranged details. "Thought we'd do a little camping before it gets too cold." The guard nodded and continued to study the identification. Bill could feel a line of sweat trickle down his back. "Listen," he said in a conversational voice. "I want to head north on Interstate 1, is that right?" he asked. The guard looked up from his clipboard.

"North on I-1 and then head West on 1. That'll take you into Saskatchewan," he told them. Meggie clapped her hands.

"Sing Mama!" she shrieked happily. The guard grinned and handed the driver's license and registration back through the window.

"You have a nice trip," he said. "Welcome to Canada." Bill handed the identification cards over to Tara and she slipped them into her bag.

"Thank you," she called in a sunny voice and waved as Bill pulled the truck past the guard shack. Bill rolled up his window and Tara made a display of singing with Meggie as they drove out of sight.

Bill heaved a heavy sigh when they put at least half a mile between them and the border crossing. "Give us a few miles," he called to the hidden passengers, "and then we'll find someplace to pull over."

The miles rolled by quickly and Bill pulled over into a copse of trees. He and Tara scrambled out of the truck and were lifting the back door when they heard Mulder muttering.

"That had better be your hand, Scully," he said in a dire voice. Tara's eyes widened and Bill snorted as he shifted boxes and gave Skinner a hand in climbing out of the back of the truck. Scully squirmed out of her hiding place and she popped up over the seat to find Mulder sprawled on the floor. His hair was disheveled and his face was damp with perspiration.

"You look like a man who's been done but good, Mulder... and my hands were in front of me the whole time," she told him innocently. Mulder huffed out a tired laugh and looked toward Skinner, noting the pinkened tips of his ears.

"I think you owe me dinner and some sort of verbal commitment... Sir," he drawled, laughing when the big man stalked off, flushed and spluttering incoherently. Scully fell back against the seat and giggled herself silly while Bill and Tara leaned into each other and snickered. Mulder wiped the sweat from his face and commented into the general vicinity, "Too bad I don't smoke anymore..."

The three adult Scullys howled.

**

"Mulder."

"Hmmm..." Mulder was pouring over a map of Saskatchewan, running the mileage numbers and trying to decide if they could make it to Regina before it got too late; Bill's voice broke into his calculating and he turned in the passenger seat and regarded Scully's big brother, driving with both hands gripping the wheel. Bill looked... uncomfortable, would be the correct word. He cleared his throat twice, then his eyes left the road and he glanced over at Mulder.

"I, um... I just... oh, hell!" Bill blew out a frustrated breath. "I didn't thank you for saving Matty... for protecting him. You could have died, Mulder. Jesus, you didn't even hesitate. And when I saw those goddamn bees, I froze - all I could see was Charlie." Bill swallowed convulsively and plunged on, as Mulder turned fully in his seat and regarded him solemnly.

"I owe you my son's life. And mine too, and Tara's and Meggie's. Just wanted you to know... I'm glad you're here. Glad you've got the courage and the balls to do what has to be done to survive." Bill fell silent and frowned fiercely at the road ahead, as if he'd said too much. His words surprised the hell out of Mulder, who'd figured that his presence was mostly tolerated by Bill even though they'd more or less made a shaky sort of peace between them. Mulder carefully folded the map and set it aside, then spoke quietly.

"Bill, there was never any question where Matty was concerned. I did what anyone would do. What you would do if you were placed in that position. I love the little guy - I'm his Uncle Mulder, remember? And somewhere in that split-second before those bees attacked I thought about being immune, and of course since Matty wasn't..." His voice trailed off and he shrugged, trying to make light of it. But Bill wasn't having any of it and his skepticism shone in his voice.

"Oh bullshit, Mulder. The last thing on your mind would have been immunities. Don't even try passing this off as everyday tasking - I don't buy it. You protected my son from certain death - a horrible death. With no thought for your own safety - and for that I will always be grateful. I've seen you fight for us, all of us - I've seen the love you have for Dana. And I used to waste a shitload of energy hating your guts - I think I told you that once before." Without taking his eyes from the road Bill held up his right hand, and extended it toward Mulder, who slowly grasped it with his right hand. The two men clasped hands tightly, silently - until Mulder knew if he didn't say something to break the emotion-laden moment he'd probably start blubbering, and Bill Scully would never let him live it down.

He dropped Bill's hand and batted his eyelashes outrageously at the elder Scully, murmuring wickedly, "Keep it up and I'll be asking you to walk down the aisle with me instead of having you walk your sister down to join me..." The import of the words took exactly ten seconds to soak into Bill's consciousness, but when it did he cracked a rare smile, and this time he shook Mulder's hand with delight.

"You're proposing to Dana? When? Jesus... that's great news!" Mulder shushed him quietly when his normally low voice threatened to rise in accordance with his enthusiasm. Scully, Tara and the children were asleep in the furthest back seat but both women had super-hearing when they wanted it. Mulder grinned at his possibly future brother-in-law as he confided his plans.

"In about an hour or so, when we stop for food. Looking at the map, I figure we'll be in Whitehorse in another three or four days. I remember it's a decent-sized city. It should be easy to find somebody to marry us. Of course, I'm assuming a hell of a lot - and maybe somebody as wonderful as Scully deserves a hell of a lot better than me." Mulder's voice held a tinge of self- derision as he spoke. He WAS assuming a hell of a lot. But after their recent close call he didn't want to wait until they reached their destination. He wanted to marry Dana Scully; the sooner the better. He saw no real reason to wait. Some of his anxiety must have shown on his face, because Bill was quick to reassure him.

"Mulder, my sister loves you. I have never seen her so protective toward any other man. She has regularly told me to go to hell when I've given her a rash of shit over her involvement and partnership with you - and when it's all said and done I have to trust her judgment of you because I've now seen it with my own eyes. You'll make her happy - you already do. Just don't make me wear a tux, okay?" Bill's voice was long-suffering at the last remark, and Mulder chuckled in relief, then jumped about a foot when the sleepy yet gruff voice in the seat behind him added his two cents' worth.

"I second that, Mulder. No tux. As your former AD - and best man -I forbid the wearing of monkey suits."

Mulder's reply was joking and light-hearted - and grateful... good feelings to have, after what they'd been through in the past few days - very good feelings. "I'll remember that... Sir."

An exaggerated sigh from the back seat, and a growled retort, made him grin. "That's 'Sir Walter' to you, Smart Ass..."

About a third of the way to Regina they stopped at a small roadside diner next to an equally-small gas station. Outside the look of the place left much to be desired, but the interior was clean and bright and reassuringly normal. A smiling waitress led them to a large table and offered a booster seat for Matty and a high chair for Meggie. She settled them into their seats and left them with menus, promising to return with their water. Matty bounced up and down on his booster seat and chanted gleefully, "Hambugger! Hambugger!" Mulder shook his head and tousled the child's hair with a gentle hand.

"Sorry, Slugger - no hamburger. Maybe toasted cheese - is that okay with you?" Matty thought for a moment, before nodding.

"Fench Fies, too?" Mulder smiled, relieved the boy would not fight them on the lack of meat. He appeased Matty with a tentative affirmation; he'd ask the waitress what kind of cooking grease they used, before ordering fries. Tara sighed as she closed the menu, already knowing what she'd have to order.

"Salad for me, Bill - for you as well." Bill shook his head, staring down at the menu in his hands.

"I can't eat just salad - my stomach will be torn up for days. There has to be something else on the menu that doesn't contain meat or corn-related shit." Scully flipped through the little menu and her eye caught on lunch item - and her grin was evil as she looked at her big brother.

"Hey, Bill... you could always have a bowl of vegetarian chili - you know, a healthy side of beans with your salad..." Bill groaned and made a foul face at his sister at the mention of beans, which he secretly adored but that also tended to do a number on his digestive system. His retort was issued in a mock-growl.

"Oh, great - I'll be farting my way north to Alaska..." Matty giggled and shrieked in delight.

"Daddy farts! Daddy farts!" Tara emitted a strangled laugh and clapped a hand over Matty's mouth, while Skinner and Mulder roared with mirth. Scully eyed her brother with amused resignation.

"Oh yes... the male Scully gastro- intestinal proclivity... I remember it well, God help us all. Maybe we should shop for gas masks before we get back on the road." Bill fought to keep the injured look on his face, but he couldn't hold it, and he chuckled at his own expense.

"That one talent was bonding fodder for Dad, Charlie and me... we used to hold contests in the basement. We'd eat Mom's Cajin-style chili, always loaded with four different kinds of beans - and then head down to the basement and engage in some serious ass-singing. Dad usually won." The matter-of-fact explanation had them all laughing anew - and Mulder could tell it had afforded Scully some poignant memories of the two men in her life that she'd lost. He reached out a hand and slipped it under her soft hair, rubbing at her neck; she flashed him a grateful, loving glance before commenting in a deadpan monotone.

"Well, that explains why the rumpus room always smelled like rotten eggs..."

They were still laughing when the waitress came to take their orders - and if she thought it odd that four healthy adults ordered small, simple salads and a little boy seemed content with toasted cheese... she never said a word. When the big, dark- haired man with the military posture ordered a huge bowl of vegetarian chili, and the entire table including the little boy all erupted into gales of laughter... she merely smiled and took their orders and walked away, shaking her head at the crazy Americans.

An hour later Scully looked at her watch and remarked, "We should really get on the road. It'll get dark earlier, now that we're this far north." Tara nodded and began to gather up the children; Skinner offering to take Meggie who had fallen asleep in the high chair. Mulder stood, catching the glint in Bill's eyes as he stepped around his chair, closer to Scully. He could feel the tension start to build; his stomach was churning with butterflies. He was about to ask the woman he loved to marry him, in front of her family and their dearest friend. If she refused him, he didn't know what he'd do. If she said 'yes'... he'd be forever grateful and spend eternity making her happy, and safe. He placed a warm, mostly steady hand on her shoulder and stayed her movement when she would have risen as well.

"Wait, Scully. There's one more thing we need to discuss before we leave. It's very important." She looked up at him and quirked one eyebrow, waiting for him to speak. And Mulder found his voice had gone bye-bye... and his throat was as dried up as a desert. He couldn't speak - couldn't function. Alarmed, Scully watched his Adam's apple bob and swallow - and she must have thought he was ill again because she tried to rise once more, and again Mulder's hand tightened on her shoulder. When she looked into his eyes Mulder knew exactly what she was thinking... and judging by the way her eyes widened and she started to tremble... Mulder figured he must have spilled the gastro-intestinal producers... more commonly known as 'the beans'.

He never knew if he had spoken out loud or if they were so in tune with each other that she'd somehow read his thoughts... but Scully knew. Her eyes teared up as he dropped gracefully to his knees on the floor of the dinky little roadside cafe - and his simple words were heartfelt and shaky and overflowing with the bounty of his love for her.

"Scully..."

She stared into his eyes, and her voice came out on a one-word whisper.

"Yes?"

He smiled at her, at the remembrance of saying just these words before, in their past - a long time ago. Back then he'd been a teasing idiot... this time it was never more vital and less teasing. He reached for her hand and held it in both of his.

"Marry me..." He watched one tear slip down her cheek and curve into her chin, then another - and another. She swallowed and smiled and her entire face glowed. She parted her rosy lips to speak.

"Yes."

~ Chapter Fifteen ~

Happiness was a wonderful thing, Mulder decided, as he drove the big Ford along Route 1 West toward Regina. Beside him in the passenger seat Scully lay facing him, a soft smile on her face as she watched him drive. The look in her sweet blue eyes warmed him, melted him -and made it damned hard to concentrate on driving when all he wanted to do was pull her down into the nearest rear seat and take large delicious bites of her. He forced his breathing to even out and dragged his eyes back to the road, vaguely noting they were only about twenty miles from the Regina city limits.

Once in Regina, they would find a hotel and stop for the night even though it was rather early. They had some serious wedding plans to make - Mulder wanted to give Scully as much of a dream wedding as was possible. Maybe there wouldn't be a legion of family and friends there and a band playing disco while they shoved white cake into each others' faces and made a mad dash for a limo while wedding guests bombarded them with rice... but the most important ingredients would be there. The family would be there. They had a best man and a matron of honor... not to mention someone to give the bride away. As far as Mulder was concerned, they had it all.

"What are you thinking about?" The soft voice eased into his consciousness and Mulder turned his head to smile at the woman he adored. Her hair was splayed out against the seat's head rest and she looked breathtaking - the sight of her enough to make his poor heart pound itself silly. And she was gazing at him so tenderly as she asked him to reveal his thoughts - "I was thinking about the oddities of life." He stifled a laugh as both of Scully's eyebrows shot up, and added quickly, "Not that any of us are odd! But that life is odd. A few days ago we were all facing the 'end of the world as we know it', to quote the song... today I'm happier than I have been in years. With all we have to face yet, I'm happy. I'm barreling down a Canadian highway in a big-ass Ford with my future wife and an ex-boss and an ex-Mulder-hater whose wife and children have become as dear to me as my own family. Your brother Bill and I had a bonding moment to end all bonding moments, and although we didn't tear off our shirts and beat the drum in front of the bonfire while smearing war paint on each other... it was still bonding. I may never get over it."

Scully scooted a little closer on her seat and her hand found Mulder's knee and squeezed. "Mulder... if I haven't yet told you... I love it that you and my brother are finally getting along. It means the world to me." Mulder placed a hand over hers and pressed it into his leg, holding her hand there - keeping both of them warm.

They were exactly one mile inside the city limits of Regina when Tara looked out of the window - and screamed.

Mulder slammed on the brakes and turned in time to see Tara cover her eyes in anguish; Scully pushed her face into her window and looked out, then gasped and turned to Mulder. Her expression was bathed in fear.

"Mulder oh God oh no Jesus. Jesus..." For out in the city streets of Regina a war had begun... and the good guys were not winning.

There were bees everywhere. They flew about in the air like drunken little zeppelins, dive-bombing the screaming people who with crazed purpose were trying to run. Hundreds of them, zooming about, causing traffic collisions as cars and other vehicles swerved to avoid the pedestrians who ran out into the street. And Mulder had stomped on the brakes a millisecond before slamming into an elderly woman tearing frantically at her snow-white hair - which was spotted with bees. In the back of their Excursion the children had awoken from their nap and were crying in terror; Bill and Tara were trying their best to shield their little faces from the carnage beyond the safe confines of the cab. Skinner turned away from his horrified observance of the world gone mad outside his window, and called out to Mulder.

"We've got to get the hell out of here! If we get stuck in this mess we're doomed."

Mulder nodded grimly, nosing the big Ford forward through whatever open spaces he could find - but it was slow going. He didn't want to hit anything; they could not afford front-end damage to the Excursion. And he prayed he wouldn't hit any people, although by the looks of things these folks were already condemned to die; their demise ordained by a higher alien force. Under his breath he could hear himself chanting in despair, "Why why why WHY...!"

As they moved forward the bees were relentless in their programmed fury. Aggressively attacking, for the virus brought out the evil in them as well, if insects even had a dark side... incongruous but impossible to deny. Though they'd known what was coming; though they'd been warned... the carnage was terrible to see.

There was not a single thing do be done for these people... not a thing.

Scully gasped as she was an unwilling witness to a furious coven of honeybees who gathered around the head of a little blonde-haired girl; the child screamed and stumbled, running into a fire hydrant. Scully turned away when the child fell and the bees surrounded her, high childish screams turning into agonized moans...

Mulder's eyes burned with hot, unshed tears as he kept the vehicle moving forward, forcing himself to concentrate on the road and not the sight of innocent people meeting such a gruesome end. Knowing that some would die, instantly; they'd be the lucky ones. They would be the inferior incubators, and the virus would reject them, seeping out of their bodies and going in search of someone stronger. Someone with the right constitution, whatever that might be... someone who'd make a dandy cocoon for the monster developing within. And those incubators would know what was happening to them... just as Scully had known.

Jesus, Lord - help us all, Mulder thought. Deliver us from madness...

Inch by inch the Ford edged around the mayhem that had once been a quiet little town. Skinner looked out the side windows, tears trickling unashamedly down his face as the imagery of the Apocalypse superimposed itself against the backdrop of what had once been a nice place to live. A Burger King and a Texaco Station; along the main drag little shops with signs like 'Sew Sue Me', and 'Hair Today/Gone Tomorrow'... a candy shop with display windows bursting with confections of every sort - an Ace Hardware store and a Radio Shack. A neat little post office and a cute little public library. Regina had been a very sweet place. A great place to raise a family...

No longer... Skinner pushed his face into his hands and cried. Cried for what this town had once meant to its citizens, cried for the helplessness they all felt as they ran for their lives and in doing so established their selfish need to live by not stepping out of the cab to help another human being.

As if they could do anything... of course they could not. And this, too had been the master plan of the alien colonists, all along. Make the stupid little humans unable to save each other; make them run around like headless chickens in their fear and matchless anguish. Make them suffer; make them die. All of them, die.

All except the passengers of a big-ass Ford Excursion on a one-way trip to a colder climate - and a temporary reprieve.

Finally spotting a free lane and flooring it, Mulder pushed his advantage. The vehicle leapt forward, knocking over trash cans sitting at the curb of Main and Second Avenue; careening around the corner and speeding down Second as fast as possible. As they bore down the avenue the bees became more and more sparse; they ran two red lights and narrowly missed a biker overcome by bees, still sitting upright on his Harley.

Inside the cab Matty and Meggie's cries had reduced down to sobs and hiccups. They leaned against their parents and trembled. Tara rocked Meggie, wet face buried in the child's soft hair. Matty curled himself into his father's arms and sucked furiously on his thumb. Bill didn't have the heart to stop him, although they'd been after the boy to stop thumbsucking. Now was not the time to rip that comfort away. Scully glanced back at her family, reassuring herself they were all right, and Bill met her frightened eyes with a small shaky smile and remarked, "Wish I could suck on MY thumb, right about now..."

Scully smiled back, just a little. "Go ahead, Big Brother - I won't tell a soul."

Five miles of turning and twisting down the side streets of Regina had taken them away from the city proper. They found themselves skirting the countryside in the early-evening twilight. As Mulder drove he kept a sharp lookout for any more bee fatalities, but the worst of the threat had seemed to be just in the downtown area. As if someone had just flown overhead and dropped a shitload of bees on the poor, unsuspecting citizens of Regina...

Which he had a feeling was exactly how it had gone down.

Half an hour later they were back on Route 1, going west toward Whitehorse. By silent and mutual agreement there would be no more stops. Mulder would drive until he was tired and then pull over for Bill to take the wheel. If they drove nonstop they'd reach Whitehorse in less than two days.

Beside him in the front cab Scully sat on the middle console, as close to Mulder as she could get without interfering with his driving. She kept one hand behind his head, palm warm and comforting on his neck; the other hand curved around his inner thigh. Mulder craved her touch more than ever. The images of what they'd been forced to witness were still too fresh; would remain fresh and in Technicolor in his brain, far beyond this day. Mulder needed Scully's hands on him - needed to know she was alive and safe. He murmured to her without taking his eyes from the road.

"Scully... pinch me, hard. Please." She quirked an eyebrow but did as he asked, and pinched his inner thigh hard enough to bruise him. He jumped a little but never broke concentration with the road. Scully smoothed her fingers over the hurt, and said nothing. After another few minutes of silence, he spoke.

"Thank you, baby. I just wanted to assure myself... that I'm still alive..."

Scully nodded, and smiled. Alive, she thought. He was alive and that was all that mattered to her at the moment. She brought her face close to his and kissed his cheek, whispering into his ear. "I know, sweetheart. I know..."

They made it to Whitehorse in two days. Taking turns with the driving and stopping only for gas and food, they drove through the remainder of Saskatchewan, British Columbia and finally the Yukon Territory. Two days of relative silence in the cab of the Excursion, each adult trying to keep from dwelling upon what they'd been forced to witness - the first strike of the alien colonizers. The children had nightmares when they slept and clung to whatever adult they could when they were awake. More often than not it was Skinner who would hold their small bodies close to him and soothe their fright with silly stories and even sillier songs. He was gentle and sweet with them and Tara fell in love with him in two days, between Regina and Whitehorse. His attention to the children gave her a chance to spend some time with Bill, which went a long way toward helping both of them to recover from what they'd seen.

The trip west was still fraught with peril - two days into colonization and the signs of it were everywhere. They drove through towns left deserted and abandoned either by death or by evacuation. Once in a while they encountered people walking around, dazed and disoriented. They saw bees in attack mode, and more often than not the resulting bad dreams shook them to their very foundations - and they saw what was perhaps the most heinous sight of all: the first evidence of a complete gestation cycle. Obviously the resulting embryonic entity had vacated the used-up body which lay in the street with its chest gaping open. The entity was nowhere to be seen - and it was hard to say how long the entire cycle had taken.

The first time Bill saw it he gasped aloud. Pointing at it, he turned to Scully with wide, distressed eyes.

"Jesus, Dana! Is THIS what would have happened to Charlie?!" They'd been in the middle seat huddled together, soft voices reminiscing about this and that - when Bill looked out the window. The big burly man fallen at the side of the road had been on his back - skin like sticky gel and glazed with death. His chest had been gaping open and there was blood everywhere. Scully closed her eyes at the sight and swallowed hard as she answered her brother.

"Yes - it could have happened to Charlie. We think the virus attacks in different ways. He could have ended up gestating an alien entity within his body - consumed from the inside out and aware of what was happening to him - and he would have suffered horribly. He could also have been affected by that aspect of the virus which seems to cause good people to commit the most reprehensible of crimes - as Charlie did."

Scully turned into her brother's arms and rested her head on his shoulder, unable to make her brain erase the images still so fresh in her memory. Bill soothed a hand over her shoulder and his voice was hushed when he spoke.

"Dana... I can't begin to imagine how to accept something as unbelievable as this happening in the world - yet there it is. And you and Mulder have been fighting this... God. You may just be the most courageous person I know..." Scully smiled up at him with a lopsided little grin, and her retort made him smile as well.

"I don't know about courageous, Bill... foolhardy sometimes, perhaps. Strong only when I've got someone at my back, like Mulder. But I'm as afraid as the next person. I think about the future and I am beyond terrified. The fight we will have on our hands, just to survive... we'll have to be strong together. All of us together..."

Bill nodded, and gave her a loving squeeze. "We will be, Dana... when the time comes." Scully laid her head once more against her brother's shoulder, and her whispered words were meant only for him.

"Bill... as much as you can, please keep Tara and the children from seeing the worst of the carnage. It's bad enough that Mulder and I have to acknowledge this horror... and we've had a long time to acclimate ourselves to it. No one should be forced to have this image burned into their brains."

Whitehorse was a relatively small city, but well-kept and clean; a level piece of ground surrounded by mountain ranges. There were stores and quite a few hotels; all the regular tourist-type shops and restaurants everywhere.

There were also bodies littering the streets in lieu of papers and pop cans and old newspapers. Dead bodies, discarded human incubators... evidence of murder by madness, brought on by the virus and the way it attacked each person. Bill forbade Tara to look out of the windows and made her keep the children between them, hidden from the gruesome view. She obeyed his low-voiced command with wide, frightened eyes.

In this part of the Yukon Territory the air was cold and damp, with autumn already finished and winter creeping up fast. The general consensus amongst the adults concluded that this far north there would still be insect activity but it would be sluggish, as the hibernating species would be preparing for their customary long sleep. But if a large enough swarm were dropped into the area, they could cause significant damage. They knew they couldn't stay long -and they couldn't take a chance on lingering outside the vehicle for very long.

Skinner wheeled down the main thoroughfare, sharp eyes on the lookout for gas stations - but he slammed on the brakes when he spotted a church. Small and made of cedar logs, it sat back from the main drag. There was a sign on the still-green front lawn. Skinner read it aloud.

"Yukon Gospel Outreach - hmm. Doesn't say what denomination." From the truck it was hard to see if there was life beyond the stained glass front windows. Mulder shrugged and made to open the door, but Skinner stopped him with a hand to his arm.

"Wait, Mulder! You're just gonna go out there with no protection? Don't be stupid. You need someone to watch your back; we don't know what we're up against here..." Mulder interrupted him firmly.

"Walter, I'm immune, remember? If anyone should go it's me. If I get stung it's no big deal. I just run a fever and spit up black shit." His smile was reassuring. "Scully and I need to do this. We want to do it now, before it gets any worse and there's nobody left. Hell, there may NOT be anyone left - this town looks damned deserted. We want to get married in a church, if we can - by someone ordained." He looked back at Scully, who sat next to Tara bouncing Meggie on her knee. Scully returned his loving stare with one equally tender, visibly trying her best not to look afraid. He smiled again at her and spoke softly and confidently.

"I'm just gonna check out the church. If I find anyone in there I'll signal you from the window. You just hang tight and don't open the doors or windows." With that he shrugged into his jacket and carefully opened the door, although he couldn't see any bees. He quickly slipped out the small gap and slammed the door behind him. He refused to look around him at the bodies dotting the streets and yards of the town. Fending off one or two droning bees that had dropped to his level from out of nowhere, he ran to the church and shoved at the front door, which swung open easily. Slamming the door firmly, Mulder walked up the center aisle.

The church was small and damp and a little cold, as if the heat hadn't been run for some time. Rustic, yet elegant with its cedar log beams and roughly carved pews, it had a welcoming aura that greeted him as he stood in the aisle and yelled, "Anyone home?"

Five minutes passed before Mulder heard anything, and then before he could whip around and confront the footstep behind him he felt the prod of a gun in his back, and a rough voice in his ear. A rough, female voice...

"Who are you and what do you want? We have nothing to steal. State your business and get the hell out." Mulder held up his hands in surrender and kept his voice easy and calm.

"Take it slow with that gun. Okay? I'm a Federal agent. I can't prove it but I am." The gun poked him when he tried to turn around, and the voice was hostile and disbelieving.

"What would FBI be doing up here now, when everyone's dead or dying? You're too late. I don't know how many people are still alive but it's not many. Goddamn bees... everywhere. We were all outside, dammit! All outside... a wedding. Shit! It was a cause for celebration, here in town - and everyone came. All of us outside, having fun..." He heard a sniffle; the woman was fighting back tears, he'd bet. She poked him again and her voice was just as tough.

"Turn around! Slowly. I want to see into your eyes. If you're lying I'll know." Slowly and carefully Mulder turned around, trying not to make any sudden moves. He turned and locked eyes with this latest, armed threat -

And had to look down to do it, because this threat was no bigger than Scully.

And as young.

She had long black hair held off her face with a white headband and she would have fit nicely under his chin - same as Scully. Big eyes, almost black - wide-cheeked and dark-skinned. Native, Mulder realized. Heavier than Scully but still on the delicate side; dressed in torn jeans and a dirt-smeared sweatshirt, the woman looked to be about thirty. She handled the shotgun in her arms with casual authority, and when she spoke her wide mouth did not show any expression.

"Now then, FBI. I repeat - what are you doing here? I want answers." Mulder smiled at her as confidently as he could with a gun in his face, and the woman actually bared her teeth at him. He sighed.

"We came up from the States. Trying to escape the bees - we're headed north to where the bees can't go. Look, Miss - we're harmless. Honestly. My family is out in that Excursion parked at the curb - and we are tired and hungry and scared and my partner and I want to get married. Is there a minister here at the church?"

The woman looked at him as if he'd suddenly sprouted horns. Mulder actually found himself wanting to check his forehead for little pointy bone protrubences... Suddenly the woman barked out a laugh that sounded very familiar to Mulder, and he realized that for some weird reason she reminded him of Skinner.

"You want to marry your partner. Now. In this church. You must be one insane white guy, Mister... you been outside lately? There IS no more reason to marry, not anymore. The world is ending. I don't know why but I can see how. A plague of bees, who would have thought? My father and I expected locusts. At least that's what the Revelation told us. I never thought I'd see it in my lifetime. Not like this - not so cruel as this." The woman's hands shook, and she dropped the gun and buried her face in her hands, sobbing. Like a light snapping off she went from tough to weak and grief-stricken. And Mulder did the only thing he could think of when faced with another human in pain - he stepped closer to her and drew her into a gentle embrace and let her sob on him. He rocked her a little, thinking this was one of the more bizarre moments of his life.

Sniffling, the woman pulled away and wiped at her eyes, then a very small smile flashed out at Mulder, which transformed her entire face. Pink-cheeked, she thanked him gruffly and sank down into the nearest pew. Mulder sat next to her and waited patiently. Finally, she spoke.

"My name is Mary Honea. My father is the Elder here - preacher," she explained. "We have been holed up in the rectory for two days, afraid to go outside. When the bees came we didn't know what was happening. Some of our friends killed themselves, thinking it was the end of the world. I thought so too - and then I saw something. Horrible, just awful - I can't imagine anything so horrible. One of our neighbors, Mr. Fronke - something grew inside him and exploded out early this morning and ran away. He'd keeled over in our back yard and I could see him from the rectory window. That's when I knew it wasn't the Revelation. That's when I knew it was evil, but not of this world."

Mulder sighed again and did his best to explain the last few months, keeping it as short and precise as possible. When he finished, Mary nodded, seemingly understanding and accepting as well. She stood up and looked toward the door.

"You and your family are welcome here. You can stay as long as you need to, and I am sure my father would be glad to marry you and your woman. I'll go get him - but please - he's old and fragile right now. You see, my mother died yesterday - and we couldn't even go to her and bury her. She is in the greenhouse. I won't let my father go in there - I saw the black fluid you described come out of her nose, you see. I knew it was very, very dangerous. I'm a nurse, by the way." She nodded to Mulder and walked to a back entrance and slipped through the door panel. Mulder wiped his face wearily, then went to the front door of the church and opened it carefully, motioning to everyone in the Ford.

Jonathan Honea had been born in Barrow, Alaska but had moved south with his family as a young man fresh out of seminary. He and his wife Anna had raised six children in Whitehorse, establishing himself in a church that he'd helped to create. He'd had a wonderful life, the only sadness being the death of his youngest daughter Mary's husband Calvin. After his death she'd moved back to Whitehorse from Anchorage where she'd worked in an Inupiaq free clinic, and had helped the local small hospital outside of Whitehorse. Mary was a Godsend to her elderly parents, and life had been better -

Until now.

Jon Honea shook his head, and clasped his daughter's hand as she sat next to him on the comfortable sofa in the rectory's sitting room. Gathered in front of them the Scullys and Mulder and Skinner listened with sympathy as he described his Anna. "She was a pretty little girl when I first met her, and she just got prettier as she got older. On the inside, too - so pretty. Like my Mary -" He squeezed his daughter's hand, and Mary smiled at him - "Where it counted. Inupiaq life teaches us that the value and beauty of a person is measured in the spirit. A beautiful spirit is treasured, more than gold - more than anything. In this my Anna had no equal." Tears shone in the old man's eyes as he spoke of his life-mate, and his pain at not being able to afford her dignity in death was very apparent as well.

"Mary tells me not to touch Anna; that this substance coming out of her has to be some type of poison. I have seen the death outside our doors - I know what it is. I saw one of them, early yesterday." Mary turned to stare at her father in disbelief.

"You didn't tell me you saw one, Dad! Why didn't you say anything?" Mary was clearly upset by this, and her father shook his head sadly as he answered her.

"I didn't want to frighten you, Daughter. I wasn't to know you'd already seen. I knew you would believe me - but I hoped to spare you." Mary nodded sadly, and gave her father's stooped shoulders a gentle hug. Her voice was firm with him.

"I'm a nurse. I have seen terrible things in my life." She turned and addressed Mulder and Scully. "I once helped a trapper cut off his leg to escape a bear trap that neither of us had the strength to budge. I helped him cut and then I dragged him through the woods and up onto the road to flag down a car. I had nothing but an old hunting jacket to wrap around his thigh, and he bled to death on the way to the hospital. He was Calvin, my second cousin - and my husband." Scully made a soft sound of sympathy and reached out a hand to the native woman, who took it hesitantly as if unused to comfort from another woman.

Mulder cleared his suddenly clogged throat, and his voice was low and earnest. "What you think is happening in the world - it's true. And right now the only way to escape it is to go north. Go to a cold climate; somewhere that the black oil cannot survive and the bees can't go. As far north as possible - Alaska, obviously. Where in Alaska, we aren't entirely sure. Barrow sounds far enough but I know it's well- known. We may be safer in a smaller village - some tiny dot on a map." Jon Honea nodded slowly.

"I know such a place. I lived there for a few years when I was a boy. It's about seventy-five miles east of Barrow. You can fly in or snowmobile - or mush in - but it's isolated. Mt. Vu'luk. Small place. Is that what you have in mind?"

Scully thought for a moment, then looked at Mary before she answered. "Mr. Honea, I'm a medical doctor as well as a Federal Agent. Is there a clinic in this village? We would need one." Jon Honea nodded.

"Yes, a clinic. Very small, but equipped with just about all the important things. Mary knows. She was up there last year." He looked at his daughter, and she spoke up.

"That's right. It's got a lab and plenty of supplies, most of them new. I supervised its setup, last year. The village had needed a clinic for so long - it was a happy day for them." Mary rose and approached Tara who was sitting on the sofa holding Meggie in her arms. She knelt down in front of the child and smiled at her; the wide grin changing her features and lending them the sort of beauty which her father had described her spirit as having. Meggie stared at Mary, then reached out a hand and grabbed hold of a hunk of hair that had escaped the white headband. She pulled and Mary winced. Tara extricated her daughter's little hands with a mortified look on her face, stuttering her apologies. Mary waved it away with another smile.

"Don't worry; she didn't hurt me. I have a lot of hair. She is a lovely child." Mary's face was wistful, and when she turned back to her father her gaze fell upon Skinner and she actually blushed at the intensity of his stare from behind the wire rimmed glasses. Mulder noted the little by-play... and smiled to himself.

Mary served them caribou stew for lunch. The meat was a little strong in flavor and its texture was stringy but it was the first real food they'd had in many days - and everyone wolfed it down, even Meggie; she sat on her father's lap sucking happily on a piece of meat. Mulder had never tasted anything so good. As a boy he'd had venison but never caribou - and he made a vow to keep his silence about the fact that caribou were, in effect reindeer - he didn't think Matty would appreciate eating Rudolph...

After lunch the women went with Mary to her rooms to find proper wedding apparel, the petite native woman eyeing Scully with a practiced eye and declaring she had the perfect dress. The men stayed in the sitting room and discussed the upcoming fight, with Skinner and Mulder taking turns explaining to Jon Honea what would continue to happen to the world. While he spoke, Mulder never got the feeling that the elderly preacher didn't understand or didn't accept his words. Jon listened with an open mind, nodding and asking intelligent questions which indicated he had somehow found a way to accept that which he'd already witnessed since colonization had begun. Mulder was impressed by his openness, and commented on it. The Elder shrugged and smiled slightly.

"It is not our way to disregard what our eyes tell us is real. I have seen this - and my eyes do not lie to me. They have lived a long time viewing the world around me, and they know the difference between a dream, and reality. I may want to run from the reality they see... but where would I go? It is all around me." Jon stood up and stretched his stiff limbs, then went to a glass-enclosed cupboard in the corner of the room and unlocked it with a key he pulled from his pants pocket. Reaching into the cupboard, he brushed aside a sheaf of papers and small wooden and ivory carvings, and extracted a box. Bringing it over to the sofa he sat down between Mulder and Bill, and flipped open the hinged lid of the box, to reveal two small ivory circlets, intricately carved. He picked up the larger one and held it out to Mulder, who slowly took it between two fingers and held it up for Bill and Skinner to see.

The ring was beyond lovely - it was a true work of art. Almost one-half inch wide, the rounded band was carved with a repeating pattern of whales cavorting through tiny breaking waves; over the whales flew several birds with their wings majestically outspread. Mulder couldn't imagine anyone having the patience - not to mention the talent - to carve something this detailed and tiny. He murmured his awe out loud, and Jon Honea smiled and bowed formally in thanks.

"I thank you. This is a tribal bonding ring, made of walrus ivory and used in Inupiaq wedding ceremonies. The carving method is called scrimshaw, which is achieved by scratching the ivory in designs and then filling the scratches with fine black ash. The whales swimming in the ocean represent a long and fertile life - and the ravens flying over the sea protect the wearer and guide them through life's waters. Ravens are sacred to us. They are the wisest and most determined of all bird species, because they do not migrate - they will not leave their home. They find ways to live in arctic temperatures, and above all they survive." The old preacher shook his head when Mulder would have given back the ring, and instead pressed his fingers together around the ring, trapping it in his palm. At Mulder's look of confusion, Jon Honea smiled again.

"This ring should belong to someone who stands for its constancy... someone who is determined to love - to survive and to relish each day left on this great earth. I carved them last year, after a dream I had. I dreamed of a day of terror and pain, although I could not see the source of that pain. But I was told in my dream to make the bonding rings, that someone would have need of them soon. I think you and your Dana have need - and if you like them they are yours, to use in your bonding ceremony." With that, the Elder dipped into the box and pulled out the smaller ring, identically carved - placing it into Mulder's palm next to its mate. Overwhelmed, Mulder picked up the larger circlet of smooth warm ivory and slipped it on his hand -and it was a perfect fit. Somehow, he wasn't a bit surprised - and he had a feeling the other ring would fit Scully's small fingers just right. He clasped the old man's shoulders, and tried to find words to express his gratitude... but the Elder waved them away.

"You will repay me by taking my Mary to safety - this promise of yours I will hold you to, Mr. Mulder. When the time comes, you will keep her safe for me." His earnest gaze fell on Mulder and then Bill, who nodded solemnly - and then lingered on Skinner, who met that wise stare and found himself nodding as well. Agreeing to something, but to what he wasn't quite sure - and finding that it really didn't matter at all. Whatever he'd agreed to... it was right. Skinner cleared away the sudden lump in his throat, and his words came out in a croak.

"You'll come with us, Mr. Honea. We will need spiritual guidance -and your daughter needs her father." It wasn't a request, but more of an order; Skinner was at heart still that tough ex-Marine. And Jon Honea responded with grace and dignity, as he turned to Skinner, and bowed slightly.

"I thank you."

~ Chapter Sixteen ~

Scully allowed herself to be pulled upstairs by the two women and she obediently sank down onto the bed in Mary's room. Mary held up one hand and left, reappearing moments later with a garment bag folded over her arm. She laid the bag reverently across the mattress and lowered the zipper to reveal a wedding dress. She shook the folds of the dress out and held it up for Scully and Tara to see. Most likely a pure white when it was new, the fabric had mellowed to a creamy, softer hue.

"It was my mother's," Mary explained. She held the dress out. "I don't think she'd mind." Scully forced a smile, shrinking away from the idea of wearing the dress of a woman she had never met - a woman, who even now, was lying dead in a greenhouse several yards away, her body ravaged by the alien virus.

"It's beautiful," she said honestly. "But since the groom will be wearing his 'best jeans' I think something a little less formal would be appropriate." Mary nodded and turned toward the closet.

"Most of my wardrobe is very casual. Jeans and sweaters or my nurse's uniforms," she said as she plunged her hands into the back of the closet. "But I think," she grunted as she tugged at a hanger, "I have something that you may like." She yanked hard and stumbled back as the stubborn hanger came loose. She turned to face the other women and eyed Scully critically.

"I weigh a little more than you," she said. "But this dress is not fitted and I think it will look wonderful on you." She pulled the plastic bag back to display the dress in question. "Calvin and I eloped and my mother was very disappointed that she wasn't able to throw a big wedding for us. We agreed to have a 'gathering' instead. It's similar to a family reunion, but includes everyone in the doyon. She and I made this dress together for me to wear at the gathering." Mary held the dress up in front of her and lovingly smoothed her hands over it. Her gaze was distant and a tiny, sad smile played about her lips for a moment. Shaking free of her reverie, she looked up and laid the dress across Scully's lap.

"This is called a kuspuk," she told them. "It's a traditional Inupiaq costume. Many of them have hoods and are trimmed with fur. This dress holds the happiest of memories for me," she said. "I would be honored if you would consider wearing it for your wedding." Scully stroked her fingers over the folds of the dress and looked up.

"I'd love to," she said. Tara gave a tiny whoop and stood, glancing at her watch.

"The kids are going to need to take a nap soon," she said. "Otherwise, they're likely to fall asleep in the middle of the ceremony." Mary nodded and lifted the dress from Scully's lap, carefully laying it over her arm.

"Why don't we all take an hour or so to rest," she suggested. She held a hand out to Scully and helped her to her feet. "I'll show you to your rooms," she told the other women. "I'd like my father to lie down for a little while as well," she said as she led them into the hallway. "The rectory has six bedrooms," she told them. "So we have plenty of room." She nodded her head toward one door. "That is my parents' room," she said softly, sadly. Tara placed a hand on her shoulder and made a comforting sound and Mary smiled quietly in response.

"Mr. Skinner can sleep in this room," she said indicating the room across the hall from her own. "And the children can stay in here," she told Tara as she opened the door to one room, revealing twin beds. "You and your husband can take this room," she said pointing toward the door next to the children's room. "Bathroom," she murmured, tapping a door as she continued down the hall. She pushed open a door at the far end of the hall. "Dana, you and Mulder will take this room."

Scully walked into the room and looked around. The room was spartan but clean. A rough-hewn bed stood against one wall covered in a faded quilt. A chest of drawers of the same unfinished wood stood across the room from the bed. A rocker sat in one corner and a cheval mirror stood in another. Mary stepped around her and hung the dress on the back of the closet door.

"Lie down for a little while," she advised gently as she pulled the door closed behind her. Scully toed off her sneakers and curled up on top of the faded quilt. She determinedly pushed all negative thoughts out of her head as she relaxed into the soft pillows, drifting.

She stirred drowsily as she felt Mulder slip into bed with her. "Mary told me you were taking a nap," he whispered, nuzzling her neck. "I thought I'd come up and try to score a little premarital nookie," he growled playfully. Scully swatted at him half-heartedly as she pressed her body back into his.

"In your dreams," she told him as she snuggled deeper into the pillows. He rested his chin on her shoulder.

"Elder Honea gave us wedding rings," he spoke huskily. She turned her head curiously. "I think you'll like them," he added.

"You aren't going to show them to me?" she asked. He shook his head and settled down behind her, curling his arm over her waist.

"You'll see them soon enough," he told her as he yawned sleepily. Scully sighed and went back to pushing any unwanted thoughts out of her head. All too soon she was going to have to deal with them, but for now, she just wanted to rest.

Two hours later, Scully stood before the cheval mirror, studying her reflection critically in the dimly lit room. The kuspuk was beautiful, she admitted grudgingly. Made of a raw silk in the palest shade of pink, it had a rounded neckline, above which hung her gold cross. The dress hung straight from the shoulders and had full sleeves that were fitted and cuffed at the wrists. Starting at her knees and hanging down almost to her ankles, the dress ended in a flounced ruffle. Tiny luminous white seed pearls and silvery, black hematite beads had been painstakingly stitched around the collar, cuffs and hem of the dress in an elaborate design. It was a gorgeous creation, she knew, and totally not her style. She thought she might prefer to wear her jeans and a sweater, as Mulder was, but she was the bride and she knew the others expected her to play the part. Mulder especially seemed eager to see her dressed in some romantic creation.

Scully had long ago given up her girlhood fantasies of what her wedding day would be like. Gone were any thoughts of lace gowns and gauzy veils. Buried were ideas of a bouquet of roses and orange blossoms and a regal march down a long aisle to the swelling strains of Bach or Mendelssohn. She had contented herself with the knowledge that she would share her life with Mulder in one form or another and had ruthlessly denied herself the dream of a wedding. But now she stood alone in an unfamiliar room in a dress that made her feel and look like a stranger and she wondered how it had come to this. After all the pain and suffering; after all of the losses, was it necessary that she sacrifice that deeply buried dream as well? Her fingers nervously worried the beads of her mother's rosary.

"We didn't even get to choose our own wedding rings," she whispered resentfully to her reflection. She looked up as someone tapped on the door.

"Dana?" Tara's voice floated through the door. "May we come in?" she asked.

"Door's open," Scully replied as she composed her face into its normally placid lines. She smiled as Tara, Meggie and Mary slipped into the room.

"The dress is perfect," Tara exclaimed as she circled Scully. She plopped Meggie down onto the floor and urged Scully to sit down on the edge of the mattress. Scully sat in stoic silence as Tara and Mary fussed over her hair and makeup. She slipped her feet into the beaded moccasins that Mary provided and stood once more, twirling so that the others could get a look at the final results.

"Pwetty," Meggie declared and the two women concurred.

"You look beautiful, Dana," Tara assured her. Mary nodded and smiled even as she took note of the melancholy look in Scully's eyes. This woman has known more than her share of heartache, Mary thought as she watched Scully self-consciously smooth the fabric of the dress over her breasts.

Tara held out her hand and drew Scully down onto the mattress beside her. "Mom's rosary is something old," she said as she touched the worn beads gently. "The rings are something new," she continued. "Mary's dress is borrowed," she said as she smiled at the nurse hovering near the chest of drawers. Tara reached up and removed a pair of earrings from her ears. She held them out and the blue stones winked and glistened even in the dim light. "Bill gave them to me when Matty was born," she said. "They're blue topaz -December's birthstone. I never take them off, but if you would like to wear them, they can be your something blue."

Scully smiled genuinely for the first time that day as she gathered her sister-in-law into her arms. The two women broke apart as Meggie burrowed her way into their embrace. Scully held her niece on her lap and she tilted her head first one way and then the other as Tara fastened the jewelry to her ears.

Tara smoothed a stray wisp of hair from Scully's cheek. "Perfect," she pronounced. Another rap on the door drew everyone's attention.

"Are you ready?" Bill called impatiently. Tara scooped Meggie up and followed Mary to the door. She blew Scully a kiss. "We'll see you downstairs," she said. Tara smiled at her husband as she breezed past him and into the hallway.

Bill cleared his throat as he walked over to his sister and stood behind her, admiring her reflection in the mirror. "You look lovely," he told her. Scully's smile wobbled as she met his eyes in the glass. "I wish Mom was here," she choked. Bill settled his big hands on her shoulders and pulled her into his embrace.

"I think she is," he said eyeing their mother's rosary as it dangled from her hand. "You ready, Squirt?" he asked, reverting to the hated childhood nickname he had christened her with when she was six. Scully grimaced and slipped her hand into his.

"Be nice, Bill," she told him haughtily. "I'm the bride."

Mulder stood at the altar of a church made of rough cedar logs, and waited for his bride to walk down the aisle, to him - to an uncertain future. Next to him Skinner stood solid as one of the cedar beams holding up the gabled ceiling, and on the other side Tara stood with Meggie on her hip and Matty holding her hand. Tears were swimming in her eyes and her smile was wide in her pretty face. Mary sat quietly in the first pew, all the congregation they would have this day. There was no music - they didn't need it. There were no flowers -even if they could have found some that were not bee-infested it would have been too dangerous to bring them into their sanctuary. But flowers were not needed, for the church was ablaze with candles. They hung from the ceiling in huge candelabras and wall sconces, placed on every surface. With the lights turned off, the glow from nearly two hundred candles made the warm cedar walls and pews resemble a Heavenly haven.

"Ready?" Bill asked as he looked down at his sister. She looked up at him and nodded.

"Let's go," she said. Bill threaded her hand through the crook of his arm and they stepped into view. The church wasn't large and the walk down the aisle was a short one. The sanctuary was silent. The only sound Scully could hear was the rustling of the silk of the dress she had borrowed as she and her brother walked slowly down the aisle. She smoothed her free hand over her churning stomach. Her nerves were frayed with the events of the last few days - the last few months to be more accurate - and the silence of the church was a deafening roar in her ears. As they stepped closer to the altar, she was peripherally aware of the others. Matty was shifting from one foot to the other, already bored with the ceremony, and Meggie was sucking her fingers, solemnly watching her father and aunt advance toward her. Scully's eyes skimmed over Mary, who was standing in the first pew, Tara whose eyes shone with tears, Skinner's broadly smiling face and the gentler smile of Jon Honea. Her eyes locked with Mulder's and everything else fell away under his tender gaze. Bathed in the golden glow of hundreds of flickering candles, he was her heart's desire and she knew that nothing else mattered, nothing but this...

Down the center aisle Dana Scully walked on the arm of her brother. Slowly - stately - they moved toward the altar. Mulder's heart pounded in his chest at the sight of her. Lovely beyond any measure, her hair piled loosely on her head and the dress swishing gently around her legs... he'd never seen anything half as lovely. His to cherish - his to love. His to protect and to work with, side by side - his to fight for.

Scully. In a dress she'd had to borrow from another woman, and a stranger at that - how he wished it could have been different. All women dreamed and planned their wedding day - he figured Scully had done her share of dreaming. A lovely white gown and a filmy veil, and carrying flowers; walking down the aisle of her childhood church on the arm of her father, the man she'd lovingly called Ahab. Suddenly he could see it all through her eyes, and the image he conjured up was sweet and beautiful and would never happen...

Then as she and Bill neared the front of the altar and he could see into her eyes, it didn't matter anymore. The lack of flowers and the silence of the church, the bitter knowledge of what lay outside the hallowed walls of this rough-hewn building - none of it mattered, for Scully's face was radiant and her eyes were brimming with love for him and her chin was held high as she came toward him, to be claimed by him in God's house. Nothing else mattered, nothing but this...

Mulder's heart was bursting with pride.

The ceremony itself was short but emotional. Jon Honea had decided to forsake traditional vows, maintaining that his old eyes could not read the book very well. He'd asked them to make their own vows, very wisely knowing that these people needed to tell each other the true measure of their hearts - and if they got caught up in the standard 'I Take Thee' phrases, then that's all there would be -phrases. Jon Honea had a feeling this man and this woman had much more to say to each other.

And they did.

Side by side they stood, surrounded by candles and family and dearest friends, new and old. Maggie Scully's rosary hung from Scully's left wrist, wound around three times with the crucifix dangling down her arm. It gave her comfort, as if her mother was right at her left elbow, watching and approving. She and Mulder held hands and turned to face each other when Jon Honea motioned to them, and they stared into each other's eyes with a force almost tangible. In the candlelight Dana Scully glowed as if surrounded by the aurora borealis itself, and Mulder was mute with awe and humbled by the power of this simple bonding ceremony. He had never given a lot of thought to weddings - had never cared one way or another.

He sure cared now...

Asked to speak his vows first, Mulder slipped one of his hands out of Scully's grasp, and tenderly lifted her face to his. The words he spoke were from one of his favorite poems; more and more lately he'd found snippets of poetry running through his head whenever he thought of Dana Scully. Today was no different. Locking his gaze with hers, Mulder took a deep breath - and smiled - and his low voice was full of wonder and adoration as he spoke from his heart.

'I love you - not only for what you are, but for what I am When I am with you.

'I love you - not only for what you have made of yourself, but for what You are making of me.

'I love you for the part of me that you bring out; I love you For putting your hand into my heaped-up heart and passing over All the foolish, weak things that you can't help dimly seeing there, And for drawing out into the light all the beautiful belongings That no one else had looked quite far enough to find.

'I love you because you are helping me to make of the lumber of my life Not a tavern but a temple; out of the works of my every day -Not a reproach but a song.

'I love you because you have done more than any creed could have done To make me good, and more than any fate could have done To make me happy...'

It was hard to see through the film of tears that rose up in his eyes as he spoke, but he blinked and they slipped down his cheeks as his voice whispered to a stop and Scully leaned forward, up on her tiptoes - and pressed her damp cheeks to his, and kissed him. One on his mouth and one on each eye, then wiping the lipstick from his lips with her thumbs, she stood back, and waited for him to continue -somehow understanding he wasn't quite through. Mulder smiled... she knew him so well. He took her hands and raised them to his lips, speaking against her fingers.

"I will never leave you. I will never hurt you. I will never lose sight of my incredible fortune - that you could somehow love me enough to stay - enough to fight - enough to take my hand and face an unknown future with courage and fortitude. I will cherish our time together and I will make you so happy - I will do this for you, because I love you - I honor you - and I adore you."

Scully's throat was tight with unshed tears as Mulder's whispered vows vibrated against her fingertips. She swallowed hard around the lump in her throat. She had tried to think of her vows when she had been resting earlier, but the words wouldn't come. Now she took one step closer to him, her body brushing his, closer perhaps than was decent in a church, but she needed the physical contact. She lowered a small hand and placed it in the center of his chest. She could feel the steady beat of his heart beneath her palm and she relaxed as she began to speak.

"You know that it's difficult for me to express my emotions," she began. Her lips quirked up in a tiny, self-mocking grin as she continued. "A few minutes ago, I was feeling sorry for myself. I was thinking about all of the things that were wrong with this day. A rushed wedding in borrowed clothes. No flowers, no music - in a strange town in a world gone mad. I told myself that we had sacrificed enough. That we had lost enough. I wanted to know why it was necessary that we had to sacrifice our wedding day as well."

She could see a hint of sadness lurking in Mulder's eyes and she curled her fingers into his shirt. "And then I saw you standing here, waiting for me. You were looking at me with such love and you seemed so... content. You were just happy. Happy because I had agreed to become your wife. Just that one little thing and I could see a calm and peacefulness settle over you that I have never seen before." She took his other hand and wound his arm around her waist. "Everything became crystal clear to me. At that moment... at this moment, I want nothing more from this life than to see that expression of your face every day and to know that I am the reason for it." She smiled and one tear slipped down her cheek.

"You once told me that the truth was in me. You also said that the truth would save me - that it would save us both." Her tears were falling faster now and Scully raised her hand to knuckle them away. "The truth is that I love you Mulder. I've loved you for years and only now am I smart enough to proclaim it to the world." She lowered her voice to a whisper and kept her eyes locked on his.

"I, Dana Katherine Scully, take you, Fox William Mulder, to be my husband. I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and keep you all the days of my life." She threw a glance toward the others gathered in a tight circle around them.

"I know we're supposed to wait, but..." She stretched up on her toes and brushed her lips across Mulder's in a quick kiss, grinning up at him happily. She slipped her hands back into his warm fingers and locked her gaze with his...

Vaguely Mulder registered the world around him as he stood at the altar and held his woman's hands - the soft crying of Tara and the quiet murmuring of Bill as he patted his wife on the back and cradled a sleeping Meggie in his arm. Skinner, standing slightly behind him smiling broadly. Out of the corner of his eye Mulder noted his grinning ex-AD, and it warmed him even more as he took the first ring from Jon Honea. When he placed it on Scully's finger she stared at the lovely creation with wide eyes - eyes which overflowed yet again as she took in the unique beauty of her wedding ring. With trembling hands she took Mulder's ring from the Elder's hand, and placed it on his finger. Together they murmured the final vow, face to face and with hands linked together as Jon Honea wrapped an Inupiaq ceremonial bonding sash around their hands. Made of tanned leather and decorated with hundreds of beads, the sash was a piece of art in itself.

With hands bound together they spoke in unison.

"With my body I worship - with my heart I adore - with my life I love - with my soul, forever bind myself to you..."

And still bound hand to hand and heart to heart... they kissed.

The wedding party spilled from the church back into the rectory where everyone took their turn shaking hands with the groom and kissing the bride.

"I think the occasion calls for a celebratory dinner," Mary announced. Scully looked over at the other woman and frowned.

"Mary - no. Please, we've put you through enough trouble already," she protested. Mary shook her head.

"Nonsense. It won't be anything fancy," she warned. "I have some tomato sauce in the freezer. It won't take long to thaw." She stepped closer to Scully and laid a hand on hers. Despite the fact that she was a few years younger than Scully, her eyes held the wisdom of a much older woman.

"You need to learn to find the small moments of joy and hold onto them with both hands," she murmured softly. "I think it would be good for everyone to stretch this celebration out at least for a little while longer. Tomorrow reality will come crashing back down on all of us. We have to take the respites when they come."

Scully squeezed the other woman's hand and nodded. "What can I do to help?" she asked. Mary threw her a look of mock horror.

"You are the bride," she said in a scandalized voice. "You are to do nothing but stand there and look radiant," she told her. Turning to the others, she began to herd them toward the kitchen. "As for the rest you, however," she said, "you can all come this way and help me put this little reception together."

Scully turned toward Mulder and leaned lightly against him as the sound of laughing voices and clanging pots and pans emanated from the kitchen. He smoothed his hand over her hair and looked down at her with laughing eyes. His smile faded as he took in the intensity of her gaze. Scully's head was tilted back and tiny wisps of hair had come loose to frame her face. Her eyes were smoky and heavy-lidded as she stretched up to wind her arms around his neck and draw his face down to hers. Her mouth moved over his softly, her lips clinging moistly to his before she teased his mouth open. Mulder groaned against her mouth as he banded his arms around her waist, hauling her closer.

Scully broke off the kiss, sucking his bottom lip between her teeth for a moment before sinking back down onto her heels. Her eyes moved hungrily over his face as she scratched her nails lightly over the back of his neck.

"How much time do you think we have before dinner is ready?" she asked as she flicked her eyes toward the stairs. Mulder moaned and dropped his head into the curve of her neck, pressing his lips against the pulse pounding under her jaw.

"Not enough," he told her. Lifting his head, he studied her face with glittering eyes. "Once I get you out of that dress, I'm not going to let you put anything back on for the rest of the night," he warned. Scully sighed and rested her cheek against his chest.

"I just want to be alone with you," she whispered into his shirt. Mulder shivered as he felt her fingers slip under his shirt to stroke his belly. A strangled sound escaped his throat as he pushed her away. He expected to see a teasing smile on her face and a jolt of lust surged through him as he took in her slumberous eyes and slightly swollen lips. She swayed toward him and he groaned as he glanced at his watch, wondering how rude it would be to eat quickly and then drag Scully up to their room. Surely the others would understand...

In the end, they stayed downstairs longer than they expected. Dinner had been a raucous affair filled with the clinking of silverware, the chatter of the adults and the high-pitched giggles and shrieks of the children. Jon Honea had contributed a bottle of wine to the dinner and a toast was made to the bride and groom.

After dinner was finished and the dishes cleaned up, they settled in the living room, stuffed with pasta and salad. Cooling cups of coffee and empty bowls of ice cream littered the tables in the living room. Skinner was sitting on the sofa, Meggie sleeping peacefully on his shoulder as he conversed in low tones with Mary and her father. Bill and Tara were settled on the loveseat, whispering softly to one another, and she stroked Matty's hair as he lay with his head in her lap. Mulder's eyes roved over the small group gathered around him, holding his bride who was curled up in his lap as he rested in a chair in one corner of the room. She was quiet in his arms and he would have believed her asleep if it were not for the rhythmic stroking of her fingers under the collar of his shirt and the tiny kisses she was pressing into his neck.

Skinner turned his head and met Mulder's eyes. Standing, he stretched and addressed the gathering.

"We've got a long day ahead of us," he said. "I suggest we finish cleaning up and get to bed." He bit back a laugh as Scully's head eagerly popped up from her husband's shoulder. She leaned forward to collect their empty coffee cups and Mary stayed her hand.

"Go on up," she said softly. "We've got this." Skinner, Mary and her father carried the dirty dishes into the kitchen, while Bill and Tara gathered up their sleeping children.

"Good night," Tara whispered over Meggie's tousled hair as she pressed her lips first to Mulder's cheek, then Scully's. "We'll see you in the morning," she said as she followed Bill up the stairs.

Mulder waited until he heard the bedroom door close behind the little family and then he grabbed his wife's hand, hauling her eagerly up the stairs behind him.

At the top of the stairs he swept her up into his arms and carried her those few final feet to their room. He never broke eye contact with her as he pushed the door wide with one foot, and brought her inside. Setting her down gently upon the faded quilt, Mulder turned back to the door and locked it - then bolted it. When he faced Scully again, she was leaning back on the bed, smiling - and blushing.

She was blushing. Mulder was enchanted by the pink of her cheeks, as shy as any bride on her wedding night. It was amazing and wonderful, that this woman should blush for him now, at this moment in the beginning of their lives together. Mulder just stood and stared for several seconds, before murmuring, "Oh, Scully... I'm going to love you into oblivion and back... and then I'm gonna start all over again and reverse the route. You're not gonna know what hit you..."

Scully smiled up at him with hot eyes as he leaned over her, and purred out a low, "Bring it on, FBI-Boy..." Brave words considering her cheeks were still pink as a rose. Her hair had come unpinned and fanned the pillow under her head, and the hem of the borrowed kuspuk had crept up past her knees. There were small shadows under her eyes and she looked tired and vulnerable - and gorgeous beyond anything he'd ever seen. She wore a band of scrimshaw ivory around her ring finger and she was his, finally his.

Mulder found himself unable to get past the wonder of just that. And he had to admit to himself that marriage made all the difference. Why, he might never understand. He just knew it did.

His wife. Dana. Thank you, God...

With hands that trembled just a little he slipped off her beaded moccasins one by one, fingers stroking the high instep of her small feet. He raised one to his face and pressed his lips to the graceful arch, the faint cling of leather not an unpleasant smell. Scully squirmed a little, ticklish it would seem - but she stared at him unblinkingly and didn't stop him. He murmured against her little toes, "These are my wife's toesies..."

She giggled. The sound was delightful.

He ran a lazy tongue up the inside of Scully's leg, tasting her soft skin, nuzzling here and there on the journey if a certain spot caught his interest. She sighed raggedly as his tongue swirled over her sensitive skin. He nudged aside the soft silk of her dress as he moved north toward the one frontier he wanted so badly to conquer... to find when he got there and lifted the kuspuk above her hips that she -

"- No panties... Scully, you're not wearing panties! When did you take them off?" She smiled wickedly, pleased to have surprised him. He stared up at her, propped against the pillows with the most alluring, naughtiest look on her face. Her soft response about did him in.

"Kuspuks are meant to be worn without under-apparel, Mulder..." His eyes widened as he sent a hand up past her hips and slid them into the rounded neckline of her dress, to find... bare nipple.

Holy shit. How could he have not known? When she had leaned against him as she recited her vows. When he took her in his arms at the altar, and kissed her - when she stood next to him during their wedding supper and her body had curved so sweetly underneath his arm... she'd been naked underneath that pretty silk dress, all that time.

Mulder found the imagery incredibly erotic and so much of a turn on that he moaned as he slid back down her body, and took the dainty heart of her into his mouth. She gasped and arched against him, fingers winding through his hair as he kissed and licked at her tiny clit. He'd never tasted anything so pure and clean, so perfect. He hummed into her as he stroked her wet flesh and her hips rose off the bed as she began to shudder.

God, he was amazing, she thought as she shook and quivered under his talented mouth. She turned her face into the pillow, stifling a moan as he lifted her leg over his shoulder. His mouth moved softly, insistently over her, taking what he wanted. She chanted his name in a choppy whisper as she gave herself over to him.

This was his wedding night... he wanted it to last for hours. With one last small suckle Mulder released her and gently removed the kuspuk before it got any more wrinkled. He laid it carefully on the end of the bed and stayed on his knees next to Scully, drinking in the sight of her glowing body there on the faded quilt. God... His words came out in almost a growl of need.

"Undress me, Scully..." She rose up again on her elbows and her smile was brilliant in its intensity.

"Gladly, Husband..." The unfamiliar yet welcome term made him smile...

She knelt on the mattress and motioned for Mulder to stand. "Shoes," she instructed and he toed them off, kicking them under the bed. His knees shook and he pressed them into the side of the mattress as she crawled across the quilt to him. Scully rose up on her knees and slid her fingers into the waistband of his jeans, curling them under the hem of his shirt. She placed her palms flat against his stomach and slid them up his chest, using the backs of her wrists to push his shirt up.

"Lift," she whispered and he obediently raised his arms into the air. Scully's breasts brushed against his bare chest as she stretched up to tug the shirt from his upraised arms. She tossed the shirt toward the rocker in the corner of the room and slid back down his torso, her hands skimming over the silky skin of his back. She sank down onto her heels and popped the metal button of his jeans open with a flick of her fingers. She slid the zipper slowly past his erection and curled her fingers into the waistband of his jeans and boxers, pushing them down his legs, her hair brushing across his belly and thighs as she did so.

She sat back on her heels again and glanced down at the clothing pooled around his calves. She smiled and quirked a brow at him before lowering her hands to the mattress and crawling backward to make room for him. She rose up on her knees again and looked down at the empty place on the bed beside her. She reached up to the pillows and tugged the quilt out from beneath them, pushing it toward the foot of the bed. She plumped both pillows and stacked them against the headboard, lying back against them and pulling him down into her arms.

Scully sighed and arched her body into his, loving the feel of his heavy weight pressing her into the cool sheets beneath her. She traced the curve of his ear with her tongue, biting down gently on the lobe. She could feel his penis pressing against her eagerly.

"No - wait," she said, pushing her hands against his shoulders. Mulder's head lifted and he moaned her name pleadingly. She pushed against his chest again, forcing him to roll over. His back rested against the pillows and he tried to pull her back into his arms, but she evaded his grip. She slipped down his body and his hips jerked as she slid him into her mouth.

"Scul--" he moaned. "Nuh... don't." She lifted her head and peered at him through a veil of tangled hair.

"Shhh," she whispered, bending back to her task. Her mouth moved with the same soft insistence over his body as he'd done to her only moments earlier. Using her mouth and hands, she demanded that he give himself over to her as she had given herself to him. And with a muffled curse and a final shudder of his body, he did so.

Scully pressed an open-mouthed kiss against his quivering stomach and slid up his length. Leaning against the pillows, she drew his sweaty body into her arms, holding him as he struggled to bring his breathing back under control.

Mulder's lashes fluttered open and hazel eyes met blue as his hands began roaming her body again. She cupped the back of his neck in her palm and pulled him toward her.

"I love you," she sighed against his mouth.

Slow and easy they built it up between them. Hands and fingers stroking soft skin and hard flesh, slipping into damp heated folds and nuzzling sweet scented curves. All the time in the world... tonight it was theirs. The clock would cease to tick and the stars would suspend themselves in the black sky outside the window of the room where they consummated their marriage... and for Mulder it was their first time as man and wife and that made it new and sweet and fresh.

Every inch of her had to be kissed and each small spot of skin deserved nothing less than his full attention. He twisted shaky fingers into her damp red hair and held her face close for his kiss -not that she would have moved away. Her lips clung to his as he traced the fullness of her mouth and slid his tongue inside to twine around hers. He could taste himself in her mouth and the flavor of it reminded him anew of her unselfishness during the loving. And her generosity was never more apparent - and treasured - than when she cupped him between two warm hands as they kissed feverishly and the feeling built, and built.

When Mulder moved up and over her body Scully released him and curled her fingers into the firm skin of his cheeks, holding him as he slipped into her body on one long eager glide. She wound her legs about his hips as he moved deeply, the tight sheath of her welcoming him home. They locked eyes as they rose and fell against each other, now gently, now fiercely - and she matched him thrust for thrust and kiss for kiss, when the need to connect fully became greater than the desire to see with their eyes.

And when Scully began to shudder all around him; when the tension snapped within her and she cried out her release into his open mouth, Mulder anchored her spinning world with a driving, adoring body, and followed her over into the abyss.

Home, both of them... home.

~ Chapter Seventeen ~

The morning they left Whitehorse was overcast and wet, as if the heavens above were overflowing with tears they would not shed.

Mary knew the feeling.

She had awoken very early, as was customary - had started coffee and made sourdough johnnie cakes with birch syrup. Hard to say when they'd eat a decent breakfast again, since the eateries between Whitehorse and Fairbanks left a lot to be desired. While the coffee brewed Mary packed frozen caribou steaks and dried jerky, ground-up moose and rabbit tenders into a large ice chest built into the back of her GMC van. She added a lump of hand- churned butter and crammed all the nooks full of dry ice. Then she found a large box and filled it with as many canned and boxed foodstuffs as she could find - remembering to throw salt and pepper and assorted spices into the box. She rummaged through the rectory dinnerware and found the plastic dishes kept on hand for the day care children, and tossed them in as well - figuring nobody would mind eating off a Big Bird plate or drinking from Mickey's cup. Lastly, she grabbed up her favorite lace- trimmed napkins and matching tablecloth and laid it on top of the full box. She fingered the napkins gently. The set had belonged to her mother, and Mary closed her eyes as she heard again her mother's voice, admonishing her to 'Put out the good napkins, Mary! We aren't heathens to be wiping our mouths off with paper!'

Mary dabbed at her eyes as she stood in her mother's kitchen and listened to her soft, no nonsense voice. Anna would have wanted her to use the good stuff... Anna would want her to be brave and put a smile upon her face. But it was hard... so very hard. Even Calvin's death had been easier to accept - he'd died while doing something he'd loved - trapping. But this... God.

She jumped when her father's gnarled hand touched the back of her neck and lingered there, warm and reassuring against her skin. Mary turned herself into her father's embrace and sobbed quietly. The first time she'd truly shown her grief, poor child. She had lost a husband and a mother... Jon Honea rocked his daughter in his arms and let her spend her sorrow. Better to work it all out now, and then go forward with a clean mind and a healing heart...

Except it was so very hard... given the way his Anna had died. If a disease had taken her he could have reconciled it in his mind. If it had been an accident, he could even have found a way to accept. But this... too monstrous - too much for him. An alien murdering, sent to them by that most innocent and hard-working insect, the honeybee... Jon Honea felt the first, scalding flow of tears spring from his eyes and he wept, there on his daughter's strong shoulder. His turn to be comforted - his turn to be rocked. In the silent kitchen in the still-dark of an early September morning, the Honeas found their own way of saying good-bye.

Upstairs in the guest bedrooms the first stirrings of wakefulness could be heard, as the smell of the food and the hot coffee wafted up through the floor vents. Under the faded quilt in the bedroom farthest down the hall, Mulder stretched and yawned as he awoke slowly - warm and content, snuggled into the curve of his wife's little body, her hand holding him.

Holding him... Mulder looked down with half-opened eyes, at the sight of his early-morning tumescence being cradled by one of Scully's hands. Behind him her breathing was deep and her body relaxed; Mulder wondered if she'd been aware of clasping him in her sleep. Well it didn't matter... it felt very good to be held this way, waking up in the early hours of morning under layers of blankets and soft sheets - with your wife's delicate hands holding you.

Then he felt her lips moving along his shoulderblades... and knew she'd been awake the entire time. Brat... he pretended to doze, lying very still and keeping his breathing very even, curious to see what she would do next. She didn't keep him waiting long, for she slid a foot along his calf muscle as she moved a leg over his hip, and pressed her moist center against his cheeks.

Mulder fought to stay still.

Her tongue traced a feather-light path from one shoulder to the next as her hand began stroking him with tender authority, and try as he might Mulder couldn't keep from rocking his hips back into her. And just as he was about to flip over and pin her down... Scully bit his neck, and growled into the mark she left there.

"You're awake, Mulder... quit playing possum and prepare to meet your doom..." Mulder huffed a snorting laugh into his pillow and reached down to grasp her hand and press it into his hard flesh, then he did what he'd been wanting to do since he'd first awoken: he flipped Scully around and pinned her underneath him in one smooth move. He grinned into her flushed face.

"My 'doom'? If that's a sampling of what's in store for me... then you can 'doom' me anytime, Baby..." With that he slid down her body, until he could reach her silky curls - and he buried his face against her and breathed in the pure female scent of Scully. She wriggled against him and her voice came out in a scandalized squeak.

"Mulder... ewww! That can't be very fragrant down there..." Mulder held her hips firm, and his muffled reply vibrated into her, making her shiver.

"You taste like thick cream, Scully - and I haven't had breakfast yet. Now shut up and let me enjoy my meal..." He pressed her back down into the blankets and allowed his mouth and tongue to show her how much he loved doing this to her... how he adored her response. She sent one last question his way before she wisely obeyed his command.

"Can I at least moan now and again if you hit a good spot?"

His sigh was long-suffering and martyred.

"If you must..."

They were the last to come down for breakfast. Mulder ignored the knowing smiles and winks as he led Scully by the hand into the kitchen, and seated her next to him. He glanced at her face as she laid her napkin across her lap and laughed aloud at the blush he saw there.

He felt so good...

Skinner and Bill teased the shit out of them all during breakfast, while Tara held Meggie and fed her tiny bites of pancake and Matty sat on Scully's knee and slurped orange juice. During the course of the meal Scully's face went from just pink to flaming red as the remarks got more and more bawdy; finally when Matty piped up with an insistent, "Aunt Dana! Why did you need your brains screwed out? Don't they stay in your head okay without screws?"... Scully drew the line. She jumped to her feet with Matty in her arms, and shouted to the entire table.

"Stop it, you morons! Little pitchers have big ears, you know!" Trying her best to keep the frown of censure on her face, she lost it when she turned to glare at Mulder, and he responded by waggling his eyebrows and tongue at her in perfect syncopated time. Scully collapsed into her chair and pushed her face into Matty's neck, ignoring his screeches that she was tickling him... and laughed herself silly.

Hearing her peals of laughter made Mulder feel even better.

It was still very early when they began packing the rest of the gear they would need for their trip. The sky was just turning pearly with sunrise and the breeze was nippy but bracing. The smell of winter hung in the air and it wouldn't be much longer before the first cleansing snow would fall and blanket Whitehorse... and hide the look of death still in the streets.

Tara helped Mary pack sleeping bags into the big van; they'd flipped down the last row of seats and piled the bags over the ice chest, affording more insulation for the dry ice. They would stop and replenish as needed but for now the dry ice would last a long time. Mary had lots of sleeping bags and they decided to take all of them.

In the back of the Ford Mulder and Bill made room for more clothes and various supplies by folding down the far back seats and rearranging what they already had. Jon and Mary had packed lightly but still they had a lot to bring. Nobody wanted to see them leave anything behind.

It had been decided that Skinner would travel with the Honeas, in their van, and help Mary with driving. Jon's eyesight was not good enough for him to drive, and Skinner knew they would feel much safer if he went with them. Besides, it would give him a chance to get to know them better... especially Mary Honea. Skinner admitted to himself a fascination for Mary. She was outwardly tough one minute and soft as could be the next. She was a challenge.

Skinner liked challenges...

Mary had wanted to drive by the clinic and grab up as much as she could carry of the assorted drugs and first-aid items she knew were available, but her father talked her out of it. Jon Honea claimed his left elbow was twitching, a sign of bad luck. He expressed an urgency to be on the road and nobody questioned his superstitions. They had all seen enough, to believe in almost anything...

They wheeled out of the driveway of the rectory with Bill driving and Skinner following. Mary turned one last time to look her fill upon the church that had comforted her as a child and sustained her as a young widow. Tears slipped down her cheeks as she whispered a soft, "I love you, Mama" into the silent air of the van. And she startled a bit when Skinner's big hand curved around both of hers, clasped together in an attitude of prayer. He never said a word... never turned his eyes to look at her. He just kept on driving. But he sent her sympathy in the hand holding hers... and for that Mary was grateful.

They drove west, toward another border. This time when they went through no one stopped them. The guard in the booth was dead, as were the inspectors who normally stood out in front of the main building. Deserted and eerily quiet, the border crossing lent them yet another reminder to hurry and move out. They crossed and found themselves in Alaska.

The Al-Can highway was only a two-lane road, but it might as well have been four or six lanes - in the twelve hours it took for them to drive to Fairbanks they only saw two other vehicles. The weather held and it didn't rain, but it got colder as they moved farther north.

They stopped twice for gas and cold drinks, but each time the places they stopped seemed deserted. Thankfully the pumps still worked using credit and so they were able to fill up without incident - but Mulder had no way of knowing if he'd ever receive a bill. Trust him to think about bills when the world was falling down around them, he thought derisively.

An hour outside of Fairbanks, the van hit a pothole in the uneven, frost-heaved road - and popped a tire and a hubcap. Bill had been driving the Ford and saw it happen, mumbling, "Shit - blowout!" He stopped the big truck at the side of the road and backed up to where the van had pulled over; Mulder got out carefully, glancing all around for bees. He didn't see any, and motioned Scully out of the Ford. They walked back to the van and stopped Mary from getting out, having her just roll down her window instead.

"Mary, stay put. Just tell us where the spare is and we'll take care of it." Mary stared at Mulder as he spoke.

"I want to help! It's my van. Why should you do my job for me? I hit the pothole!" She looked at Skinner as if to inquire why he wasn't already out there, changing the flat. Skinner sighed and attempted to explain.

"Mary, we can't go out. We're not immune to the virus. But Mulder is - and we are reasonably sure that Scully is as well - she was exposed to it a few years ago. If we get stung, we die. If Mulder or Scully suffer a sting, the most they'll get is a fever and some really nasty vomiting sessions." Scully nodded reassuringly and pressed Mary's hand where it lay on the open window.

"Walter is right, Mary. Roll up the window and don't worry, okay? Mulder and I will be just fine." Mary nodded and rolled up the window, smiling slightly when Mulder, walking to the back of the van swinging Scully's hand, propositioned his wife outrageously.

Hey, little girl... ever get tumbled underneath a fine, American-made automo- bile?" Scully's giggle and her snappy, "In your wet dreams, Mulder..." came floating back to her ears. Mary's grin faded as she tried to reconcile herself to never finding another man to joke with and tease - and love - again... And her eyes fell on Skinner, who stared back silently - and she shivered.

Fairbanks was at deep twilight, almost fully dark when they rolled inside the city limits. The Richardson Highway was empty of cars, and there were no streetlamps lit along the Steese Expressway. Scully held Meggie, asleep in her arms, and peered through the darkened windows trying to see any sign of life at all. Aside from the inevitable bodies fallen along the roads and in the streets, Fairbanks was another tomb.

Spotting a hotel along the road, Bill turned into the parking lot and killed the engine, noting Skinner had followed suit. Tara peered up at the partially-lit marquee. "The Regency Hotel - looks nice. Should we chance it?" Mulder nodded, and wiped at his eyes wearily.

"We need a good nights' sleep. This is as good a place as any. Fairbanks is the second-largest city in Alaska but it's still pretty small. I have no idea how many hotels we'd find. We're here; let's just do it." He helped Scully out of the cab and took the still-sleeping Meggie from her arms, then roused Matty. Around the back of the vehicle came Mary and Skinner, with Jon Honea following slowly. Mary nodded approvingly at the choice of hotel.

"This is a nice place. My brother James worked summers here when he was putting himself through college at the university. I have thought of him twice today, wondering - hoping - he has found a way to survive." As she spoke Mary led them through the thick glass double doors of the hotel and into the spacious lobby. Skinner was curious about the rest of the Honea clan, and asked where they lived.

"Well, James lives in Colorado - Aspen. John Jr. lives in Juneau with his wife and two children, and my youngest brother, David, has a farm in Kentucky. My sister Flora lives in Newfoundland with her family and my oldest sister Pamela is in Italy; her husband is in the Air Force and stationed there. I have tried over the past week to call them - and I get no answer, anywhere. The not knowing is far worse than the realization that they may all be... gone..." her voice trailed off and Scully moved to her side and wound a bracing arm around her, hugging her tightly. Bill stepped closer as well and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. Scully spoke on a broken thread of empathy.

"Oh, Mary... we know."

There wasn't a clerk on duty and no one to be found in the immediate vicinity, so they helped themselves to door keys and found rooms clustered together in the second floor. The rooms were adequate, nothing fancy - this was an older hotel. Mary helped to settle her father in the second bedroom of the only suite they could find, and stood outside the door with Skinner while the others unlocked rooms and called out 'Goodnight' to each other.

Mary found herself suddenly shy and unable to meet the eyes of the man who had traveled the last twelve or more hours with them; had insisted on driving for all of the trip and had patiently dealt with her father when he needed help at the rest stops. She had been painfully aware of him sitting next to her, his big strong hands gripping the wheel and his formidable concentration focused in on the driving. She had not been able to stop looking at those hands... wondering. How they would feel holding hers... now they might feel on her body. And she'd drawn herself up with an inner scolding, even as she thought it. Calvin was only a year in the grave. But Calvin was so different from this stern yet gentle man.

Her husband had been slender and only a few inches taller than she, whereas Walter Skinner towered over her, making her feel more feminine and delicate than she'd ever felt in her life. Calvin was built like the rest of the Honeas; Inupiaqs were not a tall people. She had always looked her husband in the eye. Now she stared up into Walter Skinner's bespectacled face, and wondered what he'd be like... under different circumstances.

Walter Skinner was having the same thoughts, about her.

His first impression of Mary Honea was of a strong woman asked to face terrible circumstances and do so with courage and fortitude. In many ways she reminded him of Scully - both determined, both fiercely loyal and both driven to survive against any obstacles. Her outer toughness was at odds with the tenderness he'd seen her display toward her father and toward the children. She'd let Meggie tug on her hair and suck on the ends of it - she'd wrestled Matty to the floor and held a no-holds- barred tickling match with the giggling toddler. She was pretty and sweet and knew how to handle a gun and could cook up a mean caribou stew...

Skinner wanted to get to know her better. But tonight she needed to sleep - they all did. So he took her hand and raised it to his face, and kissed her palm, closing her fingers around the caress he'd placed there. And he smiled into her wide, surprised eyes, as he murmured, "Get some sleep. I'm right next door. If you or your father need me, just call, okay? I'll come right over." Mary looked up into his face and the lines of weariness under her eyes only made her look lovelier, more vulnerable. Her next words confirmed this.

"Walter, the bees... did you see any? Are we safe?" The sadness he saw in her dark eyes tore at Skinner and he stepped forward, obeying the need inside him - and his arms went about her gently; he bent his head to her and pressed an unshaven cheek to her soft skin - and the comfort of his reply became an unexpected promise between them as he kissed the side of her jaw and heard her tiny sigh of contentment.

"Mary, you're safe. We'll take care of you... always."

Bill was first to awaken the next morning and quietly set about calling the other rooms, rousing everyone. It was still dark outside but a glance at her watch told Scully it was almost six o'clock. She and Mulder grabbed a quick shower together, resisting the strong pull of shower play, and made it down to the lobby before anyone else.

Although Skinner had expressed curiosity at finding out what or who could be staying in some of the other rooms - because quite a few of the room keys were missing - Tara and Mary shuddered and stated they would rather not know. Jon Honea echoed his daughter's concern, rubbing at his elbow in a significant manner. The men took the hint, and they loaded themselves into their vehicles and headed out.

They were driving through town, looking for the route that would take them to the Dalton Highway, when Bill spotted a Ford dealership on the Steese Expressway. Signaling, he turned in, assuring that the van followed them. He turned to Mulder, sitting there beside him.

"I wonder if we should grab another tank like this one. Maybe have three vehicles going north... just in case."

Mulder nodded; it made sense to him. Maybe the next smaller size, the Expedition. He and Scully got out of the Excursion and tried the door of the dealership; not surprisingly the door was unlocked. They found their way to the service department and the key storage, grabbed all the keys labeled 'Expedition' and went back out to try their luck on the lot.

Ten minutes later they found a dark blue Expedition, loaded, with a full tank of gas, and jumped in. Pulling it around to the front lot they maneuvered it close to the Excursion and unloaded some of the excess load, stacking it into the back and freeing up much-needed room for the children to stretch out. Scully grabbed Mulder's cell phone and brought it with her into the new car, leaving Bill's in the other vehicle. Skinner's rig would get better gas mileage now - not that it mattered very much. They would not run out of fuel for a very long time.

Nobody thought about the fact that they were, in effect - looting. Or if they thought about it at all... they kept that thought to themselves.

The convoy headed out of Fairbanks at eight o'clock in the morning after loading up on more ice, bottled water and cold drinks. They ran into a Fred Meyers, again unlocked; in their haste to grab extra boxes of diapers and powdered milk for Meggie they barely noticed the bodies lying everywhere.

Scully wondered if she'd finally become numb to it all...part of her hoped so even as her heart bemoaned the cold attitude.

The Dalton Highway was a two-lane highway full of washboard ridges, potholes and bad frost-heaves. Mulder knew the permafrost, under the ground about ten to twenty feet down, was responsible for the horrid state of the roads. He hoped the relative teeth- jarring of the ride would even out eventually.

Next to him Scully pored over maps and tried to gauge the hours it would take to reach Deadhorse. It was hard to predict owing to the rough road and the increasing wet snow they encountered as they drove north toward the Alaskan Range. The air outside their vehicle was definitely colder and she had to adjust the heat several times. As the snow got thicker and crustier they left the windshield wipers on all the time.

Twice they lost sight of the big Ford, driven by Bill; each time Scully called him to assure all was well, and was assured that the damn wipers were getting clogged and they'd had to stop and clean them off - spoken in a true Bill Scully grouch of a voice. Mulder chuckled as he maneuvered his way around an especially nasty and deep pothole, remarking to Scully, "I always know when your brother is healthy and relatively sane... 'The Voice' comes out - accompanied by much cursing."

Scully laughed and re-dialed Bill's phone, grinning hugely when his irritated, "WHAT!" could even be heard by Mulder. She spoke sweetly into the phone.

"Bill, we need to tell you - watch out for that pothole in front of -" A loud, angry, "SONOFABITCH! FUCK!", and Tara's admonishment of, "Bill, shut up! The children..." Mulder mumbled under his breath.

"Guess you were a little late on that one, Shorty..." And next to him Scully wiped tears of laughter from her eyes, and retorted the second verse of the old Fifties' song.

"Ooo-whee, I'll betcha that smarts..."

They made better time than they'd figured and arrived in Deadhorse just four hours after leaving Fairbanks. The hundred or so miles were slow going at times owing to the rapidly-changing climate; by the time they hit Deadhorse the snow was on the ground to stay.

They put the Fords into permanent four- wheel drive outside of Stephens Village, needing the extra traction to make it up the increasingly mountainous terrain. Mary's van was all-wheel drive and they managed very well. Skinner decided he liked her van a lot better than his big Ford, finding the handling much easier especially in the snow.

Up and up they'd climbed, through the outer rim of the Range, where the road could still cut a swathe through the lower Endicott Mountains. And it was dark when they reached Deadhorse. But that was to be expected. This far north, Alaska would soon be plunged into almost eternal night - for at least five months.

The cold night would be longer still, in Barrow and in Mt. Vu'luk.

As was expected, Deadhorse was fairly deserted, but not because of dead bodies. Most of the people had been airlifted out - the evidence was everywhere, tracking the snow with the marks of the departing planes. They found a few bodies scattered here and there, but they didn't find anyone alive although they looked. They also didn't find any discarded incubators, which was a blessing in itself.

Mulder swirled one booted foot in the tracks left by a departed plane, thinking about the hell that awaited those people who'd left their homes thinking they would be safer if they went south. How could they know this would be their doom - to fly into Fairbanks or Anchorage, where the last final vestiges of autumn clung to the atmosphere and the colder temperatures hadn't chased away the bees?

He wished they'd gotten up here sooner.

Bill called his name and Mulder turned, watching his brother-in-law run up to him. He and Bill had come a long way in a very short time -and Mulder felt real affection for his new brother. Bill came to a huffing stop and his breath crystallized in the night air as he pointed down the tiny runway.

"I found a couple of Lear jets at the end of the tarmac. One seats eight and the other six. They appear to be in excellent shape; probably owned by a private individual who maybe came up for the tourist season." They both turned and peered through the darkness at the small jets, and Mulder wondered aloud at the fuel situation.

"Think they're full? I suppose if they weren't we could find the tanks. They have to be around here someplace." Bill nodded, and pointed again to the left of the jets.

"Tanks are over there. I found them first, actually; I ran into them. Now all we have to decide is which one to take." Skinner, walking up to them, overheard the last remark, and he replied confidently.

"We take them both. We'll need them both - I can fly one and you can fly the other," he addressed Bill. Mulder turned to Skinner in surprise.

"I didn't know you had a license." Skinner nodded,shrugging nonchalantly.

"I wasn't on the ground all the time in 'Nam. This little jet will be a piece of cake. So what do you say? Both jets?" Bill nodded, and clapped Skinner on the shoulder, then tossing a retort over his shoulder as he walked toward the Ford and his family.

"Dibs on the eight-seater, Walt buddy..." Skinner immediately took exception to being relegated to the smaller plane, and ran to catch up with Bill, who'd taken off sprinting toward the Ford. His protesting squawk filtered back on the night air, and Mulder chuckled and shook his head as he followed them.

"Why should you get the bigger plane, Scully? I was in 'Nam, I flew with the big boys..."

They ended up sleeping for a few hours in their vehicles, knowing they had to leave them behind and regretting very much the knowledge that whatever Mt. Vu'luk had in store for them it would not include a great set of wheels. Mulder and Scully curled into the back seat of the Expedition, bundling up into their sleeping bags and several layers of flannel and wool. Tara and Bill each cuddled a child, keeping themselves warm, and Mary took two sleeping bags and gave her father two as well, Skinner only needing one.

They slept out the dark and left at sunrise as soon as they'd fueled both jets. It would be several hours before daylight would hit and they wanted to be in the air looking for Mt. Vu'Luk and then landing before it got dark again. Mary and Jon Honea flew with Skinner in the smaller Lear, Skinner grudgingly surrendering the larger plane to Bill. They took a lot of the heavier equipment and boxes. Mulder and Scully flew with Bill and family, with the rest of the gear.

By plane the vastness of the Alaskan Range was much more impressive than what they'd seen of it from the Dalton Highway. From the window seat Mulder stared out at pristine white, miles of it as far as he could see. Dotted here and there by thin twisted black spruce, it was at once beautiful and frightening. A person could die out there in mere hours. And yet it was that very danger that would protect them, for the Range would stymie the bees' flight north. Comfort could at lease be taken from that, he decided.

Skinner dipped the wing and made a curious circle of one of the higher peaks of the Range. Kobuk Peak rose up higher than the surrounding yet smaller mountains. Desolate and serene, the Range was unlike anything they'd seen.

Behind him in the larger jet, keeping a safe distance, Bill kept a close eye on their coordinates and remarked into his headset, "We're about sixty miles from where Mt. Vu'Luk should be - but it's hard to believe there's any sort of civilization out here." Skinner nodded, though Bill couldn't see it, and glanced at the controls, keeping a steady ten thousand feet. He responded to Bill.

"Yeah. But there are villages all over. Small, but hardy and surviving because they haven't forgotten the old ways. We should be able to make Mt. Vu'Luk work for us; according to Mary and Jon there are quite a few solidly built cabins in the village and they have a generator and plenty of fuel."

Behind him Mary added, "The 2000 census says the Native population there was a hundred and the white count was seven." Skinner smiled at her and spoke softly, but loud enough for the occupants of the other jet to hear.

"Well, we can add some to the Caucasian population, I guess. And Jon tells me there are a few of his distant cousins still living in the village. I think we'll be welcomed."

In the larger jet Mulder stretched his stiff muscles and looked over at Tara who slept in her seat with Matty nestled trustingly in her arms. His own lap was filled with Meggie - Mulder stroked the soft baby hair and marveled aloud that such a lout as Bill Scully should be able to produce such a pretty child...

An irritated, "I heard that, Mulder," answered his vague remark - as Mulder had hoped. He snickered into Meggie's hair; sometimes Bill was so easy...

Mt. Vu'luk looked tiny and cold from the air. Skinner circled twice before touching down, rolling to an easy stop on a runway still fairly clear of snow. Someone had removed the snow recently. Behind him the larger jet landed, just as gently. Bill's head popped out, testing the air; with a shudder he stuck his head back in the jet and remarked, "It's damn cold out there. Better put on the heavy gear."

Jon was helped down from the smaller jet, and stood hatless in the cold wind of the tarmac. He grinned at the sight of Mulder, Scully and the rest of her family bundled up as if they had landed on Antarctica.

"You will find it tough going, my friends, if you don't begin to acclimate to the cold right away. It is not the right weather for so many layers. The children, perhaps." He nodded in approval as first Mulder, then Scully and Bill took off their hats and let the wind bite their ears. After a few minutes Mulder found it wasn't really as cold as he'd first imagined.

They left their belongings on the tarmac and walked toward the village, only about a half-mile away. Mulder carried Meggie on his shoulders and Bill piggy-backed Matty. Scully walked quickly, as did Mary, leaving Skinner behind to walk with the slower Elder and help him along.

They reached the first set of cabins, searching for any signs of life - worried when knocking on cabin doors revealed empty homes. They rounded the corner of another set of cabins, fingers crossed -

And spotted a young boy running through the three-foot snow with a huge husky dog yapping at his heels. Mary stopped dead in her tracks, and stared hard - then she broke into a run and headed straight for the child, crying out to him, "MICHAEL! Oh God, Michael..." The boy stopped and stared at her as well, face breaking into a wide smile when he recognized her. He shouted joyfully to her.

"Aunt Mary! Aunt Mary!" He jumped into her arms as she ran up to him and she swung him around in a dizzying embrace even though it was apparent he was a few inches taller than she. Mary finally let his feet touch the ground and she pushed back the hood that covered his face as Scully huffed to a stop behind them, her eyes tearing up at the sight of such a happy reunion. Mary cupped her nephew's face lovingly and pressed several kisses on his smooth cheeks before she started questioning him.

"Michael, where's your dad? And where's Lily? You're not here all by yourself, are you?" Michael nodded, his eyes clouding over at the mention of his family.

"Dad... he's not here, Aunt Mary. I only got here a few days ago myself. I took Nanook and stuffed her into the Hummingbird and I flew here from Juneau." Mary stared at the boy in shock.

"You flew the 'copter? By yourself? Michael... I can't believe my brother could be so irresponsible! What was he thinking?" Mary was fuming, but Michael tugged on her parka sleeve to get her attention.

"It wasn't Dad's fault, Aunt Mary! He couldn't stop me..." The boy swallowed hard and the tears welled up in his eyes and spilled over his rounded cheeks. "Dad... he's dead, Aunt Mary. So is Lily.... and Mom. There were these bees... and I was so scared, Aunt Mary..."

Mary sank to the ground with her nephew in her arms, hugging him tightly and rocking him, while Scully sat in the freezing snow with her arms looped around a huge Husky dog that lapped at the cold tears on her face with a large pink tongue...

This was the sight that greeted the rest of the refugees as they rounded the second corner of cabins.

"He's asleep now - finally." Mary came into the tiny kitchen wiping her hands on a small towel. Michael had soaked the towel with his tears before he succumbed to weariness and slept. Scully sat in front of the pot-bellied stove absently scratching Nanook's lean flanks, the dog rolling her eyes in ecstatic joy at the nimble fingers stroking her fur. Her tail thumped the floor with a force that actually shook the simple rug-covered planks. Mulder sat in an old overstuffed chair next to Scully, one hand stroking her hair in much the same manner as Scully's attention to her canine buddy. Judging by the soft humming emanating from her throat... Scully was loving the attention as well.

They'd briefly met most of the rest of the remaining villagers, the ones who refused to leave when the time came to evacuate. One of the younger villagers had explained that only a handful of people had stayed behind, mostly middle-aged to elderly. These people had welcomed Mary and Jon with open arms, and were friendly toward the strangers in their midst. Until they got to know each other better it was as much as they could hope to expect. Promising to visit each of them first thing in the morning, the weary newcomers found their way to one of the larger cabins, and began preparing something to eat.

Now Tara stirred a huge pot of hurriedly put-together venison soup on the old wood stove in the kitchen, thoughtfully provided by one of the elderly villagers. Her smile was sad as her heart went out to yet another devastating loss for the Honeas. Jon had already retired to the cabin next door, Skinner offering to sit with him and keep him company until he fell asleep. Jon had protested, but Mary knew he was glad to have the company, not willing to be alone with his thoughts.

Tara ladled soup into some pottery bowls she'd found in the cupboard, and set out the bowls for everyone to grab. Scully had found bread in the icebox outside on the front porch of the cabin, and it had only needed a little heating in the oven to thaw it out. They'd brought in the butter from the ice chest they'd left outside and Mary liberally buttered the thick-cut, warmed bread. They sat around the table and began to eat, only pausing for a moment when the cabin door flew open and Skinner entered, stomping the snow from his boots. He smiled reassuringly at Mary.

"Your father's asleep... I'm going to just grab a bowl of soup and some bread and run back over in case he awakens." Mary nodded, and picked up her bowl and wrapped her bread in a paper towel.

"I'll go over with you, Walter - he'll want to see my face if he wakes up." Skinner held her soup for her while she shrugged into her parka, and as Mary turned to Scully she was greeted with a gentle smile.

"Don't worry about Michael. Mulder and I will take care of him tonight. There's no sense in moving him and there is another bedroom in here. We'll all have breakfast together tomorrow - and we'll start making plans." Mary nodded gratefully and gave Scully an impulsive hug, before taking her food from Skinner and going out into the cold. Skinner nodded to everyone and walked out right behind her. And Mulder smiled, and his soft comment made everyone in the warm little cabin nod their heads in agreement.

"I'll bet you anything worth betting that those two are married by spring..."

~ Chapter Eighteen ~

Mary covered the distance between the cabin she was sharing with her father to the cabin next door in quick strides. Knocking softly, she pushed the door open, allowing a gust of cold air to swirl into the warm interior. Scully and Tara were sitting at the table, hands wrapped around hot mugs of coffee, and in the corner Michael was introducing Nanook to Matthew and Meggie. The little girl was squealing with glee as the big dog nuzzled her neck with her wet snout.

Mary pulled off her coat and smiled as she sat down at the table with the other women. "Coffee?" Scully asked, holding up a pot. Mary grabbed a mug and held it out.

"Please," she groaned, pulling the mug under her nose and inhaling the steamy fragrance. She took a sip and closed her eyes as the warmth trickled down to her stomach. Scully smiled wryly.

"I know," she agreed. "I'm useless until I have that first cup." Mary looked around the cabin.

"Where are the guys?" she asked. Tara inclined her head toward the two closed doors on the other side of the room.

"Still sleeping," she said, propping her cheek on one fist and yawning.

"So is Walter." Mary winced as Meggie's shrieks rose in volume, setting off a chain reaction of giggling between the three children. The sweet laughter of her nephew was especially wonderful to hear and she smiled at Scully and commented, "Michael seems better this morning. No bad dreams?" Scully shook her head, smiling herself as she thought back to the night before.

She'd placed a pillow and a sleeping bag on the faded sofa, plumping up the cushions; Mulder had gently lifted the sleeping Michael from the bed and carried him out of the bedroom. Michael had stirred a little and awoken enough to murmur groggily, "Dad?" She'd seen Mulder swallow hard, and his answering affirmation had brought a lump to her throat.

"Shh, Son... I'm just moving you to the sofa. Go back to sleep." The child had nodded, more asleep than awake, and when Mulder had carefully laid him on the sofa and covered him over with the thick sleeping bag, the boy's arms had tightened about his neck and Mulder received a nuzzling kiss on his chin and another sleepy, "Night, Dad," in his ear... He'd squatted next to the sofa and had stroked the child's hair rhythmically until Michael had fallen fully asleep again - and when he'd turned to Scully his eyes were full of tears. She had held out her arms for him to come, and be held. And it had taken both of them a while to fall asleep, with so much on their minds.

Now Michael was giggling like any happy twelve-year-old boy, and Nanook starting barking in response to the children's laughter. All three women looked at the closed doors expectantly, waiting for the inevitable... Their patience was rewarded moments later when Mulder staggered out of one room, followed closely by Bill as he exited the second bedroom.

Bill expertly stepped over the children who were rolling around on the floor with the dog as he made a beeline for the coffeepot, while Mulder was less graceful, stumbling over Nanook and nearly pitching onto the floor. He righted himself and made it to the table in one piece. Sliding into the chair next to Scully he blindly reached out for her coffee mug, draining half of it in one gulp.

"Mulder!" Scully complained, yanking the mug away from him. "Get your own coffee." Mulder scooted his chair closer to hers and leaned his head on her shoulder, nuzzling his nose into the warmth of her neck.

"Too tired," he moaned as his fingers inched across the table toward the mug again. Scully sighed and upended a clean mug. Tara filled it with coffee and Scully pushed her half-empty mug toward Mulder, keeping the fresh cup for herself. Mary hid a smile and cleared her throat.

"Well, my father and I have been awake for a couple of hours," she began, biting off a laugh as Mulder mumbled sleepily from the nest he'd made in Scully's neck.

"Well aren't you special." Scully smacked him lightly on the arm.

"Go on, Mary," she encouraged as she pushed ineffectually at her husband, trying to get him to sit up straight. Mulder grumbled and wrapped his arms around her middle. With great effort, he turned his head on her shoulder and focused on Mary, jerking his chin toward her in a signal that he was ready to listen.

"Anyway," Mary continued. "Some of the villagers you met last night are very anxious to know what is happening here, and in the rest of the world. Dad and I tried to explain, but I think it would be better if you were to tell them."

Scully took another sip of her coffee. "Okay, give us a few minutes to get dressed and then we'll all go over to meet them." Mary nodded and pushed away from the table.

"I'll tell Dad and wake Walter," she replied as she grabbed her coat and headed to the door. Scully pushed Mulder off her shoulder.

"Let's go, partner," she said, raking her fingers through his sleep-mussed hair. "Time to meet the neighbors."

In the watery daylight the village of Mt. Vu'luk appeared almost ghost-like. There were four neighborhoods, each circular in design, with a staggered row of cabins on the outer perimeter and a series of small sheds on the inner edge. Each cabin had an odd-looking structure, like a tiny log cabin, standing off the ground on stilts about ten to fifteen feet high. These little towers stood back from the lot, slightly behind the cabin. Scully pointed to one and asked Mary about its significance.

Mary explained, "That's a cache. They are for storing food, keeping it up and away from predators such as bear and birds of prey. In the winter they hold meat and such - it stays frozen and the bears and wolves can't get at it. In the summer the caches stay cool enough inside to store eggs and cheese. There are only two freezers in the village, so the caches come in handy." They walked on through the village.

In the very center of the four circles of cabins and sheds was a long, low building made of logs with a flat tin roof. In the distance behind the grouping of circles another building sat seemingly deserted. Mary pointed to it, indicating it was the clinic. Beyond that structure in a fenced area was what appeared to be a combination power and water plant, and next to that a huge greenhouse. Mulder and Scully were both especially glad to see a greenhouse...

Down past the clinic sat another large building, with a fenced-in yard and an adjoining cleared area that appeared to be a field. When Mulder inquired about it he was told the building housed several goats and some pasteurizing equipment, and about two dozen chickens. Mulder was impressed; he hadn't expected anything like this, and he said as much to Mary. She smiled and nodded enthusiastically.

"It became too difficult for the village to have milk and eggs shipped out from Barrow. About three years ago they built the barn and the coop, put in extensive heating and lighting and fed a water line into it. They heat it all year long and keep it lit as well. The goats love the light and the chickens lay much better. Inupiaqs rarely eat the birds; none of us care that much for chicken. We mostly need the eggs." As she spoke she'd led Mulder and Scully toward the double doors of the building and opened them so they could see inside.

It smelled good in here, Mulder thought, as he stepped aside to let Scully enter then walked in behind her to look around. Like a farm... it was welcome and comforting at the same time. There were six large stalls and three of them were occupied by several goats of varying age. A separate stall held a billy with definite attitude; he bleated low in his throat when Mulder came closer for a better look. The rest of the goats chomped their grain contentedly and never looked up as they walked by. At the far end of the building the coop was bracketed off and held two dozen nests. Chickens roosted, fat and healthy and surprisingly quiet. In a separate coop a rooster strutted pompously. Their bins were filled with what looked to be a combination of grain, dried bread and...

"Sunflower seeds! Where on earth..." Mulder stared at the seeds, feeling a long- buried longing overcome him for his favorite treat. It had been so long since he'd thought about eating those seeds... Mary grinned at him and pointed toward the barn door.

"Outside, in the smaller greenhouse. There are lots of sunflower plants. The seeds are saved for the chickens. They love them. And so do you, I would think," she teased him gently, seeing the ecstatic look on Mulder's face at the mention of the plants. "They roast them as well, Mulder - I bet Sophie or Beverly have some, roasted this past summer. I'll ask them to give you a bag of them." She led the way back outside, grinning again when Mulder's heartfelt, "Thank you!" echoed behind her. Scully chuckled to herself as they stood outside again in the frigid air. Mulder and fresh sunflower seeds... she'd have herself a happy boy.

Outside Mary pointed to another greenhouse, as large as the first one they had seen, identifying it as the grain house. It was used solely for the production of alfalfa and oats, when they could get the seeds. Between the grain house and scraps from everyone's dinner table the animals had plenty to eat.

As they walked back toward the gathering hall to meet the rest of the villagers Scully expressed her amazement at their ingenuity in such a harsh environment. Mary inclined her head in thanks.

"It is vital to them to be independent of anyone, Dana. Very important - now more than ever, I think."

Mulder had a lot to muse over as he held Scully's gloved hand in his, swinging it a little between their bodies as they walked along in the cold morning darkness. Last night he had asked Mary if there was running water to each cabin, and she had replied in the affirmative.

"Running water, electricity from a big generator that gets its power from Barrow - and the fact that we have both water and power tells me that there must be people who survived and stayed behind in Barrow, and are running the plant. It supplies the power plants in every village - it is massive. There would have to be a crew keeping it running."

Now Mary pointed to the smaller building attached to the power plant, explaining, "That is the water treatment plant. All the villages use lake water for their drinking and potable supply. Holes are drilled into the ice and the water is pumped out. Manly takes care of the power plant - and I am very happy he stayed behind." Mulder smiled at her, agreeing wholeheartedly.

Actually six of the original villagers had stayed behind, for varying reasons - and they were all waiting expectantly at the gathering hall that sat in the middle of the cabin circles. Built as a place of worship and fellowship, the hall had been used for everything from a schoolhouse to a funeral home. The building itself was nothing more than four walls and a tin roof, built long and rather narrow. The interior was walled into four separate rooms with each room sporting a large potbelly stove in one corner and four rows of benches lined up neatly in the center of the room. A smaller bench was placed against the front wall and faced what could be considered the audience.

Someone had started a fire in the first room; when they got there it was toasty warm. Scully and Bill sat on the front bench and Mulder stood against the wall, after helping to seat Jon Honea facing the little group of survivors. After greeting them all softly, Jon introduced everyone. There was Sophie and Warren Ooma, a sister and brother who'd decided to stay behind. Sophie had been a friend of Anna's...

Sarah Tuulum and her son Patrick had stayed. Sarah had declared that no silly threat of the 'end of the world' was going to make her leave the village, and Patrick had vowed to stay with her, though she had begged him to go and be safe. Beverly Osowa had also willingly stayed - mostly for Patrick, for whom she carried a bit of a torch. And Manly Lomu also refused to leave, stating that if these old stubborn souls were sitting tight then so would he - besides, somebody had to stay behind and keep the power going.

With the exception of Patrick, Manly and Beverly, every one of them was well over sixty and the eldest was seventy-one.

Mulder and Scully explained as best they could, about the original colonization plans and the way it had been subtly introduced. The villagers nodded and murmured amongst themselves as they listened. Warren had spoken up in a soft halting voice, addressing his Elder.

"I am not surprised, Jon Honea. I had always suspected our days on this earth would not be long without a battle. I have dreamed... and my dreams do not lie." Beverly stood up and paced a bit as she spoke.

"Warren has been having these dreams for years. I used to think he was silly for believing in them. But I have seen this for myself -when I was in Kenai last month. Went down to see my mother, remember? There were many bees. I asked Mom, why? Kenai does not have these bees! And yet, there they were. I did not get stung. Now I am very thankful for that." The others nodded and grunted in agreement. They had lived with each other for all their lives, and a few of them, such as Sarah and Sophie, had never once left the village. Sophie mentioned this fact to her old and new friends.

"Now, more than ever, we need to stay together. We won't know when our lives and our world might end. It could be tomorrow. It could be in that little one's lifetime," she pointed to Meggie, sitting in Tara's lap sucking on her thumb. "It doesn't matter how long. We will make each day a good one; it is our way to accept that which we are given and to not question why there might not be any more. I know I speak for all present when I say welcome to you, and extend my arm, in friendship." Sophie did just that - extended her arm to all the newcomers beginning with Scully, who clasped her elbow to elbow and smiled into the old woman's wrinkled face. And as Sophie extended her arm to Mulder she softly added, "You will be a good man for her. You have her soul reflected in your eyes." Mulder smiled down at the tiny Native woman, and leaning into her he pressed a kiss to her little cheek and whispered a special 'thanks' to her. Sophie's grin widened; it was not every day that a handsome young man kissed her. The rest of the villagers stood and clasped arms and made reassuring welcoming gestures.

Once everyone had greeted each other, and resumed their seats, Jon Honea got down to business. "Sophie, tell me who you have been able to contact." The old woman rubbed at her chin and thought for a moment.

"Let me see. First there was Donny, in Ikiak. He tells me there are only twenty left in the village. He is thinking about coming to us, if he can convince his family to move. No one died. Several took their snowmobiles and left for Barrow." Rubbing her chin again, Sophie thought a bit more.

"I left a message for Milt in Atqasak, and spoke to his sister Nan in Nulavik. Nan tells me she will come to us in a month or so, after she harvests. She will can her crop and bring it to us. Nan's son Ty is in Barrow and will come out to us around the same time as his mom, maybe earlier. And Ty reported to Nan that there are about a hundred people left in Barrow. Those that did not leave or die for any reason are manning the plants and the wells. They keep us all alive." Spoken with fierce pride in her quavering voice, Mulder could tell - for the strength of her race. He smiled gently at the rapidly tiring old woman, and pressed her shoulder.

"Sophie, how do you get hold of these friends? Do you have a ham radio?" Sophie stared up at him with a vaguely insulted look on her face. Her answer was spoken with lofty assurance.

"Ham? Of course! But for this sort of contact, to use a ham? I think not! I prefer 'www.villagenetworking.com'..."

Mulder found himself suddenly very impressed.

After Sophie's report, everyone was eager to pitch in and begin. Scully declared the setting up of the clinic was a big priority and that she and Mary would be spending the rest of the day getting started. Warren Ooma thought there might be a hole on the clinic roof and tasked Patrick Tuulum and Bill with collecting the materials necessary to repair it. Sarah and Beverly sat with Tara and began making lists of all the known supplies in the village, and Skinner got together with Mulder and Manly, to figure the best way to set up some sort of round-the-clock protection for the village. Manly suggested a quick tour of the village and a crash course in operating the power plant...

And so their first full day in the 'Last Frontier' had officially begun.

Scully and Mary left the hall and trudged through the snow toward the clinic. Scully stuffed her hands deep into the pockets of her parka and fought to suppress a shiver. Mary glanced toward her and Scully wrinkled her nose.

"I suppose this isn't nearly as cold as it's going to get, is it?" she asked. Mary laughed and shook her head. Scully sighed morosely and looked around the village. It was only September and already the horizon was a vast carpet of white.

"That's what I thought," she said. Mary pointed toward the building at the far end of the village and the two women veered toward it. Mary twisted the doorknob and pulled the door open, ushering Scully into the darkened building. She flicked on a power switch and Scully could hear the generator kick in as a row of lights flickered to life.

They were standing in a small lobby with four plastic chairs and a coffee table littered with old paperbacks.

"Waiting area," Mary told Scully. "There were two doctors who would take turns traveling to all of these remote villages. They would come through approximately once a month, sometimes less often. I know Mt. Vu'luk seems very small, and it is, but it is the largest village in the area. There are several much smaller settlements in the surrounding area and the people from those settlements would come to the clinic on the days the doctors would be in town."

Scully nodded and looked around. "How did the outlying settlements know when the doctors would be here?" she asked as she moved down the hallway. Mary followed her and directed her to the first room off the lobby.

"The doctors kept to a fairly routine schedule," she said. "And the people in all of the villages stayed in touch through ham radios and the Internet." She hit another switch and light flooded the room to reveal a small examination table, stainless steel sink and a low stool on wheels.

"There are two examination rooms," Mary said. "The other one looks pretty much the same as this one." She stepped back into the hallway. "Come on, I'll show you the rest." Scully took another look around before turning off the light and following Mary toward the next room. The small lab showed two gleaming chrome workspaces on which were spread various pieces of medical equipment. In one corner stood a portable x-ray machine. In another there was an ultrasound machine. Scully glanced toward her companion with an admiring look.

"I know you said the lab was well-equipped, but I never expected anything like this," she said as she considered the rugged log dwellings of the villagers. Mary laughed.

"I know," she concurred. "But as I told you, it's brand new. The state government funded most of it. There's no other way for the people of this area and other areas like it to receive medical help." Mary led Scully into the last room along the hallway and pushed open the door. Scully stepped inside what was obviously an office. A small desk with a computer sat along one wall. Bookshelves were built into the wall above the desk and they were crammed with various medical journals and textbooks. A small, worn sofa was positioned against another wall and a tiny refrigerator was hidden behind the door. Mary yanked open the refrigerator and pulled out two small bottles of ginger ale.

"Want one?" she asked. Scully nodded and took the bottle from the other woman. Mary sat down on the sofa and pulled her feet up onto the cushions. Scully sat down at the other end and mimicked Mary's pose. Mary cracked open the lid of her soda and took a long swallow. Lowering the bottle she regarded the auburn-haired woman seated across from her.

"You're a medical doctor and an FBI Agent?" she asked. Scully nodded and took a tiny sip of her drink. "What's your field?" Mary wondered. Scully scowled and sighed.

"Forensic pathology," she said heavily. Mary gawked and quickly swallowed a mouthful of her soda.

"Forensic pathology?" she repeated slowly. Scully nodded.

"I'm afraid so."

"Damn," Mary sighed. "I don't know that any of the doctors will still be coming out here... " she said worriedly. Scully propped her chin on her knees and looped her hands around her legs.

"Weelll," she said in a drawn out breath. "I'm a bit of a science geek," she said, wrinkling her nose in self-deprecation. "So I've kept up to date with my journal reading," she said. "And Mulder... well let's just say he has a propensity for finding himself in dire need of medical attention. Thanks to him, I've had many chances to play doctor. I've been his personal physician for a number of years." Mary smiled wickedly.

"I'll bet you have," she said suggestively. Scully blushed furiously and hastened to explain.

"I... I didn't mean..." she stammered helplessly.

Mary laughed and took pity on her. "How did you wind up in the FBI?" she asked. Scully sighed, relieved at the change in topic.

"I was recruited out of medical school," she explained. "I wasn't at the Bureau very long before they assigned me to work as Mulder's partner." She had a distant look in her eyes as she remembered that long ago time. Mary spoke again, bringing Scully back to the present.

"How long have you two been together?" she asked quietly. Scully glanced up at the other woman.

"I was assigned to work with him eight years ago," she told her. Mary looked shocked.

"And you just got married?" she asked incredulously. Scully frowned in confusion before heaving an exasperated sigh.

"We've been partners for eight years," she clarified. Mary nodded and then tilted her head consideringly.

"So how long have you two been together?" she asked again, this time in a more suggestive tone so that Scully could not escape her meaning. Scully developed a sudden fascination with the paper label on her soda bottle. Picking at the label with one nail, she muttered something under her breath.

Mary leaned forward, straining to hear better. "Excuse me?" she asked. Scully hissed out a frustrated breath and began to shred the label with her nails.

"I said, less than a month." Her cheeks were burning with embarrassment and she concentrated on rolling the shredded paper into tiny balls. She chanced a glance toward Mary who was gaping at her incredulously.

"Less than..." She shook her head. "You're telling me that you've worked side by side with that man for eight years and you only... you waited..." Her face was contorted with shock. "A month? A MONTH? Sweet Jesus! How were you able to keep from jumping him all these years?" Scully's mouth dropped open in shock as Mary continued to shake her head with disbelief. Suddenly a tiny snicker escaped Scully and she clapped a hand over her mouth. Mary looked up and laughed out loud at the expression on Scully's face. The two women smiled with delight as a new friendship was born.

Mary leaned back and rested her cheek against the sofa cushions. "You've only been physically intimate for a short while," she said knowingly. "But you've been lovers for years." Scully's smile was soft and she nodded.

"I don't remember a time when I didn't love him," she said simply. Mary fought back a pang as the loss of her Calvin was brought home in the face of Scully's newly wedded glow. But the sharpness of the pain was fading as time worked its healing magic on the wound to her heart.

Mary blew out a breath and set her feet on the floor. Standing she took Scully's empty soda bottle and tossed it into the trashcan along with her own. Scully ran her hands up and down the nylon fabric of the snow pants covering her legs.

"You know," she began. "This clinic is better equipped than I could have hoped, but if we're going to come up with a vaccine against this virus, we're going to need more than what we've got here." Scully rubbed the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger.

"Is that what you're going to do?" Mary asked. Her eyes were hopeful as she stared down at Scully. "Are you going to work on a vaccine?" Scully lifted tired eyes to hers and nodded slowly.

"I'm going to try," she told her. "But I could use your help." Mary crossed her arms over her chest and eyed the other woman consideringly. Despite the weariness evident in Scully's eyes, Mary saw a hidden well of strength and determination. She held out her hand and Scully clasped it firmly in her own.

"I'll help you in any way I can," Mary vowed.

Days passed; busy days full of hard yet rewarding work. Repairs were made to a few of the cabins and buildings and the village women began setting up the greenhouse, preparing it for the winter crop. Skinner and Bill were given a crash course on operating the power plant and the water treatment facility; Manly declared them fast learners.

With Sophie's assistance Mulder had managed to get on line using one of the computers in the section of the Gathering Hall designated for classes, and sat for over an hour trying to get hold of the guys. Although it didn't surprise him that he was unable to tempt them into emailing him a response, still Mulder worried; he just knew they were out there someplace running amok in their quest to get in on all the excitement. He just hoped Langly hadn't blown a hole in the ceiling of their lair... and let in all the bees.

He had a long and informative chat with Nan's son Ty, who was beginning to get himself packed up and ready to head in from Barrow. Mulder had discovered the ride by mobile usually took about two hours. He'd asked Ty to explain what had happened to the townsfolk, and the answer again did not surprise him, as much as greatly sadden him.

He read: 'The town mostly died, after that last big airdrop we had just two weeks ago. Lots of canned and frozen dinners. I suspect the government set out to poison us, because we want to secede from the Union.'

Privately Mulder thought that perhaps Ty had spent a little too much time studying the War between the States in school... but he held his thoughts to himself and instead prodded Ty about the tainted food, asking him how he had avoided eating it.

Ty's response was as he had feared: 'I do not touch the food they drop. I have no love for the white way and refuse to eat their processed poison. I watched my friends die. I watched them turn evil on each other, saw a pal of mine rape his own sister. I tried to stop him and he almost broke my arm. I think he would have killed me. My friends ate that shit the whites eat - they died just like the whites died. I ran and hid until it was all over and I was not proud of my fear. But I am alive - and so are those of us who think the way I do.'

Mulder nodded and muttered to himself as he typed in his final question: 'Will the surviving people stay and keep Barrow going?'

And Ty's answer: 'Yes. They will stay. There are no young ones my age here. My mom wants me to go to Mt. Vu'luk, so I will honor her wish and come. But I think it is the coward way.'

Mulder hastened to assure the boy that he was not, nor ever would be considered - a coward. Ty's response echoed his native race - and reminded him strongly of Jon Honea.

'I thank you.'

~ Chapter Nineteen ~

Scully pushed open the door and let herself into the quiet cabin. After their first full day in the village Bill, Tara and the kids had moved to the cabin on the far side and Michael had settled in comfortably with his Aunt Mary and grandfather Jon. Nanook was now shedding her fur on their carpet instead of Scully's - and Skinner had decided to stay as close to Mary and Jon as possible and had the cabin on the other side of them...

She peeked through the small rooms; Mulder was nowhere to be found. She sighed wearily as she looked around, noticing how very little she'd managed to accomplish in the way of unpacking and settling in. She would have to remedy that... maybe later.

Scully pushed aside the heavy curtain covering the window and looked outside. Only three o'clock in the afternoon and with the exception of the lights strung between the cabins in the village, it was pitch black outside. She stretched out on the sofa and opened one of the medical textbooks she had taken from the clinic. It was time for a crash course in virology.

After nearly three hours of reading, Scully leaned her head against the arm of the sofa. She rubbed her eyes tiredly, already regretting the fact that her glasses and contact lenses had been left behind in D.C. A headache was brewing behind her eyes. Thirty minutes later, Mulder walked into the warm cabin to find his wife curled up on the sofa, surrounded by textbooks and scraps of paper. Scully was startled awake when she felt the sofa cushions shift beneath her.

"Mulder?" She pushed herself up on one elbow to find him sitting beside her.

"Hey," he said softly, pushing back a strand of hair that had tumbled onto her forehead. "Whatcha doing?" he asked, glancing at the mess around them. Scully sighed and rolled her head against the sofa arm.

"Research," she said grimacing as she tried to rub a kink out of the back of her neck. Mulder helped her sit up and slipped behind her, settling both hands on her shoulders and kneading the tension out of them.

"What have you been up to?" Scully asked as her head fell forward, a tiny moan of pleasure escaping her lips. Mulder slid his hands up and down the curve of her spine.

"We all met at the gathering hall for a little while and then Manly gave us a final test in operating the power plant and the water-filtering treatment plant. I think we passed." He smoothed his hand over her hair and pulled her back against his chest. "We're not as cut off and isolated as I had originally thought," he said, leaning his cheek against her hair. "Today I was able to contact Nan's son Ty, the kid who's coming in from Barrow. He told me that the younger people there and the white population died after they ate food from a recent air drop."

Scully turned to look at him, her eyes wide and worried. "How recent, Mulder? As recent as a few weeks?" He nodded unhappily.

"Ty says the drop was only two weeks ago. He's a traditional Inupiaq and refuses to eat processed food. That adherence to Native ways might just have saved his life." Mulder rested his chin on her head and thought about their vital, yet fragile link to the outside world.

"I don't know how long the Internet will be available to us," he added as he thought of the massive destruction that had taken place worldwide. "But we'll have to take advantage of it while it's still accessible. And we have to get hold of the guys - as soon as they come out of their self-induced covert lurking," he finished. Scully nodded.

"There's a computer at the clinic too," she mentioned. Mulder turned his head and peered at her in the softly lit room.

"Tell me about the clinic," he prompted softly. Nestling deeper into her husband's arms, Scully described the clinic to him. Her surprise and pleasure at finding such a well-appointed facility was evident in her voice.

"Mary and I will devote one day a week to seeing patients, unless there is a medical emergency," she told him. "The rest of our time will be spent working on the vaccine." She worried her bottom lip with her teeth. "But Mulder, we don't have the right equipment," she complained quietly. Mulder eased her onto his lap and touched his fingers to her cheek, turning her face toward his.

"Like what?" he asked curiously. Scully huffed out an exasperated breath.

"Like a centrifuge, for one thing. A high- powered electron microscope..." She flung a hand out toward the books and papers scattered around them. "I don't know," she said. "I just - I really don't know..." her voice trailed off and she buried her face in his shoulder. "I don't know if I can do this," she admitted against his throat. Mulder heard the fear in her voice and he sought to soothe her.

"Look, we'll figure out some way to get the equipment you need," he told her. "And I think we're safe from the virus here, so you don't have to rush through this," he said. "You do your research. I'll help you in any way I can," he promised. Mulder stared deeply into her eyes. "I think," he said, as his fingers traced the line of her jaw, "I think that you can do anything that you put your mind to," he told her. "Just remember you're not in this alone."

Scully nestled her cheek against his shift and relaxed in his embrace. She threw her arms around his neck in surprise when he shifted and stood, lifting her in his arms.

"Mulder," she exclaimed. "What are you doing?" Mulder laughed and clutched her tightly in his embrace.

"It seems to me, Mrs. Mulder," he said, slowly picking his way through the mess of books and papers toward the bedroom door, "that we're still on our honeymoon." His smile was slow and sexy and as he lowered his mouth to hers, Scully surrendered and left her worries outside of the bedroom door.

Another day - a busy one. Tara had spent part of it reading through home school textbooks she'd pulled from the schoolhouse, knowing she'd need to begin teaching Michael as soon as possible. She had spoken to Beverly about it, receiving an enthusiastic thumbs-up. Although Beverly had done some home-schooling before it wasn't really her level of expertise. She was glad to give the job over to someone actually educated to teach... even if for now it was for just one child. There was always the possibility of more survivors showing up in the village - and they might have children. Tara wanted to be prepared.

The hectic day, full of preparing classes and trying to finalize the unpacking and settling a new place, getting to know new people - and running after two rambunctious children - had wiped out Bill and Tara. The unrelenting darkness also went a long way toward convincing their tired bodies of the need for sleep.

During the past days Tara had spent a lot of time with Beverly and Sarah, writing down everything they told her as they ran through a vast mental inventory of items that ranged from a silver tea set to complete rooms of furniture. There were many deserted houses, owned by villagers who'd had to leave everything behind when they were ordered to evacuate. Sarah listed every family with children, knowing the little ones of Tara's would need many warm clothes - and explaining as gently as possible that the warmest clothes the newcomers had brought with them most likely would not be enough once the deep winter hit. And Tara suddenly understood a lot better just what she and her family were truly up against.

She didn't know whether to be excited - or hysterical.

Now the village was quiet; everyone was exhausted. Across the street a single light glowed in the cabin Mulder and Scully had taken. Tara had spent a lot of time moving in the rest of their belongings and preparing their beds. A visit with Sophie that first full day had yielded bed and bath linens, furniture and kitchen supplies left behind by her next-door neighbors. When Sophie had assured Tara that she and the other newcomers could have anything they needed, at first Tara had demurred. Remarking that these folks would need their things once they returned to the village... Sophie had met her with a sad smile and had pressed her hand with gnarled, arthritic fingers - and her reply had sent a chill through Tara.

"Oh, my dear - I think we both know our fellow friends and family will not be needing that which they left behind. I am old, but I am practical. They will not come back. I will miss them for the rest of my life - and I take comfort knowing I will see them again in our next existence." Tara had nodded, and had found a way to smile around the lump in her throat.

Now the sleeping children were bundled up in their thick flannel blankets and sheets, warm and cozy. Bill had built up a decent fire and the cabin was toasty. They had eaten venison soup for dinner and had even had a dessert of canned blueberries over sweet biscuits. Tummies full and no TV to watch or books to read... bed seemed like the reasonable thing to do.

While Bill made do in the tiny, rustic bathroom, Tara opened up the bed in the smaller room and laid Matty in for the night. She handed him a teddy bear that had belonged to one of Sarah's nieces, and kissed his little forehead as he muttered in his sleep and wrapped himself around the battered toy. They had found a sturdy crib in one of the sheds and had made up a very comfortable bed for Meggie, who now lay snuggled in with her rabbit, sucking her thumb with gusto as she snored little baby- snorts.

In the larger bedroom Bill left the doors open to help distribute the heat from the stove, and dove underneath the thick cover of their bed, landing next to his wife in a heap of long legs and thermal underwear and wool socks. He felt for Tara's leg, and chuckled when he encountered her thigh, fully loaded with the thickness of about four layers of clothes.

"God, Tara... what're you going to do when it gets really cold?" She huffed indignantly at him.

"Bill, it's already cold. Right now I'm very, very cold. I expect I'll get used to it sooner or later but right now it's sooner than later, and I'm cold." With that snappy comeback Tara reached out five afore-mentioned cold fingers and burrowed them into a part of Bill's anatomy that did not deal well with ice...

Bill screamed. Loudly.

"Jesus Joyce and Fred, Tara! Your fingers are like goddamn ice! I think you've injured me for life - either that, or permanently decimated any reproductive chances I may have for the future!" Tara paid him no heed whatsoever, having found a great place in which to warm her cold hands. She promptly shoved her other hand into the same general vicinity, and giggled when Bill sucked in a tense breath and cursed again, this time in a quieter tone, remembering the children in the next room. He turned his head and glared at her through the flickering firelight from the outer room.

"Tara, you're killing me here, you know that, don't you? Is there some other place you could possibly warm up your hands, besides my balls?" Tara batted her eyelashes at him.

"Sure, Bill - I could always shove them between MY legs and warm them there. But I was saving that particular heating pad for whatever part of you that needs warming... Sweetheart." The low, teasing words vibrated straight through Bill Scully and got his circulation going again. He grinned at his mischievous wife and pushed against her hands.

"Are you getting feisty, Tara? I'm shocked. A sweet innocent girl like you..." His wife snorted into her pillow and her nimble fingers, now nicely warmed up, moved against him. Bill groaned.

"Not innocent any longer, thanks to you... now I'm one of those loose girls the nuns were always whispering about in the faculty lounge. Now I've got a rep to protect." She moved closer to her husband and licked a path from his jaw to the center of his chin, lapping at the indentation below his bottom lip before covering his mouth fully with hers, and kissing him deeply. Bill slid his big hands underneath her bulky clothing, searching in vain for a spot of bare skin. Finding nothing but assorted layers of flannel and cotton, he huffed in frustration against her mouth, muttering.

"Take off a few pounds of clothes before I go nuts, Tara - I can't get to you!" He let go and pushed her away, far enough to tug at her thick sweater. Tara laughingly began peeling off layers, flinging them on the floor as she watched her husband's reaction to her little strip show. She stopped at the last cotton thermal shirt, and her eyes glittered in the dim light.

"You'd better find something to cover me with, Bill - something hot. I'm going to be one huge goosebump as soon as I take this off..." Bill agreeably slipped his body over hers, pressing her down into the flannel sheets beneath her, wrapping himself all around her. He nuzzled her ear and nipped the lobe, then soothed the bite with his tongue.

"Not all your goosebumps, I hope... here are two very sweet bumps I'd like to keep as is." He followed his words with his mouth, opening it over a small nipple and tenderly stroking her. Tara wrapped her arms around his broad back and sighed into his hair as he kissed and nuzzled her body. Loving Bill was always so sweet... so very sweet. He could be a grouch and a smart- ass; could open his mouth and say all the wrong things and could drive her absolutely batty with frustration over his stubbornness. But nobody was more tender and sweet to love, than her Bill... nobody. She returned all his kisses with equal amounts of her own caresses, and when he moved to part her legs and slid inside her, Tara held him tightly and her gasps and moans were buried against his shoulder as Bill thrust deeply, touching the very heart of her. Deep and hard, yet sweet. She whispered it into his sweat-dampened hair mere seconds after she shuddered all around him, and felt him tighten in response and begin to release within her.

"My Sweetheart... Billy... so sweet..."

They fell asleep cocooned in warmth, joined together in body and hearts beating in time.

Mid-morning found only a few of the group up and functioning; it was still somewhat dark outside, though the day was slowly breaking. Loud yapping and barking broke into the quiet of the day, as the big Husky dove into fresh piles of new snow, snorting enthusiastically, rolling in the yard of Mary's cabin. Around the corner Skinner slapped another log on the block and split it neatly in two, then turned the log and divided it in half once more. He'd been chopping wood for almost an hour and had peeled off layers of outerwear; clad in a down vest and a thick flannel shirt his face still shone with perspiration. A lantern filled with kerosene hung on a nail in the cabin wall, high enough to illuminate enough of the chopping area to afford him some basic safety.

It was hard work but Skinner welcomed the opportunity for physical exercise. He was used to running several miles a day, working out on weight machines and sometimes catching an evening swim in the pool at his building. Now he would have to find alternate means of fitness. Judging by the amount of work that would have to be done every day, just to keep the village operating... he didn't think he'd have a problem staying in shape.

Just as he bent down for another log, a huge furry body tackled him from behind, and Skinner found himself face down in the snow with a hundred pounds of Nanook sitting on him, happily licking his neck and any other part of his face she could reach. Skinner spit out a mouthful of snow and roared at the overjoyed dog.

"Get OFF me, you horse! You - blecch!" Anything else he'd been about to say was swallowed up when he turned his head to glare at the unrepentant pup and she promptly licked him right in his open mouth. The dog had the worst breath he'd smelled in a long time, Skinner decided, as he tried to wipe his mouth; Nanook immediately grabbed hold of the sleeve of his shirt and tried to play tug-of-war with his arm, still half-sitting on him. Finally Skinner was able to get enough of his arms free to push the heavy dog away, sitting up and keeping a hand on the happy animal's shoulder, stopping her from jumping him again. He started to chuckle when the dog plopped its rump down in the snow and slobbered all over his hand; it had been a long time since any sort of female had attacked him like that...

"Nanook likes you." The soft young voice came from behind him; Skinner whipped around and saw Michael standing a few feet away, hands in the pockets of his old parka and booted feet kicking idly at clumps of snow. The child was smiling very shyly; Skinner found himself smiling in return. He ruffled the dog's thick fur before letting her go.

"She's a nice dog. A little over- friendly... but there's nothing bad about that. But her breath -! She needs her teeth cleaned. What do you feed her?"

Michael thought for a moment. "Well - leftovers, mostly. Dad used to forget to get feed and Mom would just give her the scraps. Lots of fish-heads. Nanook loves them. She chews them right up, scales and all." Skinner could feel his gorge rise at the mental image of this magnificent dog sitting with a nasty fish head propped in her paws, gnawing away. He managed a smile.

"Well, no wonder her breath reeks. I'd say she needs some good old-fashioned meat bones!" No sooner were the words out of Skinner's mouth than the dog began to root in the snow nearby the woodpile, finally unearthing a huge bone and squatting down on her haunches to munch in contentment. Skinner gawked; he'd never seen an animal bone that big. He asked, "What IS that?" The boy laughed at the amazement apparent in Skinner's voice.

"It's a leg bone, back on the hindquarter - from a moose that Manly killed a few months ago. Nanook found it the first day we got here and she's been workin' on it ever since. It'll take her a long time to eat it all." Michael sat down in the snow next to his beloved pet and scratched her head while she chomped, feeling the vibration of her crunching teeth against the bone. He looked up at the big man who'd picked up the axe and another log to chop - and he was shy and curious all at the same time.

"Are you and my Aunt Mary dating?" The innocent yet frank question stopped Skinner in mid-swing, and he lowered the axe and stared at the boy.

"I just met your aunt, Michael - why would you think something like that?" Michael blushed, but bravely blundered on.

"She looks at you. And you look at her. You know... that look. My dad... he used to look at my mom that way. My sister looked at her boyfriends that way. I just wondered, that's all." A shrug from one thin shoulder made the asking seem very casual - but Skinner was able to see beyond the nonchalance. He put aside the axe and pushed the log off the stump, then sat down on it and regarded Michael with a serious expression on his face.

"I think your Aunt Mary is a very nice lady. I think she is very strong and very brave. But she just lost her husband, whom she loved very much. I would never think she's ready to date someone else -and I would respect her wishes above all. I would respect her." Michael had been searching Skinner's eyes while he'd been speaking -and must have found what he was looking for because he nodded, and smiled at the big man.

"I think my Aunt Mary likes you. I think I do, too - and I know Nanook does. She doesn't just kiss any old person she meets. She's choosy. Just like my Aunt Mary." With those revealing words Michael smiled another little shy smile, got up and left, whistling to his dog. Skinner stared after both of them, the thin Native boy and the bounding dog... and a wide smile spread across his face. He picked up his axe and got back to work, humming a little.

The morning the men chose to fly into Barrow was clear but cold. Mulder tromped through the loose snow, keeping to the road and doing his best to avoid the potholes. The pack he carried was heavy and either it wasn't as cold as he'd originally thought, or he was becoming acclimated to the snow very quickly, for he was actually working up a sweat.

He reached the runway a few minutes later; Skinner was already there, pumping fuel. They had found a small fuel tank on wheels; Manly had called it a 'dewar cart'. Since the main fuel tanks sat at the end of the runway it was easier to pull the little dewar cart behind a snowmobile and fill it up at the tanks, then bring it back to the jet and pump. Skinner had discovered one full dewar equaled one full tank on the jet.

Now Mulder called to his ex-AD and friend, "How's it coming?" Skinner's head popped around the side of the jet, wiping perspiration from his face.

"Almost done. Damn, it's hot." Mulder chuckled at the sight of the big guy fanning at his clothes with one hand while he pumped fuel with the other. Obviously Skinner had acclimated even more quickly than the rest of them, for his parka and watch cap were draped over a wing and he wore only a thick sweater over his jeans and a heavy pair of work gloves. Mulder reached the open flap and dumped his bag inside, then walked around to the side of the jet where Skinner was just topping off. They had decided to take the larger Lear, in case some of the Barrow folks wanted to leave. Somehow Mulder doubted they would.

He ran a hand along the Lear's gleaming side, commenting, "It was a real stroke of luck that some big-shot tourist left this in Deadhorse, you know - Warren Ooma about fell over when I told him we had not only one Lear, but two. Manly wasn't so surprised. He told me a private jet full of executives flying up to Deadhorse and Prudhoe on tourist runs are not uncommon. We really did luck out, though. Manly's plane is in good shape but it's a small prop. I hope he knows how to work on these things if any problems arise." Skinner nodded as he replaced the hose on the dewar and locked it down.

"We manage each day, Mulder. That's all we can do. We get Barrow cleaned up and get this village as secure as we can make it... and hope to Christ the aliens leave us be. A vaccine would be a Godsend. Let's hope Scully can make it happen." The two men finished packing their gear and walked back to the village to get Mary, who would go with them and help them talk to the Barrow survivors. She had asked to accompany them, explaining that they'd react best to one of their own. And Jon Honea had agreed, encouraging Skinner and Mulder to let her come along.

Now they stood outside Mary's cabin, stomping snow from their boots before knocking and then entering. Mary was in the small kitchen serving her father a steaming bowl of soup. Mulder eyed the pot hungrily, and Mary laughed and spooned some into a bowl for him.

"It's venison again... sorry. You must think that's all we eat! But the meat can be tough and gamey, so we make it into soup most of the time, and Sophie made a ton of it that first night. This is close to the last of it. Caribou is up next - that we can just cook like steak." Skinner signed resignedly.

"Not that we'll be able to enjoy any of it..." Jon Honea grinned around a piece of biscuit, and nodded.

"You will have a lot of work to accomplish in Barrow. The people are kind, but wary of whites, especially the older Native population. Mary's presence will help quite a bit. They will want you to stay there, Mary." His eyes were calm as they locked with hers -accepting. Mary shook her head and moved around the table to hug the frail shoulders of her father.

"I will not move there, Dad. It isn't safe. I won't leave Sophie and Warren, the rest of our people - I can't. And Michael - he would hate Barrow. No, I am staying put." Jon Honea smiled with quiet pride at his child's words. She was his only remaining young one -in his heart Jon knew this. The light that usually made his entire body feel buoyant and content... huge pieces of it had darkened, beginning with the loss of Anna. Michael's orphaned state only brought it home to him. He and Mary were the last of his blood; this he knew... He pressed a kiss to his daughter's cheek, and his gaze fell on Skinner. He nodded once, and spoke softly.

"Take care of her, Walter. She is my treasure." Skinner's response was sincere.

"With my life, Jon - I promise."

Goodbyes were kept to a minimum, quite deliberately. For Mulder it was one of the hardest things he'd had to do - get on that little jet and leave Scully. Not only because she was the love of his life, and his bride. That certainly was a large chunk of it - but his fear of leaving her in the village owed a great deal to their present circumstances. The unthinkable had occurred within the world, and from now on all bets were off - anything could happen to them, anywhere they traveled in any direction from the village. They were not sure what they would find in Barrow. Reasonably certain that the survivors left behind were sound in mind and body... well, it was the best they could assume, until they got there and saw for themselves. They had emailed and spoken to these people. But you never knew...

Scully held him tightly, standing at the side of the runway with her bare head gleaming in the pale sunlight. They'd chosen to leave while it was still light; knowing they'd reach Barrow at dusk. A light wind was blowing, nothing strong enough to prevent them from taking off.

Mulder framed his wife's sweet face in his hands and covered her mouth with soft, gentle kisses. Tiny ones followed, over her eyes and down each cheek until he could bury his face in her neck, rocking her a little in his arms. She pressed into him silently, understanding that now more than ever words were not needed.

Then it was time for them to leave, and it was so hard but he forced himself to let her go after one more tight squeeze. For another minute they stood face to face, locking eyes and hearts, before with one last kiss and a soft, "See you in a few days, Scully,"... Mulder climbed into the little jet. And before he shut the flap he smiled at his wife and murmured, "Love you, Baby, so much..." Her smile echoed his, as did her soft reply.

"I love you too, Mulder. Please be careful."

Scully shielded her eyes from the sun with her hand, watching the small jet disappear into the endless white of the horizon. He was barely out of sight and she already missed him terribly.

Blowing out a frustrated breath, she slogged through the snow toward the clinic. She would keep busy and hope that the time spent apart would pass quickly. She had plenty of research to do - not to mention the fact that she hadn't done much in the way of unpacking in the last four days. She'd start by unpacking the medical supplies they had brought with them.

**

~ Chapter Twenty ~

An hour into his trip, Ty stopped the snowmobile. Twisting around in his seat, he popped open the saddlebags on the back of the machine and pulled out a thermos of coffee. Unscrewing the cap, he took a long sip before recapping the container. Rummaging around in the saddlebags, his hands brushed against something familiar. He smiled at the welcome sight of the small red and yellow bag of Cheetos. Balancing the thermos between his thighs, he pinched the edges of the bag between his fingers and pulled it open. Happily crunching on the cheesy treat - his one indulgence in the foods of the whites - he made quick work of the bag. Sighing regretfully when the bag was empty, he shook the crumbs into his mouth and licked the orange residue of the cheese dust from his fingertips. Gulping down another mouthful of coffee, he stuffed the empty bag into his pocket and secured the thermos back in the saddlebag. Twisting the ignition switch, he leaned over the handlebars and once again was racing toward Mt. Vu'luk.

**

The trip to Barrow was very short - only about twenty minutes - but it beat a longer, potentially dangerous trip by snowmobile. A myriad of lakes and low rough tundra would have made snowmobiling treacherous, especially for anyone unfamiliar with the terrain. Mulder figured they could try it at a later date, if they needed to return.

Privately he wondered if they would want to return to Barrow - to leave the village. It was so unlike him to feel reluctance at reaching out and embracing the unknown. All his life he'd been curious, needing to know - digging for whatever truth he'd been committed to discovering.

Suddenly a part of him wanted nothing more than to hibernate, and let the anguish outside his small new world suffer itself out, and not suck him in. It was selfish and short-minded and completely against his professional code of ethics... and yet there it was. Not exactly fear, so much as dread. And worry, too - mostly because he was now responsible for someone other than himself, though he'd always felt that way for Scully.

It was different now. He was different. Marriage had made it different - and it made no sense. He was still the same person that loved his partner to distraction. A ring on his finger should not change things, but it did.

The Lear touched down lightly on a small runway; in the distance he saw a great deal of frozen ice and recalled that Barrow was surrounded by hundreds of lakes. Skinner released the flaps and they stepped out onto ice. With a start Mulder realized the runway was actually a lake. He looked at Mary, catching her attention and pointing to the ice beneath them.

"Ice - this is a lake? What about flying in the summer? Doesn't this melt at all?" Mary smiled and shook her head.

"The summer melts the surface of the more shallow lakes. Some of these are very deep and others are little more than ponds. This is a winter runway, easier to keep clear. The main runway is used once in a while during winter, but this one is closer to town. We can walk from here."

They slung their packs over their shoulders and started their trek into Barrow.

It took them ten minutes to reach the town limits, which looked deserted. They'd been told only a hundred or so people had stayed behind, and as it was already dusk out they had not been expecting anyone to meet them. Mary led them down Browerville Road toward the residential area. As they walked, she spoke of Barrow.

"The town has always been a mixture of old and new. Sixty percent Native, mostly Inupiaq, and there are three schools and one bank. This early in the evening everyone will be over at the community center. Sophie figured they'd move there - leave their homes and find a way to live together. Safety in numbers, I suppose." Skinner looked off into the distance; it was darkening fast. Small houses lined the narrow street and lights were on here and there.

Up ahead a low, rambling building loomed in the darkness, lights on in almost every window. Several ornate, snow-speckled totems stood guard along the front walkway, and a series of tribal masks were carved into the rough wooden exterior, each brightly painted. The double doors were unlocked; Mary led them through - and into another world.

Here the Native influence was the norm, unfamiliar to Mulder and Skinner, yet somehow comfortable. There were sacred carvings and war masks, tribal symbols painted on walls - bright patterns of black and red and white. Mulder noticed the raven figured heavily into most of the artwork and tribal symbols, and he remembered what Jon Honea had said about the sacredness of the large scavenging bird.

In the main Great Room about thirty people were gathered, quietly talking amongst themselves. Mary called a soft greeting and they all rushed to her, hugging and clasping hands, relief and happiness apparent on the faces of her friends as they exclaimed over her. Mulder and Skinner stood back politely, until Mary laughingly extricated herself and turned to perform introductions.

"Mr. Mulder and Mr. Skinner used to work for the FBI, and some of you have already heard from them via email. They will explain to you why this happened - and what we need to do from here, to survive." She looked at Mulder. So did Skinner, both of them confident to have him lead the discussion. Their faith in him meant a lot, given the uncertainties he'd experienced lately. Mulder smiled reassuringly at his small audience, and began.

"First of all, I should tell you that the immediate danger is past, but you cannot let your guard down. It's not over yet..."

An hour later, the group had come to several conclusions, and agreements. These were very intelligent people; it hadn't taken them long to realize that the food drops were infected. The majority of the older Native population usually refused processed products, and they grieved for those younger members who had consumed the infected foodstuffs. A committee was formed to collect the remaining tainted food, and destroy it. The group, when told of the conspiracy, could only shake their heads in sorrow. Their relationship with the Federal government had been shaky but mostly beneficial over the years. The betrayal they now felt was great.

Scully pushed open the door to the clinic and flipped on the lights. Shivering, she twisted the dial on the thermostat. Leaving her coat on until the warm air blowing gently through the vents had taken the chill out of the clinic, she grabbed a box of supplies and began to unpack them. She was stuffing rolls of bandages into a closet when she heard the whine of machinery in the distance. Cocking her head to one side, she walked over to the door and pulled it open. She stepped outside and looked around for the source of the sound that seemed to be growing closer. Suddenly, over the horizon, at the edge of the town, she could see a snowmobile racing toward the village. The rider was making no attempt to reduce his speed as he crossed into the village. Scully hastily stepped back into the doorway as the snowmobile raced past her. She stuck her head back out of the door and watched in horror as the rider lost control of his vehicle. The snowmobile careened wildly about and suddenly seemed to slip out from beneath the rider who was flung from the speeding vehicle. Scully winced as she saw his body arch into the air before landing in a sickening heap in the snow.

She raced toward the fallen rider and dropped to her knees at his side. Peeling off her gloves, she turned his face toward her. Blood streamed down the side of his face from a large gash on his temple, coating her fingers as she felt for a pulse. The rider groaned and rolled his head restlessly in the snow. The young man, a boy really, no older than seventeen, had the dark hair and skin of the Inupiaqs and Scully wondered if he was from one of the surrounding villages.

She gently probed the gash on his forehead and called to him, trying to rouse him. "Can you hear me?" she asked, patting his cheeks with her fingers. "Come on, I need you to wake up now," she said encouragingly. The young man groaned and licked his lips. He rolled his head back and forth, his fingers reaching toward the injury on his head as he moaned softly. Scully ran her hands over his arms and torso, then down his legs, searching for broken bones. Finding none, she looked back into the face of her patient. She could see his eyelids fluttering and she leaned very close to him, calling to him softly.

She could hear excited voices and looked up to see several of the villagers hurrying toward her. Dropping her gaze back to the young man, she began to speak to him again. "What's your name?" she asked, willing him to open his eyes. He rubbed his forehead fretfully and finally, his eyelids drifted open and he stared directly at her. Scully scrambled away from his body in terror as she saw the black oil swirl over his dark eyes. Glancing fearfully at her bloodstained fingers, she plunged her hands into the snow, furiously scrubbing them. Her fingers were aching with the cold and she stuffed her hands back into her gloves and stood up to intercept the villagers.

"Ty!" Beverly cried as she hurried toward her young cousin. Scully stepped into her path and used her body to block the other woman.

"No!" she cried, holding out her gloved hands in front of her body.

The villagers stopped, surprised at her vehemence. "That's Ty!" Beverly protested, trying to step around Scully. "He needs help!" Scully clutched the woman's arm tightly and whirled her away from the young man lying in the snow.

"You can't!" she shouted. "He's infected!" She continued to hold onto Beverly and looked up in relief at the sight of her brother loping across the snow.

"What's going on?" Bill demanded as he leaned over the upended snowmobile to turn off the motor. In the sudden silence, Scully kept her eyes fastened on Beverly's as she tried to explain.

"That's Ty," she told her brother. "The young man Mulder spoke with by e-mail yesterday." Looking around at the people surrounding her, she shook her head and loosened her grip on Beverly's arm. "I don't know how, but he's been infected by the virus," she said sadly. "You can't touch him." She leaned her face close to Beverly's for a moment then looked up at the others. "Do you understand what I'm telling you?" she asked. "This virus is highly contagious and none of you have been exposed to it." Her fierce eyes scanned over the villagers as she tried to impress on them the importance of not coming into contact with an infected person.

Her smile was sympathetic as Beverly slumped in defeat then lifted hopeful eyes toward Scully's. "Can you help him?" she begged. Scully shook her head.

"I'm so sorry," she said quietly. She knelt in the snow next to Ty, her hands hovering impotently over his crumpled form, terrified to touch him again. The boy coughed and once again opened his eyes to look at her. Scully forced herself not to flinch as the oil drifted over his eyes in a horrifying pattern. The black film cleared for a moment, just as it had done with Charlie, and she could see the fear in his dark brown eyes.

"Ty," she said urgently, leaned as close to him as she dared. "You've been infected with the virus," she told him sorrowfully. Ty coughed again and a thin line of oil trickled down his chin.

"Cheetos," he rasped painfully. Scully shook her head and looked at the others in confusion. She glanced back down at the stricken boy.

"I don't understand," she told him.

"Cheetos," he repeated. "They're my weakness," he confessed in a thin voice. His smile was self-mocking as he realized he had signed his death warrant by giving into the temptation of his favorite snack. "Are you the doctor?" he wheezed. Scully nodded and reached out tentatively to stroke her gloved fingertips over his forehead, pushing back an unruly lock of hair.

"Can you heal me?" the boy asked, hopefully. Scully's fingers faltered as they brushed over his forehead and she shook her head sadly.

"I'm so sorry," she told him. "I'm trying to work on a vaccine, but right now... I'm very, very sorry, Ty." Bright tears clung to her lashes, spilling down her cheek. "There's nothing I can do for you," she whispered. Tears slipped from the corners of the boy's eyes, running back into his hair.

"Then I need you to help me," he said as his pleading eyes locked onto hers. Scully broke away from his intense gaze and lifted her eyes heavenward. How many, Lord? She railed inwardly. How many people am I going to have to kill before this is over? Keeping a tight rein on her emotions, she nodded and scrambled to her feet.

"Please," she said. "Please, for your own sakes, don't touch him." Scully looked at her brother for help. "Bill?" He nodded.

"Go ahead, we'll wait here," he told her. He watched, surprised that she hadn't run back to her cabin to retrieve her gun.

Scully walked woodenly to a cabinet in one of the treatment rooms and jerked open the door. Pulling supplies out of the cabinet, she found what she was looking for. Clutching the items in her hands, she turned toward the door, spinning back to the closet and impulsively grabbing a few more things from it. Hurrying back outside, she knelt in the snow by the dying boy's side.

"Ty," she called. He rolled his head toward her again and tried to smile. Scully gnawed on her lower lip as she contemplated the enormity of this thing she was going to ask of him.

"I need to take some samples of your blood first," she told him. "Please. I think it will be helpful in my research," she said awkwardly. Ty swallowed hard and nodded, weakly lifting his arm off the ground and offering it to her. Scully knuckled tears out of her eyes as she unzipped his coat, easing his arm out of the sleeve. Rolling up the sleeve of his thermal shirt, she tore open an alcohol wipe and swiped it over the flesh on the inside of his elbow. She tore the wrapper from a syringe and placed the needle against the soft skin she had just prepared. Her heart tripped wildly as she saw the lines of the oil squirming and wriggling beneath his skin. Changing her plans, she pierced his skin with the needle, chasing the squiggling lines of the alien invader and drawing them into the syringe. She pierced his flesh over and over, apologizing each time, as she aggressively pursued the squirming lines of the oil.

When she was satisfied that she had gathered an ample portion, she pulled the needle tip from the syringe and quickly capped it, setting the vial into the snow. She picked up another syringe and this time she withdrew his blood, filling six vials with the bright red liquid. Setting the blood filled vials aside, she fumbled in her pockets for the rest of her supplies. She pulled out another syringe and plunged the long bore needle into the bottle of morphine that she had taken from the supply closet in the clinic. Filling the syringe with a lethal dose of the narcotic, she looked up at the people gathered around them.

"It's the only thing we can do," she said, begging them with her eyes to understand and to forgive what she was going to do next. Her new neighbors clutched each other tightly and Beverly called out in a grief-stricken voice.

"I love you, Ty."

Scully pulled at the boy's shirt, exposing his chest to the cold. Her eyes were compassionate, sad, angry and frightened as she met his gaze. The oil was swirling in strange patterns over his eyes, one second obscuring them from her and the next leaving him clear-eyed.

"I'm ready," he told her as he closed his eyes and turned his face away from hers. Scully lifted her hand over his chest, whispering a muffled prayer as she thrust the needle into his chest in one hard motion, pushing the plunger down and sending the lethal dose of medicine into his heart. Ty arched and cried out as the morphine flooded his system. His body jerked twice before settling into the snow. Still... still as death.

Scully stood and hung her head as the oath she had taken as a doctor leaped into her mind. 'First do no harm," it began and she fought back the bitter tears that were blurring the image of this poor boy lying dead by her hand in the snow at her feet. Gulping in a deep breath, she angrily wiped the tears from her cheeks and faced the others.

"We need to burn his body," she said apologetically. "It's the only way I know to kill this thing." Beverly was leaning heavily on Sophie, the older woman supporting the younger as tears trickled down their cheeks.

"I'm so sorry," Scully said brokenly as she turned away. She swallowed hard and pressed on. "We can't wait," she said. Even now, the black oil was oozing from his eyes and nose, pooling beneath his head, and staining the snow black.

Manly stepped forward. "In the spring, we hold a gathering for all of the villages to celebrate the long days and returning sun. The gathering lasts for two days and there is dancing and singing and eating. We cook enough for everyone to eat in a large stone pit." His voice broke and he cleared his throat, struggling for an even breath to continue.

"The pit... it will be big enough for what we need to do," he finished. Scully nodded.

"The fire has to burn very hot and very long," she cautioned. Manly nodded and turned, trudging wearily to set up for the gruesome task of building the fire. Scully looked at her brother. "Bill - go with him," she asked softly. Bill looked at his younger sister closely for a moment before following Manly across the snow. Scully watched Bill set off after the other man to help him build the funeral pyre. Swallowing heavily, Scully stepped closer to Beverly.

"Why don't you go home and lie down," she suggested gently as she studied the other woman's face with worried eyes. Beverly shook her head and pulled herself up.

"No," she said in a strong voice. "No. I want to be with him." Scully nodded, understanding Beverly's need to see her cousin through to the end.

"Go on, then," she said, tilting her head toward the place where Bill and Manly labored over the stone pit. "I'll bring him," she promised as she glanced down at Ty's still form. Sophie murmured softly to Beverly and the two women slowly made their way across the snowfield to join Bill and Manly. Scully looked up as several other villagers remained nearby.

"Patrick," she said gesturing to the dark- eyed man. Patrick's head jerked up when she called his name. Scully glanced down at Ty and then looked back up at Patrick. "Would you please get Reverend Honea?" she asked softly. Patrick nodded solemnly and turned toward the cluster of cabins at the far end of the village. "And Patrick," she called after him. He spun back around to face her.

"Yeah, Doc - what else do you need?" he asked. Scully glanced around the quiet village.

"You'd better let the others know," she said. Patrick sighed heavily and hung his head for a moment.

"Yeah," he muttered. "Yeah, alright." He turned again and sprinted toward the cabins. Scully waited until he was gone before turning back to Ty. She grabbed the vials filled with Ty's blood and the oil and carried them into the clinic, carefully checking that the caps on the vials were secure before setting them down in the tiny refrigerator in the office. She grabbed a galvanized steel bucket from a closet and carried it outside with her. Scully gently moved the boy's body and scooped the snow stained with his blood and the oil into the bucket and set it aside. She'd come back for it later; she would keep it frozen and use it in her attempts to create a vaccine against this monstrous enemy...

Crouching down, she slipped her arms under Ty's locking her hands across his chest and began to pull him across the snow. Halfway across the expanse of the village, she stopped to catch her breath. Ty was not very tall and his body had not matured into the heavier muscled frame of a man, but Scully was nonetheless exhausted from dragging him through the snow. Yet she couldn't allow anyone else to come into contact with him. As it was, she feared for her own health and prayed that her body had built up immunity to the virus.

The villagers waited and watched as the tiny woman struggled to pull the young man's body through the snow. When she was less than ten yards away, she stopped again, panting heavily. Her hair was damp with sweat and her face was flushed with exertion. She took a deep breath and tugged him the rest of the way. The pit was about three feet deep and was surrounded by stone and mortar. Bill and Manly had filled the pit with firewood and coal. A canister of kerosene rested near Manly's feet. Scully struggled awkwardly to pull Ty's body onto the pyre, raising a warning hand when Bill stepped forward to assist her.

"No!" she called out sharply. "Stay back!" Bill aborted his forward movement and fell into place beside Manly again. Scully's breath escaped her in harsh pants as she labored to maneuver Ty onto the pyre. At last she stepped back and reached for the kerosene, liberally dousing the boy's body and soaking the wood and coals beneath him as well.

All of the surviving members of the village were there with a few exceptions. Tara had stayed in their cabin with the children, reluctant to expose them to more death. She had offered to stay with Michael as well, but the boy felt that his place was at the funeral. He had followed his grandfather through the village. Now, Jon murmured a quiet prayer, commending Ty's soul to God and voicing the hope that in Ty's death, they would find an answer to a way to survive in this new world.

Manly and Bill had soaked rags in the kerosene and wrapped them around the ends of several pieces of firewood. Now they lit the rags and tossed the wood into the pit. The fire ignited with a whoosh and a roar as flames quickly engulfed the pyre and Ty's body. Scully looked down and saw that her parka was stained with his blood. She stripped off her gloves and parka and tossed them into the pit as well, hoping that she was doing everything possible to eradicate the presence of the virus from the village.

Now she stood, apart from the others, shivering in the cold, watching the flames shoot into the darkening sky, berating herself for not being able to do more; for not being able to save Ty. Guilt and sorrow bore down heavily on her and she could not lift her head to look at the others. She was startled by a touch on her arm. Looking up, she saw Sarah Tuluum slip out of her own parka before draping it around Scully's shoulders.

"Oh no, Sarah," Scully protested. "I can't take your coat!" She shrugged out of the coat and tried to hand it back to the other woman. Sarah shook her head and pushed the parka back toward Scully.

"I've lived here all of my life," she told the younger woman. "I'm used to this cold, but you are not." Once again, she draped the coat over Scully's shoulders. "Keep the coat, Doctor," she admonished. "We cannot afford for you to become ill. Besides, I have other coats in my home."

The kindness and acceptance that she saw in Sarah's eyes humbled Scully. Smiling gratefully, she slipped her arms into the sleeves, closing her eyes momentarily in relief from the biting cold. She wrapped an arm around Sarah's shoulder and the two women watched as the flames danced and climbed into the dusky sky.

~ Chapter Twenty One ~

In Barrow, the discussion and planning went on well onto the night. Some of the women had prepared food and had served it; the planning continued as they ate. Agreements were drawn up, the most important being a refusal to contact any state or federal branch, apprising them of the situation in Barrow. They would handle the disposal of the bodies themselves; Mulder had stressed the importance of doing this.

"The bodies must be burned. This will destroy the virus completely. I know it's a terrible task but it's vital. The government has condoned the colonization for over sixty years - and they have left behind all who have been infected by food products, removing for incubation only those people who had been stung." An outraged murmur could be heard in the room after Mulder's statement. Mary watched the faces of her people carefully, hearing in her head what they had to be thinking...

Deliberately infected. Left behind to die. Those still living made to worry each and every day for the rest of their lives just when they would be taken next. Every science fiction film concerning aliens, every fictional and imagined account of abduction... all coming true.

And yet Mary knew her people. Knew their strength and their fortitude; knew their capacity for survival at all costs. They would not give in - and they would not give up.

They would not let Barrow sink - they would not let the villages down.

Mulder discovered that indeed, the majority of Barrow survivors were living at the community center. There was plenty of room and everyone felt more secure staying together. He had a chance to speak personally with some of the older people who were good friends with Jon Honea, and asked after his health. He was able to chat with one of Beverly's cousins, and discovered that the boy Ty was also a cousin of Beverly's. Mulder asked if Ty was in the village, and the cousin shook his head.

"Ty left early this morning for Mt. Vu'luk. A headstrong boy, that one - but true to his heritage. It is so rare to see these days. Ty had very few friends in town. He refused to hang around with any of the kids who did not embrace the old ways. I rejoice that he will go to the village and be with Beverly." Mulder nodded, glad to hear that Ty was on his way to safety. He spoke for a few more minutes with several more people, then caught Skinner's eye, who politely broke away from a small group and came over. Mulder motioned him into the hallway.

"I arranged for us to see the power and gas plants, first thing tomorrow morning. I found out there's a crematorium in town; we can use it to destroy the bodies. Small doses of gas can be used to burn the rest of the food. I was also told there are two large greenhouses here and they are used to grow vegetables all year long. These people render their own sea salt and their own cooking oil. They need nothing from outside - they never did."

Skinner nodded, agreeing completely. He'd never seen a people more self-sufficient unto themselves than these Inupiaqs. Turning a little, he watched Mary talking and laughing with her friends. She would have a hard time leaving; Skinner said it aloud, and glanced at Mulder when he quietly disagreed.

"No. She'll come back with us. There may be friends and some family here, a few ties. But everything she truly loves is back in the village. Especially her father. And she's a smart woman; she knows it's safer there." Mulder held Skinner's gaze, nodding at the look of relief in the other man's eyes - fighting the urge to grin. Skinner had nothing to worry about, he thought - as he watched his friend make smiling eye contact with Mary.

Nope, nothing at all.

The residents of Mt. Vu'luk, both new and old, held a vigil that day, keeping watch over Ty and feeding the flames that consumed his body, and hopefully, the threat of the virus along with it until there was nothing left but ashes and memories of a headstrong young man. Scully oversaw the disposal of the ashes and then turned back toward the clinic. Halfway across the village, she stopped in her tracks and changed direction, heading for home instead. She could not bring herself to face the clinic and the knowledge that they still had no weapon against the virus.

Scully pushed the door closed behind her and leaned against it heavily. She walked across the room and lit a fire in the pot belly stove before sinking down onto the sofa. She curled her legs up beneath her and watched the flames lick at the wood. The crackle of a fire was usually soothing and hypnotic to her, but now it brought only bad memories. Scully pulled her gaze away from the dancing flames and determinedly turned her thoughts away from Ty. She looked around the cabin and decided to spend the rest of the day making it into a home for Mulder and her. Four days of living out of bags and suitcases was quite enough...

She began in the bedroom. Pulling the clothes of the former occupants from the closets and drawers, she folded them and packed them into two large boxes that she found in the bottom of the closet. She went through the cabin, removing the more personal items of the former owners - framed photographs and journals and the like - and packed them carefully into the box with the clothing. She didn't know about the fate of the people who used to live in this cabin, but she would hold onto their belongings on the chance that they would return to claim them someday.

Scully went from room to room, dusting and cleaning and rearranging things to her taste. A small table was pulled closer to the sofa and she found a pair of mismatched lamps in the second bedroom. She brought one of the lamps into the living room and set it down onto the table near the sofa, plugging it in and sending a soft, warm glow throughout the room. She found a beautiful hand-stitched quilt in a cedar chest and she spread it out over their bed, taking a moment to study the detailed stitches of the quilt. Scully took a quick inventory of the cupboards and threw together a small dinner for herself. The domestic ritual helped to soothe her jangled nerves and after eating she found herself barely able to keep her eyes open.

Scully showered quickly and bundled herself into a set of thermals. She crawled into bed and curled up facing Mulder's empty spot. She missed him with an ache that went deep into her soul. Pulling his pillow into her arms, she rested her cheek against its cool surface. It was a poor substitute for her husband's smoothly muscled chest, but nonetheless, she clutched it tightly. Although she had managed to steer her thoughts away from the horrors of the morning as she had cleaned the cabin, lying in the dark she was unable to keep them at bay any longer. Scully knew they couldn't wait any longer to begin working on the vaccine. Ty's death was proof that they weren't completely safe, even in this remote location. Finding the vaccine was paramount to anything and everything else. Tomorrow she would speak with the others. A plan had to be made to get the necessary equipment in order for her to begin working on the vaccine.

Turning her face into his pillow, surrounded by Mulder's scent, she slept.


Mary woke up slowly, sluggishly. She had not slept well at all, last night - unused to sharing a sleeping area with so many others. It had been a long time - years - since she had participated in a sleepover of any kind. A common occurrence when she was a young girl, she had outgrown the ability to fall asleep at will. Her eyes were heavy and gritty; she rubbed at them and thought of the night before.

She had enjoyed so very much the fellowship of her people. She had missed it. Missed the common ground they had; missed the familiarity of their heritage. By nature Mary was gregarious and sociable; circumstances of life had changed her and made her distant and lone. She wanted to be that young, carefree girl again - she wanted to have a speck of her old life.

Most of all, she wanted love back in her life. It was within her reach; she was experienced enough to know. She had seen the way Walter Skinner looked at her, how gentle he was with her. And for the first time since Calvin's death, Mary was feeling ready to try again.

But she was an Inupiaq woman - and that meant the following of tribal rules and mores. It meant responsibility and the desire to keep the old ways. And she could not - would not - contemplate the affection of another man, not while she was still in mourning for her husband. It had only been a year. Inupiaq mores stated a grieving period at least twice that.

Mary sighed and slowly got to her feet, to face the day.

Scully pried her eyes open that morning and poked her nose out from beneath the covers. The room was cold but without Mulder's warmth in the bed to snuggle up to, Scully forced herself to get out of bed. Snapping on the bedside lamp she sat up and clutched the blanket tightly around her, shivering as she swayed a little on the edge of the mattress. In spite of the fact that she had slept surprisingly well last night, she was still unbelievably tired. Shaking off her lethargy, she stood quickly and swayed again as a wave of dizziness swept over her. She grabbed onto the nightstand to steady herself and sank back down onto the bed. Closing her eyes, she lowered her head between her legs, breathing slowly until the lightheaded feeling passed.

Scully pushed the blanket from her shoulders. Slowly, shakily she pulled herself to her feet and dragged herself into the bathroom. She stepped into the shower and twisted the taps until the water ran in hot rivulets over her body. She ached from head to toe and she stayed under the hot spray longer than she normally would. The achiness was probably from dragging Ty through the village, she thought. She climbed out of the shower and bundled into a heavy robe, swallowing a couple of aspirin and hurriedly dressing for the day.

Two cups of coffee and a slice of bread served as breakfast and then she was heading out of the cabin into the dark morning. She poked her head into Bill and Tara's cabin and asked them to meet her in the clinic in an hour. Scully knocked on the doors of several of the other villagers, including Jon's, and arranged for them to meet with her in the clinic at the same time.

Two hours later, Scully had finished explaining to the group her need for more sophisticated equipment if she was going to be able to work on the vaccine, and they had hammered out a plan of sorts. Scully, Bill and Patrick would take the helicopter and fly to Fairbanks. Jon told Scully that there was a hospital in Fairbanks where he thought she would be able to scavenge most of the equipment she would require. It would take most of the day to fly out, gather the equipment, haul it onto the helicopter and fly back. They made plans to leave first thing the next morning.

In Barrow they spent all that day and half the next gathering and burning the bodies, a gruesome task that taxed their strength and gave them nightmares. All the Barrow villagers participated regardless of age or state of health. The Barrow Crematorium had never seen so much action...

It was damned grim, thought Skinner as he stacked yet another plastic-wrapped body on a platform trailer hitched to a beat-up truck and signaled the driver, Joe Manno, to move out. Removing the headpiece of his contamination suit, Skinner wiped the sweat from his face, then caught sight of Mary coming toward him with a thermos. Skinner smiled at her as she approached, thinking how pretty she looked even when she was exhausted. She had been manning the furnace and it was hot, miserable work - but they only had two contam suits, all they could find in the small liquid nitrogen hut on the end of the runway - and Skinner wanted her as far away from the body wrapping as possible.

Mary handed him the thermos and Skinner unscrewed the top and drank the hot, bracing coffee. He murmured his thanks, then reached out a finger to trace the dark shadows underneath her tired eyes. Mary sighed and leaned against his shoulder as he rumbled out a protest, that she was overdoing it.

"Mary, you don't have to do it all, you know - there are a lot of people who can take over the oven for you." She nodded against his suit, and raised her head to look into his concerned eyes.

"I'm all right, Walter. Tired and heart- sore, but what else could I be? I knew so many of these people. I used to spend summers up here when I was a teenager. I would go out on the whaling boat and help with the catch. I dated a Barrow boy when I was in college... and I saw him being wrapped by Mulder, not an hour ago. Dan had enjoyed eating beef, and cheeseburgers were his weakness. The meat must have infected him. I looked down and there he was, being wrapped in plastic." Her tired eyes filled with tears as she leaned her head against his arm again, and Skinner could hear the large drops plink onto the stiff material of his suit. Skinner dropped his headpiece and turned her into his arms, holding her while she sobbed.

"Dan got married just last year, to a white teacher. They were expecting a baby. Laura was due in a month - and I don't know where she is; I didn't see her. She should have been wrapped with Dan; they should be set free together, Walter..." The tears flowed hot and salty down her cold cheeks, and her small hands clutched at the front of Skinner's suit.

And Skinner could not bear to see her crying like this. Mary was such a strong woman but this was beyond her strength - to know the bodies she helped to place into the cavernous oven were her friends -were her family. Her heart was breaking against him; he could feel it. He murmured to her hoarsely, "Shh, Mary, don't... don't. Please, honey - you'll make yourself ill, please don't cry..." And he slipped a hand underneath her chin, and raised her wet face to his to kiss away her tears - and found himself pressing his mouth into hers, swallowing her small hitching sob, tasting the tears which had run into her mouth. He was kissing Mary... it had been so long since he'd kissed anyone.

Kissing her was sweet beyond measure. Skinner groaned under his breath and pulled her up tightly, deepening the kiss - loving it when she moaned and kissed him back.

In the waning daylight hours in the middle of a snowy cold Arctic village, Walter Skinner kissed Mary Honea and the last thought on either of their minds, for a few precious moments, was infection and burning and anyone else who stopped dead in their tracks and watched the embracing couple with sad approval. He held her soft and warm in his big arms and kissed her pretty mouth and it was the first kiss he'd given anyone in so very long...

It was almost as if he'd been saving himself for her.

Six hours later the last of the hundred or so dead bodies had been destroyed, and they were beyond exhausted. They decided to leave the bulk of the cleaning up for the next day, all of them desperately needing to get away from the stench of the burning bodies and the unending flames which had shot up sparks into the black skies, pouring out of the chimneys like some sort of fireworks display created by the Grim Reaper himself.

And as they walked away from it and headed back to the community center, Mulder decided that if he lived to be a thousand he would not be able to forget this day.

Fifty weary people trudged back to the community center and tried their best to wipe the grisly day from their minds. Food was prepared and consumed listlessly; for once there were leftovers. And by mutual consent the majority went to bed early.

**

Scully had spent the rest of the day at the clinic, pouring over medical textbooks and making lists of the equipment she thought she would need to begin work on the vaccine. With a weary sigh, she closed the books and gathered her notes. Bundling into her parka, she opened the clinic door and stepped outside. The village was quiet as its residents went about the nightly tasks of cooking dinner and getting ready for bed. Scully walked through the still night, stopping at Sophie's cabin and knocking briskly on the door. She smiled as Sophie peered out into the darkness.

"Hi Sophie," she said. "Do you think you can help me get in touch with Mulder?" she asked the older woman. Sophie looked up and nodded, crooking a finger and beckoning Scully to enter. Scully shrugged out of her coat and followed Sophie into the cheery warmth of her cabin and waited as Sophie fixed two mugs of tea. She handed one steaming mug to Scully and led her toward her bedroom.

"We could go to the gathering hall and try to reach them by e-mail," Sophie said. "But unless someone is sitting by the computer, I think we stand a better chance of raising them on the ham radio." She sat down in front of the radio and began to fiddle with the dials. Five minutes later she was speaking to someone on the other end in Barrow.

"Jason? Is that you boy?" she called into the microphone. The radio squawked loudly and then Scully could hear the reply coming from the other end.

"Hey Sophie," a man's voice replied. "How are things going out there?" he asked. Sophie looked up at Scully and grimaced wryly. Turning back to the microphone, she spoke quickly.

"About good as can be expected, I guess," she told him. "Listen Jason, can you get hold of Fox Mulder for me and bring him to the radio? Tell him that his wife wants to speak with him." The hiss of static filled the room and then Jason's voice broke through again.

"Sure thing Sophie. Give me ten minutes and I'll get right back to you. I have to go find him."

"We'll be waiting," Sophie told him. She turned to Scully and urged her to sit down. "Why don't you pull up that other chair over there, Dana. It'll be a few minutes while Jason goes to find your young man." Scully smiled and dragged a chair toward the desk, settling gratefully into it with a sigh. Sophie ran her gaze over the younger woman appraisingly.

"You look tired," she said in a voice both critical and kind. Scully blushed and propped her cheek on one hand.

"I am tired," she said truthfully. "Mulder and I have been running nonstop for almost six months now," she added as she fought off a yawn. Sophie made a sympathetic clucking sound and patted Scully's hand gently.

The radio hissed and sputtered and then Mulder's voice rang out in the room loud and clear. "Scully?" he called. "You there?" Sophie spoke into the microphone.

"She's right here, Mulder. Just a moment." Sophie stood up and Scully slipped into her chair. "You press this button to speak," Sophie explained as she pointed to a button at the base of the microphone. "Let go of it to listen to him," she said. The old woman walked out of the room, giving Scully a moment of privacy.

"Mulder?" she asked. "Can you hear me?"

"I can hear you just fine," he assured her. "What's up?" he asked. "Is something wrong?" Scully could hear the note of worry in his voice. She leaned down and pressed the button on the microphone.

"Ty is dead," she told him. She heard Mulder make a disbelieving noise and then there was silence coming from his end of the radio.

"How?" he finally asked in a soft voice. Scully quickly gave him the details of everything that had happened the day before.

"We can't wait any longer. We need to get to Fairbanks as soon as possible so that I can get started working on a vaccine," she said. "Bill, Patrick and I are going to take the helicopter to Fairbanks Memorial. We're going to see if they have the equipment I need and we'll bring it back with us."

Mulder was silent for a moment or two, so much so that Scully feared they had lost their radio connection.

"Mulder?" she asked. "Are you still there?"

"When are you leaving?" he asked, unhappy with the thought that he would be coming home to an empty house. He missed her so badly and just wanted to hold her close.

"We'll leave first thing tomorrow morning," Scully told him. "We're just going to fly right to the hospital, grab what we need and turn around to come right back," she said. "We should be back around seven o'clock tomorrow night." She released the talk button and waited for his reply. She heard him sigh heavily before he spoke, the weariness noticeable in his voice.

"We should have things wrapped up here sometime early tomorrow and we'll be on our way home as soon as we're finished. I expect we'll be landing around the same time you will," he said.

Scully leaned closer to the microphone. "How bad are things out there?" she asked him solemnly.

Mulder released another hard sigh. "Bad. We've burned almost one hundred bodies. Thank God Barrow has a crematorium - I was really surprised to hear of it but I guess it makes sense when you remember how frozen the ground up here stays, all through the year. And we found contamination suits at the nitrogen plant. Only two of them, so I had Skinner wear one and the other was used by one of the Barrow men who helped to wrap the bodies. Everyone else stayed clear of the bodies. It was the most gruesome job I have ever had to do, Scully -and through it all I was longing for you so badly I was actually in pain."

She could hear the shudder in his voice and the raw sound of it pulled strongly at her; Scully closed her eyes over the sudden tears that wanted to roll down her cheeks. She sighed sympathetically and whispered to him soothingly as he finished reciting the enormity of the destruction and loss of life they had found in Barrow.

"I wish you were home right now," she told him. "I miss you." Mulder's voice was low and tender and Scully shivered as it coiled around her like a caress.

"I miss you too, baby," he said softly. Scully grinned into the microphone. She whispered low and close into the microphone.

"Mulder... I love it when you call me 'baby'..." She could almost hear the smile in his voice as his response feathered into the miles of air space between them.

"Baby... baby... baby." He chuckled, and added, "Will that hold you for awhile?" Scully sighed longingly and her reply reflected that longing.

"It'll have to, Mulder - but hurry home, okay?"

Mulder's voice broke up for a second or two before stabilizing. "... tomorrow, baby..." She smiled.

"Yes, I'll see you tomorrow night," she promised. Mulder's reply was soft.

"I can't wait," he said. Scully leaned so close to the microphone that her lips were nearly brushing against it.

"Bye," she said in a tiny voice. She pushed her chair back and began to rise.

"Scully? Scully!" Mulder's shout boomed over the radio and she slipped back into her chair and pushed the talk button.

"I'm still here," she said. "What's up?" Mulder's voice was worried and hesitant.

"Scully... when you were... did you remember to..." His words trailed off helplessly for a moment. Then he spoke again, rushing his words out. "Were you exposed to the virus?" he asked. "How do you feel?"

Scully thought briefly about the dizziness and achiness she had experienced earlier that morning and dismissed the symptoms as nothing more than being over-tired. She was feeling a lot better right now.

"I feel okay," she said, deftly sidestepping the question of exposure. "How about you?" she asked. "Are you taking all the proper precautions?" Mulder chuckled into the microphone.

"Yes Ma'am. I'm being a very good boy out here," he promised. "We all are," he told her truthfully. Scully closed her eyes with relief.

"I'll see you tomorrow night," she whispered. "Bye."

"I love you Scully," Mulder vowed. "See you tomorrow."

And then he was gone. Scully stood. It was time to get back to work.

Mulder could not sleep. He missed Scully badly; after the horrific events of the past few days he needed more than ever to lose himself in the comfort of her arms. He didn't want to close his eyes - if he did he would be able to see the billowing smoke rising from the chimneys of the crematorium; the glow of the oven lighting up the premature darkness of winter in eerie patterns that he swore he'd never be able to forget. The burning smell was the worst... even standing outside he could smell it. He'd been able to handle the bodies with minimal protection, which left the other contam suit for one of the men who insisted on risking his life to help. He'd wrapped so many bodies that he had lost count. But he could not imagine the horror of having to be one of the folks who fed the bodies into the greedy fire, placing them on the metal beltway that took them into the oven.

Mary had done it - at her insistence she had manned the oven with a few of the other men to help her by lifting the bodies for her. Mulder's respect and admiration for her had amplified - he couldn't believe her inner strength. So much like Scully...

God, he missed Scully. He lay in the dark surrounded by gently snoring men, in one of the sleeping rooms, and he thought of his wife with such longing that it constituted a palpable ache. He would be home soon but morning seemed so far away. They would need to wrap up a few more loose ends before they could leave tomorrow. He would be counting the hours regardless.

Across from him Skinner lay in a small cot, much too small for his large frame. It didn't matter how uncomfortable these cots were, though - they were just too exhausted to give a damn, especially Skinner. Mulder was happy to see the big guy sleeping, even if he couldn't manage to rest.

He would have plenty of time to rest soon - when he could wrap his aching limbs around Scully, and breathe in the clean fragrance of her - and finally get some sleep...

**

~ Chapter Twenty Two ~

They left Mt. Vu'luk when it was still very early. Scully was buckled into the co- pilot's seat of the helicopter. She was concentrating on her notes and doing her best to ignore the faint nausea and dizziness that seemed bent on torturing her. She had never liked flying - especially in a helicopter. Vertigo was the most obvious reason for her discomfort, she told herself firmly. And the headache beginning to pound behind her eyes was the result of too much stress, too little Mulder and the incessant whine of the powerful rotors overhead. She stared out of the windows, looking for signs of life, but the streets of Fairbanks were deserted. She slid her hand to the small of her back, reassuring herself that her gun was within reach. The unnatural stillness of this city was unnerving.

She heard Patrick's voice over the headset as he directed Bill toward the hospital. "There it is," he exclaimed as he pointed to a building in the distance. Bill nodded and banked the helicopter to the left. A few minutes later they were hovering over the landing pad meant for medivac helicopters on the roof of the hospital. Bill shut down the controls of the helicopter and they hopped out onto the rooftop.

"This way," Patrick shouted over the slowing blades of the helicopter. Brother and sister followed him to a doorway at the far end of the roof. They pushed through the door and walked down a short hallway to an elevator. Crowding into the elevator, they looked helplessly at the number panel.

"Which floor?" Bill wondered. Scully shook her head and punched the button marked "G". "Let's start on the ground floor," she suggested. "We'll look for a directory." The elevator sprang to life and began to move smoothly down through the shaft. The three occupants looked at each other and breathed tiny sighs of relief. They had worried that the electricity in the building might have been shut off but that didn't seem to be the case.

Scully held up a hand, signaling the two men to wait, as the elevator doors slid open. She eased cautiously into the hallway and slipped her gun from her waistband. It fit comfortably in her hand and she held it loosely by her side as they stepped into view. The hospital was eerily quiet.

"Don't touch anything or anyone," she cautioned firmly. Both men nodded, their faces tense as they made their way toward the lobby of the hospital. Drawing closer to the lobby and reception area, the smell of decaying bodies hit them. Bill and Patrick closed their eyes and both men clapped their hands over their mouths. A dozen or more bodies lay strewn about the lobby and reception area. Fighting against an already unsteady stomach, Scully stopped for a moment.

"Wait here," she told the others. "I'll find out where we need to go." Bill shook his head and grabbed his sister by the arm.

"No!" he said strongly. "We'll all go." Scully shook off his grip and looked up at him.

"Bill," she said in a reasonable tone. "I'm only going to run about fifteen feet to that reception desk," she said as she pointed across the lobby. "You'll be able to see me the entire time," she told him. "But it's best that we minimize your exposure to the virus." She looked at Patrick. "You too," she said. Both men had stubborn looks on their faces and Scully instantly changed tactics. She had learned that when common sense and reason don't work, a heaping dose of guilt usually did the trick.

"You don't want to bring this virus back into the village, do you?" she asked. "Do you want to take a chance on giving it to Tara or the kids?" she asked Bill. She turned to Patrick. "Do you want to risk Beverly's life?" she challenged. The shoulders of both men drooped and Scully knew she had won this round.

"I'll be right back," she said. She ran lightly, quickly across the carpeted floor. Reaching the large information area, she slipped behind the main desk, recoiling at the sight of a woman, lying on the floor. Her blonde hair was streaked with the remnants of the black oil and a look of horror was frozen on her face. Scully gulped, forcing down the bile that rose in her throat and turned her attention to the desktop. A quick search revealed the hospital directory. Flipping through the small book, she ran her finger down the chart, tapping it when she came to the information she was looking for.

"Third floor," she called as she hurried back to the others. They quickly jumped back on the elevators, impatient now, anxious. The elevator bell pinged as they reached their destination and the three spilled out of the elevator, eager to get what they had come for and to get back home.

This floor was obviously in the research wing of the hospital. There were no patient rooms and the human casualties were light. Evidence of looting was visible and Scully worried that the equipment they would need would not be available. She poked her head into one room after another and was growing discouraged when finally she hit pay dirt.

"Here," she called excitedly. Patrick and Bill hurried toward her as she stepped into a lab. Scully was standing near a small piece of equipment, bent over and studying it intently.

"A centrifuge," she said. Bill smiled at the excitement evident on her face.

"What's that for?" he asked. Scully was still examining the centrifuge and her voice was distracted as she answered.

"It, um... I'll need it to separate the blood..." She shook her head and stood straight. Digging into her back pocket, she pulled out her list. "All right," she said. "Let's do this quickly." She consulted her list and began to point to various items and pieces of equipment that she thought she would need. The men followed her from room to room, stacking the equipment in the hallway. Test tubes, acids and various buffering solutions were boxed up and added to the pile. Incubators for growing cell cultures, a couple of biohazard suits and a microscope also made their way to the growing pile of equipment. Scully had walked ahead of the two men and Bill looked up as he heard a soft cry of dismay come from a room at the end of the hall. Patrick and Bill hurried to the source of the sound and found Scully standing before a large piece of equipment.

"I had forgotten it was so big," she said. Her brow was wrinkled in frustration. Bill studied the large device.

"What the hell is it?" he asked.

Scully blew out a disgusted breath. "It's an electron microscope," she replied. Patrick looked out into the hallway and then back at Scully.

"We've already got a microscope," he said as he pointed toward the powerful scope they had taken. "And there's another one back at the clinic," he told her. Scully nodded and bit her lip as she circled the equipment, studying it from every angle. She crouched down and looked beneath it and her voice was muffled as she answered him.

"I know, Patrick. But this microscope is different," she explained. "I need this scope in order to see the virus itself," she said. Scully stood and pushed her tangled hair out of her eyes. "The other microscopes will let me analyze the affects of the virus on the cells, but I won't be able to actually see the virus without this one." She walked around the microscope again and stopped with her hands on her hips.

"It's the staging area that's so big," she said in frustration. Bill and Patrick circled the microscope and the three of them studied it from every angle.

"What if we take it apart?" Patrick suggested slowly. Scully looked up at him with an expression both hopeful and doubtful at the same time.

"We'd never remember how to put it back together," she said as she looked back at the complex piece of machinery. Patrick pursed his lips and took another look at the microscope.

"I can do it," he said confidently. "I have a really good eye for this kind of thing," he told her. "I can label each piece as we disassemble it and number it in sequence. Then we put it together in reverse sequence when we get it home. I once helped a man in Juneau break down an old historical building just this way - he wanted to move it to Seattle and live in it. He was one crazy white man, wanting to move that building - but it worked just fine. We can do it," he smiled at Scully reassuringly. She sucked her lower lip between her teeth and looked toward her brother. Bill shrugged.

"I don't know what else we can do," he said finally. He glanced at Patrick. "I'm pretty good with my hands," he told the other man. "I'd be happy to help you." Patrick nodded and smiled again and turned to Scully for her approval.

Scully held up her hands helplessly. "Okay, let's do it." Bill and Patrick searched the floor for some tools to use in order to begin disassembling the microscope for transportation. They found what they were looking for in a maintenance closet at the end of the floor. As the two men began to take the machinery apart, they made notes on where and how each piece was connected and they carefully laid each piece of equipment aside. Patrick found a wide roll of adhesive tape and labeled each piece carefully with a number, writing the number down next to the description of how they had taken it apart. Scully knew the electronics of the scope would need to be recalibrated when they got it back to Mt. Vu'luk. Now more than ever, she was wishing the Gunmen had come along with them.

She shook off her worries and began to lug the rest of the equipment up to the rooftop. It took the men nearly two hours to dismantle the microscope and log the numbers and descriptions. In that time, Scully had hauled all of the other equipment to the helicopter. She swayed dizzily on what had to be her twentieth elevator ride back down from the rooftop and she shakily exited the elevator and sank down onto the floor as she waited for her head to clear. Holding onto the railing that ran the length of the hall, she made her way back to where the others were working. She refused to think about what may be wrong with her - refused to contemplate a possible reaction to virus exposure. Whatever was wrong would go away, she decided. She walked back into the lab and surveyed their progress.

"How's it going?" she asked as she looked over the pile of equipment surrounding the two men.

"We're finished," Bill said as he wiped his hands on the sides of his jeans. "But there is no way that we're going to be able to fit all of this into the chopper," he told her. Scully stamped a foot in frustration, cursing softly under her breath. Patrick stepped forward and laid a hand on her arm.

"Hey, Doc," he said soothingly. "We'll come back for the rest of it tomorrow or the day after," he promised. Scully nodded in helpless agreement. They didn't have any other choice and she was tired. So tired. She wanted to go home. Mulder would be there waiting for her.

"Let's go," she said, throwing one last regretful glance toward the microscope. Bill tried to cheer her up.

"Come on, Dana," he said. "You've got enough equipment to get started, don't you?" Scully realized he was right.

"Yeah, Bill. Yeah," she said as she refocused her attention on the work ahead and not what was left behind. "I can definitely get started now," she told him. They hurried back to the rooftop. They quickly finished loading the last of the equipment into the helicopter and climbed aboard for the trip back home.

Every muscle in her body ached and she continued to fight off waves of dizziness and nausea. Scully was convinced now that she had been infected again when she had been exposed to Ty's blood. She didn't know why the symptoms were coming and going or why they hadn't affected her in the same way they had affected Mulder. Maybe the fact that a bee had stung Mulder and she had been exposed to infected blood made the difference. It was one more thing she was going to have to figure out and she ruthlessly squashed the tiny voice that was whispering, 'if you live long enough'.

She glanced over at her brother, debating the wisdom of giving voice to her suspicions, but she didn't want to panic either man. Although both men had touched her on the arm, it had been through several layers of clothes and as far as she knew, the virus was not airborne. She didn't think she had exposed them in any way. Scully rolled her head against the back of her seat and closed her eyes, wishing she were at home in the little cabin with Mulder.

She must have fallen asleep because she woke up when she heard Patrick's voice over the headset, talking to Bill.

"We're about ten minutes away," he was saying. Scully sat up eagerly and began to watch for signs of the village below. Then, suddenly, it was there. She could see the cluster of lights that indicated the cabins nestled in the deepening snow, and she pressed her nose against the glass as the helicopter swooped toward the runway. She could see several people standing on the tarmac and her heart leapt when she spotted Mulder's taller figure standing next to Skinner as both men lifted their faces toward the approaching chopper. They were easy to spot even in the darkness owing to their relative size when standing amongst the smaller Inupiaq men and women.

Bill set the helicopter gently onto the runway and Scully unsnapped her seatbelt, eager to get out of the chopper and into her husband's arms. She rose quickly from her seat and lurched as a wave of dizziness swept over her. She heard her brother's voice calling her name and then everything went black.

Mulder hurried toward the helicopter, crouching down to avoid the draft of the huge blades still spinning overhead. He saw Bill hop out and turn back toward the interior of the chopper, speaking to someone inside. Mulder's heart lurched as he watched Patrick gently hand an unconscious Scully into her brother's waiting arms.

"Scully!" he cried as he raced toward her. Bill was bent forward over his sister's limp form, protecting her from the wash of the blades as he stepped clear of the chopper and he looked up at Mulder with panicked eyes.

"She just fainted," he cried helplessly. Mulder snatched his wife's limp body from her brother's arms and cradled her against his chest.

"What happened?" he demanded. "Was she hurt?" He was unaware of the others hurrying toward them as he stared at Scully's pale face. He felt someone tugging on his arm and he turned to see Mary watching them with concerned eyes.

"Let's get her inside," she said as she pointed toward the clinic. Mulder nodded and the group hurried through the snow to the medical building. Mary threw open the doors and began to turn on every light as she made her way through the building. She pushed open a door and Mulder gently laid Scully down on one of the examination tables. He tenderly stroked her face and called her name. Her cheeks were pale and there were dark circles under her eyes. He cried out in protest when Mary pushed him out of the way. She was busy unzipping Scully's parka and was pushing aside her clothing. A stethoscope hung around her neck and she placed the tips into her ears as she listened to Scully's heart and took her blood pressure.

"Did she fall or hit her head?" Mary asked looking up at Bill and Patrick who were hovering anxiously in the doorway. The two men looked at each other and shook their heads.

"No," Bill said. "I don't think so," he told her. His worried eyes were fastened on his sister's lifeless form. Mulder shook his head in frustration and stepped back to his wife's side, stroking her hair from her face.

"What's wrong with her?" he demanded, looking up at Mary fiercely. She shook her head.

"I... I don't know yet," she told him honestly. She looked across the room as Patrick spoke hesitantly.

"She was... she had Ty's blood on her hands, the other day," he said slowly as he stared sadly into Mulder's eyes. Mulder's head whipped back around to his wife's face and fear clawed at his throat. Infected blood... oh, Christ. Please, not Scully... not now! The panic rose in him as he clutched at his wife's cold fingers and fought to keep calm. Mary had turned to a cabinet and was pulling a two-inch long capsule out of a box.

"What is that?" he asked warily as he hunched protectively over Scully's still form. Mary glanced up at him and stepped up to her patient, ignoring the fear that was telling her to step back and run away from the danger.

"Basically it's smelling salts," she told him as she snapped the capsule in two and waved it under Scully's nose. Scully's head twitched and she turned her face away from the noxious fumes. She could hear Mulder's voice calling her name and she dragged her eyes open to find him hovering over her.

"What happened?" she asked hoarsely as she looked at the others crowded in the doorway. "Why am I in the clinic?" she wondered. Mulder leaned close, so thankful to see those blue eyes of hers that his knees were actually weak.

"How do you feel?" he asked worriedly. Scully struggled to prop herself up on her elbows and Mary cranked the head of the bed up so that she could sit up easily. Memories of the last few hours came flooding back and her voice was panicked as she spoke.

"Get back!" she told the others. "Mary, you need to step away," she said fearfully. Her voice was filled with sorrow as she met her husband's gaze. "I think I've been reinfected," she told him sadly. Mulder swallowed the huge lump of fear that was choking him. He held both of her hands tightly.

"What are your symptoms?" Mary asked. Scully rolled her head against the bed to look at the other woman. "Dizziness, nausea... every muscle in my body hurts," she complained softly. Mary turned again and rummaged through a drawer pulling out a syringe and a length of rubber stripping. Mulder released one of Scully's hands as he realized Mary's intent, and she pushed Scully's sleeve up her arm and fastened the rubber around her upper arm.

"What are you doing? Stay away, Mary! It's not safe!" Scully demanded. Mary popped the cap off the needle and looked at her doctor, now her patient. Her voice was professional and determined.

"I'm going to take a blood sample," she said evenly. Scully protested but fell silent as Mary slipped the needle into a vein on the inside of her elbow. When she was finished she threw the needle into a sterile bin on the wall and capped the syringe. Scully tried to climb down from the bed and nearly fell onto the floor before Mulder caught her.

"Where the hell do you think you're going?" he asked incredulously. Scully pointed her hand toward Mary's retreating back, waving it in a panic.

"You have to stop her, Mulder," she frantically told him. Struggling into more of a sitting position Scully hung onto the table and called to her friend. "Mary! You can't touch that blood," she cried shrilly. "Damn it Mary! You don't even know what you're looking for!" She lifted eyes filled with frustrated tears to Mulder's then looked to the doorway. She saw Skinner standing behind Patrick and Bill.

"Walter, go stop her," she told him. "Please," she begged. Walter hurried after Mary, knowing he couldn't prevent her from running the blood test - but he would stand close by and do everything he could to protect her from being exposed to the virus.

Tears were running down Scully's cheeks, dripping off her chin. "You might not be infected," Mulder told her encouragingly. He placed his thumb on the bruised looking flesh beneath her eyes and tugged. "I don't see any signs of the oil," he whispered. Scully turned her face away from his.

"I didn't see the oil in your eyes either," she told him dejectedly. Mulder sat on the edge of her bed and curled his upper body around hers in an effort to comfort her as much as himself... and they waited for Mary to return with the test results.

Seemingly hours later, Mary and Skinner reappeared at Scully's bedside. "I didn't see anything abnormal or not human," Mary told them. She placed her hand on Scully's and leaned close. "I did find something," she said quietly. Looking at Scully closely, she smiled.

"You're pregnant."

Bill and Patrick whooped in the doorway and clapped each other on the back at the announcement. Mulder sagged with relief and Skinner was beaming from ear to ear as he stood behind Mary. Only Scully seemed upset by the news.

"Pregnant?" she repeated in stunned disbelief. Mary nodded her head and smiled happily at her new friend.

"Yes," she said. "I ran the test twice, just to be sure." Mary's voice was soft and comforting. Scully shook her head and looked up pleadingly into Mulder's face before turning back to Mary.

"Something's wrong," she told her. "The test is wrong." Mary shook her head and began to protest but Scully cut her off.

"Mary," she said. "There is no way I could be pregnant." Mary laughed and looked at Mulder significantly.

"Dana," she began. "I'd say there's every chance that you could be pregnant." Scully interrupted her again.

"You're not listening to me," she said leaning forward. "I. Cannot. Get. Pregnant." Her words were low and filled with all of the pain and sorrow of a woman who desperately wants children of her own but knows that she cannot have them. She continued in a raw whisper, "I have no ova, Mary. They were harvested from me years ago... when I was abducted. I can't..." She closed her eyes against the remembered horror, then spoke haltingly, "I don't want to get into it now, please - I can explain more later. But trust me - there isn't a way I could be pregnant."

Mary pursed her lips and propped her hands on her hips. "Well Dana, I don't know what to tell you because the tests show that you are most definitely pregnant," she said firmly. "I can't imagine what sort of procedure was done on you to remove your ova. I know ova do not regenerate. Maybe they missed a few." Scully swung her legs over the side of the examination table, glaring at Mulder when he tried to stop her.

"These people don't make mistakes. They don't miss a thing, either. I want to see for myself," she demanded, harshly suppressing the hope that was fluttering inside her like a tiny heartbeat. Sighing helplessly, Mulder wrapped an arm around her waist and guided her out of the room, Mary and Skinner following behind them.

A few minutes later, Scully turned from the microscope and lifted stunned eyes to his. "Oh my God," she whispered. Her lips trembled and she pressed her fingers against them. "This can't be right," she said disbelievingly. "How can this be right?" she asked. Mulder's eyes smiled down into hers.

"Pregnant?" he asked, pulling her into his arms when she nodded slowly.

Scully pushed away from him and shook her head. "I want to run the same test on the sample of blood I took from Ty," she said. Mary looked at her as if she thought Scully was crazy.

"You want to test a man's blood to see if he was pregnant?" she asked slowly. For the first time, she began to question Scully's mental state. Scully looked back and forth between Mulder, Skinner and Mary.

"Not to see if he was pregnant," she ground out through clenched teeth. She felt Mulder's body tense behind her as her implication hit him. "But if his test results are the same as mine," she lifted fearful eyes to her husband's, "then there is every chance that there was an alien gestating within him," she said. She shifted her gaze and her eyes bore into Mary's. "And in me."

~ Chapter Twenty Three ~

The blood taken from Ty yielded no specific secrets other than the presence of the virus - what they already knew. Now Scully was lying back on the examination table again. This time she was dressed in a paper gown and her feet were propped up in the stirrups attached to the foot of the table. The men had cleared out of the room and she was alone with Mary. She studied the ceiling tiles, wincing slightly as Mary examined her carefully. She felt Mary's hand on her knee as the other woman stood up and stripped the latex gloves from her hands. Mary stepped around to the side of the table and laid a hand on Scully's belly.

"I'd say you're about three weeks along," she told her. "Beginner's luck," she smiled. Tears tracked down Scully's cheeks and she nodded. Her mind was slow in processing this change from the overwhelming fear that she had been re- infected to the stunning knowledge that she and Mulder had defied everything her doctors had ever told her and had created a life between them. She looked up at Mary and brushed the tears from her cheeks.

"Would you send Mulder in?" she asked. Mary draped a light blanket over her and slipped out of the room.

A few seconds later, Scully smiled tremulously as Mulder walked into the room. His worried stare met hers and she nodded and held out her arms to him. The grin that washed over his handsome features and broke like a new dawning within his eyes made her laugh and cry all at once. Mulder gathered her into his arms carefully as if she might crumble under too much pressure, and buried his face into her hair as he began to shudder in delayed reaction to the strain of the past hour. His voice was awestruck.

"I'm gonna be somebody's daddy, Scully. Jesus, Thank You - a father. Me. Oh man, I can't..." He shook his head and pressed a fervent kiss against her temple, sighing at the reassuring hand she rubbed over his back as he struggled with this amazing revelation. She tugged at his hair gently and Mulder pulled a face wet with tears from her neck and stared into her damp eyes. Her words were thick with residual worry.

"Mulder - there has to be an explanation for this. Ova do not just suddenly appear. My specialists told me that I had none left - not a one. And even if one or two had escaped their notice, the chances of their fertilization are a million to one. My menstrual cycles have been a mess since my abduction; I never know when I am going to have one. Sometimes they appear normal and sometimes I have all the symptoms but no discharge." She was blushing furiously as she spoke and Mulder was so humbled by the confidence she felt in their relationship, just to tell him this - he was speechless. Scully took a deep breath and continued in a whisper.

"The environment inside my womb is in question, Mulder... serious question. There is no doubt that a baby is growing in there. We ran every test. Mary is convinced it's normal. To know for certain we would need an ultrasound done, and I doubt I am far enough along to be able to see much, yet. We'll have to wait. Thank God we have ultrasound equipment here." Mulder nodded and tried to make his voice as steady and reassuring as possible.

"Mary will do one for us, as soon as it's feasible. And we will face together whatever we discover. Okay, Scully? Together." He stared hard into her worried eyes, willing her to nod and smile - relieved beyond measure when she did. She wound her arms around his neck and held his head close to hers as he kissed her tenderly. He could feel the smile she formed against his cheek as he murmured teasingly to her.

"My wife, the pregnant lady. I'll ask Sophie to make you a maternity parka..." Her giggle was weak but it made him so happy to hear it.

"Oh, shut up, you idiot - and let me get out of this stupid gown before I freeze my ass off..."

Their friends had swarmed the clinic, waiting for news on Scully's condition. Their worried eyes had been facing the door of the exam room. Sophie had been softly praying, and Beverly had clutched Patrick's hand so tightly that he'd lost circulation in his fingers. Bill had told Tara about the collapse and the possibility of pregnancy; she had rushed over to the clinic in a panic, with Michael staying behind in their cabin to watch over Matty and Meggie.

Now the door opened and Mulder came out, carrying Scully in his arms, both of them grinning from ear to ear. A collective sigh of relief rose up from every throat, and everyone began exclaiming and congratulating them at once. Tara hurried to Scully's side as Mulder set her on her feet, and the sisters hugged each other tightly. Tara's teary voice washed over her as they embraced.

"A baby, oh Lord, Dana! I can't believe it! Thank God I packed maternity clothes!" Scully erupted into almost hysterical laughter at her sister-in-law's announcement and she hugged her tightly again before pushing away to gape at Tara.

"Why on earth would you pack something like that, you silly woman? Unless..." She eyed the other woman's flat stomach and Tara gasped and blushed, shaking her head.

"No, I'm not! But you never know, Dana - and we had been actively trying, before... well, before all this started. We want another boy. I guess I just grabbed and packed, then forgot all about it -until now. I didn't bring anything much, just some baggy sweaters and pants with panels in them, stuff like that. But as small as you are they'll work out great for you." Both women grinned inanely into each other's faces, then the import of it all hit them anew and they both screamed aloud and hugged again, while their friends and family gathered around them and laughed, smiled - wiped away a tear or two -and celebrated.

It was late when everyone finally called it a night, and left the gathering hall for their respective homes. They had eaten a huge meal of moose stew and had scarfed canned blueberries and shortbread for dessert. They had each toasted the future Baby Mulder with small glasses of homemade cranberry wine, and the caring and acceptance of the villagers in that room had humbled Mulder as he sat on a blanket near the stove with Scully's head in his lap, fingers winnowing soothingly through her hair. She had dozed off a few times but he'd been loath to move her, since she seemed comfortable enough.

In a soft voice that carried over the silent room Mulder had explained why an ultrasound was the only way to know for sure whether or not Scully's would be a normal pregnancy. Mary had confirmed that she'd be happy to handle the procedure when the time came. It was better to be sure... it was best to know soon, just in case. Nobody wanted to dwell on the implications of what would need to be done if the 'just in case' actually happened... for now it was vital to keep their spirits up and their hope strong.

Mary had smiled reassuringly as she agreed to schedule at the soonest possible moment an ultrasound that would go a long way toward confirming that the child was healthy. Then she caught Mulder's eyes as he stroked Scully's hair from her forehead - and what she said made everyone in the room gasp - and then break out in excited chatter.

"You know, if I understand correctly the history behind your and Dana's immunities against the alien virus... then we have to assume your baby will be born with natural immunities." She paused and chuckled softly at the look of almost comical realization on Mulder's face, before continuing. "If my calculations are correct your baby will arrive right around June, during the summer equinox. This is a very special time for us - truly spiritual and lucky. It's when the sun doesn't touch the horizon for eighty-seven days in a row - a time when everything warms and grows and flourishes. Including hope."

Mary reached out her hands to Mulder as he sat on the floor with his wife's head in his lap; reached out and cupped his face in her hands, smiling into his eyes as she whispered, "Your baby will be the future, Mulder. Born during the most significant time of the year. This is a good omen... the best. I just wanted you to know." She leaned in a little, and over the sleeping form of her friend, Mary kissed Mulder's cheeks. And when she released him the look on Mulder's face was so priceless the entire room broke into laughter. He opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out. Finally he managed to utter a small, hoarse, "Thank you, Mary... everyone. Thank you..."

And his stumbling words roused Scully from her dozing, and she stared up sleepily into her husband's stunned face, inquiring groggily, "Mulder? I must have fallen asleep. What did I miss?" Mary smiled at Scully and her eyes flashed mischievously at Mulder before she answered in a purposely-vague tone.

"Oh, nothing much, Dana... I kissed your husband. That's all." Mulder's face stained bright red and Scully glanced from one to the other, before snuggling back into his lap. She yawned and stretched a bit.

"Oh, was that all? Well, I can understand the compulsion, Mary - he is damned kissable." Amid more laughter Sophie piped up with a smiling affirmative.

"He sure is, Dana. May I add my congratulations to the rest - for the baby, and for the husband." And underneath her head Scully could feel Mulder's stomach muscles clench, as he muttered.

"Ahh, Geez..."

The discussion went on through the rest of the evening, everyone enjoying another round of cranberry wine and listening as Mulder and Scully shared the most difficult facts about Scully's past inability to bear children - and why this was indeed a miracle pregnancy. And as the story of Scully's stolen and harvested ova was revealed, once again their Native friends shook their heads in amazement over the kind of people who could do this to another human being. It was simply beyond them. Sarah had asked about the possibility of some leftover ova; as a mid-wife she understood the female reproductive system as well as any nurse or doctor. Scully had sighed and shrugged as she'd replied.

"Well, it's possible. But I would say no. It's more than likely that another sort of procedure was performed on me, again without my knowledge..." And as simply as possible she'd explained about their old, now most certainly deceased enemy, CGB Spender - and his dubious 'assistance' in possibly restoring her fertility, months and months ago.

"We don't know for sure if that's what he did. Mulder and I talked this over a little while ago, right before dinner. But it's the only plausible way." She'd looked up at Mulder, her head snuggled against his shoulder, and he'd smiled down at her and kissed her temple before adding in his thoughts.

"I'd have to say it's the likeliest of any explanation. And nobody hated that bastard more than I did - for what he took away from Scully, and from me. But if he somehow restored some of what he had taken from us, by giving back to Scully the opportunity to be a mother... then in the very smallest of ways I can find a drop of forgiveness in my heart for him."

Skinner, sitting across the room beside Mary, had snorted and lifted his glass of wine in a mock-salute. His equally mocking toast was delivered in such a flat, dry voice that everyone laughed.

"To that black-lunged, withered old shithead, Spender..." Glasses were raised in the air and solemn voices echoed the toast.

"To the shithead..." And in a small, sleepy voice Matty piped up; he'd been curled in Bill's lap and everyone thought he'd been asleep all this time.

"Mommy... what's a shithead?"

The entire room roared with laughter.

"Mulder... I can walk! You don't have to carry me!" Scully wiggled a little in his arms, and Mulder just grinned and clutched her tighter as he carried her through the snow toward their cabin.

"Yes, I have to carry you, Scully. I'm considering a way to carry you around for the next seven or so months, in fact. Maybe a wife-sized papoose I can mount on my back." His wife snorted into his neck as they neared the cabin; the glow of the front window illuminated her soft expression as she gazed up at him. She pressed a kiss into his chin and her tone was serious when she spoke.

"You would really do it if you could, wouldn't you? Carry me around. I can see you, worrying too much and being over- protective. Mulder," she caught his cheek with a hand, momentarily diverting his attention from opening the door, "I'm going to have a great pregnancy. I admit I was worried at first but right now I feel so good." Mulder huffed a little chuckle as he finally got the door open and carried his precious burden into the warmth of their home, and deposited her gently on the sofa. As he unzipped her parka and tugged off her mukluks his reply was patient and lovingly reasonable.

"You feel good because you're tipsy, Scully... you had three glasses of potent homemade wine. And I sure hope you enjoyed it, because it's the last booze you'll be having until after the baby is weaned from breast-feeding." He set her outerwear aside and stood up to remove his own parka and boots, then smiled down at the adorable picture she made reclining against the cushions of the faded sofa with the glow from the pot belly stove flickering a golden light over her sleepy face. Scully held out her arms and he sank down upon the sofa next to her and took her onto his lap and held her close as she cuddled against him.

"That was some tasty wine, Mulder. It went down very easily and got me all warmed up inside. I didn't even feel the cold when we went outside. I was feeling no pain, Partner..." She giggled into his mouth as he kissed her, unable to resist her for one more second. He spoke against her lips.

"You're still feeling no pain, baby. I think I'd better get you into bed." He stood up with her in his arms and Scully fluttered her lashes at him as they moved into the bedroom. He laid her on top of the quilt and Scully grabbed at Mulder's shirt and yanked him down over her, forcing all the air from his lungs in one abrupt whoosh. He stared down into her impish eyes, feeling himself becoming very rapidly aroused despite his exhaustion. He bracketed her head between his hands and regarded her with a half-smile.

"What's up, Scully?" She squirmed underneath him and he bit back a groan. Her reply was saucy in the extreme.

"Well, by the feel of it... you're up Mulder. Definitely up." She snaked a hand over his denim-covered ass and pressed him down hard. Mulder groaned aloud, then lowered his head until he was a scant fraction of an inch from kissing her - and the dark shadows under her eyes stopped him dead. She was so tired and she didn't even know it...

"Scully, baby - you're wiped out. You need sleep. Just let me turn out the lights in the other room, and get you into something comfortable... this can wait until you're not so tired." He tried to get up and her arms tightened around him, pinning him against her. She growled into his ear.

"The only thing I want gotten into is me - by you. I need you so badly, Mulder... I missed you so. These past days have been awful for both of us. We can sleep in tomorrow, can't we? I promise I'll sleep as much as you want me to - but not now. Please, not now." Her blue eyes glittered up at him, a mixture of desire and heat. Mulder exhaled harshly, knowing he couldn't resist her. He needed her as badly, if not more, than she needed him...

With tender hands he undressed her, kissing each new soft spot of skin bared to his adoring gaze. He removed his own clothes quickly, not letting her move a muscle, wanting her to relax and do nothing more strenuous than accept his worship of her.

He used his mouth to read her body, following the map of her skin as his hands traced and stroked every place he touched with lips and tongue. Against his mouth she sighed and shivered, her fingers flexing into either side of the mattress. Welcoming each other home, that's what they did; while the little stove in their living room kept the deep night warm and heated and their water heater gurgled in the tiny kitchen. While the winter wind blew against the storm windows outside and the roof creaked in mysterious ways. And they had become so accustomed to these frequent sounds in so short a time... they never heard a thing past the pounding of their own hearts as the desire between them spiraled higher.

When Mulder finally slipped into his wife's silky warmth the only thing on his mind was loving her to within an inch of both their lives. The only sound he wanted to hear was the sweet gasps and moans she sent into his ear as she moved beneath his hungry body. The only feeling he needed to feel was the indescribably tight cling of Scully, all around him... the only words that crossed his lips as he tightened and then shuddered within her mere seconds after her climax tore at him... was her name, uttered like a prayer.

Outside the wind blew and inside the fire flickered as they slept, joined hand to hand and body to body.

The gathering hall had been built with many purposes in mind. It served as town hall, schoolhouse, social center and church. It was the latter that Scully sought. Mulder had told her in no uncertain terms that when the time came she would not be going back to Fairbanks to supervise the retrieval of the equipment they had to leave behind. While she agreed that it made sense to let someone else go in her place, she chafed at the restriction. Though she knew he was right and her poor nauseous tummy couldn't take a prolonged helicopter ride... still it was the principle of the thing - it was about the right to dictate to herself, about herself.

Except it wasn't just her anymore. There was a tiny uber-Mulder growing inside of her, a minuscule being that already depended on her for nourishment and protection... So she grudgingly agreed to ask Mary to accompany Skinner, and concentrated her efforts on reading up in the stack of medical journals and research manuals she'd borrowed from the clinic. But after only a few days of concentrated effort at beginning her work on creating a vaccine she was feeling badly out of her depth and was seriously questioning her ability to succeed.

Abandoning the sterile confines of the clinic, she had gathered up her notes and stepped out into the cold to finish the bulk of her heavy reading at home. As she passed the gathering hall she changed her mind and instead stepped into the long, narrow building. She poked her head into each of the rooms, beginning with the room in which she and the other refugees had met the residents of Mt. Vu'luk. She glanced into the schoolroom that held less than a dozen student desks. Several computers were set up on a table in the back of the room. She peered into a third room filled with books and magazines. An old sofa and two worn, but comfortable looking chairs were squeezed into the room. A checkerboard sat on a low table in the corner with two folding chairs on either side. Scully studied some of the titles of the books piled haphazardly on the bookshelves and scattered over the coffee table.

The fourth room yielded the chapel. There were three rows of benches facing a tiny altar. Gleaming brass candlesticks, obviously well polished, stood at each end of the altar. A small pulpit stood to one side and on the wall behind the altar hung a tapestry depicting the creation story from the Bible. Scully sank down onto one of the benches and dug her mother's rosary from her pocket. Silently praying, she lost herself in the exquisite and minute stitches that told the familiar story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Evil.

"Beautiful, isn't it?"

Scully jumped at the sound of the voice coming from behind her. She spun on the bench to find Jon Honea standing in the doorway of the small chapel.

"Eld... Elder Honea," she said, stumbling a little over the unfamiliar title. "I didn't hear you come in." Jon moved the few feet across the room to stand next to her.

"May I?" he asked indicating the spot on the bench beside her. Scully nodded and slid across the polished wood to make room for him.

"Of course," she said politely. Jon sat down and turned his attention to her.

"You may call me Jon," he reminded her softly. Scully blushed and ducked her head.

"I'm sorry, Elder Honea," she said with an embarrassed smile. "Too many years being lectured by the Sisters to respect the collar. I don't think I'd be comfortable calling you by your first name," she said apologetically.

"Ah," Jon nodded knowingly. He glanced down at the rosary knotted around her fingers and then back up to the serious, blue eyes studying him intently. "I remember. You're Catholic." He remarked. Scully's fingers tightened around the silver beads in her hands and she dipped her head in reply.

"Yes."

Jon crossed his legs and leaned one elbow against his knee, propping his chin on his palm as he gazed toward the tapestry. "Do you miss it?" he asked suddenly.

Scully knitted her brow in confusion. "I'm sorry," she said. "I'm not sure I know what you mean." Jon twisted his head to face her and he took his time in answering.

"I wanted to know if you miss your church," he told her simply. Scully lifted one hand to play with the cross glinting at the hollow of her throat. She licked her lips as she considered how best to respond to his question.

"I miss... I miss the ritual of it," she said finally. Jon tilted his head, prompting her to explain further.

"I miss the ritual, the sameness of it," she told him. "No matter what part of the country Mulder and I were in when we were working on a case, if I had time to get to Mass on Sunday, the service was always the same. I... I took comfort in that sameness," she said. Her voice trailed off as she looked around the room. "Everything is so foreign to me here," she said apologetically; she waved her hand around to indicate more than just this quiet place of worship.

Jon nodded, understanding her meaning. "You can still have your rituals," he told her. His smile was kind and Scully was drawn to the wisdom that she saw in his eyes. "You have the lessons learned in childhood," he said. "And you have the tangible reminders of your faith." He gently touched the rosary, and nodded toward the cross around her neck. "Dana, the real question that you need to ask yourself is this: Do you still have your faith?" He watched her expectantly.

Scully thought about his question long and hard. Did she still have faith? Or was she sitting here mindlessly mouthing the Hail Mary because it was the easy and expected thing to do? She studied her hands as she struggled with Jon's question and her gaze fell on the carved band of ivory encircling the ring finger of her left hand and she knew her answer.

"I still have my faith," she said in quiet, resolute voice. "Despite everything that has happened, despite everything I've seen... I have my miracle," she told him as she ran her thumb over the delicate carvings of her wedding band.

"Miracles," he amended, touching his palm lightly to her belly. "This little one is going to be a miracle for all of us, I believe," he said solemnly. Scully lifted a startled gaze to the old man and he smiled into her upturned face gently.

"Mary has told me that both you and Mulder are immune to this virus," he said. "And that there is every reason to expect that this child will be born free of its terrible threat." His eyes were alight with hope. "You are the mother of our future," he told her.

Scully's hand settled protectively over the place where her baby grew. She didn't know what to think of the Elder's quiet proclamation and her mind shied away from it. Jon was aware of her discomfort and he sought to set her at ease.

"Well!" he said heartily as he clasped one of her hands in his. "Perhaps you will see fit to calling me Reverend Jon? A more familiar and comfortable title, for you - and one I find I don't mind in the least," he added, with an impish smile on his face. Scully smiled back and nodded.

"I'd like that," she told him. Jon squeezed her hand.

"Now... I am a Reverend without a job," he told her as he rose to his feet. "I am going to begin holding services here on Sundays. Perhaps you would like to attend?" he asked. "I'll tell everyone in the village. I think it would be good for all of the residents of the village, both old and new, to get together on a weekly basis." Scully smiled hesitantly.

"I'd love to attend Sunday services, Reverend Jon," she said. "But while Mulder has his own faith, he isn't particularly religious," she explained. "I wouldn't count on him to be there." She wrinkled her nose as she thought. "I don't know about Walter, either," she said finally.

Jon glanced back up at the muted colors of the tapestry before turning back to face Scully. He crossed his arms over his chest speaking slowly as he thought out loud. "What if we were to hold a social function after the services?" he wondered. "Do you think everyone would attend?" Scully laughed.

"You mean like a pancake breakfast?" Her eyes were dancing with mischief. Jon smiled back.

"Well maybe not pancakes," he said. "I was thinking more along the lines of lunch." Scully cocked her head to one side as she considered the Elder's suggestion.

"I think that's a splendid idea," she said resolutely. John grinned.

"Then I'll see you on Sunday," he told her.

~ Chapter Twenty-Four ~

Skinner topped off the fuel and locked down the cap on the Hummingbird, shivering a little in the icy breeze. The days were getting so short; another few weeks or so and they would be plunged into months of unrelenting darkness.

He zipped his parka up to his neck and pulled the hood forward, tugging on the cords until the fur trim framed his face warmly and only a small circle of his skin was visible. He loaded in a few last- minute items and waited patiently, knowing Mary would arrive any moment. Skinner wanted to be ready to go, before day broke and then crashed again. With only an hour or so of daylight they didn't have much of a window to at least get in the air and avoid maneuvering through the worst of the taller mountains along the Range.

He was looking forward to this day alone with Mary. He didn't want to admit it to himself - but there it was. The more he got to know her the more she fascinated him; Mary was such a mixture of modern woman and traditional Inupiaq ways. He thought about her often. Skinner snorted derisively as he sprayed de-ice on the copter's chopper blades. Hell... he thought about her all the time! Might as well be truthful... and it was more than a normal male reaction to a lovely woman. Beverly was his age and she was quite pretty. But Skinner did not find her attractive... not in that way. Skinner did not want to drop to his knees in front of Beverly and bury his face against her breasts and taste every inch of her soft creamy skin...

Shit! He tugged at his jeans. What the hell was he thinking of... goddamn jeans were tight enough with the layer of thermals underneath, without making it worse. Skinner sighed, trying in vain to adjust himself more comfortably within the confines of the snug denim. It was going to be a long trip.

Mary's low greeting made him whip about, temporarily forgetting his discomfort. In the gloom of almost-daylight she came toward him, bundled up in her parka and a pair of rubber bunny boots. On anyone else but Mary Honea, those silly-looking boots would have looked, well... silly. Somehow Mary made them look cute. Skinner smiled at her as she drew near, refusing to listen to that inner voice that told him he really had it bad for this woman, if he thought bunny boots could be cute on anyone...

"Morning, Walter... I brought you some hot coffee." Mary walked up to him holding out a large thermos which Skinner took gratefully, glad to have something to do with his hands instead of wishing he could just reach out both of them and grab hold of Mary's sweet little face, and kiss her lips off...

He took a large swallow of the fortifying beverage and re-capped it, then helped Mary get settled and buckled in. And he took a deep breath as he walked around to get into the pilot seat. They had a long, weary day ahead of them, trying to cram as much of the broken down scope into the copter and then fly it back to the village. It would probably take more than one trip. Skinner glanced over at Mary and his mouth said banal things such as, "Ready to go..." while his eyes stared hers down and whispered to her, "I want you... now..."

Mary swallowed visibly and nodded... quite forgetting how to speak. Skinner accelerated and lifted - and they were off.

Above the clattering roar of an ancient Hoover vacuum cleaner, Mulder heard the copter as it lifted, and he grinned to himself as he ran the cleaner over the last spot of carpeting and shut the noisy thing off. Scully looked up from the research manual she had been reading, and commented, "That piece of junk needs to be put out of its misery, Mulder... where did you find it?" Mulder wrapped the cord around the handle of the cleaner and set it by the door, before plopping down onto the sofa next to his wife.

"Tara found it in that shed behind her cabin. It still sucks... sort of." Mulder cackled at his own inane joke, while Scully just shook her head and buried her nose in her manual. Mulder poked at her with one wool-covered foot.

"Did you hear the copter? Skinner and Mary took off." Scully looked up again, and nodded.

"I heard it - barely - above that ungodly din you were creating with that dinosaur of a cleaner. And why don't you call him 'Walter'? He specifically asked us to." Mulder shook his head, amusing himself by burrowing his big toe under Scully's flannel-covered bottom.

"I can't seriously call him Walter... any more than I could call you 'Dana'. I've tried and it just doesn't feel right. Old habits, baby..." Scully squirmed as his foot caught a ticklish spot and her hand reached out to grasp at his foot.

"Mulder, that tickles! And if you can call me 'baby' then I don't see why you can't call Walter by his name. What's the difference? The word 'baby' was something new to get used to, and you managed just fine, right?" Mulder grinned and pulled at his foot, dragging Scully along with it until she was within grabbing distance, then pounced on her and tugged her body over his as he reclined against the sofa cushions. He cradled her between his legs and played with the ends of her hair, vaguely noting how long it was getting.

"That's different... I was thinking of you in terms of 'baby' long before I would even contemplate thinking of Skinner in 'Walter' mode..." Scully rolled her eyes and propped her chin on his chest as he continued to finger her hair.

"Well whatever, Mulder. I'm just glad I was able to talk Mary into going, even if I was initially pissed off at your refusal to let me go. But you were right - and I sure wasn't looking forward to another attack of copter-nausea." Scully rubbed at her stomach for good measure. Mulder stroked his hand up and down her back gently, and she arched against him like a contented little cat. His voice was low with concern over the nausea issue.

"You're not still queasy, are you, Scully? I mean, this is just normal pregnancy queasiness, right?" She raised her head at the note of worry in his tone and smiled at him reassuringly.

"It's perfectly normal, Mulder. I will feel nauseous off and on for several months. Besides," her voice got impish, "Nausea was a damn good excuse to get Mary on the trip instead of me... she'll get to spend some quality time with Walter. There is a madness to my method," she concluded with lofty purpose. Mulder chuckled and cupped her rosy cheek, feeling her answering grin against his palm.

"Why, you little matchmaker... of course it doesn't take much making to get them to match, I would think. Skinner's got a definite thing for Mary." Scully nodded thoughtfully.

"Mmmm, yes... I wonder what's holding them back. I have a feeling it's more Mary than Walter. I see the way she looks at him, though... and I know she wants him. But maybe it's too soon after her husband's death. Maybe there are traditional constraints concerning mourning periods, in Native culture. Mary is extremely traditional. But how I would love to see her happy... as I would Walter. They both deserve happiness, Mulder... we all do." Scully laid her cheek against her husband's taut abdomen, taking comfort in the steady rise and fall of his breathing. She added softly, "And now that we have it, I would like to see our friends have it as well."

Mulder stroked her bright head and smiled to himself, thinking Skinner would find a way to get what he wanted.

Bill and Patrick moved the last of the small tables out of the largest exam room in the clinic, and cleared out a filing cabinet and several chairs. Wiping his forehead Bill gave the empty room the once- over, trying to picture in his mind how large the electron scope had looked when it was assembled. He was reasonably sure they'd chosen a room large enough.

Beside him Patrick commented, "It'll be tight, but I think we can fit everything in here. You think Dana will have trouble getting it to work once we put it back together?" Bill shrugged and slipped into his parka and dug through the pockets for his gloves.

"I hope not. She says re-calibration can be tough on these delicate scopes. But Mary has used one before and between the two of them they should be able to do it. Mary's going to go through some of the files in that lab, and see if the manuals are still there. If they are she'll grab them." Bill tugged his watch cap into place and slapped Patrick on the back, adding, "Come over for lunch, Pat - Tara made pizza." At the mention of pizza, Patrick's eyes got big and he shook his head in disbelief.

"How the hell did she do that? Where would she get the stuff to make a pizza?"

Bill shrugged again, a proud smile playing over his mouth at the thought of his wife's innate determination. When Tara wanted something... whoo boy, watch out. And she was a pizza hound; always had been. He grinned at his friend.

"My wife wanted a pizza. That's all I know. I was afraid to ask her anything else..."

"How many more minutes, Tara? I'm dying over here!" Scully sat on the edge of her chair and shamelessly inhaled the aroma of baking pizza. It smelled glorious... and she was still amazed at Tara's ability to make a feast like pizza out of almost nothing even remotely pizza-related. And it had all started with goat cheese...

When Beverly knocked on Scully's door a few mornings ago with a block of white goat's cheese wrapped in cloth, Scully's first instinct had been to refuse it. Her stomach was especially delicate in the morning and the pungent cheese had just about wiped her out. She'd tried to beg off politely, claiming she had lactose intolerance. Beverly had seen right through her and had pressed the smelly cheese into her hands.

"Don't give me that, Dana. You need dairy and so does the baby. Goat cheese is better than cow cheese for pure protein and calcium. If you bake the cheese it goes very bland - really it does. Take it -and eat some every day." With a smile and a pat on her very slightly rounded tummy Beverly had taken herself off. Scully had stared down at the odiferous package in her hand, feeling herself going a little green around the gills... Three minutes later she was pounding on Tara's door.

Tara was sympathetic about the smell... that was about it. After she dragged her pasty-faced sister-in-law into the house and made her sit down on a kitchen chair Tara had unwrapped the cheese and crumbled some of it, biting into a piece and declaring if one could get past the smell, it was damn good cheese. Scully had scoffed.

"It smells like old toes, Tara... not that I go around sniffing them, either. But I'd be willing to bet they'd smell like goat cheese. I could never get it past my nose to eat it." Tara had stared her down, a gleam of challenge in her eyes.

"If I could make this cheese into something not only edible but delicious, Dana... would you at least eat a little? You need it. I haven't seen you drink a single glass of milk, and calcium tablets only do so much. I know goat's milk is potent stuff, and I know how you feel about milk unless it's loaded with Hershey's syrup." Scully had the grace to blush, but she glared at Tara, before eyeing the cloth- wrapped cheese. Well, she couldn't deny that she'd really missed eating the stuff... she sighed.

"Okay, you're on, Tara..."

Now Tara opened up the old oven and extracted a hot, fragrant pizza she'd baked on a cookie sheet. Both women salivated at the smell of their favorite food. Tara set it on the counter to cool and Scully stared at it, amazed that her sister-in-law had actually found a way to do this. Considering they had no ingredients anywhere in the village for standard pizza...

Or so they'd thought.

Mulder burst through the door with his nose in the air, sniffing for all he was worth. Hot on his heels came Michael and Bill, with Patrick closing in fast. The men folk stopped short at the sight of a hot bubbling pie cooling on the old cracked counter in Tara's kitchen... Mulder was almost drooling. He grabbed his brother- in-law's wife around her narrow waist and bent her backwards over his arm in a dramatic swoon, growling, "You're my kind of woman, Tara Scully..."

Tara laughed at his goofy antics and demanded to be released, while Bill grabbed a knife and started slicing. He called encouragingly to his wife's captor as he cut.

"Keep her busy, Mulder - or she'll eat all the pizza and we won't get any..."

Twenty minutes later there wasn't a crumb left, and Scully was patting her stuffed belly and burping delicately behind her napkin. Bill lolled on a kitchen chair and groaned out loud.

"Damn, Pat... why'd you let me eat so much?" Pat snorted as he chugged the last of his water.

"Like I could stop you, Man..." Tara grinned at all of them and stood up to dump their dishes in the sink; as she passed her husband she was snagged and pulled onto his knees and hugged tightly. Bill rubbed his nose into her neck, making her squeal.

"Tara, as always I am humbled by your culinary talents... that was one hell of a pizza. And it breaks my heart that Walter and Mary aren't here to share in this delight... all the more for us, fortunately. Now tell us what was in it."

>From across the room Scully chuckled, leaning back in Mulder's arms as he snuggled with her on the little sofa. Her mischievous eyes met those of her sister- in-law's, and Tara shrugged and nodded.

"Go ahead - tell them." Scully grinned and took a deep breath.

"Well, the cheese - that's easy to figure out, I'm sure. Beverly was right; baking it does mellow it out a lot. The sauce was made from some home-canned tomatoes Beverly's cousin Bette had sent her from Barrow. The meat is reindeer sausage; Warren makes it every spring. And the crust is made from the sourdough starter Sarah gave us the second day we were here... she told me it's from starter she'd kept going for over thirty years." Scully grinned again and nodded toward the children's bedroom, where Matty and Meggie were napping. She added, "Whatever you guys do don't tell Matty you were eating Rudolph!"

After about the fifth trip up to the hospital roof and back down, Skinner and Mary were both exhausted. They'd packed pieces of the electron microscope as compactly as possible but it was obvious they'd need to make another trip out for the rest of it.

Leaning up against the wall of the elevator, Skinner toyed with the idea of staying in town for the night rather than fly back in the dark - and decided against it. He didn't know Fairbanks at all, but even if he'd been familiar with the place there was no way he'd make Mary stay in town tonight.

Not with the overwhelming stench of death everywhere.

Fairbanks was in worse shape than a few short weeks ago when they'd come through the town and stayed the night at the Regency Hotel. The dead littered the streets, the roads; abandoned cars were full of them... buildings as well. A thick dusting of new winter snow lay over everything, giving it a deceptively pristine look - if one didn't look too closely at the carnage under the snow. It had been especially hard on Mary, Skinner knew. She was silent and stoic and strong as she stepped over decomposing bodies, a hand clapped over her nose and mouth - and she never complained as they carried loads of scope pieces up to the roof and packed up the copter.

When they could fit no more into the copter and still have room for themselves, Skinner called it a night, and they took the elevator one last time down to the scope room, to collect their heavy winter gear. Mary stood stiff and resolute in the corner of the elevator, staring at the floor as they moved down. And Skinner found he couldn't take it anymore; her silence was beginning to worry him. From the moment they'd stepped into the elevator on the roof, until that last load of parts... she'd been tight-lipped and pale. Skinner knew what had to be going through her mind...

He moved over to the corner and reached out a hand to press into her shoulder. And at that warm touch Mary splintered. She trembled and shuddered and turned into the warm arms of the big man who made her feel fragile and more of a woman than she'd ever felt in her life... Her tears came thick and fast and boiling hot, drenching him. Not a problem; Skinner had wide shoulders.

More than wide enough to absorb her pain... more than enough.

Skinner held her tightly and stroked a hand over her shining hair as she sobbed it out in the elevator. They hit the third floor and the doors opened but they didn't get out - they stayed there and held each other. Mary cried - great, hitching sobs of residual pain -pain that had not been released in so very long. She cried for her mother, still fallen in the greenhouse of the pretty little church and rectory where she'd lived most of her life, in what she had always considered a safe haven from any storm. She cried for all of her brothers and sisters and their families; for the baby nephews and nieces she'd never meet and for the future they would never have. She cried for the life of her husband, cut short even though when his time had come he'd been engaged in the work he loved the best... instead of the hapless victim of an inhuman menace.

Mary Honea cried.

Walter Skinner held her and in a broken rasp of a voice promised her she'd never be alone again in her life; promised her he'd take care of her and her father regardless of where life took them. And Mary clung to that promise as tightly as she clung to Skinner - responding fully when he cradled her face in his big hands, and covered her cheeks with soft healing kisses, before he swept her more fully into his arms and kissed her deeply. The way he'd wanted to kiss her, for weeks... the way a man kisses a woman that he adores.

All the death and decay of innocent lives taken so cruelly was temporarily forgotten, as they kissed with increasing passion. Mary found herself pinned against the elevator wall, trapped between the cool metal and Skinner's hot skin. She clutched at his flannel shirt and hung on as her world tilted dizzily. She had not expected this... had not thought it possible to need this, yet. Her body was more than ready for it, though - even if her heart and emotions were not.

For Skinner the desire had come upon him so quickly that he'd been able to do little more than just react. He'd gone from comforter to would-be ravisher, zero to sixty in about one second flat. Before his brain could scream at him to proceed with a little finesse he'd wedged a hard knee between Mary's slender thighs, and had pressed into her softness with demanding insistence. He groaned into her mouth and molded her body to his, big hands gripping her low on her back, holding her away from the wall and into the curve of his need. The kiss went on and on, now hard, now gentle; tongues curling and mating... dueling for dominance and then tasting with delicate precision.

God... it had been so long since a man had kissed her like this...

Jesus... he couldn't remember the last time a woman had made him respond to a kiss like this...

And it would have lasted forever, but they had to breathe. And when they broke apart to gulp in needed oxygen, they also inhaled the persistent stagnant poison of colonization... which brought them both to their respective senses as nothing else could have done. Mary buried her face in Skinner's chest and choked out a coughing sob. Wordlessly he held her head and whispered comforting nonsense as she shuddered with lingering desire and despair.

Finally she sniffled one last time and raised tear-ravaged eyes to his, whispering hoarsely, "Walter... I am so sorry... I don't mean to lead you somewhere I am not ready to go, yet. Forgive me..." She made to pull away and Skinner held her fast, shaking his head and tenderly cupping her wet cheek.

"I should be the one apologizing to you, Mary. I know you're not ready for this. I could have used some couth." He stared into her drenched eyes and gently kissed each one closed, before adding, "Just know this. When you are ready for me... I'll be here. As long as it takes. Okay?" Mary trembled out a smile and nodded, relieved and touched to her soul at the overwhelming kindness and generosity of this wonderful man.

"Okay..."

Jon Honea had sharp eyes, for an old man who needed glasses but was too stubborn to wear them.

He had lived by the shrewdness of his eyesight and the wisdom of his ancestors, for many years. That insight had made him a strong Elder and the leader of his congregation in Whitehorse, at a relatively young age. It had also afforded him an intuition where his loved ones were concerned.

In particular his treasure, Mary.

Jon's pride in his youngest daughter was fierce, on many different levels. She'd worked her way through college, attending the University of Alaska Southeast while working full-time for the state legislative office in Juneau. She'd helped build her brother James' log home, just outside of Juneau proper - and she'd helped deliver Michael when she was still in nursing school. She was brave and loyal and so strong it made his heart ache to think of it; of that dark time just a year ago when her strength was put to the test in the worst possible way...

Jon Honea had tried to imagine what his beloved child had been forced to endure that black day when Calvin died. He had never been able to fathom the pain of it... never. The trapping trip which had started out so promising... the happy trek around Delta Lake, setting their traps and enjoying their time together out in Nature's bounty... the horrible !snap! of the steel bear trap as it slipped out of Calvin's gloved hands when he tripped over the heavy bolt chain and fell on it just as it clamped shut on his leg. The hopelessness Mary must have felt as her husband slipped in and out of consciousness and her physical strength was nowhere near enough to pry the trap jaws open.

The awful knowledge that to save his life she would have to sever his leg... and the weary hopelessness of dragging her bleeding husband through the woods, up to the main road - knowing his life was draining from him with every tug on his battered body.

Jon Honea remembered the telling of it, there in the hospital when he'd cradled his sobbing daughter in his arms and felt helpless to ease her suffering as she blamed herself for her husband's death. Trapping accidents happened all the time - this he'd told her. Trapping was dangerous work - especially bear trapping. Calvin had been trapping for years; he knew all the risks. So did Mary. In the end it hadn't mattered. Mary became a widow at twenty-nine... and a vital part of her died that day.

Now, Jon Honea saw a rekindling of what she'd lost a year ago. It was subtle and well hidden... but Jon had sharp eyes.

"Mary, love... come to me." Jon Honea sat up in bed and struggled to place a pillow behind his head. He'd been dozing lightly, toying with the decision to get up a bit early and begin work on the sermon he planned on delivering before the Sunday Gathering. Their third Sunday, and it had been a rousing success. Everyone came and listened, and everyone stayed for the fellowship. It was wonderfully heartwarming - and had given Jon new purpose. He found himself eager to rise early and pore through his Bible for just the right wording and the best lesson he could create.

Mary entered the bedroom in time to help her father push the pillows up enough for him to sit, and he thanked her with a smile as he straightened the covers, and caught at her hand when she would have left again.

"Sit with me a moment, Daughter... I want to talk to you." He patted the bed and Mary smiled as she nodded and sat close to her father, holding his gnarled hand. Jon looked into his child's eyes, searching for that subtle rekindling - seeing it - and nodding in satisfaction when he spotted it. Mary caught the nod and her eyebrows quirked in curiosity.

"What's on your mind, Dad? You feeling all right?" Mary placed her free hand on her father's forehead and Jon caught that hand as well, hanging onto both of them. He nodded again, reassuring her.

"I feel very well, child. Better than I have felt in a long time. But I have been awake this morning, since before you got up. Thinking about my sermon for Sunday, piecing together the lesson I want to give everyone. I thought perhaps you might not mind listening to me and seeing if you think it makes sense." He watched her with those shrewd eyes, and Mary smiled and squeezed his hands gently.

"Dad, you know I love to listen to your sermon plans and help you. Tell me your ideas." She made herself more comfortable on the bed and gave Jon her full attention. He looked up at the ceiling for a moment, as if collecting his thoughts - then he spoke.

"I wanted to comment on the precious rarity of life, Mary - in these times of ours it is more rare than ever, I think. My soul is old and tired, Daughter - it has seen its share of sadness and pain. As have we all..." Jon watched his daughter's eyes grow cloudy with a shade of that pain, and he stroked his thumb over her palm tenderly as he continued.

"I think I want to tell our friends that life is a most wonderful gift - and we should never spend a second of it in wasteful occupations. That we should gather for ourselves whatever measure of happiness can be taken and rejoice in the renewal of love and the resurgence of the passions found within our hearts." Jon Honea held his daughter's widening, suddenly comprehensive gaze, as she absorbed and processed his words. Her lips parted but no words came out. Jon chuckled a little at her shock, and added, "It has been a year, Daughter - the season to mourn is over. You have a chance at a new life with a man who loves you - and that season is now just beginning. I want you to take what you need, with my blessing."

Mary frowned and shook her head in disbelief, murmuring, "How did you... never mind. Dad - I am not finished with the mourning time! I have another year -" Jon raised a finger and pressed it to her lips and her words faded into nothing as he replied with a smile.

'No, Mary. You have mourned enough. I am your father as well as your Elder. It is my decision to change the traditions, if I desire -and I choose to do just that. Take your happiness, child - for no one deserves it more than you do." He let go of her hands and held out his arms, gathering his precious daughter close to his heart. And when she laughed into his neck he laughed with her... and when he felt a warm tear dampen his cheek, Jon Honea was never sure if it came from her eye - or his.

It didn't matter... not at all.

~ Chapter Twenty-Five ~

Mulder yawned and stretched, rolling his head against the pillows to find Scully's side of the bed empty. She had continued to struggle with nausea over the last few weeks. Worriedly glancing toward the bathroom, he saw that the door was open and the room was empty. He could hear the quiet clatter of dishes coming from the kitchen and he frowned as he glanced at his watch. It was only six o'clock in the morning. He slipped out of bed and made a quick trip to the bathroom before going into the kitchen to find out what had Scully up and about so early in the day.

He crept quietly out of the bedroom and leaned against the wall for a moment, watching her from behind. She was facing the counter and he couldn't see what had captured her attention so thoroughly. She had stolen one of his flannel shirts when they had first arrived in Mt. Vu'luk, commandeering it for a pajama top - and she was wearing it this morning with a pair of blue thermal leggings.

She looked adorable, especially from this sweet view... Mulder cleared his throat so as not to startle her, and called to her in a voice still gravelly from sleep.

"Morning," he said softly. All of his precautions not to startle her failed and she shrieked softly, spinning around to face him with one hand clapped over her heart. She lowered her hand from her chest and braced both hands behind her on the countertop.

"Jesus, Mulder!" she admonished. "You nearly scared me to death!" Mulder narrowed his eyes as he studied her from the doorway. He was reasonably sure she was hiding something behind her as she kept a death grip on the countertop. He sauntered across the room, intent on finding out what was back there.

"Whatcha doing up so early?" he inquired in a low voice. Scully tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and shook her head.

"Nothing," she told him. He watched her shift slightly to the left and pull herself to her full height and he suppressed a smile as he stalked her across the room.

"Really? Because I usually have to drag you out of bed," he told her. He inched closer and she continued to hold her ground, blocking the counter and trying to look casual.

"I just couldn't sleep this morning," she said. "Indigestion," she said, patting her stomach, hoping to divert him with a pitiful look. Instead, she succeeded only in looking guilty. Mulder pursed his lips and made a sympathetic sound.

"Poor baby," he crooned. He pasted a look of concern on his face and was more successful in fooling her because she let down her guard slightly, thinking that he had believed her.

"I just came out here to get something to drink," she said as she continued her story. She looked over his shoulder toward the bedroom. "Why don't you go back to bed," she suggested. "I'll be right there," she promised with a hopeful look on her face. Mulder nodded, fighting to keep his face bland, and began to turn toward the bedroom. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Scully move away from the counter and he spun back around, feinting to the left and slipping between her body and the counter.

"What's this?" he crowed as he looked down. Scully pushed against his chest, forcing him back from the counter. She huffed out an irritated breath or two.

"It's your birthday cake, you brat. I wanted to surprise you with it - cake in bed," she told him in an injured tone. Mulder looked down at the cake and then back up at Scully. He had lost track of the days and had completely forgotten it was his birthday.

"Did you bake this morning?" he asked, wondering how he could have possibly slept through the production of a cake baking in the house. Scully rolled her eyes.

"Of course not," she told him. "I told Mary yesterday that it was your birthday and we went back to her cabin to bake this. I snuck it into the kitchen last night while you were reading and I got up early this morning to finish it."

Mulder was unbearably touched, as he looked down at the small cake. A thick layer of raspberry preserves and whipped cream was sandwiched between two sponge cakes. A generous dollop of preserves and extra cream decorated the top of the cake as well. He stuck out one finger and scooped up a tiny bit of the topping. Slipping his finger into his mouth he moaned as the sweet cream and sticky preserves rolled over his tongue. He really was touched - somehow Scully had found a way to make goats' cream taste like regular whipped cream...

"Mmmm," he sighed. Scully smiled at his groan of ecstasy. Mulder sucked the last of the cream from his finger and regarded his wife with melting appreciation, commenting, "I can't even remember the last time I tasted anything that sweet... present company excepted, of course." He wiggled his eyebrows at her suggestively and Scully laughed out loud at his silliness. She pointed to the chair in front of him.

"Why don't you sit down at the table," she said. "Since you're up, we might as well eat now." She rooted through a drawer and pulled out a knife. Mulder grabbed her wrist in his hand and took the knife from her. He sliced two generous pieces of the cake and slid them onto a plate. Setting down the knife, he picked up the plate and caught her fingers with his other hand. Tugging her along behind him, he looked over his shoulder at her, calculated seduction written all over his face. Scully shivered as his reply floated back to her ears.

"I like your original plan better," he said softly. And with her heart thumping against her chest she hurried to keep up as her husband's long strides ate up the distance to the bedroom.

Mulder set the plate down on the nightstand and slid under the blankets, propping his back on the pillows mounded against the headboard. He patted the empty space on the mattress next to him and held up the covers invitingly. Scully cocked her head to one side and slipped into the bed, crawling over the mattress to straddle his legs. Smiling into his surprised face, she lifted the plate from the nightstand and held it between them.

"Comfy?" he asked archly. Scully nodded and broke off a piece of cake. Licking whipped cream from her thumb she nodded.

"Very," she told him as she nibbled on another piece of cake. Mulder smiled and the two of them made quick work of the decadent breakfast. A small dollop of the cake's filling remained on the plate and Scully scooped it up with two fingers. Leaning forward, she held it out to him and Mulder's lips closed over her fingers as she slipped the confection into his mouth. He sucked the preserves and whipped cream from her fingers until each digit was thoroughly cleaned.

"Delicious," he whispered. Scully studied him through half-closed eyes and she leaned forward and closed her mouth over his. His lips parted on a sigh and her tongue slipped inside to rub against his. He tasted of berries and cream and Mulder and she slid up his thighs to settle more comfortably into his lap. He breathed out a groan as she pressed down into him.

"Happy Birthday, Mulder," she murmured against his lips. She could feel the stirrings of his arousal beneath her and she squirmed in his lap to encourage him to reach his full potential.

Mulder groaned again as his hips bucked upward, his erection seeking her through the layers of flannel and cotton. "Since it's my birthday," he gasped against her mouth, "do I get to choose how we spend it?"

Scully slipped her fingers under the long- sleeved T-shirt he was wearing to run her hands over his smoothly muscled chest.

"No," she whispered as she trailed moist lips over his bristled chin, her tongue darting out to explore and taste the sensitive skin just below his jaw. "But I told Mary that I might be late getting to the clinic this morning." She lightly bit down on his earlobe as she spoke. Mulder shivered and slipped his hands under the flannel shirt she wore, tracing the curve of her spine as she reveled in his touch.

Leaning back, with Mulder tracking her every move, Scully began to unfasten the row of buttons that marched down the front of her shirt. She shrugged her shoulders and the shirt slipped down her arms to pool across the blanket covering his lower legs. The little stove in the other room could not completely take the chill off of the bedroom and Mulder watched with avid interest as the cool air washed over her exposed flesh, tightening her nipples and raising gooseflesh along her arms. She rose up on her knees and hooked her fingers into the waistband of her thermal pants, pushing them down her legs. She shifted her weight onto one knee and clutched his shoulder with her hand for balance so that she could slide the other leg from the thermals. Her breast brushed close to Mulder's face with her movements and he leaned forward to capture the sweet nipple between his lips. Scully's fingers wound into his hair, cradling his head as he gently nuzzled her tender breast. She pulled away with a regretful sigh and finished wriggling out of her clothes. Nude, she settled back down onto his lap.

Scully had learned that Mulder enjoyed bringing all five senses into play when they made love. His fingers would skim lightly over her flesh, his lips and tongue tasting as he breathed deeply of her scent. A tiny smile would curl his lips as he listened to her hoarse cries of pleasure. But most of all - Mulder liked to watch. She arched her spine a little and smoothed her hands over both breasts, fingers toying with her damp nipples.

Mulder emitted a harsh gasp, feeling himself twitch beneath her. He clenched his hands upon her hips and muttered, "You are such a tease, baby... I like it."

His impudent wife merely smiled, and wriggled upon him again, for good measure.

Mulder's hands relaxed on the rounded curve of her hips as his eyes drank their fill of her naked form perched in his lap. It might be too soon to tell, but he thought he could detect the early signs of her body changing as their child grew inside her womb. Surely her breasts were heavier, riper - and didn't he detect just the slightest thickening of her tiny waist? His fingers slid from her hips and he measured her waist between his hands, skimming over her ribcage to delicately cup her breasts in his palms. He leaned forward and pressed a tiny, affectionate kiss to the ripe tip of each breast as he peered up into her shining eyes.

"I don't have a birthday present for you," she said as she again arched into his touch. He shook his head against her breast and his voice was muffled as his tongue traced patterns over the tiny blue veins visible beneath the milky, white flesh.

"Everything I could ever want," he said as he slipped one hand over her belly and dipped the other hand between her legs, "is right here."

Scully moaned and her head fell back onto her shoulders as his clever fingers danced over her hot, wet flesh. Her fingers clutched the cotton covering his arms as he drove her up higher and higher. The muscles in her legs tightened and she could feel the tension coiling low in her belly. She panted as the pressure built and built, finally breaking - and she fell forward, trembling, burying her face in the curve of his throat.

She felt his fingers slow and the occasional press of his thumb against her caused her body to shiver. She lifted her face from its hiding spot and pushed back skeins of damp, tangled hair from her face.

"Hey - it's your birthday. I'm supposed to be making love to you," she told him, unable to muster up even the smallest note of regret as tiny jolts of pleasure continued to pulse through her. Mulder shook his head as he leaned forward and licked each nipple gently.

"There's time," he told her as he smiled into her eyes. She nodded and grasped the hem of his T-shirt in her hands, dragging it up his chest and over his head. She threw it onto the mattress and buried her face back into the curve of his throat, her tongue swirling over the pulse that was beginning to beat a little more quickly beneath her wandering mouth.

Once again her body settled over his, her lips rubbing against him before drawing his lower lip into her mouth to suckle daintily on it. Her tongue traced over the little crease below his lip and she wrapped her arms tightly around his neck, rubbing her tender breasts lightly against his chest and scraping her cheek over the bristled roughness of his.

Her hands trailed over his shoulders and down his chest, her fingers playing with the hair sprinkled lightly over his belly. She toyed with the drawstring of his pajama bottoms before tugging at the knot. She rose up onto her knees and Mulder eagerly arched his hips from the bed as she tugged the flannel down and off his legs.

Scully's lips burned a path down his chest and her tongue slid out to tease the soft, sensitive skin of his stomach. She wrapped strong fingers around him, testing the strength and mapping the length of his hardened flesh. She shifted to lay between his legs, nestling her cheek against the velvety skin covering his erection. "It's your birthday, Mulder," she whispered to him. "How do you want it?" She turned her head and her tongue darted out to lap up the tiny bead of moisture that had welled up on the smooth head of his penis.

Mulder groaned, his hips twitching under her teasing mouth and fingers, and he grabbed at her shoulders with desperate hands.

"In you," he panted. "I want to be inside of you." Scully's breath caught at the raw look of need etched on her husband's face and she crawled up the length of his body to kiss him soundly. Then she straddled his hips with her knees and reached for his hand. Wrapping his own fingers around his hot, silky flesh, she braced her palms on the mattress on either side of him and stopped, poised over his body. Mulder settled his other hand on her hip as he guided himself to her damp heat. He sucked in a breath as she sank slowly... so slowly along his length until at last he was deeply imbedded within her. God... nothing could ever feel this good. Since her pregnancy had begun to make changes in her body he felt how much tighter she'd become. Tighter... wetter. Hotter...

"Shit," he hissed as she impaled herself on him. His head fell back against the pillows behind him and he watched through hooded eyes as Scully rose onto her knees again, sliding up his length until he almost slipped out of her before pushing back down. She rose and fell above him in a slow, steady rhythm and her hair swished forward as she labored above him. Mulder scraped the silky locks away from her face so that he could see the flush creeping over her cheeks and watch her eyes darken and dilate as the pleasure mounted again.

Scully lifted her hands from the bed and braced them against the quivering muscles of his stomach. His open-mouthed breathing was harsh in the early morning stillness of their bedroom and she picked up her pace, rising and falling more quickly, grinding her hips into his every time she sank down onto him.

His eyes were now mere slits of hazel and he rolled his head against the pillow as the ecstasy built. His fingers and toes tingled and he knew it wouldn't be much longer. "Can't wait," he ground out through clenched teeth. Scully leaned toward him and buried her lips in his neck.

"Don't wait," she murmured against his damp flesh. "Don't wait," she moaned again, "I'm almost there..." as she bit down on the tendon running along the side of his neck.

Mulder dug his heels into the mattress and lifted his hips from the bed, grinding himself into her, panting, shuddering, and crying out her name as waves of gratification flowed through him.

Scully's hands were braced on his shoulders as she rocked over him. Her movements grew erratic and he sank his fingers into the soft flesh of her hips, helping her maintain her rhythm until she gasped softly, her body clenching around him like a tiny fist before she sank limply against him.

They clutched each other's damp bodies with weakened limbs until their breathing slowed. Scully nestled her cheek into the hollow of his throat as her body periodically clenched and pulsed around him. She raised her head and their mouths met in a long, slow mating of lips and teeth and tongues. They parted breathlessly and Mulder moved suddenly, rolling Scully beneath him and rising up above her. Her eyes widened as she felt him stir with renewed interest against her heated flesh.

"Not bad for a forty-year-old," he groaned against her temple as he drove into her again. With her last remaining spurt of energy Scully wrapped her legs around his hips and pushed.

'Not bad'? She sighed as she met the languid thrust of his hips. Actually, it was pretty damn good....

The best.

Scully closed the medical reference book she had been studying and stacked her notes in a neat pile. She couldn't concentrate with the racket that Bill and Patrick were making as they began to reassemble the electron microscope in the examination room down the hall. She pushed her chair back and stood, snatching her parka from a hook on the back of the office door.

Poking her head into the room at the end of the hall, she caught her brother's attention. "Hey Bill," she called. He looked up and pushed his hair out of his eyes. "How is it going?" she asked.

Bill straightened and planted his hands on his hips as he looked around the room at the various pieces of the dismantled microscope. "We figure it's going to take about..." he paused and turned to look at the other man who was sitting on the floor studying the notes he had made when they had taken the microscope apart back in Fairbanks. "What's our best guess, Patrick?" he asked. The dark haired man glanced up and surveyed the scattered pieces of the microscope. He knew that it looked like complete chaos in the room, but he and Bill had very carefully laid out each piece of the broken down equipment so that they would be able to reassemble it in the quickest possible way. Patrick scratched his head and tucked a pencil behind his ear.

"About two days," he said, looking up at Scully. She nodded and fought down a sigh at the delay. Well, she thought, she wasn't actually ready to use the microscope anyway. First things first...

"Do you know where Mulder is?" she asked as she tugged her parka on and zipped it up. Bill didn't look up as he struggled to lift a piece of the equipment and move it against the wall.

"I think I saw him and Walter heading out toward the barn," he grunted as he pushed the heavy piece of machinery out of the way. Scully watched for another moment as he and Patrick consulted their notes again before spinning around and heading for the door. She needed to find Mulder.

Scully tugged the hood of her parka over her head and pushed open the door of the clinic, stepping out into the cold. She was still trying to acclimate to a world without sun. Mary had explained that would stay completely dark like this for a couple of months and then the sun would begin to creep back out for short periods until the summer months when they would have eighty- seven days of constant sunlight. Scully shook her head. She didn't know that she would adjust to that any easier than she was getting used to this unrelenting darkness. She hurried through the village intent on tracking down her husband.

She stepped into welcoming warmth of the barn and stopped near the goats' pen. She leaned over the rail as the youngest of the small herd ambled toward her on its spindly little legs. Scully laughed as the baby goat pushed its wet nose into her hand, looking for something to eat; she scratched its head lightly.

"Hey sweetie," she whispered as she gave the little goat a final pat on the head. "I'll see you later." She straightened and followed the sound of voices to the back of the barn where she found Mulder and Walter chopping wood. Both men had stripped down to the long-sleeved T-shirts they had been wearing under their flannel shirts and she watched Mulder lift the axe over his head and swing it down in a smooth, powerful arc, splitting the wood into two pieces. He dropped the axe and leaned down to scoop up the splintered pieces of wood. As he straightened, he caught sight of his wife waiting and watching. Her cheeks and nose were pink from the cold and he couldn't resist walking over and stealing a kiss.

"What are you doing all the way out here?" he asked as he pressed his overheated cheek against the refreshing coolness of hers. Scully wrapped her arms around his waist and hugged him tightly. She stretched up on her toes to peer over his shoulder, addressing her comments to their former boss.

"Can I steal him for a few minutes, Walter?" she asked sweetly. "I need his help at the clinic." Skinner nodded and waved a dismissive hand toward them as he set another log down on the chopping block.

"Take him for as long as you need," he offered. "I might actually get some work done if I don't have to listen to his constant chattering." Skinner's words were serious but his eyes were laughing as he watched an indignant look spread over the younger man's face.

"Hey!" Mulder protested. "I did my fair share," he said as he jutted his chin toward the large pile of wood stacked in the corner of the barn. "Half of that is mine," he told his wife earnestly. Scully smiled and held out his parka.

"I'm sure you've been working very hard," she said soothingly. "It's all very manly and rugged and if I didn't need your help at the clinic, I'd take you home and have my way with you," she said as she pulled him toward the barn door. They left the warmth of the barn behind and Mulder crowded close to Scully, trying to steer her toward their cabin.

"We have to pass the house on the way to the clinic." He pointed toward the small structure of their cabin less than a hundred yards away. "I can be fast," he said hopefully. Scully twisted away from his grasping hands and headed toward the clinic. She turned around and was walking backwards, laughing when Mulder stopped in his tracks and continued to stubbornly point toward their cabin with a hopeful expression on his face.

"You know Mulder, that's not really a selling point," she told him loftily. Mulder pressed his lips together and glanced again toward their cabin before shifting his gaze back to her and then beyond to the clinic. Suddenly he broke into a run and sprinted toward her. Scully's eyes widened as she spun around and raced toward the clinic. She could hear his heavy footfalls in the snow behind her and she shrieked as a strong arm caught her around the waist, lifting her from her feet. She was laughing as he set her back down and her lips curved against his as he clutched the fur trim of her hood in his fists and pulled her into his kiss. His mouth moved hungrily over hers and she melted into his embrace. Mulder lifted his head and peered down into her eyes and grinned. He pressed his mouth to hers in a final, smacking kiss and wrapped an arm around her shoulders as they walked back to the clinic.

They passed the room where Bill and Patrick were laboring over the microscope and Mulder grinned when a particularly inventive stream of cursing coming from his brother-in-law's lips followed the sound of crashing metal. Scully closed her eyes and shook her head painfully as she listened to Bill mutter under his breath and she prayed that whatever it was he dropped was neither vital nor broken.

Scully shrugged out of her parka and pushed open the door to the other examination room. Mulder followed her and poked his head through the door. "What do you need?" he asked as he looked around the room. Scully patted the examination table and began to root through the cabinets under the countertop. Her voice was muffled as she poked her head into one cabinet.

"I need a blood sample," she told him. She stood up and pushed her hair out of her eyes as she slapped several pieces of equipment down onto the countertop. Mulder pulled off his coat and threw it over a chair in the corner of the room. Hopping up onto the table, he began to push up the sleeve of his shirt. His eyes widened as she carried a small plastic bag and a length of tubing over to the table.

"Um... Scully - how much blood do you need?" he asked as she set the materials down next to him. She tore open a sterilized alcohol wipe and rubbed it over the inside of his elbow.

"I have the oil that I took from Ty when he died, in the freezer," she told him. "Hopefully, I'll be able to use the oil to produce the vaccine," she said. "But I still need blood samples from you and me." She tied a strip of rubber tightly around his upper arm and urged him to lie back on the padded table. "I also have several vials of Ty's blood stored," she said. "We were each infected in different ways," she reminded him. "You were originally exposed directly to the black oil in Russia and was reinfected by a bee sting," she murmured as she bent over his arm. "I was infected by a bee sting and was given the vaccine." Mulder winced as she pushed the needle into his arm. "And Ty was exposed to the virus through a contaminated food product," she concluded as she pressed several pieces of adhesive tape over the needle and tubing to hold it in place. She handed Mulder a small piece of wood and instructed him to squeeze it periodically to increase the output of blood.

Scully hung the bag that was slowly filling with Mulder's blood on the side of the bed and fussed with the tubing, making sure there were no kinks in it. "Can't you make the vaccine from our blood?" Mulder asked curiously. Scully shook her head.

"No. Our blood most likely contains antibodies against the virus," she told him. "But I need to find a way to weaken or kill the virus itself. Once I manage to do that, I can use the weakened pathogen to hopefully create a vaccine. An inoculation is essentially a weakened strain of the virus that is injected into the patient to stimulate the production of antibodies against the virus." Mulder nodded and glanced down at the needle protruding from his skin.

"So why do you need to take our blood?" he asked. Scully gently squeezed the bag hanging from the side of the bed and looked down into her husband's eyes.

"I want to see if the same antibodies are present in each blood sample," she said. "I need to compare them to find out if there are different strains of the virus or if it just affects the victim differently based on the method of infection." She nodded toward the tubing that was now bright red with Mulder's blood. "I took several vials of Ty's blood and now I'm taking about three-quarters of a pint from you. Hopefully, I won't need to ask you to do this again," she told him.

Mulder rolled his head against the tiny pillow at the top of the bed and watched her. "What about you?" he asked. She smiled softly and made a rueful face.

"I'm going to have Mary draw several samples of blood," she told him. "But I can't give too much blood at one time," she said as she stroked a hand over her stomach. Mulder nodded, watching as she lifted the plastic bag to assess its contents.

"I think that's enough," she said a short while later, as she looked at the nearly full bag. She slipped the needle from his vein and pressed a tiny piece of gauze over the puncture and pushed his forearm toward his face. "Hold your arm like this," she instructed as she gathered up the plastic bag and the tubing. She sealed the bag and placed it into the refrigerator. She then coiled up the tubing and dropped it into a trashcan labeled 'hazardous material'. Scully absently wiped several drops of Mulder's blood from her hands and leaned against the examining table.

"Shouldn't you have worn gloves?" Mulder asked with a tiny note of worry in his voice. Scully smiled and leaned down so that her face was close to his.

"Mulder," she laughed. "I've been exposed to a whole lot of your bodily fluids lately," she said merrily. "I don't think a couple of drops of blood are going to hurt me." He nodded, accepting the truth of her words but then a look of fear crossed his face and he sat up quickly. He moved too quickly, for the room spun and he almost fell from the table.

"Whoa," Scully chided as she pressed him back down onto the table. "You just gave blood, Mulder. You need to lie still. Where are you going?" she asked in confusion as she stroked her fingers through his hair. Mulder's mind was racing with the memory of their having made love only hours after he had been so sick from the bee sting. He did a quick calculation in his head and his eyes dropped to the tiny swell of her stomach and then lifted again to her face. He knew the moment she made the connection when he saw the fear flash into her blue eyes.

"Nooo," she breathed softly. "It's not possible..." Her breath caught in her throat and she bit down hard on her lip as he curled a protective hand over her belly.

"Scully, I think we need to schedule the ultrasound. Soon." His eyes were dark with worry as he looked into his wife's fearful face. She leaned down and rested her head against his chest, taking comfort from his warm arms wrapped around her.

"I'll talk to Mary," she whispered.

**

~ Chapter Twenty-Six ~

It was quiet in the room - too quiet. Dead quiet like this always made him nervous. But he was afraid to speak, to do more than hold on tightly to Scully's hand and send her whatever reassurances could be absorbed through her skin. If he spoke he might say the wrong thing. If he said one word it could jinx the procedure.

Jesus... how stupid was a thought like that? Mulder sighed under his breath and moved a little closer to the examining table where Scully lay with her tummy exposed to the cool air, little shivers running over her brought on by the gel Mary was spreading over the small mound which held their child.

"Doing all right, Dana?" Mary finished with the gel and reached for the wand, placing it carefully in the center of the gel and moving it around. Scully nodded, trying to smile through the worry plainly visible in her eyes. She gripped Mulder's hand hard enough to cause circulation stoppage, but he barely noticed. He was too busy watching in open-jawed amazement as a black and white and shades of gray image of something living and breathing and making the oddest swishing noise, appeared on that small monitor.

Mulder stared at it. At his child. At the blip on the monitor that signified his child. He turned his head to the side and the image turned a little as well, following the tilt of his regard. The tiny movement of it up on that monitor... well, it worried him. No, that wasn't quite true. It terrified him. It was tiny and helpless and unformed and looked nothing like a child.

He wanted to look at Scully; look into her eyes. He would trust what he found in her eyes. She was a doctor; she'd know how their little one was supposed to look this early in the pregnancy and showcased on the distorted surface of an ultrasound monitor. She'd know... and it would be there for him to see, in her blue eyes. He wanted to look into his wife's eyes.

He was scared shitless to seek out the truth in her eyes. He locked his gaze on the monitor, searching for something, anything recognizable as human. He squinted hard, forcing his eyesight into odd manipulations. In his urgency to find something normal he only succeeded in creating something frighteningly unfamiliar. He gripped Scully's hand harder, his numbed ears barely hearing the small gasp of discomfort she uttered at the bruising clasp of his fingers.

Over the frantic buzzing in his ears, he heard Scully's intake of breath; out of the corner of his eye he saw Mary point to a dark area in the center of the tiny mass. He didn't want to hear her soft voice, explaining to them their child's genetic make-up. He closed his ears to it, but found he couldn't shut out all the sound. He wanted to... but he couldn't. He needed to hear anything other than the quiet sob from his wife's throat, barely audible in the silent room with the odd swishing noises coming from the life being chased around inside Scully's belly by a wand attached to a monitor. At a time when Mulder needed a noisy distraction the most, the muffled silence of his immediate world was complete in its vacuum, except for that one, little sob.

Mulder turned his head just a bit, enough to lock his eyes upon the dark area where Mary pointed. He swallowed around a dry lump in his throat and forced the buzzing in his ears to dissolve enough to catch the end of Mary's comment.

"... boy, maybe. It's still very early and hard to see. But I think... right there..." Mulder gripped Scully's poor hand so tightly that her soft admonishment of, "Mulder, Oww..." actually processed through him. He eased up and sent an apologetic look her way, which she returned with a smile. A very normal, very lovely Scully-smile... He could feel a widely inane grin forming in response to that smile... and he turned to Mary and uttered a broken, "Mary..."

The reassurance in Mary's face almost knocked him to his trembling knees.

"Mulder, it's all right, God I am sorry! I had no idea you'd been standing here all this time, thinking the worst! It's normal-looking, really it is! Looks like every ultrasound I have ever performed this early in a pregnancy. Mulder... I have no doubt this is a healthy little fetus. And it'll be several more weeks at the very least before we know the sex for sure - so for now let's just say there's a little Mulder in there, looking pretty damned good!" Her smile increased into a full fledged grin as she witnessed the new daddy's reaction to her happy news.

A baby... oh, Jesus. Mulder sank to his knees next to Scully and rested his forehead on her exposed hipbone and shuddered out her name several times. And she slipped her hand from his and ran it over the back of his head soothingly as she whispered to him on a shaky breath.

"Hiya, Daddy..." He raised eyes filled with glistening tears and the hope in his heart ached and felt wonderful all at once. He kissed the palm now cupping his cheek and his words were just as awestruck and relieved.

"Hiya, Mommy..."

In the midst of joining in the celebration of the new-found happiness Dana's ultrasound had brought to her and Mulder, Mary found herself miserable - and it was her own fault.

She was free to pursue a potential relationship with Walter. Her Elder who also happened to be her father, had given her his blessing. She could walk to Walter's cabin, knock on the door and fling herself into his arms. She wanted to do just that, but she didn't.

She was not avoiding him, she told herself. She ignored her father's sad, knowing eyes as they followed her about the cabin in the evenings. No. She wasn't avoiding Walter. She was simply too busy. Dana needed her help in the clinic as she began the first, tentative steps towards creating the vaccine. Her new friend was suffering through the early weeks of pregnancy, plagued by nausea that did not confine itself to the morning hours alone. Mary felt it her duty to ease Dana's burden in whatever way possible and so she stuck close by, ready to lend a helping hand or a sympathetic ear when necessary.

And in the evenings, surely Michael needed her attention and affection and she made herself available to help him with his homework and to share a hot, nourishing meal with him and Jon. She knew better than to try to hug and cuddle her twelve- year-old nephew, but she always managed to sneak a kiss goodnight before sending him to bed. He was her last link to her beloved older brother and she needed this time with him as much as she felt he needed it with her.

Any free time she had at the end of the day was spent puttering around the cabin, putting away the dinner dishes that Michael would wash and leave stacked in the drainer and making sure her father was comfortably settled in his room, before she would retire for the evening.

Now, curled up in her lonely bed, her thoughts turned to her husband. Sweet, loving Calvin. Second cousins who had known each other as children, they had met again when she was twenty-four years old. Fresh-faced and eager to make a difference in the world, she had just started working as an emergency room nurse in a hospital in Whitehorse. One day, near the end of a long shift, a handsome, young trapper had arrived in the emergency room with the help of a friend. They didn't recognize each other in those first moments. His hand was wrapped in a bandana stained with blood and she had cleaned the wound and assisted the doctor in stitching it closed. It was as she was wrapping a clean white bandage around his hand that she chanced a glance up. His dark, expressive eyes had caught and held hers and from that moment on she was lost.

His friend had been sent on his way with the assurances that he would make it home safely. Mary had driven Calvin home that evening and they sat in her car talking for hours outside of his apartment building. It was there that they realized that there was already a familial bond between them and they shared a sweet kiss before he climbed out of her car. Plans were made to see each other the next day and less than a year later they had eloped.

Mary rolled over and clutched a pillow in her arms as her mind lovingly traced over the memories of their life together. A happy marriage; Calvin had always been able to make her laugh. Shortly after their elopement, they had moved into a small apartment in Whitehorse and Calvin had indulgently watched his tiny wife flit about the rooms, draping gauzy fabrics over the windows and decorating the rooms. He had obediently hung pictures and moved the furniture according to her exact specifications and at night they would tumble into their bed to explore each other's bodies and to whisper about their hopes and dreams and plans for the future.

They had agreed to wait before starting a family. Mary wanted to be able to stay at home with their children after they were born and at the time she had been enjoying her work at the hospital and wasn't ready to give it up. Calvin wanted to save up enough money to buy a small house before they started a family and so all of the proper and necessary precautions were taken.

Four years later, when Mary stood over her young husband's grave and threw that first clot of dirt onto the wooden lid of the coffin, she felt as if she had thrown part of her heart down into that damp and gloomy space. She laid a trembling hand over her empty womb and bitterly regretted their decision to wait. He had left her alone and her hopes for a dark-eyed child with his smile had been buried that day as well.

She had loved other men before meeting Calvin, but on the day she married him and again, on the day she buried her husband, she had known that she would never love like that again.

She punched the pillow and stirred, restlessly kicking at the confining covers. She had been so sure that she would never find love again. Then into her life walked Walter Skinner. Amidst the destruction of her world he had strode in, big and confident and strong. And for the second time in her life, Mary found herself drowning in the warm regard of a pair of dark eyes.

She wanted him. But with her desires came a feeling of disloyalty to the husband she had left behind in that cemetery a year earlier. For when she'd been with Walter, wrapped in his strong embrace, the sweet memory of her Calvin faded and disappeared and she was consumed by the intense need she felt whenever Walter was near. She was not sliding into a tender and gentle love as she had with Calvin. These feelings that she had - these cravings - for Walter were turbulent and overwhelming.

She was intensely aware of his eyes following her whenever she was near him and she shivered at the memory of his hot mouth closing over her lips as she'd rode the hard leg lodged between her thighs while they had feverishly kissed in the elevator of the hospital in Fairbanks. A part of her wanted nothing more than to slip out of her bed and hurry to Walter's cabin to lose herself in his embrace. To let his big hands slide over her body until all of the sadness and fear and death and destruction surrounding her faded and there was nothing left but lust and desire and sated bodies.

But Walter's eyes did not just follow her with lust and desire but also with tenderness and comfort and something very, very close to love. He was waiting for her to come to him and while Mary sensed that he would be patient and accepting, she knew that she had to come to a decision. Soon.


Mary wiped her hands on a towel as she helped to gather up the remains of the lunch for the Sunday Gathering. She smiled fondly as her eyes tracked over the gathering of villagers, both Inupiaq and white. They had settled into a rhythm now and friendships were being made and solidified over hard work during the week and these few hours of play set aside each Sunday. Michael and Nanook were racing up and down the halls of the building with Matty and Meg in fast pursuit and she dodged the flying limbs of dog and children as they wheeled past her. Her father and Warren were seated on either side of the checkerboard and the men had gathered around, good-naturedly calling out suggestions to the players. She saw Dana seated on the sofa, surrounded by the women of their village, stoically enduring the gentle touches on the small swell of her belly and the well-meaning advice being heaped upon her. Amid the social festivity Mary knew that Walter had become aware of her presence from the moment she set foot in the room, but she steadfastly avoided looking his way.

She watched Mulder break away from the group of men in the corner by the checkerboard and make his way across the room to where Dana waited patiently for a rescue. He murmured something to the women about taking his wife home to rest. The hot look in his eyes belied the tender way in which he bundled her into her parka and their hasty retreat told Mary that Dana would not be getting much in the way of rest anytime soon. She chanced a glance toward Walter and watched as his eyes moved from the door though which Mulder and Dana had made their escape - and lock onto hers. He pushed away from the wall where he had been leaning and began to make his way around the room, bidding everyone goodbye as he took his leave. His eyes slid over her face and he inclined his head in an oddly formal bow.

"I'll see you later," he told her and he squeezed her hand as he slid past her and down the hall toward the front door. Mary leaned shakily against the doorframe and long minutes passed before she came to a decision. Glancing at the clock on the wall, she saw that it was only half past two. She knew from experience that the gathering would go on for several more hours. Whirling away from the room, she snatched up her parka and hurried outside into the eternal darkness that descended on the arctic in the winter and made her way through the quiet village, reaching Walter's cabin in just a few minutes. Tugging her mittens from her hands, she drew in a fortifying breath and rapped her knuckles sharply against the door. Seconds later the door swung open and Walter stood imposingly in the doorframe.

"I..." She opened her mouth to say something but the words died in her throat as his big hand reached out to yank her into the dimly lit cabin. The door slammed shut behind her and her breath caught as Walter crowded her up against it. She could feel the rough wood of the door through the heavy layers of clothes and she pressed back into it as he loomed over her. His fingers tunneled into her thick black hair and he tilted her face back to receive his potent kiss. His lips settled over hers and there was no gentleness, no shyness as her mouth opened helplessly under his and his tongue pushed between her lips. Her arms curled around his neck and she strained up on her toes to better meet his roving mouth. They broke apart and Walter lifted his face just enough to tilt his head the other way before diving back down to taste her from another angle. Mary's fingers clenched in the collar of his shirt and she met him kiss for fierce kiss.

The room was quiet save the crackle and pop of the fire that Walter had built moments before her arrival and the soft moans and sighs of the two people locked in a scorching embrace against the door. Walter's hands moved between their bodies and he fumbled with the buttons on her parka, roughly slipping them out of their holes. He pushed the heavy coat from her shoulders and it slid to the floor in a rasping whisper. His hands settled on the soft skin exposed by the open collar of her shirt and he smoothed his fingers along the length of her throat. He cupped the fragile bones of her jaw in one hand and tilted her face back. He leaned down and his breath was a whisper over her lips.

"If you don't want this, Mary, you'd better tell me now," he warned raggedly. Mary swallowed hard and he could feel the rough movement against the hand still encircling her throat with gentle force. He watched her bite her lip before bravely meeting his eyes.

"I want this," she vowed. "I want you." Walter's breath broke from him in a ragged cry that was muffled by her lips closing over his. Her tongue stroked into his mouth and flicked over his teeth before enticing his tongue back between her lips. His hands slid between their bodies and curled into the soft flannel of her shirt. His fingers clenched as he tore the shirt open. Buttons popped and flew and Mary's breath caught in a moment of frightened excitement as he pushed the tattered sides of her shirt away and lowered his head. His mouth brushed against her breast once, twice before he closed his lips around one breast, his mouth tugging insistently on the rapidly hardening nipple through the silk of her bra. His arms banded around her waist as her knees buckled and threatened to give way under his ravenous assault.

Mary's hips tilted instinctively into his as his mouth moved over her and she willed him to tear her bra away as well so that his hot lips could settle over her bare flesh. She groaned softly and her head fell back against the door as he gently bit down on the upper swell of her breast. "Walter, please," she sobbed softly. He lifted his head and growled her name. She was a wanton sight, her eyes heavy-lidded with desire, her wild hair snagged on the coarse planks of the door. Her breasts swelled above the dark fabric of her bra and her chest heaved as she struggled to pull air into her lungs. Walter gave half a thought to gathering her into his arms and carrying her into his bedroom, but that would have taken much too long... instead he bent forward to pop open the front clasp of her bra and brush the cups away from her tender flesh. Once again, her hands clenched into his shoulders as she tensely awaited the touch of his mouth on her soft skin. He didn't make her wait long as he lowered his head and closed his mouth over the rigid nipple. His hand skimmed along her ribs to cover her other breast and she arched her back, pressing herself into the dual caress.

Walter suckled and gently bit down on her exposed skin and he smiled fiercely against her breast at her soft cry of distress when his hand fell away from her. Her anguished protest turned into a moan of ecstasy as his fingers cupped her damp core through the weight of her flannel-lined jeans. Mary squirmed, grinding her sex into his hand and she opened her mouth against his shoulder, biting him through his shirt as his fingers massaged her aching flesh. She tore at the buttons of his shirt, fumbling in her haste, and finally buried her lips against the solid warmth of his breastbone, her tongue rasping roughly over the hardened nipple hidden in the sprinkling of hair covering his chest. Walter's hiss of reaction to her hungry mouth was loud in the confines of the small cabin.

His hands dropped away from her to begin tugging at the fastening of her jeans and she eagerly helped him pop open the metal button and slide down the zipper. He skimmed the denim down her legs, grunting in frustration when they snagged on her boots. She braced her hands on his shoulders as he knelt to tug the boots from her feet and then he stripped her, jeans and panties sliding down, taking her woolen socks with them. He looked up and his breath caught in his throat. Her eyes glimmered in the fire-lit room and her hair was a dark tangle around her face. He slipped his hands under the open sides of her tattered shirt to cup her hips and buried his mouth between her legs.

Mary's body bucked and her head fell against the door with a thud as he caressed her with lips and tongue. He tugged her swollen clit into his mouth and bit down gently and Mary cried out in response. Her fingers scrabbled for purchase against the rough wood of the door as he lifted one of her thighs over his shoulder. He slipped two fingers between her legs, coating them in the evidence of her desire before plunging them deep inside. Mary bit off a scream and once again he had to steady her with a firm grip on her hips. He gently set her foot back onto the floor and slowly stood, licking a path up her body, pausing to suckle her breast into his wet mouth. She felt his hands moving between their bodies, heard the metallic click of his belt being loosened and the rasp of his jeans as they slid down his legs. She lifted dazed eyes to his and gasped as he gripped her thighs in his strong hands, lifting her from the floor. She threw her arms about his neck, curled her legs around his waist and buried her face in his throat as she felt the rigid length of his penis butting against her wet folds. Her mouth opened and she bit his jaw as he drove into her in one long stroke.

"Oh... God," she panted against his cheek. Her breath whistled in his ear as his hips pulled back slowly before he slammed back into her. He used his lower body to press her into the door and she locked her ankles around his waist for balance as his hands slid up to cup her face in his warm palms.

"So good," he murmured brokenly against her lips. "You feel so... ohhh!" His voice was a husky groan as Mary ground her hips into his. Walter's legs trembled as he drove relentlessly into her clinging warmth. He heard her ragged breathing in his ear as she chanted his name in a throaty whisper. He felt a quiver run through her body and seconds later she tensed against him. Her mouth was open and her breathing came in choppy pants as her orgasm broke over her. Mary's inner muscles clenched and milked the flesh he'd buried deep inside her and he whispered her name as he felt the tingling in his fingers and toes spreading through his limbs signaling his own release. With a muffled roar, he emptied himself within her.

Mary's legs slid weakly from his hips and he leaned all of his weight into her to keep her from sliding to the floor. Sweat glistened on his chest and shoulders and he could still feel the tiny pulses of her body against him as her tongue darted out to lap at the salty moisture pooled in the hollow of his throat. She let out a raw cry of displeasure as he slipped from her and he scraped her tangled hair from her face.

Desire now sated, his lips moved tenderly over her flushed cheeks and swollen mouth in a series of tiny kisses. Mary gasped as he swung her up into his arms and she smiled into his eyes as he carefully carried her across the room, bearing her down onto the carpet before the fire. She struggled out of her torn shirt and lay back against the soft nap of the carpet, holding her arms out. Walter sank to the floor beside her and gently stroked a finger along her hairline, tracing the shape of her face. Mary twined her arms around his neck and pulled until he was stretched out on top of her. He braced his elbows on the carpet so as not to crush her, but Mary wanted to feel the solid warmth of him, pressing into her. She wrapped her limbs around his body and drew his face to her breasts, sighing when he allowed his full weight to rest upon her. His open mouth nuzzled between her breasts and his hoarse query was muffled against her skin.

"Mary... God. Mary." He raised his head and those dark eyes of his burned down into her soul as the words he spoke made her tremble anew. "I love you so. I've wanted you for as long as I've known you. Maybe you're not fully ready for me, but I can accept whatever you can give me - just stay with me, please just stay..." His last words were spoken into her mouth as he kissed her again, deeply and adoringly; pleadingly.

Mary felt tears well up and spill over her cheeks, wetting his lips as they kissed her mouth and her face. Stay with him... didn't he know she would never let him go? Not now... not after she'd given everything to him. Never... She cupped her lover's neck in her warm hands, soothing his heated skin, reassuring him as well as herself.

"Never, I'll never leave you, God I couldn't... I'm falling in love with you, Walter... I need you so badly..." Her earnest gaze met his, tears still standing in her eyes as he brushed a thumb across her cheeks to catch the wetness there. His sigh of relief was echoed in the resurgence of his body against hers, and when her legs parted invitingly he slipped between them, more than ready to show her in actions meant to reaffirm his words. Their eyes held as their bodies merged, the movements they made against each other gentle and tender. As different as could be compared to their first coming together -and just as vital. They linked fingers and pressed palm-to-palm as they took full measure of a promise made and a bond meant to last forever.

~ Chapter Twenty Seven ~

Early in December, Scully spent a long day at the clinic preparing to begin her work on creating a vaccine against the alien virus. The first step would be to separate and identify the DNA sequences of her blood as well as the blood she had taken from both Ty and Mulder through a procedure known as a Southern blot. The same procedure would be performed on the black oil that she was keeping frozen in order to render it inactive.

Down the hall, Patrick and Bill had finished putting together the microscope the day before. Scully had spent most of the morning and early afternoon recalibrating the scope until she was satisfied that it was working properly. Now late in the afternoon, she and Mary were quietly working together.

"Okay, Mary," Scully murmured. "Let's get started." Mary nodded and began handing Scully tubes of enzymes, buffers and distilled water that she carefully measured earlier according to Scully's precise instructions. Scully accepted each tube from Mary without looking up; concentrating as she mixed them with the DNA she had taken to create a reaction mixture. There was one mixture for each blood sample and therefore, each different DNA sample. She popped open the lid of the centrifuge and eased the tubes containing the reaction mixtures into the carousel. Snapping the lid closed, she spun the tubes for several seconds. Removing them from the centrifuge, she crossed the room and slid the reaction mixtures into the incubator and set the temperature to 37 degrees Celsius. The reaction mixtures would stay in the incubators overnight. She turned and looked at Mary.

"Well," she said brightly. "That was easy enough." Mary laughed but both women knew they had only just begun their work. Scully glanced at her watch and was shocked to realize that several hours had passed since she and Mary had begun working.

She removed the protective goggles from her eyes and set them down on the stainless steel counter of the lab table and stripped off the latex gloves covering her hands. "Let's go home," she said, wearily stretching and rubbing the small of her back. "It's my night to cook and I'm sure Walter is waiting for you," she said with a sly smile on her face.

Mary's cheeks flushed and Scully was delighted to know that it wasn't just her own fair complexion that would stain pink when embarrassed. She laughed and took pity on her friend's obvious discomfort.

"Come on, Mary," she said. "We have to leave the mixtures in the incubator overnight anyway. There's nothing else we can do here." She slipped into her parka and began gathering various textbooks and notes into her arms. Mary grabbed her own coat from the back of the door and followed Scully outside, eager to get home to Walter.

She had thrown together a quick dinner of soup and sandwiches and while Mulder had cleaned up, she had changed into her pajamas and climbed into bed. When he came into the bedroom twenty minutes later, she was already engrossed in her research.

"What are you reading?" he asked as he pulled his shirt over his head. Shivering as the cool air washed over him, he tugged a thermal shirt on and stepped into the tiny bathroom to wash up for the night while he waited for an answer. When none was forthcoming, he poked his head back into the bedroom. Her nose was buried in what appeared to be a research manual. Again. He sighed and finished washing his face, repeating his question.

"What are you reading?" As he dried his face with a soft towel, his wife looked up distractedly.

"Hmm?" she asked, shaking her head. "I'm sorry, Mulder. What did you ask?" He muffled an exasperated sigh and crawled into bed beside her.

"I wanted to know what you were reading," he said patiently, tapping one finger on the page she had been absorbed by. Scully sighed and rubbed her hand over the spine of the book.

"I'm just reading up on the agarose gel electrophoresis," she told him. Mulder squinted at her in the soft light of the bedside lamp.

"Ara-what?" he asked in confusion. Scully turned away from her reading material and fixed her gaze on Mulder who was lying on his side, propped up on one elbow with an inquisitive look on his face.

"Agarose gel," she corrected. "Agarose is a sugar that is found in seaweed that forms a clear gel. I have to create the gel and pour it into molds tomorrow. Then I'll load the DNA onto the gel." Mulder shook his head and still looked confused. Scully sighed heavily.

"It's so complicated, Mulder. In spite of the equipment we managed to bring in from Fairbanks, given the fact that I'm trying to do this in such a remote location, I don't know if I can even do it, let alone explain it to you," she said wearily. Mulder studied the anxious look in his wife's eyes. It was on the tip of his tongue to urge her to set the book aside and get some rest. But he knew she wouldn't go to sleep until she was ready. And there was no sense in nagging at her this late at night. He nodded and pushed himself up to press a kiss to her cheek.

Don't stay up too late," he admonished softly. He slid under the covers and rolled onto his side. Bunching a pillow beneath his cheek, it wasn't long before his soft snores filled the room.

Several hours later Scully rubbed her eyes tiredly. The words were beginning to blur and run together on the pages in front of her. She slid a piece of paper between the pages to mark her place and set the book down on the nightstand. Slipping out of bed, she padded across the room to the bathroom. When she was finished, she crept quietly toward the bed and snapped off the light. Shivering in the cool air, she lifted the blankets and crawled under them, sliding across the sheets to curl around the curve of her husband's body. She threw an arm over his waist and he mumbled her name in his sleep. His fingers tangled with hers and he tugged their joined hands to his chest.

"G'night, Scully," he mumbled sleepily. She snuggled into his warmth and her lips moved against the waffle-weave of the thermal shirt covering his strong back in a silent prayer that she find success. It was a long time before sleep claimed her.

The next day found Scully and Mary back in the clinic. But as Mary could have predicted, things were not running as smoothly as they had the day before.

"We're going to get this gel formed properly if it kills us," Scully said. Mary nodded grimly, handing Scully the various buffers, acids and aragose. They had tried twice before to create the gel molds without success.

Scully poured the mixture into an Erhlenmeyer flask and set it down onto a hot plate to bring the mixture to a boil. Mary moved in front of the hot plate and began stirring the gel.

"Third time's the charm, right Dana?" she asked. Scully threw her a small, determined smile and stood. She had been perched on a stool for hours, hunched over the lab table and her back was aching again in what she knew was going to be a daily nuisance.

"Why don't you lie down for a few minutes?" Mary suggested. She was concerned about her friend. Scully had a pinched look around her mouth and Mary knew that meant the nausea had not restricted itself to the early morning. She had not been able to convince her to stop for a lunch break earlier in the day and had satisfied herself by forcing Scully to eat several slices of toast coated with a thin layer of raspberry preserves.

Now, Scully shook her head. "No, I want to get this done," she said with a note of bleak determination. Mary sighed, but turned her attention back to her stirring, accepting defeat for the moment. Now was not the time to push it.

She looked up a moment later. "I think it's ready," she said. Scully leaned over the flask and saw that the gel was clear and had no bubbles in it. While the gel cooled the two women finished preparing the molds. Scully checked on the cooling gel to be sure that it hadn't hardened. Satisfied that the flask was cool enough to touch, she swirled the gel in the flask and quickly poured it into the mold. Mary poked the gel with a pipette to remove any small bubbles that had formed while the mixture was poured and they set the mold tray aside to allow the gel to harden.

Scully prepared a buffer solution and when the gel had hardened they placed the tray into a buffer chamber and poured the solution over the gel.

They had worked in near total silence for over an hour. Now they put on fresh gloves and began to assemble the blotting stack by layering paper towels and a nylon filter over ordinary household plastic wrap. Scully lifted several sheets of a specialized paper and cut it to match the size of the gel tray and added it to the stack.

"Get the tray, will you Mary?" she asked as she finished assembling the blotting stack. Mary nodded and opened the buffer chamber to pull out the gel tray. Scully drew in a deep breath and took the tray from Mary, carefully removing the gel and placing it on a piece of plastic wrap. She fumbled with the slippery gel and Mary's breath caught in her throat as she imagined it tumbling to the floor. But Scully managed to keep her grip on it and she flipped the gel over in her hands. She covered it with a wet membrane and added it to the blotting stack and covered the entire thing with a sponge. She was planning on a rapid downward blot, which would take about ninety minutes.

Mary glanced at the clock on the wall. They had been at this for more than twelve hours. She was exhausted and could not believe that Scully was still on her feet. There was still so much work to be done and the few attempts she had made to convince her friend to finish up for the day and go home had been rebuffed. While Scully's attention was directed elsewhere, Mary slipped out of the clinic in search of Mulder.

She found him in the kitchen of his cabin. He and Walter were playing cards, waiting for the women to finish up and come home. Mary stomped the snow from her boots as she shut the door behind her.

"Mulder, you should go check on Dana. She's got me worried. I don't think she has any intention of leaving the clinic until this procedure is finished," Mary announced as she shook back the hood of her parka. Both men looked up from the cards in their hands. Mulder frowned as he digested Mary's words and took in the serious expression on her face. He signed and laid down his cards.

"I knew this would happen. Damn it, she never takes her health into consideration! She's been up late every night reading those damn research manuals and not eating properly. And I've let her fob me off with excuses... I should have put my foot down weeks ago." Mary nodded and looked at Skinner, who had a troubled crease in his brow.

"How much more has to be done?" Skinner asked as he reached out to catch her hand in his and pull her close. She wrapped an arm around his shoulder and regarded Mulder with a resigned air.

"If she starts on the next step, then it is going to take her several more hours before she can wrap things up for the night," Mary said. Mulder scraped his chair back from the table and strode across the cabin.

"That's it," he declared. "I'm bringing her home. If she won't take care of herself willingly then I'll make her." He pulled his coat from a peg near the door and stuffed his feet into his boots. Skinner lifted the cards Mulder had set down onto the table and surreptitiously compared them to his own hand. His eyes widened when he saw that Mulder had drawn an inside straight and he quickly shuffled both hands into the deck of cards and stood to snatch up his own coat. He and Mary trudged through the snow behind Mulder, listening as the other man muttered and complained about his wife's work habits. Skinner snuffed out a tired chuckle and gripped Mary's hand as they walked a few paces behind Mulder, commenting softly.

"If he thinks he can strong-arm Dana into coming home when she's mired three feet deep in vaccine manipulation, he's dreaming..." Mary nodded, thinking the exact same thing. From what she had observed about Dana these past few months, that was one strong, stubborn, driven woman...

Mulder burst into the clinic with Mary and Skinner hot on his heels to find Scully bent over the stainless steel counter of the lab table. He strode up to her and stood over her, eyes boring into the back of her head.

"Come on," he said with a commanding note in his voice. "It's time for you to come home." Scully looked up from the notes she was making. Her eyes were wide behind the protective goggles still covering her face.

"What are you talking about?" she asked. "I'm busy!" She turned her back on him and began to carefully make several more entries into her notebook. Mulder leaned against the table, not budging a bit. He laid a firm hand on her arm.

"You've been at this for twelve hours," he told her. "It's not going anywhere - you can finish it tomorrow." Scully shook him off and looked up at Mary accusingly.

"We're not finished yet," Scully said. "The blotting stack can be torn down in about thirty minutes." Mary shrugged unapologetically. She knew that Scully would stay at the clinic all night to finish this stage of the work, just as she knew that it was going to take a village to bully her into taking care of herself and the baby.

"You can finish tomorrow," Mulder repeated as he tugged on her arm. Scully huffed out an exasperated breath, beginning to feel irritated.

"I can't just leave it like this," she said as she flung out a gloved hand toward the stack. Mulder crossed his arms over his chest and arched one brow. Scully sighed and looked toward the blotting stack. Truth was that it could be torn down after ninety minutes or she could leave it overnight before beginning the pre- hybridization and hybridization stages of the process. But it had taken them so much longer to get the gel molds done properly... she had anticipated finishing the blot today. She didn't want to wait until tomorrow. She decided to stall.

"I need to finish these notes while the steps are still fresh in my mind," she told Mulder. She was counting on him going back to the cabin so that she could get back to her work in peace.

"I'll wait," he announced. Scully threw him a disgusted look and went back to her work. Mulder pushed away from the table and walked toward his friends. "You might as well go home," he told them. "I'll force her out of here as soon as she's finished whatever it is she's doing." He walked them toward the door and as they pushed it open and stepped outside, he leaned against the frame.

"This is what it's going to be like for the next few months," he said wearily. "She's going to dig her heels in and fight me every step of the way." Skinner nodded and clapped a sympathetic hand on the younger man's shoulder. He would have loved to be able to say something encouraging but he knew Mulder was right. Instead he grabbed Mary's hand and pulled her toward her cabin where Michael and Jon were waiting.

Mulder watched them walk away and thumped his head in agitation against the door frame before turning back into the clinic, preparing to bully his wife into going home as well. He sighed heavily as he opened the door, as determined to prevent her from doing this to herself and the baby, as he was helpless to figure out any way to stop her...

In the meantime life in the village would have to go on.

**

Up until his first real hunting trip, Bill only thought he knew what the term 'subsistence' meant. In the past he'd hunted a few times with his dad, and once with some Navy buddies of his. With Bill Scully Sr. he'd helped bring down a small deer, and then had thrown up when his dad tried to show him how to dress the meat. Not the most pleasant of experiences...

His buddies had taken him bow hunting, and Bill had hated it. For one thing it was a sporting trip more than anything else. These so-called pals of his were after a moose rack and didn't care about the meat. They'd brought down a magnificent bull moose and had claimed its head - and nothing else. It had taken several arrows to maim the beast, enough for them to track the blood in the snow and find the suffering animal writhing in pain. Two shots to the heart had finished it off, and all the way home they'd bragged about their prowess with bow and arrow.

Bill had found it very sickening... so much so that when Warren and Patrick asked him to help them hunt caribou for the winter supply, he'd almost said no. When Patrick had explained that safe hunting in the Arctic bush required more than two men, however... Bill had relented and agreed.

Now he was very glad he'd said yes - for this was what it was all about. This was why God made man the dominant force over other creatures of the earth - and why his respect for his new Inupiaq family just grew and grew.

It took them a full day to find a herd of caribou, and another day of tracking to single out two large bucks that appeared young enough to have not begun rutting and old enough for decent maturity. Bill knew the size of their rack had a lot to do with whether or not they had begun to rut; these bucks had relatively small racks so it was safe to assume they were all right to take down. Patrick had explained to Bill that it was very important to not deprive the herd of its stud and especially to leave the cows alone. The bucks they ended up taking seemed to be secondary in the herd's hierarchy and most likely had not yet mated. These could be spared without endangering the future of the overall herd.

Bill was impressed by their concern and care - and found himself understanding what it meant to 'kill to live'. All the meat was harvested from the animal, even the face meat. The cold was raging and penetrating out on the tundra but they did every speck of harvesting out there, taking refuge when necessary in a hunting shack about fifty feet from the camp. Warren had explained these shacks were everywhere, some built by him and his own father, years and years ago.

"My father brought me out here for the first time when I was Matty's age." Warren used a fine ulu blade to scrape the meat from the hide, going slowly and carefully so that the skin would be of most value. Bill hunkered down as close to Warren as he could not only to watch and learn but also to help protect the older man from the icy elements. Warren eased the remainder of the neck skin from the meat and cut the hide loose, rolling it around in the snow to remove the worst of the blood. He motioned Bill to pick up one end of the hide, a heavy section near the rear haunch, while Patrick hefted the other haunch and they maneuvered it over to a skin rack to finish freezing. Later they would scrape away the last of the blood and wipe it clean. The hide would then be cured in a heated hut for the remainder of the winter.

Bill fingered the fur on the severed head with curiosity. It felt soft and coarse at the same time. He watched as Warren took a smaller ulu and made a few incisions before he could loosen the skin and get at the face meat below. Patrick and Bill helped tug on the caribou's rack, managing to expose the flesh underneath. Patrick wiped his bloody hands on an old rag and commented, "The face has the sweetest meat, don't know why. Warren makes great sausage with it." Warren's wide grin could be seen in the dark, the glow of their lanterns lending an eerie cheerfulness to his white- toothed smile. His matter-of-fact reply was without vanity or false modesty.

"I do make the sweetest sausage... my father taught me."

After spending one more night in the tiny hut, huddled between his two friends, Bill was more than ready to call it a wrap and head home to his family. He was exhausted and smelled to high heaven of caribou funk and blood. The carcasses were left behind, with very little remaining for winter scavengers. The men took everything but the hooves, the tails, the scraped heads and racks and parts of the intestines and stomachs. Everything taken would be eaten, in one form or another. Bill decided he wouldn't question what he ate in the future - he really didn't want to know. Since he hadn't eaten a bad meal since he'd moved to the village he could only assume that for him - ignorance would surely be bliss.

He was borderline frostbitten and sore as hell when he finally pulled his snowmobile into the village, dragging one of the food sleds behind him, full of caribou meat. Patrick had the other sled, all wrapped up nice and tight with the second load of meat. It had been a successful hunt - they had enough caribou to last for months.

Bill swung his leg over the mobile and almost fell flat on his face. He was so tired... Patrick stumbled over to him, also beyond weary, and slapped him on the back, about knocking Bill over. Patrick barked out a tired laugh and grinned at his friend.

"Go home and sleep. Warren and I will secure the meat in the smoke hut until morning, so it won't freeze. Then comes the real work... dressing and dividing up the kill. Thank goodness we have that huge freezer that Mary brought up from Whitehorse when she set up the lab. We can store the meat in the main cache but come summer we'll need the freezer. So tomorrow we will begin, right? It will have to be done quickly - everyone must help. Even the women." He chuckled again when Bill snorted and muttered sleepily about the sight of Tara up to her armpits in caribou being a real Kodak moment...

"Mmmm, Bill... thazzyou...?" Tara's sleepy voice came out of the darkened bedroom, as Bill tiptoed through on his way to the bathroom. He stopped by the foot of the bed, squinting in the gloom of the tiny night-light they kept by the door and barely making out the huddled form of his wife in their bed. He spoke in a weary, amused rasp.

"Who were you expecting at this early hour, hmmm? Go back to sleep. I gotta shower. I smell like dead caribou." He turned away and stumbled to the bathroom, climbing inside the little shower stall fully clothed. His wife's voice stopped him as he reached out to turn on the faucets; she'd come into the bathroom, rubbing at her eyes.

"Bill, take off your clothes! Are you nuts?" Bill looked down at himself, still in a tired stupor. Shit, he was standing in the shower with his parka and bunny boots... he shook his head to clear it and quickly shed his smelly outerwear, then stripped down the rest of the way and stepped back into the shower, turning on a hot spray and grabbing the soap. Tara gathered up his clothes and tossed them outside on their tiny porch, then shivering she built up the fire in the stove and crawled back under the covers.

Five minutes later Bill climbed in next to her, still a bit damp from his shower but smelling much better. Tara turned into his arms and snuggled close, burying her nose in his neck. She huffed out a yawning query.

"So, did you bag a beastie, Bill?"

Bill cuddled his wife's warm body, nodding against her head. "We got two big bucks. We brought back a shitload of meat and tomorrow we have to dress it down. All of us," he added, grinning at her muffled groan of distaste. He found her soft mouth in the early-morning darkness and kissed her gently, loving the way she responded to him. She hummed into his mouth, tongue curling alongside his.

"I missed you, Billy... next time I wanna come with you." He snickered at the unbelievable vow, and stroked his hand through her hair as her kiss slackened against his mouth and she began to snore softly. With his last remaining consciousness Bill pulled her limp body over his like a blanket, and fell asleep holding his wife tucked underneath his chin.


When Michael wasn't following Skinner around the village, he found himself spending most of his time with Tara. She reminded him of his mother. She was blonde-haired and green-eyed and in that respect could not have been more different from his mother. Ruth Honea's hair and eyes had been dark, like her race. But she had hugged and loved and played with her children much in the same way as Tara did with Matthew and Meggie. And when Michael began to spend time with Tara, she opened her arms to him as well. Her easy affection, playful manner and at times strict discipline, were a balm to the young boy's weary heart.

He loved his Aunt Mary and was happy to be living with her and his grandfather. He wouldn't change that for the world. But Tara Scully was quickly becoming many things to him. Teacher, friend - mother figure.

They quickly established a routine. Because Mary was busy at the clinic during the days, Michael would make his way to Tara and Bill Scully's cabin after breakfast. Tara would bundle Matty and Meggie into their tiny parkas and she and Michael would take the children for a walk around the village. On these walks, Michael would be the teacher, pointing out objects of interest and explaining their significance as Nanook romped through the snow and scampered between their legs. They would tour the greenhouse to learn from Sophie and the other women all about the crop cycles - when to plant and when to harvest. They always left with a little treat pressed into their hands by one of the women. On another day they might walk to the power plant or the water treatment plant for a lesson in the mechanics of the operation of the facilities.

One day, Michael took Tara and the children to the barn and helped the smaller children feed the chickens. Matty hid behind Tara's legs as the pecking hens crowded him when they saw the feed in his hands, while Meggie simply squealed and giggled, frightening the chickens and having the time of her life.

He introduced them to the goats and taught Tara how to milk a nanny. He laughed with delight as she timidly wrapped her hands around the goat's teats, grimacing as she tentatively tried to squeeze the milk into a bucket.

Back in the cabin, Tara would make lunch and then settle Matty and Meggie into their beds for their naps. She and Michael would spend the next two hours working on his lessons. Tara made learning fun. A lesson in fractions might be taught by learning to bake biscuits -a half of a cup of milk and one-quarter of a teaspoon of salt and so forth. His reading lessons were to simply sprawl out on the carpet while he read aloud to her from one of the books she had unearthed in the schoolhouse as she gently corrected his pronunciation or prompted him when he stumbled over an unrecognizable word.

And in the afternoons, before the sun would set for the day, she would fill his belly with something hot to drink and send him on his way with a pile of books in his arms and a gentle admonishment to do his homework.

He was relearning the wonder of a mother's caring touch - and loving it anew.

"Mr. Skinner!" Michael's voice was high and breathless as he ran after the tall figure dressed in a parka and mukluks, striding toward the barn. At the sound of his name the big man turned around and watched as Michael hurried to catch up. In the dark Skinner could barely make out the boy's features, but he held up the lantern in his hands and patiently waited until Michael got closer, smiling at the child as he stumbled to a halt in front of him in the deep snow.

"Michael... everything okay? Is your grandpa okay?" Michael nodded, and swallowed nervously.

"He's okay... I just wondered where... um... can I go with you? Aunt Mary told me you're getting eggs. I wanted to help. My lessons are all done, and I'm kinda bored." Michael stared up at Skinner earnestly, blushing a little. Skinner nodded and smiled again.

"Sure, Michael - I can always use the help. I have a lot of eggs to collect - seems like everyone wants them this week." Michael fell into step with Skinner and they trudged through the drifting snow toward the barn. Skinner hung the lantern on its pole outside the door and ushered Michael through, snapping on the main lights.

Inside, Michael had to pet the goats, which bleated softly as they nosed him, the scent of him familiar. Skinner let him bond with them as he got the egg basket down from its shelf and lined it with an old folded towel to cushion the eggs. He shook his head at the task he'd been assigned to perform whenever necessary; who would have thought that he would end up being the only male in the village the hens would allow near their precious eggs? Mary said it was because of his tender touch... Skinner grinned to himself at the thought of having a way with these feathered ladies. He didn't mind; with the women busy in the greenhouse with their vital crops, and Mary helping Dana at the clinic somebody had to collect the eggs.

He called softly to Michael and the boy patted two of the older goats one last time and ran over to the coop. Skinner gave him the basket to hold, and approached the first chicken; ignoring the evil eye leveled on him from the affronted bird he reached underneath her soft body with assurance. The fussy hen gave up her eggs agreeably enough. Motioning Michael closer Skinner had him hold the basket in both hands and laid the eggs down gently.

They worked their way down the line of hens, collecting a nice amount of eggs. Michael held the basket and subtly squirmed as he stood quietly beside Skinner - and it became very apparent in a very short time that Michael had something on his mind. Skinner let him stew for a bit, taking the almost-full basket out of his hands before he squirmed a bit too much and dropped it. He made the boy face him and his voice was kind but firm.

"Okay, spill it, Michael. You got something on your mind?"

Ten minutes later Skinner was holding the sobbing twelve-year old boy, and fighting the urge to break down into tears himself. Sooner or later it had to come out, and the child was overdue for any expression of grief. Like many of his people Michael was stoic in his emotions and if he grieved it was a private thing. This time, however - Michael had wanted to know; had needed to ask what his family would have gone through. He was a smart, curious boy - and old enough to handle an explanation of what he'd seen that awful day when the bees had come.

Skinner had put a comforting arm about the child's thin shoulders and had tried to lessen the horror of it, as best as he could. But Michael was a smart boy...

"Mr. Skinner - did they hurt a lot? When the bees stung them? More than a regular sting? There were a lot of bees..." Skinner rubbed a soothing hand over Michael's arm, and answered as carefully as he could.

"Yes, Michael. It hurt. A lot. I won't lie to you because I can tell you want to know the truth. When your family got stung they were in a lot of pain before... before they lost consciousness. But I don't think they were in pain for very long. You know what shock is, right?" Michael nodded, his eyes never breaking contact with Skinner's. "Well, when the body goes into shock they don't feel the pain. I think your family went into shock pretty fast, and when they did the pain went away for them. It's what you have to think about, remember... because if you do it'll make the remembering of what you saw just a little bit easier."

Michael leaned against Skinner's shoulder and then left his head there, shuddering out a hitching sigh before his young voice spoke up again.

"My dad liked to eat honey. He said honey made everything taste better. One of the neighbor ladies had hives and she'd give us jars of fresh honey every summer. My dad ate it right out of the jar with a spoon and my mom was always teasing him about getting fat from eating all that honey. They used to joke around about it. One day I was coming in the house after school, and I caught them goofing around with a jar of it. Mom was dabbing the honey on her nose and giggling as Dad licked it off. They were both so happy. Lily used to say that Mom and Dad were like newlyweds all the time. But we didn't think it was weird, or anything - we liked it."

Michael sat up a little and sniffed hard, rubbing his hand along his wet cheeks. He looked up at Skinner with eyes still overflowing, and added, "They all went together. Mom and Dad, and Lily. I guess it was best for them, to go like that. Sometimes I feel bad that I was in the house when it happened. I should have been outside with them. I should have gotten stung too..." His voice stuttered to a stop as the significance of his words hit like a physical blow and he doubled over, sobbing anew. Skinner emitted a rough sound of sympathy and gathered Michael up into his arms, settling him in his lap. He rocked the distraught boy as he tried to find words that would help soothe his aching heart.

"Shh, it's okay, boy - it'll be okay. You needed to live, Michael -you had to survive. Your Aunt Mary needs you, so much - your grandpa needs you. There's nothing wrong with wanting to live, Michael -it's what being human is all about. From the moment we are born we fight to live - fight for that first necessary breath and then every day of our lives we do whatever we need to do to survive. Right now your family is up in Heaven and I know they are so happy because you are alive - you were spared. There are things you have to do in life, Son - and they must be pretty important because God wasn't ready to let you go, yet."

Skinner brushed the damp hair from the child's forehead and kept a big hand pressed against his cheek, as he added, "We're not going to let you go either - your Aunt Mary and your grandpa, and me. We all need you." Michael's eyes were big with wonder as he met Skinner's earnest stare, and nodded. He wiped his nose on his sleeve and whispered one last need for assurance into the small space between them.

"You won't leave, will you? You'll stay here? With us? You won't go away like my Dad?" Skinner smiled and gathered the boy close, hugging him tightly and reassuring him one last time before helping him to his feet and picking up the egg basket.

"No, I won't ever leave you, Michael. I promise."

~ Chapter Twenty Eight ~

Scully hurried through the village as she made her way to the clinic to begin her work for the day. She was shivering in the cold. They had been living in the village for about three months now and she still hadn't adjusted to the frigid temperatures. It was only the middle of December and she knew there were many months of really cold weather ahead of her.

"Doctor! Oh, Doctor Dana." She turned at the sound of her name being called to find Sarah standing in the door of her cabin. The older woman waved and gestured for Scully to come to her. Scully waved back as she walked over to find out what Sarah wanted.

"Good morning, Sarah," she said with a smile. Sarah disappeared into her cabin and Scully followed her into the warm room.

"I have something for you, dear," Sarah told her as she walked to the stove in the kitchen. She lifted a teakettle from the burner and poured the boiling water into a mug. Lifting the steaming mug, she carried it to Scully who was watching her curiously.

"It's an herbal tea," Sarah explained. "Very good for pregnant mothers. You are working too hard. Not getting enough rest," she admonished. "This is good for the baby." She pushed the mug toward Scully who took it and cradled the warm porcelain between her chilled fingers.

"Go on," Sarah said watching her expectantly. Scully blew on the steaming liquid and lifted the mug to her lips. She sipped the tea and struggled to hide a grimace behind the mug. Coughing, she waved one hand in front of her face.

"Hot," she wheezed. Sarah jerked her chin toward the mug.

"You need to drink all of it," she told her. The tea was vile and Scully worried that her already shaky stomach would not tolerate it, but Sarah was watching her so eagerly... Scully tilted the mug back to her mouth and hurriedly finished it in four or five large gulps. She set the tea down on the counter and Sarah beamed at her happily.

"I'll have the tea waiting for you every morning," she vowed. "You stop by on your way to the clinic and we'll have a little visit," she said cheerfully. "You have to keep the little one warm," she told her as she poked gently at Scully's parka-covered stomach.

Scully smiled weakly. She shivered at the thought of choking down that wretched tasting tea every morning, but one look into Sarah's hopeful, eager face and she knew that she would.

**

Mulder sat on the faded wool carpet in front of the little pot-bellied stove, staring into the open flames and enjoying the heat on his face. It was a cold night... the coldest he'd experienced yet, in Alaska. The aroma of caribou goulash still hung fragrant in the air of the kitchen, and in the bedroom the muffled sounds of Scully moving about kept their small home from total silence. He roused himself from basking in the warmth long enough to call out softly, "Scully... we need to go. We'll be late if we don't hurry." His wife's patient reply wafted out from behind the partially closed door.

"Almost ready, Mulder... chill out, okay?" Her smart little remark was somewhat ruined by the snort of laughter she uttered at her own joke. Mulder groaned.

"Har de har har, baby. How about I toss you in a snow bank and we see who chills out first..." The snappy comeback died on his lips as Scully entered the living room and stood poised in the doorway. Mulder sucked in a breath and gaped at her.

God... she looked like an angel...

She wore deep blue velveteen; a long- sleeved kuspuk that fell in graceful folds from her shoulders to the tops of her feet. It was trimmed in gold braiding and had a line of tiny embroidered gold stars around the squared collar and buttoned cuffs. The knee ruffle was trimmed with... Mulder squinted and looked closer; was that... fox? He reached out a finger and stroked it. Sure enough, the ruffle was edged in silver fox, soft and luxurious. Scully turned and presented her back, showing off an attached hood also trimmed in silver fox. When she spun back around her eyes sparkled, darkened by the color of the material. She grinned at Mulder and smoothed the rich fabric over the swell of her stomach.

"You like, Mulder? Sarah made it for me. She says every woman should own a kuspuk. She gave it to me this afternoon. She called it a belated Christmas gift." Mulder returned her smile as he got to his feet and encircled her in his arms, careful not to crush the velvet as he hugged her.

"It's incredible, Scully. It must have taken her forever to make. I've seen that antiquated thing she calls a sewing machine. And where did she get the material?" Mulder fingered the velveteen. He knew most Native parkas, the ones made of fur, were usually covered with an outer- parka of velveteen, to protect the fur from getting worn and dirty. But that velveteen was always stiff; this material was flowing and supple. Scully ran a hand alongside his and her reply was soft and proud.

"Sarah had been saving it for her own kuspuk. But she made this for me to help keep me warm, she said. When she gave it to me I cried like a baby." Scully rested her cheek against the soft flannel of Mulder's shirt, humming into his chest in contentment as he slipped gentle fingers through her hair. Her voice dropped to a whisper. "Sarah told me the wearing of a kuspuk is lucky during pregnancy. Oh Mulder," she raised bemused eyes to her husband's tender gaze, "I am surrounded by myth and superstition and advice from experienced women whose child-bearing adventures may or may not be embellished for my personal entertainment... I can't seem to get away from it. When Sarah gave me this lovely thing, how could I refuse? She says it will bring me good fortune if I wear it under the Northern Lights... so I promised her I'd wear it to the New Year's Gathering." Her sigh vibrated into his chest, and Mulder chuckled as he kissed her face.

"Scully, you look so beautiful. Those are the state colors, you know. Deep blue and gold. They're the colors of the Alaskan State flag. You know, Michael taught me the words to the state flag song. They describe a place of such beauty..." He recited a few of the words for her.

'Eight stars of gold on a field of blue - Alaska's flag - may it mean to you the blue of the sea, The evening sky - the mountain lakes and the flowers nearby...'

'The gold of the early Sourdough's dreams - The precious gold of the hills and streams - the brilliant stars in the Northern skies...'

His voice faded off as Scully stared up into his eyes, hearing the words and imagining what their new home might look like in the summer. She kissed his cheek.

"Mulder, that's lovely. I wonder why we haven't seen an Alaskan flag anywhere around here?" Scully thought about the words her husband had just quoted, then looked down at her kuspuk, and smiled. She fingered the row of gold stars that trimmed the sleeves and the neckline of the Native Alaskan dress, and murmured, "Guess I'm wearing it, in a way..." Mulder smiled along with her and gave her a hug, before leading her to the door and helping her on with her parka.

"I guess you are, baby. Let's go over to the party..."

Later everyone agreed that it had been a wonderful night.

They'd decorated the main meeting room with paper chains and there were silly hand-made paper hats to wear. Tara had baked more pizza and it went lightning-fast, even though they'd all eaten dinner earlier in the evening. All the adults except for Scully, who got a glass of iced rosehip tea and declared it delicious, enjoyed cranberry wine.

Patrick brought a fiddle out and played a rousing series of polkas, waltzes and even a classical piece that made Beverly tear up. Skinner waltzed Mary around in a slow circle to the haunting tune of "Faded Love"; both of them lost in their own little world. In the corner of the brightly lit room Michael and Matty rolled around on the floor with a wildly yapping Nanook, while Meggie lay curled up in Sophie's arms, clutching her rabbit and sucking her thumb. And Bill sat back on one of the benches with Tara cuddled up against him, and watched the people he'd grown to respect and love each finding their own special way to bring in the New Year. From his sister in her pretty blue kuspuk, looking more Alaskan than ever and getting teased as usual by her husband and partner... to their children healthy and happy and alive. Bill smiled and kissed Tara on her pretty mouth, thinking how good it was to simply be alive...

At exactly three minutes to midnight everyone got bundled up in his or her heavy winter gear; hats were pulled on and bunny boots stepped into. They tiptoed outside, feet crunching in the deep snow. Mulder threw the switch on the outside lights, plunging the surrounding area into total darkness - and everyone turned their faces to the night sky.

And gasped in wonder...

Across the inky blackness the Northern Lights - the Aurora Borealis - danced and jumped and leapt in ever-changing patterns of pink, blue, yellow and palest green. Stripes and arcs, fireballs of color and rippling waves... so close they could have reached out hands to touch it... so bright it changed the eternal night into magical day. It was deathly cold outside and they shivered and stomped their feet and huddled together in a tight little group as their necks ached from holding their poor heads way, way back... And none of them would have gone inside to warm up, and chanced missing out on a single second of the show, determined to stay and watch until after midnight.

Skinner's hushed voice broke into the silent worship of the night. "Ten seconds..." Scully snuggled into Mulder, back to front with his mittened hands curved over their child, and she was the first one to begin softly singing in her flat yet endearing voice:

"Should old acquaintance be forgot..."

The rest of the gathering picked up the words and the tune, and they sang it into the frigid night air like a vow, and a promise to themselves. They let the magic of the Borealis wash its colors over them as they celebrated a new year, filled with hope...

Hope that they would continue to thrive and continue to live.

It had become a nightly occurrence for Skinner to eat his meals with the Honea family. The dinner dishes had been washed and put away. Michael's homework was done and he was in the room he shared with his grandfather, sleeping soundly. Jon had retreated to Mary's room, ostensibly to 'sit and gather his thoughts' for the sermon he would give in two days when the village met for the Sunday gathering, but Mary and Skinner knew that he was trying to give them some privacy.

Mary was stretched out on the sofa. Her legs were propped across Skinner's as his big hands gently kneaded her throbbing feet after another exhausting day spent in the clinic working with Scully. They had spent the morning treating the various aches and pains of the residents of Mt. Vu'luk and Mary had been hoping for a light day of patient care and a break from the work on the vaccine. But the moment the last patient had cleared the waiting room, Scully had moved with determination toward the lab.

"She's relentless," Mary moaned as Skinner dug his thumbs into her arches. "Yeah... oh that feels sooo good," she sighed, closing her eyes. Her head was nested into a small pillow and Skinner watched sympathetically as she rolled it from side to side, trying to work the kinks out of her neck and shoulders. As she arched amd twisted the stiff muscles Mary added, "Dana seems determined to start the new year off with a killer schedule!" Skinner chuckled a bit under his breath; that sure sounded like Dana to him.

"Were you able to make any progress today?" he asked as she snuggled deeper into the pillow. His massaging hands had stilled and Mary wiggled her toes, urging him to get back to work. He wrapped his warm fingers around her tiny toes, squeezing gently and a blissful smile broke over her full lips.

Her eyes slid open lazily. "Well you know that the virus attacks the host cells in two different ways. We've been working on the assumption that there are two separate strains of the virus. Until now we thought that one strain was spread through bee stings. We know that the alien embryo only gestates in those victims who are stung by bees." Mary's eyes darted away from his as she remembered her mother who had fallen under the brutal attack of the swarming bees set loose on Whitehorse. Skinner's thumb gently traced over the delicate bones of her instep. She shook off the memory and continued.

"We believed that a second strain of the virus was transmitted through the consumption of tainted food and those victims either died quickly or experienced some kind of altered behavior, often committing any number of heinous acts before finally succumbing to the virus." She blew out a breath and rubbed her hand over her forehead. Her toes had stopped their ecstatic wiggling as the conversation turned bleak.

Skinner slid his fingers under the loose elastic cuffs of the sweatpants that Mary was wearing and he stroked his hands gently along the supple flesh of her calves. He waited quietly for her to continue.

"But the antibodies in the blood samples seem to indicate that there is only one strain of the virus. This is consistent with the viral cells that we took from the oil that was expelled from Ty's body when he died," she told him. "I think Dana would love to get her hands on an infected bee so that she could compare the cells taken from it under the electron scope to the oil, but that's not possible."

Skinner continued to trace intricate patterns over Mary's skin with his fingertips as he processed the information that she was laying out for him. "So if there's only one virus," he began, "why do the victims' reactions differ so widely?" It was incredibly complex and confusing and he struggled to wrap his brain around the intricacies of the work that Mary and Scully were performing.

Mary pulled her feet from his lap and scrambled to sit up. "That just it!" she said as she pushed her hair out of her eyes. "Dana thinks that the method of infection dictates the way the virus manifests itself in the victim." Mary pulled her knees up to her chest and rested her chin on top of them. She could see the confusion written on Skinner's face and she struggled to make sense of their latest theory.

"Okay, it's like this," she began. "Let's say someone eats a food product that is tainted with the virus. Dana believes that the digestive acids found in the stomach render the virus incapable of supporting the alien life form in its embryonic state. She believes that it rapidly evolves and mutates, causing the altered behavior and rapid death of the victim." Skinner's eyes widened as her meaning sank in. Mary nodded and continued.

"A vaccine is basically a weakened or killed pathogen - or virus -that when administered through an inoculation, stimulates the patient's antibody production to work against the invading virus. But because the virus is weakened or killed, it isn't capable of causing a severe infection in the patient," she explained. "Dana hopes to be able to weaken or kill the viral cells by exposing them to an acid stronger than those found in the digestive acids of the human body." She fell back against the pillow and threw an arm over her eyes, the sudden excitement caused by reliving their discovery tamped down by the weight of the sheer volume of work that still lay ahead.

"The trick," she murmured tiredly, "will be to find an acid that is strong enough to weaken or kill the viral cells but not so strong that it is harmful to the patient upon administration of the vaccine."

Skinner stretched out on the sofa, wriggling his large body behind hers and wrapped his arms around her. He rested his cheek against the cloud of soft, black hair that framed her face. "How do you go about doing that?" he asked. Mary sighed and pulled his arms more tightly around her.

"I have no idea," she said truthfully. "And I don't think Dana has any idea either," she told him. "But I know she was ready to stay at the clinic all night, trying to find out. I practically had to drag her out of there again," she admitted. Mary twisted until she was lying on her back. Looking up at Skinner, she reveled in the warmth and love that she saw in his eyes.

"You probably know her better than anyone, other than Mulder, of course," she said. "Has she always been this driven?" Skinner was propped up on one elbow and he stroked the fingers of his other hand along her cheek. His eyes flicked away from hers and he studied the flames dancing merrily in the fireplace across the room.

"Yes," he said nodding slowly. "Scully is probably the most tenacious woman I have ever met," he told her. "Once she decides on a course of action, no one, not even Mulder, can sway her." Mary sighed and snuggled her face into the heavy wool of the sweater covering his broad chest.

"That's what I thought," she said. "It's not good for her. Pregnancy puts enormous demands on a woman's body. Dana is only adding to that pressure by believing that any hope for a vaccine rests squarely on her shoulders," she said anxiously. Skinner huffed out a grim sigh and lowered his cheek back onto her soft hair.

"She's right, isn't she?" he murmured against the crown of her head. Mary nodded and closed her eyes. She buried her face against the warm skin of his throat and silently renewed her vow to help Scully in every possible way - whether that meant assisting her in the lab or nagging her into taking better care of herself and the baby.

~ Chapter Twenty Nine ~

The coldest, nastiest day of February found Mulder rising from his warm bed and from his wife's warmer arms, dreading the short trip from their cabin to the computer room in the gathering hall. He sat on the edge of the bed and yawned, stretching his arms out in front of him. A tiny snorting snore behind him; Mulder half-turned and slipped his fingers through Scully's tousled hair, half-covering her face as she slept on her side. Poor baby... she'd had a rough night.

It happened once in awhile, when her stomach was unsettled and she'd awaken several times in the night with heartburn. Mulder had counted at least three times that she'd gotten up and walked around the cabin, rubbing at her tummy and taking deep breaths to combat the burning high in her throat. Usually it was brought on by food, although last night's dinner of soft-boiled eggs and sweet biscuits should not have bothered her.

Each time she'd returned to bed shivering and with cold feet, and he'd reached out for her and had curled his limbs around hers and eased her back to sleep. She was in her fifth month and her body was changing almost daily now. Mulder hoped the remaining months of her pregnancy would be somewhat smooth.

He leaned over and brushed his lips against her forehead, smiling when she grumbled in her sleep, then emitted a sharp little burp and snuggled down deeper into the flannel sheets. The burp smelled vaguely of bad eggs, which meant she'd have to ease up on them for the remainder of her pregnancy. Mulder sighed, hating to think she might have to give up the much-needed source of protein. Even after all these months living in the village Scully wasn't big on red meat, and ate sparingly of the caribou, moose and rabbit that everyone else consumed with gusto.

With one final kiss on her half-open mouth Mulder got up and padded silently to the bathroom, splashing cold water on his face and running his wet hands through his hair, not bothering to comb it. He ambled out to the kitchen in the dark, knowing his way around their little home so well that he didn't need to worry about lights until he got to the stove. He snapped on the range light and filled the kettle with water, not wanting to make a full pot of coffee but just settling on instant. He didn't want the smell of brewing coffee to awaken Scully - she'd had problems with that particular smell for the past few weeks.

As the water heated Mulder rummaged in the bread bin for the round of sourdough bread Scully had made a few days ago, and broke off a piece, spreading it liberally with the home-churned butter that Sophie thoughtfully provided for everyone. Made of goat's milk, the unsalted butter was strong and flavorful - and if a year ago anyone had told him he'd be slapping goat butter on sourdough bread made from thirty year-old starter in a rough-hewn log cabin in the most desolate territory of Alaska... and loving every minute of it... Mulder would have immediately led that person to the closest shrink's office and locked them in for life. And yet, here he was, standing in a rustic kitchen in his thermal underwear chowing down on bread and butter like no tomorrow.

In the months since they'd come to Mt. Vu'luk Mulder had watched his family and friends become absorbed into the Inupiaq way of life, so much that some days he could barely remember living in any other fashion. Everyone in the village had a job and supplied for everyone else. The first day Sophie had brought them a huge lump of butter, wrapped in cheesecloth and nestled in an old cookie tin, Mulder had been floored. That she would make them butter... Sophie had waved away his thanks, but had thoroughly enjoyed the tender kiss he had placed on her wrinkled cheek. Her rheumy eyes had sparkled up at him.

"It's nothing, Boy - I have to make it anyway and what is the difference between making a little and making a lot? It all has to be churned. I make the best butter, ask anyone. It is my job. I make it for everyone, and now I make it for you." She had squeezed his arm, and hobbled out, leaving him with a tin of butter and a goofy smile on his face. And now he didn't think anything of it when he would come home and there would be a cloth bag hanging on his door with a lump of butter in it - but when he saw Sophie, she always got her kiss on the cheek - and she never ran out of wood for her fire. Either Mulder or Skinner saw to that; between the two of them and Bill's efforts everyone in the village had enough firewood. Mulder's biceps and chest had benefited from the hard exercise and had become built up almost as strongly as Skinner's. His abs were washboard ridged; Scully seemed especially appreciative of his new, improved body...

Mulder finished the bread and the coffee, rinsing out his cup and stacking it in the drain. He made his silent way back into the bedroom, dressing quickly in a pair of flannel-lined jeans and a henley tee with a thick quilted flannel shirt over it. He had Beverly to thank for the lining in his jeans; she'd taken several pairs and lined them for him, performing the same thoughtful task for Skinner and Bill. The lined jeans were amazingly warm. He stopped by the bed to kiss Scully one more time; she sighed in her sleep and her muttered, "Bacon roof, okay," made absolutely no sense whatsoever. When she talked in her sleep the oddest things came out of her mouth. Sometimes it was all Mulder could do not to roll around next to her in the bed and laugh his sides off. Now he grinned at the silly words and bit down hard on the inside of his cheek to keep from guffawing out loud and disturbing her sleep. He stroked a hand over her hair and walked out.

In the living room he pulled his parka out of the tiny front closet and shoved his feet into his bunny boots, already thinking ahead to yet another attempt to get hold of the Gunmen. Last week when he'd logged on, the Internet had been shaky. He tried not to think too much on how it was staying afloat; tried to keep positive thoughts in his head about who in the world would be considered a human survivor. There had to be pockets of survivors all over the world; people who were vegetarians and would not eat meat. People who lived in frigid places where the bees could not go, the way it was here in Mt. Vu'luk. Hardy people who had perhaps found a way to survive the infection of the virus; who would continue to survive until something else crossed their path and brought them down.

Scully had once mentioned 'sexually- transmitted.' More and more Mulder figured she'd hit the proverbial nail with that thought. The aliens' master plan had to be complete annihilation of the human race. And it seemed reasonable for them to assume that what stupid humans were left over from their first attacks would eventually find a way to wink themselves out... all by themselves.

Mulder shuddered in the warmth of his little cabin as he searched through the pockets of his heavy goose-down parka for his watch cap.

The cap wasn't in the outer pockets. Mulder sighed and dug through them again, muttering to himself. Blasted parka had about a hundred pockets, inside and out - even had pockets inside of pockets. It was anyone's guess why... some designer at the Triple-Fat Goose-Down factory must have had a pocket fetish. Mulder searched the outer pockets - nothing. Shit... it was the only cap he had. He turned the parka inside out and started pawing through the inner pockets...

When his hand dug into a small upper pocket, and closed upon not a soft wool cap but a little bottle, Mulder stiffened in shock and pulled his hand out very slowly, almost afraid to look down at what he grasped in his palm. It couldn't be -! He opened his hand just as slowly, and looked down... Oh, Jesus.

It was. A vial... oh God thank YOU... Mulder held it up to the dim light in his living room and just stared at it. It was about two-thirds full of a pale brownish- greenish liquid; in his mind Mulder could see it all again as if it had just happened yesterday. Scrabbling at frigid ice and finger-numbing liquid alien shit... fumbling with the leather pouch that held the vial and a syringe... hands shaking as he filled the syringe with the substance that he stabbed into Scully's frozen naked shoulder; the stuff that saved her life... Christ... and here it was. He never remembered shoving the vial back in his parka; the same Triple-Fat goose down parka he'd been wearing that day in Wilke's Land when he drove across an Antarctica wasteland like gangbusters, to save his partner from a fate far, far worse than death.

Mulder found himself shaking violently as he held the vial... and then he was stumbling into the bedroom, yelling hoarsely...

"SCULLY!"

She held the vial in one hand, the other curved over her unborn child. Sitting up in bed in a tangled mound of blankets and quilt and flannel sheets - Mulder had thrown a heavy sweater over her shoulders as well. Scully stared at the vial in her hands and the face she turned to her husband was hopeful and worried at the same time.

"Mulder, after all this time... I can't believe it. In your pocket for years, God. And there's still a lot in here." She shook the vial a little, watching the odd- colored fluid shift in its little container. She wondered aloud, "It's so hard to say if it's still potent, though. We know nothing about it, whether or not it needed to be kept under certain conditions. It's been in your pocket for over three years and that parka has been in the Gunman's closet for most of that time." Scully laid the vial carefully on the night stand next to her side of the bed and snuggled into Mulder's arms, pressing her cheek against the reassuring thud of his heart. Mulder stroked her hair gently and thought about the significance of the vial.

There wasn't enough vaccine there to inoculate everyone in the village and surrounding areas, plus those in Barrow. They'd still have to find a way to manufacture more, but perhaps the vial could be put to good use as a way to compare... he spoke his thoughts aloud, and Scully nodded against his chest, then tilted her head up to peer into his eyes.

"I think we don't have a choice. The vial may be mostly full but this is a tiny container. I can't stretch this small amount out far enough to even cover our folks, much less anyone else. And some of this would have to be used in the testing, anyway. Having the real thing is wonderful though - means I don't have to waste time testing every step of the way. I can use the electron scope to match components as I go. It should cut the remaining work in half." She smiled up into her husband's face and he smiled back, and gently kissed her soft mouth. He whispered against her lips.

"Good. I'm glad I lost my cap, then - because if I hadn't I would never have dug through all those ridiculous pockets, and found the vial. You'll find the right elements, Scully - and you'll make the vaccine a reality. I know you will." He kissed her again and felt her smile into his mouth.

"Thank you, Mulder..."

One hand curled into a fist and pounded the desk while the other hand raked impatiently through hair already standing on end. Mulder leaned back in the chair and forced himself to calm down. He picked up the mug of tepid coffee and drained it, grimacing at the lukewarm liquid. As he set the empty mug next to the keyboard he stared at the message on the little screen.

'Unable to access'... For the Goddamn thousandth time, he thought wearily. Mulder blew out a frustrated breath and rubbed at his eyes, fighting down the sense of panic that grew a little stronger each time he tried to reach the guys and failed. He'd been trying off and on for several months, and every day for the past few weeks. He had tried every password, every list and every site he remembered them having.

The Internet in general had been up and down, so he tried to keep that in mind every time he started to worry his head off. He supposed it was pointless to worry. They were grown men, even though at times their actions belied it - and they'd known the risks of staying behind. Mulder knew the guys believed they could make a difference in the world, and in some ways they already had. He could think of several instances where they'd been instrumental in the solving of a case - and a few times their well-meaning antics had gotten in the way. And all three of them drove Mulder to distraction, especially Langly.

Mulder missed them like crazy... so did Scully.

Leaning back in his chair, Mulder stretched his arms above his head, and thought about what to do next. He had tried coaxing them out but they weren't wanting to be coaxed, that much was obvious. His methods of contact were limited and getting narrower as the weeks wore on. Internet access could crash permanently any day now; it had happened for hours at a time, and just last week they'd lost it for three days. Once the Net was gone, their fragile link with the rest of the surviving world disappeared, perhaps never to reappear.

It was too depressing to contemplate... and yet Mulder was nothing if not realistic. It had to go down that way; there wasn't another option. The world was dying all around them, and all its wonders and all its marvelous perks would die as well.

And yet... Perhaps someday, if Scully's vaccine could be perfected... if they found their way to fight back...

Mulder sighed again and grasped the mouse, preparing to shut everything down. Maybe he'd try tomorrow - maybe he'd give up. He was tired and worried and cold and time was running out... He had just begun to left- click when it happened. He stared at the screen, dumbfounded at the tiny little envelope that flashed in the lower right hand corner of his monitor. And his mouth curved into a smile which in turn blossomed into a grin that broke into a guffaw and resulted in a laugh... and he clicked on the little flashing envelope, and brought up the window that told him he had a message from Richard Starkey -

Otherwise known as Ringo. Mulder whooped out a loud, inane, "INCOMING!"... His eyes locked on eagerly to the short, but sweet message:

'George: Done at last! Recording went swimmingly. We're ready to tour. Another three months, Mate - wish us luck.'

'Ringo...'

Mulder read it through twice, and whooped again. Three months... longer than he'd imagined it would take them. He could only assume they'd gotten his messages explaining where to find the village. And if they had to backtrack, sidetrack and otherwise hide their trek from the alien enemy no doubt prowling the world... Mulder knew they'd do it well, and make sure they weren't followed.

He shut everything down, locked up the little room and jumped into his parka, almost running in his eagerness to get back to Scully, and let her know the guys were on their way...

**

Drinkwater, Saskatchewan

In the corner of the little cafe, over cups of coffee and lemon scones, the conversation turned to the happenings in Bemmy Kavok's hometown.

Bemmy stirred powdered creamer into his coffee and shrugged, preferring not to think overmuch about it. In some way he could pretend everything was normal, that he'd just come south to see his pal instead of the run he had made for his life. It was pointless to think about it anyway, since he'd already heard through the grapevine that his dad and older brother were dead. They'd never found his mother... Bemmy shook his head and concentrated on what Pauli was saying.

"... back to Barrow, man. I hear it's safe there now. We could take my uncle's Astro, be there in no time. Roads are shitty this time of year... worse since the plows quit going. We should go."

Bemmy drained his cup and signaled the weary-looking waitress for another coffee. He pushed his half-eaten scone around on his plate, jabbing an index finger into the filling and smearing it all over the table. The waitress dropped off his coffee and shuffled away without giving him grief for making a mess. He dumped more creamer into the hot brew, not bothering to answer Pauli, who exhaled noisily and impatiently.

"Bem? You hear me? We should go, man. Nothing here for us - it's not safe anymore. Let's just do it." Pauli tapped his fingers impatiently on the sticky table. Once he made up his mind to do something he was out the door... not so with Bemmy, who was slow to motivate and a born procrastinator. His brown eyes bore into Bemmy, who sighed and gulped down half a cup before he bothered to reply.

"What makes you think it'll be any better up there, huh? A couple of old farts on a goddamn computer, talking out their asses? I saw it, Pauli. Watched it happen and got the fuck outta there before it could get me too. It's dead up there. I told you that." Pauli shook his head.

"No. Not everyone. I just heard from somebody there, some old lady who knew your dad. She says a hundred people stayed behind. Says they burned all the bodies, the ones who were infected. A couple of white guys - new to the area, I guess - they came up and did it. Burned the food drop too." Bemmy stared at his pal in confusion.

"White guys? In Barrow? Willingly? They must be stupid. Whites don't make it there worth a shit. And they ate their food, that boxed crap they all want; lazy asses wouldn't go out and think to hunt for their meat. I saw it. Maybe some of them lived but I swear they all left. And I know one thing: if anyone's still alive up there they won't be white. No more food drops, right?" Bemmy threw his crumpled napkin into his coffee cup and watched the paper turn brown from the dregs left in the bottom. Pauli reached out a hand and shook his friend's arm.

"We got nothing holding us here, Bem. I don't. And you don't if I go. My Linda... she's gone..." He swallowed back the lump threatening to choke his throat at the mention of his wife, and dashed away bitter tears before continuing. "You think I want to hang around here? Goddamn ghost town. Everywhere I look, I see it, Bem. You know... I told you. Nothing I could do to save her, Jesus... came home and there she was. Opened up like a sardine can. That fucking... thing..."

Pauli's voice broke and he buried his face in his hands and his shoulders shook. Bemmy sighed and reached across the table to clasp his friend's shoulder. Right about now he was really glad he'd never bothered getting close enough to a woman to feel pain at her passing. He cleared his throat and his voice was low and raw.

"What would we do there, Pauli? Think about it. Nothing there when the world was alive, man! Double nothing there now. You gotta look at the truth of it. So maybe a hundred people stay behind. Maybe they're all Inup. Probably are; you know the Tlingits got the hell out the last big election. Moved back to Nome, good riddance!" Bemmy resisted the urge to spit, as he was wont to do when he thought about his families' traditional rivals. He rubbed at his burning eyes, then his voice softened as he again regarded Pauli.

"Look, man. We need to live, best we can. Maybe I don't wanna stay here but I sure as hell don't wanna go back to Barrow. No way of knowing for sure if the danger's past up there, any more than here. I say we just get the hell outta the North." Pauli raised his head and gaped at his friend's suggestion.

"Bem, are you stupid? Haven't you been following what the hell's been going on in the world? Bees, asshole! That's what did this. Bees that THEY let loose all over the fucking world, dude! I heard all about it from that old lady. Some kind of virus. Killed off everyone. Those white guys, they knew all about the virus and how it went down. I heard they're FBI - well they were, I guess. They flew in from one of the villages, shit if I know which one - and they told everybody to burn the dead people. One of the whites that came up with them is a doctor or something. Some lady. She's in that village too, making a cure for this thing, whatever the hell it is." Pauli stood up and tossed a few bills on the table, then shrugged into his jacket as he regarded his best friend in the world. A much-smaller world, nowadays... He sighed and nudged Bemmy once, to make him look up.

"I gotta go. I'm leaving day after tomorrow, as soon as I finish packing. I have to get outta here, Bem - too many memories of Linda. The offer's open. I want you to come, dude - you're my best friend. Think about it, okay? You know where to find me." With a final clap on Bemmy's shoulder, Pauli took himself off.

Alone at the table, Bemmy pushed his cup aside and leaned his arms on the scarred Formica, absently rubbing at his cheek where a sore tooth was rapidly turning into a problem. Of the sparse amount of people left in Drinkwater, he was sure there wasn't a dentist to be found. He'd just have to suffer until he got to a bigger place. Maybe Regina...

Bemmy didn't want to go back to Barrow. There was nothing left for him in a shit- small place like that. Not that Drinkwater was any better... he'd only come here to see Pauli. Bemmy sighed, and stood up, stretching. He caught a brief glimpse of Pauli walking through the empty parking lot of the cafe and resisted the urge to wave at him, instead tossing on his jacket and grabbing up the bills. He took them to the tired-eyed waitress who rang him up and gave him the change that he gave right back to her as a tip. She managed a tiny grimace that served to pass as a smile, and as he turned to go her raspy voice stopped him.

"Hey, kid - I couldn't help but overhear... your pal was right. Don't go south. I hear it's a mess down there - people dying left and right." She slammed the register shut on the last words of her advice and nodded once before walking away. And as Bemmy shook his head and dug through his pockets for his keys, he never noticed the figure in the long black parka who had been sitting in the booth behind him and Pauli. He never saw the way that shrouded figure had risen silently and had followed Pauli out the door.

Pauli had almost reached the darkened corner of the parking lot, and his truck, when his arm was grasped from behind, and twisted up against his back, forcing a cry of shocked pain from his lips. He struggled helplessly against the force that had him pinned and was pulling him along the secluded lot toward the only vehicle parked there. A low rasp in his ear... "Get in. I'll kill you if you say anything." The figure yanked at the driver's door and pushed Pauli in, then climbed in after him, still gripping his arm in a bruising hold. Another raspy, "Keys. Which pocket?" Pauli fought back a wave of nausea brought on by the unrelenting pain in his arm, and managed to point to his pocket, taking them out at his captor's terse insistence, hand shakily forced into inserting the key at an awkward angle, into the ignition. The figure released his arm and flung him into the far corner of the passenger's seat; Pauli made to sit up and his uninjured arm reached for the door handle - at about the same time he found a gun shoved in his face.

"I think not. Don't move, or I'll kill you." Pauli let go of the handle and leaned away as far from the gun as he could, watching though frightened eyes as his truck was started up and driven out of the lot. Briefly, looking out the window, he registered the sight of Bemmy ambling slowly over to his own car, no way of knowing what sort of trouble his pal had found for himself... Pauli located his voice and it came out in a squeak.

"What d'you want of me?" The shroud turned to face him briefly; Pauli caught a glimpse of a bearded face and shaggy hair, dark eyes -before the face turned his attention back to the road.

"Shut the fuck up." They drove out of the lot and down the street out of town, hitting the highway in silence. Pauli eyed the gun pointed at him; it was held in a steady gloved hand. Too close to his head for him to try anything -

Ten minutes and as many miles later they were out of town and on a deserted stretch of road. The truck was pulled over and stopped; in the darkness the man turned to Pauli and edged the barrel of the gun up under his chin. In a low voice, the man started asking questions.

"Tell me about the white men in Barrow... the ones who burned the bodies. And when you're done telling me you can describe this village, and whatever you know about that lady doctor there..."

In the kitchen of the little cafe, the waitress with the tired eyes -Pat was her name - pulled out a large metal bowl and began dumping flour and sugar into it, preparing to make more scones. Pat loved scones - and she never ate them when she baked them. She was too fat and was forever on a diet. Even in times like these, when there didn't seem a point anymore to care about her appearance Pat still clung to habits too deeply ingrained to break. She made three different kinds of scones and never touched them.

Pat leveled out the margarine and cut it into the flour mixture. She hated that her scones had to be made without butter, but there wasn't any more butter, much less milk - because she refused to have it in her place. She wasn't stupid. If the meat was infected with whatever had been killing people, then so was the milk. It was the difference between cows and cattle - but since no one seemed to know how the cattle had gotten infected Pat refused to take chances. She'd gone to the corner supermarket and bought up all the powdered milk she could find. It tasted like shit to drink but in cooking it was tolerable.

Pat had been on a strict diet for months now, and had finally begun to lose some weight. There had been this one trucker, from Regina -Nathan. He'd been giving her the eye lately, when he would come through town. He loved her apple scones... Pat smiled as she worked the dough. Nathan was one hell of a man, big and brawny - and he'd shown her some marked interest after she'd managed to drop fifty pounds. She'd still had a ways to go, but things had been looking up.

Then Nathan stopped coming by, sometime in October after the beginning of the mess that had now become the world... Pat knew in her heart he had not survived the infection. And she shaped her scone dough on greased cookie sheets while fighting back tears. Sometimes a tear or two would fall on the dough - Pat didn't suppose any of her customers would mind, or care.

And even though the odds of Nathan again walking through the door of her little cafe shrunk more every day, Pat continued to diet, continued to deny herself the comfort of food. Or maybe she was too grief- stricken to eat. It didn't much matter. She made her scones and her dwindling customers ate them and teased her gently about this or that, and she answered them on auto-pilot and took their money and their tips, and waited for a brawny- shouldered man to come walking through her doors...

As the scones baked Pat carefully put away the flour and sugar tins, and the eggs she collected from the hens she had just begun to raise herself - not trusting outside egg sources anymore. A meatless cafe that served salads and scones and used powdered milk and non-dairy creamer in the coffee... Pat supposed she was doing everything she could to protect her customers.

As she put away the large tub of what she sarcastically referred to as "fake butter", she had no way of knowing just what ingredients went into "Nature's Best" Margarine...

Bemmy was halfway to the Drink Inn when the pains started.

At first he thought it was just a massive indigestion attack from all the coffee he'd gulped down. Coffee had always given him trouble. Except Bemmy knew he'd only had three cups that day...

When the second wave hit him he almost doubled over and ran off the road. Reflexively his foot jammed on the brake and the truck shuddered to a slow skid, sliding on the shoulder of the road and hitting a hard ridge of snow bank before it turned in a lazy circle and stopped. Bemmy slumped over the steering column and sucked in several pain-jabbing breaths. His insides were twisting into knots and his heart was beating so fast it felt as if it would explode from his chest any minute. He fought down the escalating panic that was invading his senses... something was wrong, much more seriously wrong than a goddamn gas attack. Bemmy ran a shaky hand over his face, and managed to get the door open. Maybe if he got some air he'd feel better. He hung onto the door with both hands as he swung one rubbery leg after the other out of the cab and got one foot on the ground. Heaving a relieved breath, thinking the worst of it might be over...

Five seconds later Bemmy was on the frozen ground in a foot of snow, his body clenching and convulsing... his eyes rolling back in his dead-white-faced head, the squiggles of black oil very pronounced as they slithered underneath the skin of his cheeks, and filled up the last remaining humanity of his doomed soul.

On the other side of Drinkwater, another truck parked on the side of another road had its door open as well - and a body fell from the cab and landed in a heap in the drifting snow. Twitching once, twice -then shuddering violently before finally stiffening, and going very still. The utter darkness hid the oil that dripped from several orifices, exiting the body and going in search of a new home, only to become inert by the freezing effect of the snow...

In the cab the shrouded figure in the long black parka started up the engine and fiddled with the radio, not surprised to find a lot of white noise and dead air time. Reaching across the seat to pull the open door closed, locking it as well - the driver threw the truck into gear and moved out.

The boy hadn't coughed up as much information as he should have, considering he'd had a gun shoved underneath his chin. He'd been brave. Or stupid... whatever; it was a moot point. When he'd felt the pains come; when he'd felt the alien invader in his body he'd begun to moan and gasp, had forked over a paltry amount of pertinent facts. It wasn't detailed but it was better than nothing - and when his eyes had begun to swirl over with oil, made even more gruesome in appearance backlit by the green glow of the interior dash lights - he had been pushed out into the snow, there to finish out what small bit of life he had left in his dying body.

The truck turned onto the main highway and headed northwest. The driver had a long trip ahead, but that was all right. The general destination had been discovered, the targeted area within three small villages. The gas tank was full and there were plenty of places to fuel up along the way. Maybe a week... maybe two; the roads were surprisingly clear. Only one village held a handful of white people, one of which was a female doctor busily laboring to create a vaccine.

Three chances, and only one was the right place. Piece of cake... no scones, though. Not scones made with margerine which was processed from corn oil...

The truck drove on through the frigid night.

~ Chapter Thirty ~

March roared in with both Mulder and Scully ready to set their bed on fire - and not by having wild hot sex smack dab in the middle of it. They had to replace that sagging mattress or they'd never get a decent nights' sleep, especially Scully, whose back was aching more and more frequently.

When he found out the bulk of the village's furniture and household goods had been moved to a large supply shed out in back of the small greenhouse, Mulder decided to investigate.

Although quite a few cabins had been left furnished, the now-inhabited places had been stripped of their furnishings and then re-furnished, as their new inhabitants had deemed necessary. Mulder felt badly about this, as did the others. But being practical was of utmost importance, and as Skinner had said before... it was a sure bet these people would not be coming home.

It was a sad and sobering thought.

Snapping on a dim overhead light, Mulder poked through the cluttered shed. It was very cold; in the bitterness of winter there was no way to get heat out to any of the sheds. Luckily nothing in these little buildings would be damaged due to freezing temperatures - except for the idiots crazy enough to spend any amount of time looking through them...

Like him.

Mulder blew on his gloved fingers as he searched through the stacked-up mattresses against a far wall. He found one that looked fairly sturdy; as he began to pull it away from the others he noticed the record player standing in the corner partially obscured by the rest of the mattresses. Pushing the bulky mattress back against the others, Mulder tugged at the player curiously, thinking it looked a lot like the one he'd had as a kid. He dragged it away from the wall and flipped the lid.

Actually this one was a lot nicer than the one he'd owned, because there was a little drawer inside the box that held 45 singles. Mulder opened the drawer and sorted through the records, momentarily forgetting the extreme cold as the titles of the singles brought back memories from him. Although a lot of the songs were actually before his time Mulder still knew almost all of them mostly because he had inherited so many singles from his older cousin Linda when she'd married and moved away from the Vineyard. He picked up a handful and sifted through them, smiling at the tunes he spun in his head as the titles came to light: "He's So Fine"; "Chapel of Love"; "Mule-Skinner Blues"; "Take Good Care of My Baby"...

He found himself humming little snatches of the beloved tunes as he looked through the pile. And he thought of how nice it would be to hear some of them again, how maybe the music would just make a body feel so good... And Scully had been so tense lately, feeling large and bloated and unattractive. No amount of assurances from him, of her utter loveliness and desirability had seemed to reassure her...

Impulsively, Mulder gathered up the single records and plopped them back into the drawer, then locked the player and carried it over to the door. Maybe he'd surprise Scully with some real 'feel-good' tunes as well as a new mattress...

It was late afternoon when Scully returned from the clinic. She was so tired, and this day had been particularly difficult. So close to isolating the damned vaccine, but something kept defeating her. And the feeling that they were running out of time... it was disheartening as hell. She sighed heavily as she opened the door, feeling every one of her six months of pregnancy weighing down upon her. Her back ached. She walked into the cabin... and stared in shock at the sight before her.

Candlelight, that was the first thing she noticed. There were candles everywhere; on the table and on the little pot-bellied stove, which burned a cheery fire, the grate left open to send the glow of the flames across the room. She could hear music, and her startled gaze leapt to a little record player in the corner of the room. Where on earth had that come from? It was playing "Since I Fell For You", one of her favorite oldies. Scully stood in the middle of her cabin; listening and smiling... then her nose caught the smell of something delicious cooking. Mmmm... smelled like caribou chili. Mulder cooked a mean caribou chili; Sarah had taught him.

Speaking of Mulder... She called softly for him. And his head appeared from around the bedroom door, tousle-haired, tender smile on his face as he saw her standing there in her heavy parka. He walked over to her and she gawked when she saw what he was wearing.

Oh, Mulder...

He wore her favorite outfit; she had completely forgotten the gray tee shirt and his faded jeans, the soft tight ones. What he wore that fateful day so long ago when he told her that she made him a whole person... the closest they had come to an actual commitment, and a kiss. And what he'd been wearing the night they'd made their escape from his apartment and had begun the journey that had led them here... Scully stared at him wordlessly and her heart melted. Mulder smiled at her and reached for her parka, unzipping and helping her out of it as he murmured to her.

"Hey, Scully... have I got a night planned for you..."

An hour later Scully was feeling like the most pampered queen; Mulder had been an angel to her, even more so than usual. He'd led her to their bedroom and helped her lie down on her side, and as she had sunk onto the mattress she'd noted the new firmness of it. He'd found her a better mattress... she'd sighed and relaxed, then felt him behind her, rubbing her back. Oooh, a massage... just what she'd needed. For over half an hour Mulder had massaged every inch of her, including her aching feet. As he'd massaged he'd whispered silly things in her ear, making her laugh. The old music playing in the background had been a perfect accompaniment for his ministrations.

Then he'd propped her up against a small mountain of pillows, and served her dinner in bed, feeding her and laughingly slapping her hands away when she'd protested that she wasn't a baby. His low whisper had shivered over her ear.

"Yes, you are. You're my baby. You've had a hard day and I want to feed you and make you feel good. So put those hands down, Scully... and let me take care of you." He'd spooned chili and crumbly buttered biscuit into her mouth, until she couldn't eat another bite and she leaned against the pillows, replete. Full of good food and warm with the fire and loosely relaxed from the wonderful massage, she had fallen into a light doze.

She awoke about an hour later; the candles were still flickering and the smell of chili still hung in the air, though not as strongly. Scully turned her head on the pillow, to find Mulder sitting next to her, holding her hand and smoothing the fingers of his free hand through her hair gently. She smiled up at him and he returned her smile with a kiss and a soft, "Feel better?" She stretched and sighed, snuggling closer to him.

"Mmmm, yes, Mulder - I feel wonderful. My backache is completely gone, thanks to you." Her gaze settled on him, her eyebrow quirked curiously. "So, what did I do to deserve this wonderful pampering?" Mulder kissed her again, on her mouth and then on each eye, before answering.

"I think the answer to that may well be, what haven't you done, Scully? You have been working too hard and not thinking of yourself at all. You haven't been eating well and I know you haven't been sleeping. I just wanted you to relax this evening, and forget everything but how much I love you." So saying, he rose from the bed and reached out for her hand, pulling her into a sitting position. Scully gazed at him as he smiled a little lopsided grin, and whispered to her, "Dance with me, Scully."

She looked down at her large belly and chuffed out a depreciating laugh. "Mulder, I look like a beached whale. I can barely see my feet to move them. You can't want to dance with something this ungainly."

He slipped his arms around her and pressed her close to his pounding heart. His loving murmur went straight to her soul and lodged there...

"Scully, you are the most beautiful woman on earth. You have never looked more desirable to me and yes, I want to hold you close and dance with you and I promise not to step on your toes." His earnest hazel eyes were locked on hers; assuring her he had never been more truthful. Scully blinked back sudden tears, and hugged him.

"Okay... I'll dance with you..."

In the living room Mulder had already moved the chair and the small sofa back into the wall; a new stack of records were loaded onto the player and the candles were burning low. They faced each other in the soft dimness of their warm cabin and Mulder's arms came around her rounded body gently, bringing her to his heart. As the little player dropped another single, he held her close and guided her into the dance. The tune was slow and poignant...

'Kiss me each morning for a million years, Hold me each evening at your side. Tell me you love me for a million years -Then if it don't work out, Then if it don't work out - Then you can tell me goodbye...'

He led her around the small living room in a slow, careful circle, pressed into his arms, their unborn child nestled and cradled between them. His head bent and he laid his cheek against her soft fiery hair as he sang the words to her.

'Sweeten my coffee with a morning kiss, Soften my dreams with your sighs. Tell me you love me for a million years -Then if it don't work out, Then if it don't work out - Then you can tell me goodbye...'

The lovely old melody swirled through and around them, as they danced, the lyrics never more meaningful than when applied to their love. In their thick wool socks, shuffling around on the faded carpet of a cabin in the middle of nowhere, as isolated as they could possibly be... still the bounty of their blessings overwhelmed them both.

Scully pressed herself closer against her husband's body as they danced, feeling more cherished than she'd ever felt in her life. Everything about Mulder comforted her as much as excited her; his strength and his love and caring; even his scent was a comfort. She rose up on tip-toes and burrowed her nose against his neck, inhaling the heady combination of scents that made up the essence of Mulder...

Warm cotton, the layer that presses the skin; a touch of soap and something just shy of spicy. An underlying smell of musk and good, clean sweat; the kind that always made her want to hug him, especially when he'd been standing in the sun and his body would be warmed through and through. It didn't matter where she buried her nose because the smell of him would wash over her like a wave and she'd sink down into it, willingly... Eau de Fox Mulder, and it was hers to enjoy, hers to treasure. She opened her mouth against his throat and let his pulse beat on her tongue as she tasted him...

One of the sweetest things about holding Scully had always been the way she fit into his embrace, Mulder thought as they swayed to the slow, sweet music. Her head could lay upon his chest in just the right place to catch the thud of his heart as her nearness made it pound itself silly... the full press of her against him never failed to stir him deeply. The feel of their child nestled in her womb, tiny feet kicking her as he cupped the low of her back and supported her there - if he lived to be a thousand he would never forget the way that felt - the movement of his child against him, inside the woman who adored them both... Then her mouth nuzzled his throat and it felt so good... His voice faded to a mere thread of sound as he sang more of the song into her soft hair.

'If you must go then I won't grieve -If you wait a lifetime before you leave...'

Scully felt the tears well in her eyes and slip quietly down her cheeks as the significance of those words touched her heart. It almost seemed as if it had taken her a lifetime to get here, in this very spot at this very moment. To think of how many times she had wanted to reach for it, but had been afraid - or too proud - or too stubborn... To rejoice in the knowledge that she'd finally begun the reaching and had discovered that he'd met her halfway. She lowered her head back to his chest and pressed her wet cheek against his heartbeat.

She didn't bother to hide her tears or wipe them away. Touched to her very soul by the depth of her love for this man, she had no worries and no concerns; here at this time everything was right in the world. She sighed brokenly into his chest as the song spun out and he sang more of the lyrics to her, his voice now gone hoarse with emotion.

'But if you must go, I won't tell you no - Just so that we can say we tried -Tell me you love me for a million years...'

"Mulder?" Her hoarse little whisper broke into his soft singing, and he leaned down into her face and smiled at her, wiping at her tears even as she reached up one small hand and stroked over his own damp face. He kissed her nose.

"What, Scully? Are you okay? Do you want to sit down?" She shook her head and her reply made him tighten all over.

"I feel wonderful, Mulder. I just want you to take me to bed..."

The simple, low words made his heart swell...

They left the records spinning out on the old turntable, and Mulder took his wife to bed. He lifted her in his arms like a baby - his baby, as he'd told her - and carried her to the bed, the covers turned down and already warm for her.

Mulder laid her on the soft sheets and Scully sighed and wriggled into their fleecy comfort. She lifted a woolly foot and Mulder chuckled as he stripped off her socks, then slipped her flannel leggings down her slender legs and tossed them on the floor. Her heavy flannel smock came off next, followed by the baggy cotton turtleneck, and before she had a chance to begin shivering he covered her body with the warmth of his own. Knowing her breasts were tender and swollen this far into the pregnancy he left her bra alone, figuring she needed the support - and he framed her face between his hands and held her close as he kissed her mouth, and her rounded cheeks. Tender, so tender - she needed extra heapings of tenderness right now. And for Mulder it was his privilege to provide his wife just what she needed...

For Scully the culmination of her evening couldn't have been more perfectly executed. Pampered and loved, cherished and treasured... Mulder gave her this and so much more. His tongue traced within her mouth in delicious swirls and deep hungry strokes and his hands mimicked the same strokes upon her body. With nimble fingers and the innate knowledge of what she liked the best, he brought her to shivering life beneath him. He slipped a tender index finger in and around her silky wet flesh, finding all the sensitive places to rub and tease... and his mouth swallowed her gasp of release when she trembled and convulsed against his hand. He watched her face as she flushed rosy pink with the force of her climax. So incredibly gorgeous...

Mulder tamped down hard on his own desires, preferring to take satisfaction instead in the easing of Scully's tension and weariness, knowing she needed it far more than he did. In his eagerness to give to her he had forgotten to undress, and now lay upon the bed next to his sated and sleepy wife, still fully clothed. He grinned at her when her eyes fluttered open and she mumbled, "Mulder... you're still dressed... take off your clothes; I want to do you..." The sensual effect of her words lost some of their punch when she emitted a huge yawn as she spoke. Mulder laughed aloud and kissed her sweetly.

"Baby, you're half asleep already. I don't think you should worry about me right now - I'll take a rain check. Just sleep, okay? Let me get your pajamas on, and then sleep in my arms." He grabbed her pajamas from under the pile of pillows and helped her into them, adding, "Are your breasts bothering you? Want to leave the bra on?" She nodded sleepily.

"Mmmm, they're so sore. They feel better if they're supported." Mulder buttoned her into the top and slipped the loose waistband of the bottoms up over her legs, and put her socks back on. He stripped down to his thermal underwear and curled himself around her, face to face, and they shared a pillow, their eyes staring into each other's as he tugged the covers over both of them. And under the covers her small hands found him and slid inside the flap of his bottoms, and her fingers wrapped around his penis, still swollen. He sighed into her mouth as he kissed her goodnight.

"That feels so good, Scully... holding me like that. So good..."

As the last echoes of the final song played on the little record player, they fell asleep.

It was hot in the bedroom; Mulder flung off the covers and rolled over onto his back, sprawled out and too sleepy to get up and shut the door of their room to keep out the bulk of the heat emanating from their little stove. So warm in the room... hot. He sighed and fought against the need to awaken, preferring to continue the dream in which he'd become enmeshed. He flung an arm over his face and breathed into the crook of his elbow, "Scullymmmm..."

In his dream her soft wet mouth was everywhere, on all the spots he'd so needed it to be just a few short hours ago when he'd forced himself to fall asleep still hard and needy. It hadn't been about him, anyway - it had been about Scully. What she needed - what made her feel good. And this dream of his was almost as good as the real thing, for it was so vivid. He could feel the tender scrape of her nails around his balls, smell her light perfume mixed with the body oil he'd rubbed on her skin, with an underlay of pure, delectable Scully.

So vivid... her mouth. God... Even in dreams it was the most amazing feeling... wet. Hot. Generous to a fault. Wanting to return the favor... a rain check. And it wasn't even raining outside...

He groaned into the heat of their small bedroom, his dream-hands moving down to winnow into her dream-hair...

And the silky, very real feel of those strands against his palms woke him up in a hurry, one eye squinting open, and looking to see what he was holding. Not a pillow... hell, no.

He was holding Scully's head. And Scully was holding him, her mouth engulfing him... loving him. Jesus...

Mulder arched into her and another deep groan worked its way out of his throat as her tongue slipped and moved against him. Her hands cupped him gently as she worked him; now shallow, now deep. Deep... and she was humming in her throat, the vibration of it driving him wild. Her eyes fluttered open and she stared up into his smoky gaze, her own hot and intense.

And he needed it to last forever...

There was no way in hell it could last forever. Not when she flicked the very tip with her front teeth, and at the same time squeezed him and swirled the flat of her tongue over him like a cat. Three movements in one, calculated to make him explode.

It worked. Every inch of his body tensed as his climax built up in about one second, and the hoarse shout he released into the air of the bedroom could have shaken the windows if they hadn't been shuttered and locked...

A full minute later Mulder was still trembling. He tugged at Scully, who'd laid her cheek against his thigh and was gazing at him with so much love in her eyes he could actually feel it more than see it in the dimness of their room. He wrapped a hand around the back of her neck and urged her up carefully, until she was pressed to him full-length. He kissed her and she tasted like Scully and sex and him... he shuddered and whispered to her, "Thought it was a dream, Scully..."

She grinned at him and her kiss was so gentle he could have imagined it.

"It was a dream, Sweetheart... go back to sleep..." He yawned and nodded.

"'Kay... Love you, Baby." Her answering murmur slipped in and out of his consciousness as he felt himself sucked down into the waves of sleep again.

"Love you, Mulder..."

They slept through the night, wrapped up together.

~ Chapter Thirty One ~

Along the ridge of encrusted ice and snow the men crouched, waiting. There was no relief to be had from the unrelenting cold - none. It tore at their eyes and ate through layers of thermal underwear, heavy polar-fleece and Gore-Tex and goose down feathers. The hairs in their nostrils froze together and those sporting beards were in pain from their facial hairs freezing not only upon their faces but also together, forming a lump of ice on their cheeks. It hurt to move... it hurt to breathe.

None of the men complained.

They lay in the snow, using it for insulation, their bodies indented within small human-sized trenches, and they waited for the seals to come. In the later months of winter the seal herds had already moved inland and had found solace in the slightly less-frigid temperatures of the lakes surrounding Barrow and the smaller villages. The seals were slower, sluggish this time of year, relying on their body fat to get them through the harshest months when food was very scarce. They moved at a plodding pace and were much easier to kill.

It had been decided the village would need five small seals or three large ones. That much meat and fat would get them through the year easily. The hunting parties only went out for seal in the late winter, before the pups were born - usually late March. Only the secondary male bulls were taken, the cows and pups left alone and the main stud within the herd spared as well. If the herd was large enough finding at least three bulls was usually not a problem.

Today, it was a problem...

The herd they tracked was small. There were numerous cows, some already pregnant. The stud was enormous and bellowed regularly as he reigned over his harem. The secondary bulls were scarce, though. The men sighed in frustration, knowing if they were lucky they'd get maybe two. And there was no question raised about the possibility of taking a cow. It simply wasn't done...

Patrick was closest to the smaller bull. Unmoving in his trench, in the dark he was almost impossible to see, and the seals' eyesight wasn't all that great to begin with. The snow helped to cut down on his human scent and the seals could not smell the men in their midst. They lounged at the edge of the small lake and the bulls honked while the cows squealed at each other. They huddled together to preserve precious body heat and the frigid temperatures made them lethargic and slow. A full moon shining above illuminated the night and the herd, making them easy to track.

Patrick edged closer, on his stomach in the snow. Next to him, coming out of his own trench, Mulder slid forward as well. Slow, easy... stealthy. Ignoring the clenching deep in his belly, at the thought of what he was about to do. He was a subsistence hunter. He was adopted Inupiaq. He hunted to provide vital meat and fat for his village. He hunted to live.

He was about to kill a seal. It was a tough thing to swallow...

Mulder loved seals. He always had, from the time he was a boy and had become fascinated with Alaska. He had read many books about Alaska, learning all about the Native Alaskans and how they survived. The hardest thing he'd had to accept was their practice of whaling and sealing. Whales were graceful, majestic and almost mystical. Seals were, well... sweet. It was the only way he could describe them, with their big round eyes and cute faces. Seals were tender and vulnerable and took excellent care of their pups.

Now, all these years later, Mulder found himself living a life he'd only fantasized about as a boy, never imagining in a million years that he'd actually get a chance to live that way himself. To be faced with an existence such as this - he would never have dreamed. And yet... he was happy. Happier than he'd ever been, happier than he perhaps deserved to be. He had everything he wanted, would ever want, or need. The boy had become a man, and then within the last several months the man had become an Alaskan.

Mulder shook off the squeamishness and the guilt at what he was about to do, and sighted down the shotgun. A second bull lay in the snow several yards from his brother. Mulder lined him up, knowing that not far away from him Bill was also locked onto the seal. If Mulder missed Bill would get him. And on the other side of Patrick, Skinner was poised and ready. It was time...

Mulder aimed carefully, then rose up on his knees and pulled the trigger. The kickback threw him into the snow behind him, the roar from the shotgun and the sudden frightened bellowing of the herd deafening him to the shouts of his friends as they quickly dispatched the second bull and allowed the rest of the herd to scatter. Mulder scrambled to a crouching position and called to Patrick.

"Are they down?" Patrick's shouted response was raw from the icy air they were forced to breathe.

"Yeah! Both of 'em. Not moving. We can go in, but be careful."

Slowly they moved in and surrounded the two fallen bulls. As Mulder approached the bull he'd killed, he fought to keep his emotions out of the equation, choosing instead to think about all the necessary products this bull would yield them. Meat for their tables and fat to be rendered into oil; fur to line a parka - or a crib. He looked down at the breadth of the pelt, and figured there would be more than enough for Scully to line the crib... And as he inched closer with the rope in his gloved hands, preparing to truss the seal and get it ready to drag out, the seal's big round eyes suddenly opened... and looked straight at him. Mulder's jaw dropped and he stood as if turned to stone in the drifting, loose snow, staring down into the animal's eyes, which were filling with blood. Mulder gaped in horror at what he'd done to this wonderful, sweet creature.

Then the seal's snout shuddered, and its muzzle opened... and in a voice that sounded like broken glass and thick oozing sludge, it spoke to him...

"While you stand in smug victory over me, back in your safe little village your woman dies, Mulder... was your desertion of her worth my death?"

Mulder fell to his knees in the dark red- tinted snow as the impact of the words pounded into him, stabbing deep and twisting as he screamed, and screamed...

"SCULLY!!! Jesus, no, SCULLY!"

He awoke with a hoarse cry of terror most absolute, lodged so deeply in his throat that he choked on it as he sat up in the pile of sleeping mats. Next to him Bill grunted as Mulder's knee came into jarring contact with his spine - but he never woke up. On the other side of him Patrick snored loud enough to rattle windows, if they'd had any in their hunting tent to rattle. Likewise Skinner and Manly were dead to the world, huddled together on the other side of the tent. The air inside was cold, even with the warm air blowing in from the portable propane furnace they'd left running outside, its hose vented in through one of the flaps. Mulder dropped his face into his hands, unable to get the nightmare out of his mind.

He had learned from experience to trust these dreams, visions... whatever the hell they were. He might have questioned the having of them, perhaps a year prior to this night... but not anymore. Not after what he had seen, and what he'd already lived through. Mulder wiped his hands over his face again and nudged Bill, hard.

"Hnnnhhh, whuzzit..." Bill flopped over on his back groggily and peered up trough the early morning darkness, the dim glow from the safety lantern they hung on the outside of their tent providing minimal visibility. Mulder poked him again, impatient.

Bill, wake up. We gotta go back. Now. They're in trouble." Bill came awake in a hurry at the urgent words and sat up next to his brother-in-law, staring at him in the gloom.

"What - trouble? How do you know? What's happened?" Patrick awoke and sat up, rubbing at his eyes, as Mulder called to Skinner and Manly.

"We have got to GO. Now. It's gonna take us a couple of hours to get back as it is." Mulder stood up, his head bumping into the tent roof, and searched around on the floor of the tent for his boots. Patrick and Manly just stared at him as if he'd lost his mind, but Bill and Skinner nodded and began gathering up boots. Neither man questioned anything; Skinner had already seen the effect of Mulder's dreams and Bill had already witnessed enough to make him a believer in Sasquatch and leprechans...

Mulder explained it to the other men as best as he could while they broke up camp and loaded everything onto the mobile trailers. The dream had been horrifically real; the significance of the bloody seal not lost on Patrick and Manly. And Mulder could not shake the urgency and the overwhelming feelings of doom. Their village was in trouble, along with Scully and their unborn child...

He knew it with total certainty.

"Matty," Beverly called. "Bring your pail over here." She glanced over her shoulder and beckoned to the little boy. Matty trundled across the barn. His small pail banged against his legs as he ran, sunflower seeds flying out and scattering over the planked floor. Beverly shook her head and pointed to a spot next to her. Matty slid to a halt and tipped his head back, aiming a sunny smile at the exasperated woman and melting her heart. She ruffled his hair and bent low to whisper in his ear.

"If your Uncle Mulder knew how many sunflower seeds you spill every time you feed the chickens, he'd have a fit!" she told him. Matty giggled and dug a chubby hand into his pail, sending a shower of seeds down toward the chickens pecking at the floor around his feet. He had long since lost his fear of the animals and it had become a daily ritual for him to accompany Beverly, Sophie and Warren out to the barn after breakfast to see to the care of the goats and chickens. Like most mornings, however, he quickly grew bored with the chores and he set off to investigate all of the dark and musty corners of the barn. He knew that the adults would soon be finished. That meant it was time for their morning game of hide- and-seek.

Beverly was watching out of the corner of her eye as Matty ran toward his favorite hiding spot and her lips quirked up in a tiny smile. Even though they knew exactly where he would be hiding - he hid in the same place every day - she and the others would make a show out of looking for him in every corner and crevice of the barn until he couldn't hold in his little boy giggles any longer and his tinkling laughter would give away his hiding spot.

Beverly leaned over the goats' pen and lifted a bucket brimming with warm milk over the top rail. The milk sloshed over the top of the bucket as Matty's piercing shriek echoed through the barn, causing her to whirl around. The bucket fell from her nerveless fingers, milk spilling over and around her booted feet as she saw the little boy dangling in the grip of a dark- haired stranger. The man stepped further into the barn and she could see the silver muzzle of a gun aimed at Matty's struggling figure.

"Who are you?" she gasped as she took a step closer to the stranger and the frightened child. "What do you want here?" she asked. Beverly could feel Sophie and Warren breathing down her neck as they crowded behind her.

"Put the boy down!" Sophie demanded imperiously. The stranger's eyes flicked over the old woman dismissively and he refocused his attention on Beverly.

"Where is Agent Mulder?" he asked in a low voice. Beverly's heart beat even faster as she wondered how this man knew Mulder and how he had managed to track him to Mt. Vu'luk. She licked suddenly dry lips and said nothing. The stranger tightened his grip around Matty and pressed the muzzle of the gun against his tiny chest. Beverly inhaled sharply and lifted her hands imploringly.

"Please," she begged. "Don't hurt him. He's just a baby." Her eyes pleaded with the dark-haired man for mercy but he merely cocked his head to one side, patiently awaiting an answer to his question. Beverly struggled for a moment; afraid to give this man the information he was seeking and even more frightened not to.

"Mulder isn't in the village right now," she told him honestly. She shivered as a pleased smile broke over his coldly handsome face. He glanced at the whimpering child in his grip and then back toward the frightened trio standing across from him.

"Then I want you to go and get Agent Scully. Bring her here. Tell her an old friend has come to call." He gestured stiffly toward Beverly with his free hand. She nodded and began to creep toward the door. Her heart broke as Matty held out his arms.

"Bevawee," he sobbed. "Can I come with you?" Fat tears streamed down his round cheeks as he strained away from the frightening man who held him in a crushing grip.

"Please," Warren implored. "Let her take the boy with her. We'll stay here with you," he promised as he looked down at Sophie. The old woman nodded decisively and turned toward the stranger.

"You are frightening the child," she told him. "Let him go. We'll stay." She drew herself up to her full height and glared at the stranger who barked out an ugly laugh.

"The boy stays here," he said. Glancing at Beverly with a ruthless smile, he prodded her along. "You'd better hurry," he advised in cold, controlled voice. She gulped down a frightened sob and ran from the warmth of the barn.

Scully was sitting in a chair at her desk and Mary was leaning over her shoulder, studying something on the computer when the door burst open and Beverly flew into the clinic.

"Da... Dana," she gasped. "Come quickly," she cried. Scully struggled out of her chair and turned to face the distraught woman.

"What is it, Beverly?" she asked. The other woman's eyes were wide and dark with fright. "Is someone hurt?" she asked, reaching for her parka. "Is it Sophie?" she wondered as she looked around the room for the small bag that contained her stethoscope, blood pressure cuff and other pieces of medical equipment. Beverly shook her head and tried to control her breathing.

"There's a man, a stranger in the barn," she began. "He... he's got Matty and he's demanding to see you." Scully looked up sharply.

"Who is he?" she asked as she pushed her arms into the sleeves of her coat. "Did he give you a name?" Beverly shook her head again.

"No, he didn't say," she told her. "He said to tell you that an old friend had come to call," she quoted. Scully's brows furrowed as the three women stopped near the door.

"What does he look like?" she asked. Beverly paused to collect her thoughts.

"Less than six feet tall," she began. "Dark hair and dark wicked eyes," she said as the stranger's face appeared before her mind's eye. "Handsome, I suppose, but cold and evil." Her hand gripped Scully's arm tightly. "Dana, he has no soul."

Scully shuddered and covered the older woman's hand with her own. "Get Reverend Jon," she said quickly. "Then I want the two of you to go and get Tara. But you must not let her come barreling into the barn," she warned quietly. She turned to look at Mary. "Maybe you should go with her," she suggested. "Beverly is going to need all the help with Tara that she can get." Mary shook her head and laid her hand on Scully's arm.

"Beverly and my father will be able to handle Tara just fine," she said. "I'm coming with you."

The women hurried out of the clinic and Beverly raced toward Mary's cabin to get Jon Honea. Scully and Mary started toward the barn when Scully stopped and looked over her shoulder. She cursed herself for growing comfortable and lazy. She had believed they were safe in Mt. Vu'luk. Now her palm itched for the familiar feel of the gun stashed safely away in the top drawer of her bureau. She looked toward the barn and saw a shadow moving across the doorway, pacing back and forth. With a heavy sigh, she turned away from her cabin and continued on toward the barn. The women moved as quickly as possible but Scully was six months pregnant and her tiny frame was heavy with her first child. She stopped and bent forward, gasping for air, and her hand rubbed at a stitch glancing low across her belly. Mary leaned over her friend and wrapped a supporting arm around her back.

"Are you alright, Dana?" she asked worriedly. Scully nodded and straightened. Mary left her arm firmly around Scully's waist and the two women cautiously traveled the remaining twenty yards to the dim entrance of the barn.

Scully stepped warily into the barn and looked around the gloomy interior. She saw Sophie and Warren standing about fifteen feet away. Their eyes were glued to something to her left. She spun and saw the shadowy figure of a man, clutching a sobbing Matthew in his arms. Scully peered into the shadows, trying to make out the face of the man who stood hidden in its recesses. Then she shivered as a familiar voice floated out of the darkness...

Mulder bent low over the handles of his mobile, willing the damned thing to move faster. The wind blowing past his face was so biting it constituted a raw, constant ache; the gore-tex facemask providing just enough protection to save him from frostbite. His thickly gloved hands had a death-grip on the handles and he revved the engine too much as he pushed up the speed. He was driving recklessly, still not familiar enough with the terrain to drive that fast. Any second he could hit a chunk of hard snow or a rut of ice, and upend into the snow, breaking his fool neck.

At this moment such small potatoes could not bother him...

His wife was in danger. Mulder knew this as well as he knew anything of certainty - and yes, he was basing it all on a very odd dream centering around a dead bull seal with blood in its eyes that spoke to him.

In the past he'd had less to go on...

They'd been riding for more than an hour and they had at least twenty more miles to go. The final few miles were especially rough because they would have to cross Ruk Lake, which was riddled with large chunks of trapped glacier ice. They would have to zigzag through the bigger obstacles and it was so dangerous... Mulder would have to slow down or else he'd surely kill himself.

He couldn't slow down... his life, his whole existence was in jeopardy. And he didn't know who, or what, threatened his people. He only knew it was happening; had most likely already begun. Mulder gritted his teeth behind the thick face-mask, and pushed ahead, knowing that the other men would eventually catch up; of necessity they drove at a slower pace. They were pulling the sleds full of seal meat and a smaller sled filled with their camping gear leaving Mulder unencumbered by weight and able to fly low.

Five minutes later Ruk Lake loomed before him; the headlight from his mobile shining on and accentuating the jagged surface. It took Mulder three seconds to figure out if he would slow down or maintain his speed. He was almost hyperventilating with fear; it permeated his skin and choked him deep in his lungs. Fear that he would arrive too late; that whatever monster had arrived at his village and endangered his loved ones would attack before he could reach them.

Mulder took the rim of the lake at a cool seventy miles per hour, and the mobile arced over the first embankment and went airborne over ice chunks and ruts of snow...

"Dana Scully. Well. Well. Well. It IS you." Scully swallowed convulsively as the man stepped into the light and his low voice scraped over her raw nerves. She saw his eyes fall to the swollen mound of her stomach and a smile of unholy delight crossed his face. She smoothed a protective hand over her swollen stomach, damning herself for not zipping up the parka before stepping into the barn.

"Krycek," she spat with false bravado. "How the hell did you manage to escape the virus?" she demanded bitterly. "The only good thing I could see coming from this scourge would have been to know that you and the men you worked for had been taken from this world by it." She struggled to keep her voice calm, but the sight of her nephew clutched in the grip of one of her greatest enemies, the barrel of a gun pressed against his tiny body, was almost more than she could bear. Krycek jostled Matty a bit, securing his grip on the child as he walked in a slow circle around Scully. Mary stood at her side and laid a bolstering hand on her back.

"Oh, my... employers," he said slowly, "have met with a most unwelcome fate. But when the first reports of the swarming bees began to surface last summer, I decided it was in my best interest to head north." A grin slashed over his handsome face. "Imagine my surprise a month or so ago to hear stories about a couple of FBI agents in Alaska who were controlling the spread of the virus by burning the infected bodies." He lifted a brow as he continued to circle the two women in a slow, predatory manner. "Imagine my interest at hearing tales of a lady doctor working on a vaccine against the virus." Believing Krycek to be distracted, Warren tightened his grip around the heavy battery powered lantern in his hand and stepped forward. Scully caught the movement from the corner of her eye and she shook him off, knowing better than anyone what Krycek was capable of. The life of one old Inupiaq man would mean nothing to him.

"I simply had to come see for myself," Krycek taunted. "And imagine my delight at seeing you so... full of life." His smile was evil as his gaze settled greedily on Scully's lush form. "I know a number of... well, people really isn't quite the right term," he said conversationally. "I know a number of interested parties who will be very pleased with me for finding you in such a fertile state." He crept closer, turning his body to the side to keep Matty out of her reach and lowered his lips to her ear. "And they said it couldn't be done," he whispered. Scully couldn't hide the frightened shudder that shook her as his hot breath washed over her ear and neck. Krycek backed away from her, putting several feet between them.

"Let Matty go," Scully said in a hoarse voice. She didn't beg, knowing that Krycek couldn't be moved by emotion. He tilted his head to the side and glanced down at the little boy who was watching his aunt with frightened eyes.

"I'll trade," he offered suddenly. Scully's eyes snapped away from Matty's and up to Krycek's. "You for the boy," he offered in a falsely generous tone. Scully heard Mary's frightened gasp and felt her friend's hand tighten on the fabric of her parka. Scully swallowed with difficulty, terrified to put herself and her unborn child in this murderer's hands. But the alternative was equally unbearable. She had no doubt that Krycek would not hesitate to hurt or kill Matty to force her cooperation. She nodded grimly.

"Put him down first," she said. Krycek glanced around at the collective gasps of fright from the other adults in the barn at Scully's instant acceptance of his terms. He pursed his lips and nodded thoughtfully, carefully lowering Matty to the ground. He set his hand down on the boy's shoulder and the gun lay menacingly across his fragile chest. Krycek held out his prosthetic arm and jerked his chin, beckoning her forward. Scully threw a look over her shoulder at Mary and felt the younger woman's hand reluctantly fall from her back.

Scully moved a few steps forward until she was almost within reach of Krycek and Matthew. Her nephew reached out and caught the leg of her jeans with the tips of his chubby fingers. Huge tears rolled down his cheeks as he pulled away from the restraining hand clamped onto his shoulder. Krycek tapped the pistol against the tiny bones of Matty's shoulder and stared hard into Scully's eyes. She took the final step that would allow him to transfer his grip from her nephew to herself. He let go of the child and wrapped his arm around her waist, pulling her against his lean body. Matty clung to her leg and Scully bent down to him.

"Run to Mary," she whispered. "Hurry, Matty." He lifted wet, frightened, blue eyes to hers and his chin wobbled as fresh tears spilled down his cheeks. Mary squatted down on the floor and held out her arms.

"Come on, Matty," she called softly. "Come on." Matty's fingers tightened in the denim fabric of Scully's pants and she smoothed the fingers of one hand over his hair.

"It's okay," she promised. "Go on." Matty let go of her leg and turned, tiny legs pumping as he flew to the safety of Mary's waiting embrace. She swept him into her strong arms and stood, turning her body to create a shield between the child and the man menacing her family.

Krycek's hand slid lewdly over the swell of Scully's belly. She swore she could feel the cold metal of the gun burning icily through the heavy fabric of her pants as his hand roved over her body. She swallowed the bile that rose in her throat as he bit the soft lobe of her ear.

"Agent Mulder's work?" he asked as his hand slid under her sweater. Scully kept her face turned away from his and bit back a sob as his fingers dipped below the elastic waistband of her pants. She shivered as the cold muzzle of the gun caressed her bare skin.

"Is this Agent Mulder's child or something unspeakable growing inside of you?" he taunted mercilessly. Scully was unable to hide the moan that tore from her throat as he easily touched on the hidden fear that had nagged her from the moment she'd learned she was pregnant. Her involuntary reaction must have told him enough, for Krycek grunted in satisfaction and he touched his tongue to her delicate lobe, sending another shudder of revulsion through her shivering body. "Hmmm... either way, quite an interesting reaction, Little Mother..." Scully hissed in revulsion.

Suddenly Krycek pulled his hand and the gun from beneath her clothing and draped it over her shoulder. He wrapped his prosthetic arm around her middle and began to herd her toward the door.

"Time to go, Dana," he said in a brisk, businesslike voice. "We've got a hot date with a couple of futuristic best buddies." The words forced an almost inaudible gasp of pure terror through his captive.

Scully's mind worked feverishly as she thought of and rejected several methods of escape. She could not allow herself and her baby to be taken from this village. As they cleared the door of the barn and stepped outside, she pretended to stumble. Twisting as if to regain her balance, she viciously sank her teeth into the flesh of his good hand. His grip loosened slightly as he howled with pain and she turned again, slamming the heel of her hand into his nose. Blood spurted over his face and he screamed. He knotted his fingers in her hair and brutally yanked her head back as he swung at her with the other arm. The prosthesis caught her across the face and pain exploded in her head. Her knees buckled and she would have fallen if not for the fingers roughly twisted in her hair. Her vision grayed and she heard a low snarling sound over the ringing in her ears.

Nanook crouched low and bared her fangs. This stranger had invaded her home and was threatening her people. Saliva dripped from her jowls and a growl vibrated through her chest as Krycek yanked Scully upright by the hair. The dog leapt onto Krycek's back, her sharp fangs sinking into his shoulder and he stumbled into Scully, throwing her heavily to the ground and knocking the air out of her lungs.

Krycek and the dog fell. The man rolled onto his back and Nanook loosened the grip of her powerful jaw long enough to scramble out from beneath him. Krycek viciously kicked out, catching Nanook across the snout with his booted foot. The dog fell back and Krycek stumbled as he tried to gain his feet. Scully painfully pulled herself up onto her knees and wrapped her hand around her stomach. She shook her head to clear her vision and saw Krycek raise his gun, taking aim at the dazed dog.

Scully closed her eyes in despair and turned her head as a shot rang out in the icy darkness of the winter morning.

~ Chapter Thirty Two ~

The shot echoed clearly over the roar of Mulder's snowmobile as he rounded the last corner of the outer circle of cabins, and roared to a stop almost on top of the body, which lay bleeding in the snow. In the darkness, with only a dim light from the open door of the barn, it was impossible to know for sure who or what lay in the snow just a few yards from the rudders of his mobile...

Then he heard the sweetest sound he had ever heard in his life; it was hoarse and raw with fright and pain but it was alive, Thank You Jesus...

"MULDER!"

>From out of the darkness Scully threw herself at her husband, gaining his side and burying herself into his heavy parka as Mulder's arms snapped around her and he crushed her to his trembling frame. His embrace was too much; both of them aching so fiercely for the contact and the comfort of each other that they were oblivious to the bruising they would suffer tomorrow at their own hands. Vaguely in the background he could hear the roar of the other mobiles as they gained the clearing and shut off; he saw Skinner running to Mary, scooping her and Matty up into his big arms; heard her sob out her lover's name above the child's whimpering.

Mulder pulled his face out of Scully's hair and smoothed the tangled strands away from her wet face, urgently demanding, "Baby, are you all right? Not hurt? I heard the shot... tell me what happened! I knew you were in danger..." That was as far as he got, for Scully nodded wearily, not surprised in the least that her husband had somehow known. She pointed to the bleeding, silent mound on the ground and her voice came out in a broken croak.

"It's Krycek... Jesus... he found us, I don't know how but he did. Tried to take me with him and Nanook attacked him..." She looked frantically around for the fallen dog and sighed with relief when she spotted Nanook lying in the snow licking her sore flank and still growling low in her throat as she eyed the fallen lump of humanity that she'd helped to bring down. Mulder cooed at the dog reassuringly, receiving a thump of her tail as an answer, and then he swung his attention back to Scully.

"Who shot him, Baby? Warren?" Scully shook her head.

"I don't know, Mulder. Not Warren, I'm sure of it..." Her words skittered to a stop as the small shaky voice of her sister-in-law piped up from behind them. They both whipped about - and there stood Tara, clasped in her husband's embrace, both of them shaky with delayed reaction - and in Tara's hands was a shotgun. Her parka and jeans were covered with snow; she must have been flung to the ground with the force of the gun's kickback. In the watery light of the barn her face glistened with tears. Skinner had set Matty carefully down on his feet and the little boy had run to his mother, wrapping his little body around her legs and sitting on her booted feet, also covered in snow. Matty didn't seem to notice how wet he was getting... Tara exhaled on a shuddering breath and her words were thick with emotion.

"I did it. I killed the bastard. He touched my Matty, the son-of-a-bitch... he threatened you and the baby. He touched my Matty..." Her voice quaked to a stop and she began to cry, sliding out of Bill's arms and landing on the ground next to her son. She threw the shotgun aside and pulled the boy into her arms and hung on tightly, rocking him as they both sobbed. Bill knelt down next to them in the snow and wound his arms around them both, whispering brokenly to his wife of his pride and his unending love for her, and her bravery...

And Mulder let go of Scully and walked slowly to the bleeding form on the ground, their enemy... brought down by a civilian, and a woman, no less... brought down by a mother fiercely protective of her child and her family. His teeth bared themselves in a ferocious grin as he bent over Krycek's still body, noting the weak rise and fall of the chest. The bastard was still alive.

He reached down both hands and grasped the dying man's collar, pulling him up sharply, until in the dim light he could see the blood-streaked face of his sworn enemy. One of Krycek's eyes was swollen shut; Mulder glanced inquiringly over at his wife and Scully shrugged.

"I hit him in the face... after I bit him." Mulder allowed himself one sharp bark of laughter, before he turned his attention back to the piece of shit in his fists.

"I'll let you die in peace, you fucking mutant... if you tell me who sent you here. How you found us. Don't tell me and I'll let Nanook have another go at you." As if to punctuate his words the big dog jumped to her feet and loomed over Mulder's shoulder, growling with terrifying menace into Krycek's dead-pale face. Under his hands Mulder could feel the man's fright at the thought of becoming a chew toy for the huge Husky... but he pressed his lips tightly together and refused to speak. His undamaged eye began to fill with blood as he stared up into Mulder's grim face. The significance of that bloodied eye was not lost on Mulder, who clamped down tightly on the residual fear his nightmare could still produce. Now was not the time for that sort of analysis... he shook Krycek's limp body, hard enough to rattle his teeth, and demanded again.

"Come on, you utter fuck... you're dying. I know you're afraid of dogs... something I always remembered about you. Nanook would love to play some more, wouldn't you, Girl?" As if to answer him the big dog whined and ran a slick tongue over Mulder's ear, her head still poised over his shoulder - then she growled deep in her throat again as her large eyes narrowed and she stared down into Krycek's battered face, her sensitive nose twitching at the metallic smell of his blood and the tangible stink of his fear.

Krycek shuddered as he eyed the dog, but his mouth remained shut tightly and he refused to speak. He was dying and he knew it; what was the point of giving Mulder anything else? It was as if Mulder could read these thoughts as he held fistfuls of his enemy's parka in his hands and encouraged a dog to growl, snap at and generally threaten an unarmed man. And in his heart Mulder knew he'd get nothing further from the scum whose coughing rattle caused a fresh flow of blood to stain his bearded chin bright red, and whose last gasping words told him nothing for they were spoken in his native tongue...

"Byeschelovyechnoye e zhestokoye znayet, gde nayti poslyedniye ostatki chelovyechestva, moy drug..."

Mulder cursed a blue streak under his breath, fury beyond measure assailing him as Krycek's last words thwarted him yet again. Goddamn it to hell... Russian; the bastard had eluded him even in death. But as he fought down the urge to tear his enemy's body into a million chunks, Warren's soft, hesitant voice piped up.

"I know what that means, Mulder. I can speak Russian... I know what he said." And in a quavering yet decisive voice, Warren translated.

"The inhuman know where to find the last remains of humanity, my friend..."

Mulder dropped the dead man into the snow and stood up, turning his back on one less threat to their future - and at that moment refusing to dwell upon the significance of the bastard's final words. He walked slowly to his wife's side and wrapped his arms around her, hugging her tightly. In the silent early morning a child's sniffles could be heard above his mother's hitching sobs, and as Mulder turned and met his brother-in-law's worried eyes, Bill Scully stared at his sister and her husband, and his voice was husky with emotion.

"Dana... you're all right." It was more of a statement than a question and Scully smiled reassuringly at her brother, taking a few steps forward still holding Mulder's hand, and reaching out to grip Bill's free hand with hers. Bill tugged and Mulder let her go as Scully found herself wound into her brother's embrace. She patted and rubbed at his back.

"I'm okay, Bill. I might end up with a shiner -" she touched underneath her left eye gingerly, where Krycek's arm had caught her -"but other than that I'm fine." She looked up at Bill and smiled again. "You should take Tara and Matty home... we should all just go home." Bill nodded wearily and hugged her once more before letting her go. Scully stepped back into Mulder's arms and she watched Bill gather up his family and herd them off, down the street. Warren headed back into the barn to secure the pens and check on the goats' feed bins and Beverly gave Scully and Mulder both a hug before allowing Patrick to walk her home. Manly offered his arm to Sophie who took it gratefully as they walked slowly up to her cabin. And Skinner led Mary off, but not before Scully latched onto both of them and hugged them tightly. A three-way embrace; two small women as different to look at as night and day but with identical courageous hearts, and the big man who cared so deeply for them both. Mulder fought down a lump in his throat at the sight of Skinner holding Mary and Scully. He could have lost her so easily today...

Scully allowed Mulder to lead her into the bedroom of their cabin. She sat down on the edge of the bed and waited as Mulder left the room and fussed about in the kitchen. He returned a few minutes later with an ice pack in hand. He cupped her uninjured cheek in one hand and tilted her head to the side. Pushing her hair behind her ear, he carefully examined her face. Scully's cheek was swollen and a bruise was beginning to form just below her cheekbone. A small amount of dried blood was caked along her hairline from a shallow cut just above her ear. He ground his teeth together to keep the fury from spilling out of his mouth at the injuries on her delicate skin, and gently pressed the ice pack to her cheek. Scully sighed and covered his hand with one of hers.

"What happened?" Mulder asked as he settled down onto the bed beside her. She leaned against him and he wrapped an arm around her shoulder and she began to tell him about Beverly bursting into the clinic with news that a stranger was at the barn asking for her. She closed her eyes as she remembered stepping into the barn and hearing Krycek's voice float out of the shadows.

"When I got there, Krycek was holding Matty and had a gun pressed against his chest," she murmured. "Matty was so scared," she said in a trembling voice. "I asked Krycek to let him go. He said he would make a trade. Me and the baby for Matty." She felt Mulder's arm tighten around her shoulders. "I didn't know what else to do, so I agreed." Scully tilted her head back and looked up into her husband's face. His eyes were dark and angry and his jaw was clenched so tightly she knew it would ache when he finally relaxed. She pressed into him pleadingly.

"I'm sorry, Mulder," she whispered. "I couldn't let him keep Matty. You know as well as I do that Krycek wouldn't have hesitated to kill him." Her eyes begged him to understand. Mulder looked down into her earnest face and his features softened. He fought down the anger, realizing she'd really had no other options.

"I know, baby," he said as he smoothed a shaking hand over her hair. "You did the right thing; the only thing you could do." Scully nodded and drew in a deep breath, determined to finish the story and put it behind them.

"He put Matty down and grabbed me," she told him quietly. "I told Matty to run to Mary and then Krycek began pushing me out of the barn," she said. She chose not to mention Krycek's wandering hands and lewd comments, knowing they would only make Mulder crazy.

"I knew I couldn't let him take me from the village so as soon as we were far enough away from Matty and the others, I pretended to stumble. Then I bit him and smashed my hand into his nose." She looked down at her palm and then up at Mulder. "I think I broke it," she said. Mulder's eyes glowed with pride and she smiled as she recalled the satisfying sensation of feeling Krycek's nose shatter beneath the impact of her blow.

Scully glanced away and hurried through the rest of the story. "He hit me across the face. My ears were ringing and everything was swirling around me. I could hear Nanook snarling as she attacked and I fell. I saw Krycek get up and aim his gun at the dog and then... God, everything happened so fast. I heard the sound of a gunshot and then suddenly you were there and Krycek was dying..." Her voice trailed off and she slumped against him tiredly. Mulder was quiet as the horrific scenes played out in his mind's eye. He didn't want to see it again; re-hash it all again - but he had no control over the images that began plaguing him. Scully, threatened by that piece of shit. Scully hit across the face... just the thought of Krycek touching her in any way was enough to send him close to the edge...

Scully set the ice pack down and rubbed a hand over her hip. Mulder caught the movement out of the corner of his eye and looked down sharply.

"Are you hurt?" he asked worriedly, gesturing toward her hip. Scully shrugged.

"Just a little ache," she assured him. "I landed on my hip when I fell." She pulled her hand away and smoothed it over his cheek. "I'm fine," she told him. But Mulder wasn't going to be brushed off by her standard denial and he began to press her back against the pillows.

"I want to see. You're rubbing at it, Scully - it can't be that fine." Scully tried to stop his hands from undressing her.

"Mulder," she protested. "I promise you, everything is okay," she said, but he was determined to see for himself. He peeled her shirt from her shoulders, leaving her clothed in a long-sleeved fleecy undershirt, and began to tug at the elastic of her maternity pants, pulling them down her legs. Scully blew out a frustrated breath and submitted, allowing Mulder to see for himself that she was fine. She propped her head up on a pillow and watched her husband trace trembling fingers over a bruise that stood out against the fair skin of her thigh. Another bruise was beginning to form and peek out from beneath the leg opening of her underwear. Mulder grabbed the waistband of her underpants and pulled it aside, trying to determine how large the bruise was. His sharp hiss of indrawn breath was loud in the little room.

"What is this?" he asked in a low voice. Scully peered down and saw his fingers touching several angry, red scratches that marred the skin over her swollen belly. She frowned, confused for a moment by their origin and grimaced in remembrance. She should have learned by now that she couldn't keep secrets from Mulder, she thought. Scully sighed heavily and pulled his hands away from the scratch marks, tugging her clothing back into place.

"When Krycek grabbed me in the barn," she said slowly, grasping his wrists in her strong grip, "he seemed surprised and happy to see that I was pregnant. He told me that he knew a number of 'interested parties' - was the way he put it - that would be thrilled to know I was pregnant." She caught and held Mulder's gaze with her own, determined to get through this quickly. "You know the way he was," she said. "Always taunting, mocking his prey." Mulder nodded, willing her to continue. Whatever she was about to tell him, he knew he was not going to be happy to hear it.

"He slid his hand under my clothes and was whispering in my ear." She shivered as she remembered the way the moist heat of his breath had wafted her flesh. "He asked me if this was your baby or an abomination growing inside of me." Her chin quivered and she fought for control. She had to get through this and get it over with. "I guess his gun scraped my skin, although I wasn't aware of it at the time." She shrugged it off. "They don't even hurt," she assured him.

Mulder's hands clenched into the fabric of the quilt covering the bed and his arms shook with the desire to go out and rip Krycek's body apart with his bare hands. Jesus... the filth had put his hands - AND his gun - on Scully's bare body. Her pregnant belly - right over the place where their child, innocently grew and thrived. Mulder ached to bring the bastard to life again just so he could have the extreme pleasure of killing him - this time slowly. With great torturous pain and suffering... The fact that the man was already dead simply wasn't good enough, he thought as he looked at his wife's bruised body splayed out on the bed beside him. Scully felt the tremor ripple through Mulder and she slid her hands up his arms, trying to soothe him with her touch.

"I'm alright, Mulder," she said. "I'm fine and so is the baby," she promised. "It's over. Please, try to let it go." She tugged on his arms until he was stretched out alongside her. She rolled onto her side and pressed her burgeoning stomach against him. "We're both okay," she murmured again. The baby chose that moment to begin stretching and kicking vigorously inside her womb. Scully winced and then laughed softly.

"See?" she asked, as she smoothed the hair that had tumbled over Mulder's forehead out of his eyes. "Everything is fine." She pressed her lips to his and held the kiss until she felt him begin to relax. She sighed in contentment as he rolled onto his back and his arms stole around her, gathering her close. She nestled her cheek against the warm flannel of his shirt and felt the vibration of his voice as it rumbled through his chest beneath her ear.

"How do you think he found us?" Mulder asked. Scully shrugged. This was the fear that had been nagging at her from the first second she had clapped eyes on Krycek in the barn.

"I'm not sure," she said worriedly as Mulder stroked his hands over her back. "He said that he went north when the bees were first released," she remembered. Mulder snorted mockingly.

"Yeah, he's always been good at saving his ass," he said bitterly. Scully lifted her head and her voice was filled with savage pleasure.

"Not today," she reminded him. Mulder nodded.

"No. Today he met his match," he said and they shared smiles of grim satisfaction. Scully stacked her hands on his chest and propped her chin on them.

"He said that he had been hearing reports about a couple of FBI agents in Alaska and of a female doctor working on a vaccine," she told him. "He told me he just had to come check for himself." She shrugged again. "I don't think he was sent here by anyone or anything," she said slowly. Mulder lifted a tendril of her hair and began to rub it between his fingers.

"Still," he said ruefully. "We're obviously not doing a very good job of maintaining a low profile." Scully nodded and bit her lip. She nestled her stomach against his hip and her eyes were worried.

"Do you think it's safe for us to stay here?" she asked. "Krycek found us easily, and I don't think he was actually looking for us." She cast her eyes around the room that had become a safe haven for them and then her gaze returned to Mulder's. "We might be putting everyone we love in danger by staying here," she said slowly. "Maybe we should consider leaving," she whispered. Mulder stroked her hair and briefly considered her suggestion, dismissing it instantly. They couldn't leave here... they needed the village and the village needed them. It was as simple as that. He shifted and rolled onto his side, resting his hand on her belly.

"And go where?" he asked. "No," he shook his head. "We can't leave. You're six months pregnant and we're living in one of the most remote parts of the United States. We wouldn't stand a chance on our own. And besides, you have to finish your work on the vaccine. No," he repeated. "We're not going to be driven out of our home again. We'll just have to be more vigilant."

Scully nodded, relieved. She didn't want to leave Mt. Vu'luk and her family and friends. Hearing Mulder put into words what she had been thinking helped solidify things for her and she nodded resolutely.

"Okay," she agreed and smiled at him. Mulder smiled back softly and stretched against the quilt covering the mattress. He groaned as the aches and pains caused by his bone-jarring race across the frozen tundra made themselves known. He nestled down into the pillows and wrapped his arms tightly around Scully, burying his face in her hair. She was warm and alive in his arms and for the first time since he had been ripped from sleep this morning, he allowed himself to relax.

Scully felt Mulder's muscles loosen and ease as sleep claimed him and he slumped against her. She glanced at her watch and briefly considered slipping out of the bed to go to the clinic for the rest of the day, but quickly decided against it. She didn't want him to wake up and find her gone. She knew that he needed her to stay close so that he could touch her and reassure himself that she and the baby were safe. She needed that as well. Decision made, she snuggled her aching cheek into the soft pillow and wrapped her strong arms around her husband's sleeping form. And in the mid-morning darkness of their bedroom, she kept watch.

For Bill Scully the early evening brought idle time - and an excuse to think and to dwell on the day's events. He had managed to avoid it most of the day; finding numerous projects around the cabin to keep him busy.

He worked his whittling; Jon Honea was teaching him how to carve and Bill's first lessons centered around practicing on wood pieces. While Tara and Matty slept in the big bed, Matty muttering in his sleep, Bill whittled and kept the fire in the pot- bellied stove roaring and cleaned out the water tank and finished several small repairs in the kitchen. He ate a simple lunch of leftover rabbit stew and made a trip to the cache to pull enough caribou steaks for dinner. He was afraid to drift very far from the cabin, worried that Tara might wake up screaming from a nightmare. Luckily although her sleep wasn't very solid it didn't appear she was having bad dreams.

Mary had generously offered to take Meggie over to her cabin so that Tara and Matty could sleep undisturbed, and Bill had been grateful for her kindness. As much as he'd wanted Meggie with them, he knew the rambunctious little girl would never allow her mother to rest. Bill made arrangements for Michael to deliver his daughter later in the evening.

Tara slept five hours before awakening, her arms aching from the kickback on the shotgun she'd fired at Krycek. After moving the still-sleeping Matty to his own little bed and leaving the door open in case he woke up, Bill made her swallow three aspirins, hoping it would help ease the soreness, and sat on the edge of the bed where she lay, gently massaging each of her arms. Tara watched him through half- closed eyes as he rubbed and kneaded her skin. He hadn't said much of anything about the events of the morning other than his initial anxieties over her and Matty's safety. He'd hustled them home and wrapped them up into the bed and his arms, and lulled them both to sleep. She'd awoken once from a bad dream, fighting swaddling bedcovers that had become twisted around her hips. She hadn't called out for Bill, though - judging by the soft clanking of metal in the kitchen he was attempting to fix something. She'd fallen back asleep.

Now she looked up at her husband as he concentrated on the lovely massage he was giving her, and she knew whatever was brewing behind those Scully eyes of his would have to come out naturally - she couldn't force him to talk about it. Surprisingly, Tara had already reconciled herself to the means she'd taken to secure her child's life. And once she'd found a way to do that she was actually damned fine about it. It was true that a year ago she could not have imagined aiming a gun, much less shooting it. Bill had once tried to teach her to shoot but she hated guns; was never willing to try.

Then just a few weeks ago Manly had offered to show her how to shoot, after he'd overheard her mention to Sarah that she might want to go out hunting with the men come summer... and Tara had discovered herself to be quite the apt pupil. She'd learned to shoot a pistol and a shotgun, competently enough after a few lessons to know that if she aimed at something especially with the shotgun, chances are she would hit it. And the fierce satisfaction she'd felt when she'd come running into that deadly fray with a gun in her hands... her senses locking on to several elements simultaneously, starting with the yelping Nanook in the snow and the dark-coated stranger who had his own gun trained on the dog's head ready to shoot her...

The sight of Dana on the ground holding her stomach protectively, and the hysterical sobbing of her child, in Mary's arms - all of that exploded into Tara's head when she came running. And there wasn't a question in the world what she was going to do; she'd known it from the first moment Beverly and Jon had burst into her cabin, where she'd just laid Meggie down with her stuffed rabbit. She'd known. So had Jon, for he'd simply hobbled over to the rocking chair next to the crib and had sat down to watch over Meggie, leaving her free to snatch up the shotgun from the shelf above their hall closet, her suddenly rock-steady hands checking for ammo as she grabbed her parka and ran out the door with Beverly on her heels.

As she ran through the snow there wasn't a doubt in Tara's mind that this monster would die, and by her hands.

Bill finished up the massage and just sat on the bed stroking her hands, and Tara knew he was dying to ask her how on earth she'd known how to use that shotgun... but she would not bring it up, not until he spoke first. Her Billy was stewing, and he would have to come to a complete boil before he could get rid of whatever ate at him. She twined her fingers through his and held on warmly, smiling into his worried eyes. Tugging on their linked hands she pulled him down until she could reach his mouth, and she kissed him gently then whispered against his lips.

"Thanks, Billy... my arms feel so much better." She pulled back a little to see his face. Bill nodded but still said nothing, his throat working a little, his adam's apple moving as if he wanted to speak but could not find the words. Tara decided to take pity on him and start the ball rolling. She knew her husband; he was one of those stubborn, stoic Scullys, after all. She'd had lots of experience over the years, prying underneath the standard, "I'm fine..." for her beloved sister-in-law wasn't the only Scully who'd uttered that phrase to her. Tara cupped a tender hand along his jaw and her soft murmur was his undoing.

"Billy, sweetheart, please... talk to me." At the gentle request Bill started to shudder, and he swept her into his arms and held her much too tightly. Tara held him just as hard, and simply waited... Bill buried his face in his wife's silky hair and his low voice was raw with emotion.

"Jesus, Tara... I could have lost you both. You and Matty. When Mary told me how that rotten fuck had taken Matty and held a gun to him..." Bill shook all over at the image of his sweet, tiny son held in the arms of a murderer. He'd heard the name Krycek before; knew him to be an old nemesis of Mulder and his sister. He'd never met the bastard, until today... if you could call staring in the eyes of a dying man any sort of meeting. Bill sucked in a deep, shaky breath and gripped Tara even harder, as he fought to purge himself.

"I should have been here. I didn't have to go hunting; I should have stayed behind. Christ, Warren is a brave man but he's an old man, Tara - and his health is poor. What could he have possibly done to help? I should have stayed behind!" His voice broke as the guilt he'd been garnering all day finally swamped him and spilled over, scalding him. He'd just had to go hunting, couldn't stay home. His first taste of the hunt had been exciting and he'd wanted it again, Goddamn him. There only needed to be a four-man sealing team going out, he knew that. And Mulder hadn't gotten a chance to hunt yet, so it was right that he'd gone - but Bill could have - should have -stayed behind. He found himself speaking those thoughts aloud, and Tara immediately took exception to his self- depreciating words, pulling away enough to concentrate on his face.

"No, Billy! That's got nothing to do with it! It wouldn't have mattered who had stayed behind; Krycek still would have come. He still would have grabbed someone and held them with a gun against their head. Maybe it wouldn't have been our son, but it still would have happened to one of us. The son-of-a-bitch took us by surprise, Bill - early in the morning when we least expected anything of the sort." Tara sat up a little more and her hands framed her husband's pale cheeks.

"Listen to me. You and the rest of the men can't always protect us. There's safety in numbers, it's true - but we are living in a dangerous world now. We all need to be able to defend our home. Dana shoots better than anyone in this village including Mulder and Manly, who taught me how to handle that shotgun. I'd told Sarah I may want to go out hunting one of these trips and he overheard us and made the offer." She smiled slightly at the look of surprise on Bill's face, and added, "Well, why not? Women can hunt, can't they? Manly gave me a few lessons. I wanted to surprise you," she chuckled a little. "I think I succeeded, didn't I?" Bill nodded slowly.

She'd definitely surprised him... He found himself smiling as well, and he gathered her close and snuggled her. "I WAS proud of you today, Tara... so proud. Glad I took the rifle with me and left that big- ass shotgun, even if the kickback landed you on your butt. You took out the baddie... you saved our son. You saved my sister... you did it." He kissed her mouth tenderly and Tara sighed and kissed him back, relieved his agonizing was over...

And as Bill held and kissed his wife he prayed for the strength to get past the guilt that still ate at him...

~ Chapter Thirty Three ~

"Damn it!"

Scully studied the test results for a fifth time. "Damn it," she swore again softly. She set the papers on top of the cluttered desk in the tiny office of the clinic and pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger. Dropping her eyes back down to the test results staring up at her accusingly, she rubbed the heels of her hands against her eyes. All these months, she thought, and I still don't have a workable vaccine. She pushed the papers away in disgust. Then pushed them a little further. Finally, in a fit of temper, she picked up an entire folder of papers, nearly five months worth of test results and calculations, and threw it across the room. It hit the wall with a resounding thud as charts, graphs and DNA analyses floated soundlessly to the floor. Scully felt a moment's satisfaction and then she sank back into her chair as she watched the papers scatter about the office. All that work, she thought, and now I've just gone and made more.

She pushed out of her chair and grabbed onto a table near the door, clumsily lowering herself to her knees. She gathered the bulk of the papers into a haphazard pile and stuffed them into the file. Crawling around the floor, she ducked her head under tables and slipped her hand beneath the tiny sofa, gathering her research and storing it back into the file. She thumped the folder back onto the desk and hauled herself up, collapsing into her chair. She looked at the papers spilling messily out of the folder and pushed it aside to deal with later. Scully instead turned her attention to the computer perched on the top of the desk. Clicking on the toolbar, she scrolled through a list of files, finally choosing one and opening it. She pulled a pad of paper toward her and began another set of calculations.

She knew she was close - so close to finding the vaccine. All of the variables were there. It was just a matter of finding the right sequence. Scully squinted at the monitor, wishing yet again that she had her glasses with her. She was hunching over the desk making notes and trying desperately to ignore the ever- present ache in the small of her back. In her seventh month, Scully was well rounded, as the child in her womb grew daily. She dug her thumbs into her back and tried to focus on the information before her.

"Do you know what time it is?"

Scully lifted her head sluggishly as Mulder stepped into the room. "Huh?" she asked tiredly. Mulder shook his head and leaned his hips against her desk. He pushed back the sleeve of his parka and glanced at his watch.

"It's almost nine o'clock," he said reprovingly. "You've been here over twelve hours." Scully nodded absently and shoved at his leg as she tried to pull a piece of paper out from beneath him.

"I know," she said. "But I've been busy." She succeeded in freeing the printout she was looking for and began to study it closely, making small notes in the margins. Mulder heaved an exasperated sigh.

"I saw Mary leave three hours ago," he said quietly. Scully dragged her attention away from her work and looked up at him.

"What?" she asked in confusion. Mulder crossed his arms over his chest and resisted the urge to roll his eyes.

"I said, I saw Mary leave the clinic three hours ago," he repeated slowly. Scully nodded and shrugged her shoulders as if to say 'what of it'. She dropped her eyes back to the computer and opened a new file.

"I told her to go," she said as she peered at the numbers rolling across the screen. "Michael, Walter and her father were holding dinner for her," she told him. Mulder muttered something under his breath and Scully tore her attention away from her work again.

"What is it, Mulder?" she asked in exasperation. She was never going to get any work done if he didn't leave soon. Mulder was staring at a distant point on the wall on the other side of the room, counting slowly and trying to control his temper.

"I said that I was waiting for you to come home for dinner," he repeated in a louder voice, turning away from his study of the wall and locking his gaze on her. Scully's eyes dropped away and she fiddled with a pencil lying on the desktop.

"I'm sorry," she began. "But I got caught up in what I was doing... I thought I was onto something," she finished lamely, gesturing toward the mountain of papers scattered across her desk. Mulder leaned down and placed his hands on the arms of her chair, effectively locking her into the cage of his arms. His eyes bore into hers intently.

"Ever since I found that vial in my pocket, you've been acting like a woman possessed," he said accusingly. "You don't eat. You only sleep when your body shuts down on you. I never see you." He twisted at the waist and snatched the mouse from her hand, closing the files and programs she was working on and shutting down the computer. Scully pushed her chair back and awkwardly flung herself to her feet.

"I was working on that!" she cried as she tried to regain control of the mouse. Mulder used his shoulders to block her and when the computer had shut down, he flipped off the monitor and drew himself up, towering over her and trying to use his height to quell her protests.

"You can't keep going on like this," he said, trying for a reasonable tone of voice. "You look exhausted. Dark circles under your eyes and you're losing weight instead of gaining," he said harshly. "You're pregnant, Scully." His eyes flicked down to her swollen belly and back up to her face... and Scully saw red.

"Well, no shit, Sherlock! I'm damn well aware that I'm pregnant," she snapped angrily. "I'm not likely to forget what with your constant nagging and everyone else sticking their nose into my business." She raked her hair back from her face and snatched a rubber band out of a desk drawer, viciously snapping it around her hair in a sloppy ponytail. "Every day it's the same thing," she muttered as she began tossing papers into a folder. "Sarah ambushes me on my way to the clinic and forces this vile-tasting tea down my throat." She shuddered at the memory. "Tara spends half of her time criticizing me for not eating right or exercising enough and the other half of the time, showing off what a wonderful, perfect example of motherhood she is." Scully could hear the nasty words pouring out of her and felt helpless to stop. She stalked across the room and yanked open a cabinet, pulling out several small files and adding them to the stack she was collecting.

"Meanwhile everyone else in the village seems to think that my body is public property. Poking and prodding at me and constantly putting their hands on my stomach without asking permission. Everyone is an expert on pregnant women and everyone is full of advice and suggestions and criticisms."

Mulder grabbed her by the elbows, intent on reasoning with her - but she cut him off before he could open his mouth. "I'm sick of it," she hissed. "I'm desperately trying to come up with this vaccine and I don't have time to listen to all of you tell me about what a woefully inadequate mother I am!" Her voice was low and spiteful.

She sucked in a deep breath and tried to jerk away from his hands. "And I'm tired of being treated like a goddamn incubator," she said viciously. She tried twisting away from him and when she couldn't break free of his grasping hands, she placed her palms flat on his chest and shoved as hard as she could. Dazed by her venomous outburst and caught off guard, Mulder staggered back and crashed into the desk, striking his hip hard on the sharp corner. He bit off a curse and stared at her for a long moment in stunned silence. Scully clapped a shaking hand over her mouth, shocked at what she'd done. The horrible things she'd said were echoing around the room...

Sickened by the words that had spilled out of her mouth, she snatched her work from the desk and hurried out of the clinic and into the frigid, arctic night. She hadn't gotten far when she heard the clinic door slam open behind her and Mulder's muffled footsteps pounding across the snow behind her. Scully gasped as he grabbed her by the arm and yanked her around to face him.

"If you want to behave like a child, that's your prerogative," he bit out in a low, controlled voice. "But as long as my child's health depends on yours, you are going to start taking better care of yourself," he said as he pushed her forgotten parka at her. She was shivering as she took the coat from him and had barely shrugged into it when Mulder grabbed her by the elbow and began marching her toward their cabin.

"Let's go," he commanded as he steered her through the village. He shoved open the cabin door and glared at her until she stepped inside. Her eyes tracked over the room, settling briefly on the cradle that Mulder had built under Warren's careful supervision. It was sitting on top of the small kitchen table and she could see that he had been carefully applying a layer of varnish to the smooth wood. Her eyes traced over the details of the tiny cradle and all of the fight went out of her. God... she was a bitch, the worst. Scully felt sick inside. She stole a look at Mulder and her heart sank anew at the stiff set of his shoulders and the locked jaw. She could well imagine what he was thinking...

So angry... so furious. No, past furious. Goddamn fucking ready-to-explode-furious. Because he had let it go on too long... had not put his foot down sooner. Taking deep breaths wasn't helping. Clenching his fists didn't work. Mulder stood in the center of their cabin and forced himself not to pick up the entire kitchen table and fling it across the room.

She had no right. No right to endanger her health in this way. No right to put such a strain on herself and on his child. No right to refer to herself as nothing more than an incubator, Jesus... No right to get pissy about the concern of their friends and family, who just wanted to help in whatever small way they could... just wanted to feel a part of it all.

As he wanted to feel a part... and didn't.

Mulder was well aware that Scully was doing it all, and he hated the feeling that all he'd done was provide the sperm that got her with baby. He couldn't help her with the vaccine because he didn't know jack shit about it. When he'd found the vial in the pocket of his parks he'd been thrilled to no end, knowing he'd finally been able to offer more than his reproductive talents. When even the vial contents failed to produce what Scully so desperately needed, Mulder had felt the stirrings of failure all over again.

It had been damned frustrating... he'd been damned frustrated for the last six months. And his anger was irrational because on one level of his consciousness he could understand exactly why she was feeling this way. He knew Scully better than she thought. Knew what drove her; knew her passions and her failings and the way she expected perfection from herself all the time. Knew the way she beat herself up for being lacking in any way. He knew...

But it didn't change the fact that she was slowly killing herself, and their child. And that made him so blindingly furious that he couldn't act in a rational manner; couldn't stay calm. He sucked in a harsh breath as he faced Scully, and strove for an even tone. Shrugging out of his parka he hung it on a hook by the door.

"Why don't you get changed," he said quietly as he jerked his head toward the bedroom. "I'm going to clean this up." He began tamping down the lid on the can of varnish and cleaning his brushes. Scully hung her head and nodded, dejectedly walking into the bedroom. She methodically washed her face and brushed her teeth in the bathroom and was buttoning up her pajama top when Mulder walked into the room. Scully sat down on the edge of the mattress and watched as he prepared for bed.

Mulder peeled his shirt over his head and tossed it toward the chair that sat in one corner. He bent at the waist and tugged off his socks, sending them sailing after the shirt. She watched the light from the bedside lamp play over the smooth muscles of his back as he unfastened and stepped out of his jeans. He rolled the heavy denim into a ball and threw it across the room. Scully jerked back at the unexpected violence of his gesture. His hands settled on his hips and he tilted his head back as he struggled for control of his emotions. She saw his shoulders lift and fall in a long-suffering sigh before he finally turned to face her.

"Why?" he asked quietly. His face was a blend of anger, hurt and confusion. "I don't understand," he told her softly. "I don't understand how you could say such hateful things." And she knew his mind had locked onto the word 'incubator' and all of the horrible connotations that word invoked. He shook his head and looked to her for an answer.

Scully knotted her fingers in her lap and twisted them as she tried to make sense of it to herself. He seemed to be ignoring the fact that she had brutally shoved him out of her way. It was the first time either of them had ever laid hands on the other in anger and she could still hear his muffled curse as his hip had collided painfully with the corner of the desk. She had heard the nasty accusations and bitterness flowing out of her with every word that she had spoken and she didn't know that she would be able to explain it. But she knew she had to try. She had broken something between them tonight with her careless choice of words and the violence of her actions and it was up to her to explain and fix it.

She cast about in her mind for the reason for her sudden outburst. She supposed she could blame it on pregnancy hormones and while she was sure that had a played a part, it didn't excuse or explain her behavior. She could feel the hurt emanating from Mulder in palpable waves and she struggled to put into words that which had been plaguing her for so long.

"I'm afraid," she said quietly. That was it in a nutshell. She was afraid. Deeply, unbelievably afraid.

Mulder stared at her, processing her explanation and finding it wanting. "Of what?" he asked in a cool, quiet tone. Scully closed her eyes, knowing that she was to blame for the loss of the gentle warmth that usually colored his voice.

"Of failing," she whispered. "Of letting everyone down. Of not being good enough." She was rocking on the edge of the mattress and let the words pour out. "Everyone is counting on me, Mulder. Everyone is waiting for me to come up with this vaccine and I can't do it. I'm close. I'm so damn close but I just can't figure out what is wrong. I check and recheck my calculations and run the tests over and over again and I still don't seem to be able to break through."

Mulder stepped a little closer to the bed. "Scully," he began, stopping when she held up a forestalling hand. She needed to say it all, admit to everything that had been festering inside of her for so long. If he interrupted her now, she might never finish.

"I don't want to be the mother of the future, Mulder," she said softly. "It's too much. I just want a healthy, normal baby," she told him. "I'm tired of everyone offering advice and suggestions." Mulder frowned, but spoke in a quiet voice.

"They have a vested interest in our baby's health," he reminded her. "And they just want to help." Scully nodded, knowing he was right but that didn't seem to make it any better.

"They make me feel inadequate," she admitted. "I tell myself I'm doing the best I can, but inside I know that I'm letting everyone down. I still don't have the vaccine and I'm neglecting you. And I haven't had a moment to enjoy this pregnancy," she said. "I'm cheating you and the baby and myself out of this miracle because I just don't have the time for it." She drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I've been living with this unrelenting fear for our lives and the future for almost a year. There's no time to deal with it and I just keep pushing it down and down and down, hoping that it will just go away, but it doesn't. It's always there, simmering under the surface."

She picked at the quilt covering the bed with nervous fingers. "And I'm terrified of giving birth," she admittedly in a low, shamed voice. Mulder looked at her sharply, stunned by this last admission. Where in hell had that come from?

"Sarah and Mary will be..." he began but she cut him off again, shaking her head and rubbing her hand over her swollen abdomen. This fear, this worry was the one she had done her best to bury the deepest. She had tried to ignore it and hide it from Mulder but as her due date drew closer and her belly grew more rounded, she had felt the fear bubbling to the surface.

"I know. I know," she said quietly. "But if something goes wrong... there's no doctor, Mulder. I'm the only doctor in this village," she reminded him. "If something goes wrong..." She scrubbed her hands over her face and looked down at her hand smoothing circles over her distended belly. She hadn't wanted him to know that she had been worrying over this. She didn't know if it had occurred to him yet that there would be no one to help them if something went terribly wrong during the delivery and she had wanted to spare him that anxiety.

"I've buried myself in the work on the vaccine because if I'm busy running all those tests and calculations, then I don't have time to worry about the delivery," she told him, finally admitting, in part, what drove her to put in all of those horribly long hours at the clinic. "I've lived through some of the most unimaginable horrors. I'm 37 years old. I'm about to have my first child - our first child and I just... shit. I just want my mother!" Hot tears pricked her eyes as she met his startled gaze with her own. She sniffed, trying to hold the tears at bay. She didn't want to use her tears as a way of softening Mulder's justifiable anger at her earlier behavior but she could feel them welling up in her eyes anyway. Scully kept her face tipped toward the quilt as she finished explaining.

"She was supposed to be here," she told him. "I'm afraid to have this baby without her." Scully swiped the back of her hand under her nose and sniffed again. "She's supposed to tell me that all of my fears and anxieties are normal. I need her to hold me the way she did when I was a little girl and tell me that everything is going to be okay. I need my mama..." As her voice broke over the word 'mama' everything inside her splintered and she lost it, completely lost it. She'd had no time to grieve, any more than she'd had time for anything else. Everyone needed to mourn the loss of a loved one... her shoulders hunched and shook as tearing sobs ripped from her throat.

And just like that, Mulder's anger and frustration vanished into thin air. He stared at her, doubled over on the bed, crying as if her heart would break - and he realized that Scully hadn't truly cried for her family or herself. She'd been too busy, trying to save everyone... she'd forgotten to do what was necessary to save herself. And if she'd felt she'd failed those people depending upon her... well, Mulder had failed as well. And it would stop tonight - he'd make sure if it, as soon as he got his wife through her troubles. Here at last was something he could do for her; something no one else could accomplish...

Mulder moved to her side and his hands reached for her, pulling her into his arms, wrapping himself around her as hot tears stung at his eyes. She shook so hard with the force of her sobs that she was gasping for breath, choking. Mulder pressed her head into his chest and hung on tightly, fighting to hold himself together for her. It was as if he'd lost his family all over again... that black day when he watched Scully aim her gun at her brother and put him out of an unending misery. Scully had lost so much that day - and Mulder had lost that part of her that had died along with her mother and family.

He wanted it back, badly - wanted nothing more than to give his mother-in-law back to his wife, placing her right by Scully's side where she needed to be. Where Scully needed her to be... he rocked her as she forced the pain from her heart.

"I want her, every day of my life, Mulder... I wake up in the morning and I die a little because I can't get to the phone and call her and ask her if breast- feeding hurts or what sort of vitamins I should be taking or if craving salt is normal... I can't laugh with her over some stupid thing I heard on the radio and she can't tell me about the latest installment of those icky soap operas she used to watch." Scully swiped at her streaming eyes and stared up into her husband's damp, sympathetic gaze.

"I couldn't have her hand be the first one to press against our baby and remark how hard the little guy is kicking... and I wanted her hand to be the first, Mulder... I needed it to happen that way." Fresh tears slipped over her cheeks and mingled with the ones Mulder had let slide down his own cheeks.

"Oh baby, I know, I do, please, Scully... don't. You're making yourself sick, baby - please, no more. I would do anything to bring her to you, I would - I miss her too." On the edge of the bed they sat holding each other and crying all over each other - hot tears that burned and cleansed at the same time. Mulder pressed tiny kisses over her face and he breathed broken reassurances into her ear, until she shuddered and managed to get herself under control, a little.

And when five minutes later she fell asleep in his arms with small hiccups escaping through her open mouth, Mulder kept a tight grip on her and drew the quilt over both of them. Cradling her close, even in sleep - easing her pain, he hoped.

Easing his own.

~ Chapter Thirty Four ~

In the few weeks since Krycek's discovery of their refuge and his death, Bill Scully had been afforded plenty of time to think. The guilt he'd carried ever since that fateful day, that he should have been in the village to defend it - well, it wouldn't completely go away. Sometimes he'd close his eyes and his imagination would take off running, providing him with unwelcome footage of Matty, in various stages of unspeakable violence: lying in a bloody little heap on the snow while that bastard carted Dana away... Matty screaming in pain as he was poked and prodded in ways that Bill could barely fathom, by an unfeeling and hostile alien task force... Matty, dead. Always, dead. His sister, dead - her body torn open and her child wrenched from her, to provide the alien colonizers with viable testing fodder. Tara, dead - her body left behind with a gun still gripped in her cold hands, dead because she aimed a weapon at the enemy and missed...

Bill couldn't stop it - and it was slowly driving him mad.

Outwardly anyone would have been hard- pressed to find anything wrong with him. Maybe he was a little quiet, even for Bill - but so they all were, these days. The vaccine was still eluding Dana and Mary; everyone was sick of the darkness and suffering from some form of cabin fever. Spring was here but the bulk of the day was still dark, although they were slowly gaining minutes and it was warmer. The snow still lay thick and heavy on the ground and would not melt off completely in the more shaded areas, even come summer.

It had just been a long winter for everyone - and worrying about the next danger to their existence wasn't helping to make the wait for summer any easier. Summer brought lots of daylight and hopefully, sunlight - eighty-seven days of it. Bill yearned for it, as much as he dreaded it - because summer would be warm and when it was warm the insects came out - and where there were insects there might be honeybees. Though he knew they were reasonably safe living above the Range... it was hard not to worry.

He couldn't talk to Tara about his worries; she was trying to hold it together same as the rest of them. Besides, Bill had a feeling she knew. Tara was intuitive where her family was concerned and she understood the way his mind functioned, God help her. She would also leave him alone until he was ready to come to her about it. Tara always knew when to back off.

Besides, Bill's worries had gone beyond the bees and had morphed into flat-out depression. More and more he found himself thinking about his mother, and Charlie. He awoke in the morning with just a moment of imbalance, thinking he was back in his comfortable bed in his comfortable quarters in Norfolk - then that small lump in the middle of the mattress would dig into his back and the dim room would be chilly and the air would smell of firesmoke and creosote... And the thick flannel sheets underneath him brought it home better than anything else that he was not in Norfolk and would never see Norfolk again... never see his mother and his brother, again.

Bill Scully needed closure in a big way - and in all the months since his family's death he'd been unable to get what he needed.

"OWWW, shit!" Mulder shoved his wounded thumb into his mouth and glared at the offensive hammer that had just injured him. It had slipped out of his gloved hand and had landed with stunning force on his poor thumb, bypassing the carpenter nail and making jarring contact with his thumbnail. Mulder threw down the hammer and regarded Bill with impatient eyes, envious of the way his brother-in-law was not only twice as graceful with a hammer but also more adept at holding steady to a slippery roof. His patch of shingles were more evenly laid, as well... and Mulder perched precariously on the sloped roof of the clinic with a flattened thumb and uneven, sloppy shingles.

Shit... Well, at least he hadn't fallen off the roof - yet - he supposed that would come next, when he'd try to climb down. He peered at Bill's downcast face and waggled his wet thumb at him. Bill didn't even look up, so focused on the nails he hammered with precise aim on the neatly laid shingles that he seemed oblivious to anything else. Mulder shrugged and wiped his sore thumb on his snow pants, ready to call it quits for the day. He straightened himself carefully and took a deep breath of the cold, crisp air, absently noticing that it was mid-afternoon and the sun was holding steady. They were gaining seven minutes a day; spring was definitely in the air. April 6... God, hard to believe. Just about a year ago, this whole mess had begun, for them... Mulder spoke his thoughts aloud.

"Doesn't seem possible, Bro - a year since we first started figuring it out. Where has the time flown? Almost a year ago today, we were admitting to ourselves the need to get the hell out of Dodge. April 6..." At the mention of the date, Bill's head jerked up and his eyes narrowed as he stared at Mulder, digesting the only piece of the monologue he'd actually heard. He mumbled.

"Did you say today's April 6, Mulder?" There was a raw edge to Bill's tone that Mulder couldn't help but notice. He nodded at the other man and re-adjusted his ass on the cold shingles.

"Yeah. April 6, today. All day. So what?"

Bill shuddered. So what, indeed? Nothing much... only his mother's birthday, that was all. His mother, Maggie. His wonderful, beautiful young mother who adored sterling roses in a silver vase that she'd always fill with the gorgeous lavender blooms that their dad always brought home to her every April 6 - or sent to her from wherever his travels had flung him. Maggie Scully's birthday... Mother. She would be fifty-nine years young today... Bill shook harder, feeling himself begin to break off into little pieces, there on the roof of the Mt. Vu'luk clinic... and from a distance he heard Mulder's concerned, "Bill? Bro, you okay?"

No... Bill was definitely NOT okay. Nothing that happened today, nothing he could dwell upon would make today okay for him. Because a year ago today the Scully family was happy, and whole - as whole as it had been in the years since his dad's and his sister's deaths. Twelve months ago today Charlie was preparing himself to become the father of a son. Fifty-two weeks ago today his mother was putting the finishing touches on the embroidery of the Scully christening gown, originally made for Rachel and re-decorated with each new grandchild's birth. From Rachel to Matty and then to Katie... then sent back for Meggie who got pink ribbons... and Joshua would wear bright yellow chicks when it was his turn - Bill remembered how cute those little chicks looked on the gown when it was finished. He remembered...

Because three hundred and sixty-five days ago today his darling nieces each grabbed a phone extension and yelled into the receiver, "Happy Birthday, Grandma!" So loudly their little voices could be heard above the din of Matty pounding on a Tupperware bowl in his grandmother's kitchen. And Bill was sitting at his mother's kitchen table eating delicious birthday cake that Tara had baked, while his mother giggled over the phone with her granddaughters and Meggie dozed in Tara's arms. He remembered the sweet pleading in Jeannie's voice when she finally got a turn speaking to all of them, and begged him, "Bill, promise you'll all make it out for the christening!" He'd promised... Yeah, he hadn't broken it either, had he? No Siree. He'd come to see them... Jesus Lord, he'd kept his word.

Except he came without Tara, and without the kids... he'd come with Dana, and Mulder and Skinner in a mad dash from Norfolk to Myrtle Beach with the threat of bees on their tail. A month before the scheduled christening, he'd come.

And had found the end of his world, as he'd known it...

>From a far distance he heard Mulder's shout of warning as the force of his shaking caused him to slip sideways. Too numb to know he was falling off the roof, Bill's eyes had squeezed shut, keeping the tears locked under his lids... and Mulder managed to grab his arm at the very last second, and haul him over to safety. At the touch of his brother-in-law's hands Bill shattered; he broke. He allowed himself to be pulled into Mulder's strong arms and he buried his face in Mulder's parka, and the sobs he choked out were so thick Mulder could barely understand the words.

"Jesus, oh, God... he didn't make it, Mulder. He didn't get... I can't..." A heaving shudder, and Bill scrubbed at his eyes hard, fighting to get the words out. "Joshua... no christening for him. It was supposed to be at two months... he'd had a cold and they'd postponed it. We were all gonna go down and be there. That's why Mom went early - to help Jeannie because they'd all come down with this crappy cold. Dana hadn't thought she'd be able to make it - now I know why she sounded so distracted that day, when Mom called her. Fuck, it's not as if she had anything pressing on her mind, huh?" Bill clutched Mulder's arms as it all washed over him; the significance of not only his mother's birthday but the sure knowledge that Joshua Scully had died unbaptized.

And he sobbed anew... in his brother-in- law's arms Bill sobbed like a baby. Mulder held his big, trembling frame and felt the tears standing in his own eyes slip over the rims and roll down his chapped face. There wasn't a thing he could do for him, for this man he'd learned to love like a brother - the brother he'd never been meant to have. The brother his warring parents had never been able to give him, after Samantha's birth. Everything Mulder had lost over the years, his sister and his father, and mother too - it dwindled into nothing compared to what this man had lost. And Scully, as well. Mulder held fast to Bill and his low, broken words washed over them both.

"Bill, shhh. I know, Jesus I know. I loved your mother too, Bill -she was so kind to me after my own mother died. And I would have given anything to meet Charlie, and Jeannie and the kids. Anything. I wanted them to be my family, too... all of you, Bro. All of you, my family. I looked forward to it, I really did." Mulder cradled Bill's head against his parka and let the big guy purge it all out, helpless to give him any sort of relief other than a shoulder to cry on... knowing just how close to the edge he really was. And it went beyond perching on a slippery roof, about to fall off... because if Bill fell he'd plummet far more than just a story and a half...

He'd never come back. Mulder knew - Mulder had almost gone there a few times, himself. Scully had saved him, had pulled him back. So many times, she'd pulled him back from the edge. And there was no way in Hell he was going to let her brother - HIS brother - fall.

Not now - not after all they'd been through... Mulder gripped Bill tightly and tugged him closer, away from that slippery edge. He listened to the broken pain pouring out of the big, tough Navy man, who had only recently learned to enjoy whatever life tossed out - the way they'd all learned, since coming to the village. And he wondered bitterly which of them would be next, to lose it... for as busy as they'd all been especially the last six months, there had been no time for vital closure. No time to grieve, likewise no way to celebrate the wonderful traits of their lost loved ones. Mulder pressed a hand into Bill's shoulder and pushed him a little, until he could see into his brother-in-law's ravaged face, speaking softly but firmly to him.

"Bill, listen to me. They're not gone, never completely gone, can you see that? A little bit of them lives on, in you and in Scully -in your children. You find a way to keep it alive and it'll go on forever, each new generation of Scully children mirroring the very best of Maggie and Charlie Scully. You'll look into your granddaughter's eyes someday and your mother's beautiful face and strong spirit will shine out at you and give you cause to rejoice. And you'll tell your children about their grandma, and their Uncle Charlie. You'll show them pictures of their cousins - I'd bet you have some in your wallet, like any proud uncle. And they'll get to know them, through you and the memories you keep alive." He stared into Bill's drenched eyes, seeing his wife's blue orbs as well as Bill's gazing sadly back at him. Mulder held Bill's shoulders and repeated to him what he'd told Scully, all those months ago the night he'd held her and comforted her when she'd felt lost and motherless.

"There is a time for everything, Bill - I said this to your sister, not so long ago. Today you may mourn... tomorrow you may laugh. Tomorrow, you'll think about your mother and you'll smile, and when you look into Matty's face you'll see her there. Please, hang onto that, okay? Please?" He held Bill's eyes, his own earnest and filled with caring and concern - and when Bill nodded slowly, and wiped at his face with his gloved hand, Mulder released the sigh of relief he'd not even known he'd been holding. Bill managed a small smile, and when he spoke his words were typical Bill Scully - and Mulder was never more happy to be able to admit that for once, 'typical Bill Scully' sounded damn good...

"So Mulder... how often in the immediate future will you be using this outburst of mine against me? I'd like to know up front so I can practice my ass-kicking techniques..." Mulder chuckled and gripped Bill, hard - once... then let him go and picked up their hammers, pointing one toward the direction of the ladder propped against the side of the building.

"Well, let's get off this goddamned roof first, Scully - then you can start giving me cause for blackmail."

They crawled over to the ladder and started down, Bill going first so he could hold the ladder for Mulder. And his voice floated up to his brother-in-law as he reached the ground and locked his hands around the rungs. "You're not gonna tell anyone I let you hug me, are you, Mulder? I got a rep to protect..."

Mulder snorted as he stepped carefully down the slippery rungs. Casting a smirking look over his shoulder at the big man holding the ladder, he flapped his eyelashes at him and murmured sexily, "I won't tell if you won't, Big Boy." Bill shook his head in disgust.

"You're a riot, Mulder..."

Scully rubbed her eyes and looked up at the clock on the wall. Mary had taken the day off to stay home with her father who had been feeling a little under the weather that morning and Mulder would be stopping by soon. They had come to an agreement after their argument - he would not badger her about her work and eating habits during the day and she agreed to stop working at a decent hour to go home, eat and rest. At the end of each day, Mulder would show up to walk her home from the clinic and as her pregnancy progressed and the baby grew larger, throwing off her balance and causing her back to ache terribly, she was grateful for his strong arm to lean on as she tiredly made her way home each evening.

With the discovery of the vial of the original vaccine, Scully had taken a small sample of the precious stock to study and break down the chemical components of the vaccine. Two months later she was still trying to duplicate it. She was so close but an exact match continued to elude her. Scully studied her latest effort under the microscope, making careful notes on a scrap of paper. Pushing her chair away from the scope she walked to her computer and tiredly entered the figures into a program that she and Mary had discovered on the Internet. Fearing that they would lose access to the Internet at any time, they had downloaded the program and had modified it to suit their own purposes. Scully stood and rubbed a hand over her back, digging her fists into the aching muscles just above her hips. At seven months, the baby was already so big. Scully didn't even want to consider how huge she would be by the time she was ready to deliver. Mulder had told her he'd been a big baby... it stood to reason their boy would take after his daddy.

Scully began listlessly stacking her notes and organizing her desk, allowing the computer to finish running the comparison so that she could cross this latest attempt off her list and try again from another angle the next day.

She was gaping at the monitor in shock when Mulder pushed open the door to her office.

"Ready, Scully?" he asked as he poked his head through the doorway. "Scully?" He hurried across the room when he saw his wife clutch the desk and carefully lower herself into a chair.

"What is it?" he asked as he squatted beside her chair. Laying a hand on her belly, he called to her again. "Scully!" he cried. "What's wrong? Is it the baby?" Scully shook her head dazedly and looked down into his frightened face.

"It matches," she said in a tiny voice. Mulder's forehead creased in concerned confusion and his eyes followed her trembling finger as it pointed toward the computer. He squinted at the screen and leaned closer to read the data. Two sets of numbers ran in incomprehensible columns down either side of the screen. At the bottom of the screen, however, he easily understood the information displayed above the blinking cursor.

"99.9% match rate," he read aloud. He turned his head slowly and gaped into his wife's stunned eyes. "Does this mean... have you..." His voice trailed off as she nodded slowly and leaned forward to press shaking fingers to the screen. A single tear slid down her cheek and she lifted her hands to her mouth in an attempt to still the wobbling of her chin. Her eyes remained locked on the monitor for several long seconds and then suddenly she burst into motion, quickly printing out the data and saving the file. She stood as the printer began grinding away, spitting out page after page of data and she clutched the papers tightly, her eyes devouring the proof that she held in her hands.

Mulder rose and stood before her, bending his knees to bring his eyes level with hers. Scully looked up from the printouts in her hand, meeting his excited gaze with eyes dilated with disbelief. Mulder wrapped his arms around her hips and he lifted her from the floor. Startled, she threw her arms around his neck as he brought her face up to his.

"You did it," he murmured. He kissed her, tasting the salt of the tears that streamed down her cheeks. "I'm so proud of you," he whispered against her damp lips. Scully tightened her grip around his neck and returned his kiss. She shrieked as he spun her in an impromptu and excited dance.

"Oh God, oh God," she whispered against his shirt as he set her back on her feet and drew her close to his chest. Her legs began shaking as reaction set in and Mulder eased her back into her chair. He knelt on the floor in front of her and stroked his hands down her arms and traced gentle, calming patterns over her knees with the tips of his fingers until she settled down and caught her breath.

Tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, he cupped her cheek in his hand. "Let's make sure that everything is saved before we shut the computer down for the night," he suggested softly. Scully looked from him to the computer and her mouth opened and closed several times without issuing a sound. She scrubbed her hands over her face and looked longingly down into the papers still clutched in her hands.

"But..." she began only to fall silent when her husband laid gentle fingers over her lips.

"Let it go for the rest of the night, Scully," he suggested. "I know that you'll be back here bright and early tomorrow morning. It's waited this long, you can start in earnest tomorrow," he promised. "Right now," he said with the beginnings of a grin on his face, "we've got to get everyone together so that we can share the good news!"

A wide smile burst over Scully's face and she leaned forward, throwing her arms around him again, hugging him tightly. 'Almost there,' she chanted in her head. 'I'm almost there.' She nodded and placed the printouts carefully into a folder and stood, reaching for her parka.

"Let's go home," she said, holding out her hand.

Days passed in a blur of activity as Scully refined, analyzed and ran every test she could think of on the vaccine, each time yielding the same result - a near perfect match to the sample left in the vial found in Mulder's parka. Mary assisted her in running the various tests and cross- referencing the calculations against the information already stored in the computer and Mulder contributed by making sure she ate and by forcing her to curl up on the small sofa in the office each afternoon to rest. He would slide her shoes from her aching feet and rub them until her eyes would flutter shut. He guarded her sleep and woke her each day after one hour - as promised. She would rise from her nap refreshed and ready to begin again.

Finally there was only one test left to run. As Elder Honea blessed the food at the Sunday gathering, Scully stood up to address the villagers.

"Mary and I have finished our work in the clinic on the vaccine," she began, smiling gratefully at Mary. "We are as sure as we can possibly be that this vaccine is a match to the one that saved my life three years ago." She licked her lips and looked around the table at the faces of family and friends who were watching and listening with great interest.

"There's only one way to be sure that the vaccine works," she said. "And that is to test it on a someone who has not been exposed to the virus before." She drew in a deep breath and blew it back out. "I would test it on one of the animals first, but the virus does not seem to affect animal life in the same way that it does human life." Scully looked down and studied the rough wood of the table, tracing the whorls in the grain of the wood as she spoke. Swallowing hard, she looked up again.

"I need a volunteer."

Skinner leaned forward immediately. "I'll do it," he offered. Mary's hand tightened around his. She had instinctively known that he would be the first to volunteer and she was fighting back frightened tears when Sophie pushed away from the table and stood.

"You will do no such thing, young man," she stated regally. Everyone turned to look at the village matriarch as she spoke. "You have a family to take care of," she said. Directing her attention to Scully, she spoke quietly but commandingly.

"I do not have a death wish, but I am an old woman," she said. "You have toiled over your work for many months now and I trust you when you say that you believe that the vaccine is safe." She looked down at her gnarled hands. "Still, this is an alien life form that we are speaking of and as you say, we will not know for sure until it is tested on someone." She looked at each of the dear faces gathered around the table and smiled. "I have led a good life. A long life." Drawing in a deep breath, she nodded decisively. "You will test your work on me." Her voice was firm and tolerated no argument, forcing slow nods of assent from everyone around the table.


The next morning Scully arrived at Sophie's cabin. The old woman met her at the door with a smile and a cup of sweet tea.

"I know that Sarah has been brewing her special tea for you every morning," she said with a knowing grin at Scully's poorly hidden grimace. "The tea is good for you and the baby," she chided and Scully nodded.

"I know," she sighed. "But the taste..." She shuddered, happy to have slipped past Sarah's door without having to suffer through her daily dose. Sophie laughed.

"Sit down, child," she said. "We'll drink our tea and you'll explain to me what you are going to do." She sank down into a wooden rocker near the fireplace and motioned for Scully to sit in the matching chair on the other side of the hearth. Scully gratefully sat down and cradled the warm cup of tea between her hands.

"It works like any inoculation you've ever received," she said. "The vaccine is made from weakened or dead cells from the actual virus, but should not be strong enough to cause a severe infection," she explained. "Your immune system will recognize the weakened form of the virus as an invader and will trigger the production of antibodies in your blood. The antibodies will fight against the invading virus and build up an immunity against it to protect you in the event you should be exposed to the real virus later on." Scully looked at the old woman to make sure that she understood. Sophie nodded thoughtfully.

"How will you know if the vaccine is successful?" she wondered aloud. "Do you simply assume that the vaccine works if I don't keel over?" she asked with an impudent grin. Scully's hand tightened convulsively around the arm of the rocker and she choked on the mouthful of tea that she had just swallowed. Sophie laughed and leaned forward, placing one wrinkled hand on the younger woman's leg.

"I'm sorry, my dear," she apologized. "I know that you take this very seriously and that you are afraid," she said. "But you should not worry so," she told her. "God has brought you to this place and He has delivered you from evil time and again," she said. "He intends for you to do wonderful things, Dana," she murmured wisely. "You were meant, I think, to save the world." Sophie tapped a gentle finger against Scully's temple. "First, by using this," she said softly. Then Sophie curved her hand around the swollen mound that protected the baby. "And through this," she intoned quietly. "He has blessed you with many gifts, Dana." Scully blinked back tears and she lifted Sophie's hand into her own. She studied the papery skin covering the still strong hand and brought it to her lips, pressing a kiss onto the aged knuckles. One fat tear brimmed and splashed over her lashes as she whispered her thanks.

Sophie stood and drew Scully to her feet. "Let's get this show on the road," she said.


~ Chapter Thirty Five ~

Scully had cautioned the rest of the villagers that she would be placing Sophie under a strict quarantine until she was sure that the vaccine had not caused any lasting ill effects on her patient. After the vaccine was administered, she kept careful watch over the old woman, alert for any signs that she had infected her with, rather than protected her from the virus. By mid-afternoon Sophie was running a low fever and she told Scully that she felt mildly achy. Scully helped her into bed and kept a close eye on her vital signs. Her blood pressure was slightly elevated but her temperature did not rise past one hundred degrees and she did not complain of dizziness or nausea.

The two women passed the day by talking of friends andfamily and Scully entertained her with some of the most colorful cases that she and Mulder had investigated during their careers with the FBI. She steered clear of talk of consortiums and alien invasions, choosing instead to regale the old woman with stories of flukemen and vampires. When Mulder - the only other person permitted inside the quarantined cabin - arrived late in the afternoon, he found both women dissolved in tears of laughter as Scully recounted the look of studied casualness and barely repressed panic on Mulder's face as he tried to shake a yellow bilious substance from his fingers.

Scully was heartened as Sophie's temperature continued to hold steady, never climbing above the hundred degree mark. The old woman's eyes sparkled as Mulder brought their dinner into the bedroom. She sat, comfortably propped up against a mound of pillows and ate the soup and sandwiches he had prepared with gusto and watched with a glad heart as he tended to his pregnant wife with gentle hands and loving eyes. He offered to keep watch over Sophie through the night as he guided Scully into the small second bedroom and helped her settle onto the bed for a much-needed rest.

And when morning arrived, Scully's heart beat furiously in her breast as she read the thermometer, which told her that Sophie's fever was gone. The older woman was spry and was moving quickly about her home, declaring one day spent in bed 'quite enough, thank you.'

Scully drew a vial of blood from her patient and kissed her papery cheek, promising to let her know the results of the blood test as soon as possible. An hour later, Scully lifted shining eyes from the microscope to meet the concerned gaze of her husband. She nodded slowly and stepped forward to wrap her arms around his waist, whispering softly into his flannel covered chest.

"It worked."

Scully quietly allowed Mulder to fuss over her as he buckled her seatbelt low across her belly. She knew that he would have preferred that she stay in Mt. Vu'luk and let Mary oversee the inoculations of the survivors living in Barrow and the surrounding villages, but when she had stated that she would be going along to supervise the distribution of the vaccine, he had only asked if she was sure that she was up to the trip. When she assured him that she was, he had yielded to her decision. The flight to Barrow was a short one and although she was almost always tired now, the nausea was thankfully a thing of the past. She smiled and patted his hand reassuringly as he dropped into the seat next to hers and buckled himself in.

Skinner twisted in his seat to look over his shoulder at them. "Ready?" he asked. Mulder nodded and gave him a thumbs-up signal. Skinner glanced toward Mary in the co-pilot seat and at her nod, he flipped a number of switches, powering up the helicopter and sending the powerful blades overhead into motion.

Scully had tested the vaccine on two more volunteers after it had produced the necessary antibodies in Sophie's blood. When the vaccine had yielded similar results in all three cases, Scully felt confident enough to vaccinate the entire population of Mt. Vu'luk. She wouldn't know for certain that the vaccine was completely effective against the virus unless and until an inoculated person became infected with the virus and successfully managed to fight it off. Scully knew that she would be content never to put the vaccine to that test.

Sophie and Scully had contacted the survivors in Barrow over the ham radio and Scully had explained to them that a vaccine against the virus would be available when she and Mary were able to produce a large enough quantity. And as soon as the necessary quantity of the vaccine was prepared, plans were set into motion for the four of them to make the trip to Barrow.

The survivors were waiting for them when they arrived at the community center. Mulder noted that there seemed to be a number of faces that he didn't recognize from his previous trip to Barrow. Joe Manno explained that survivors from some of the more remote, outlying areas and smaller villages had fled to Barrow over the long, winter months seeking refuge and security in a larger community.

Scully and Mary set their equipment out on a table and Mulder smiled gratefully when one of the men dragged a high-backed stool across the hall for Scully to sit on. He and Skinner collected the used needles and bagged them for disposal as Mary and Scully inoculated every resident of Barrow against the virus. Although the process should not have taken longer than a couple of hours, the pace was slowed as the people of Barrow stopped to thank Scully or lay a hand on her burgeoning stomach, offering prayers and blessings for the baby's health and long life. Scully blushed and stammered as she tried to deflect the praise away from her, explaining that she could never have done it without Mary and the help of all of her friends and family in Mt. Vu'luk.

Mulder's heart was bursting with love and pride as he watched his wife efficiently administer the vaccine to each person patiently waiting in line. Her hands were gentle and her smile was quick and genuine as she put each of her new patients at ease, quietly explaining the vaccine and how it would work to those who inquired.

When they were finished and Scully and Mary were packing up the remaining vaccine and unused needles and discussing babies with some of the women, Mulder and Skinner spent a few minutes talking to a small group of men.

"We're running low on basic supplies," Mulder said. The men nodded and Joe offered a solution.

"There is a supermarket/general store about four blocks from here," he said. "It was well-stocked before the invasion began last August. You should be able to find what you need there." Mulder thought it over quickly.

"We have money, but I don't know that it's worth anything any more," he said honestly. Joe glanced over his shoulder. Scully's bright hair stood out as she was surrounded by a small group of Inupiaq women. The petite white woman was one of them now, Inupiaq by choice and by heart. Joe smiled as he turned back to Mulder.

"We can never pay you enough for what you have given to us today," he said slowly. "You will take what you need. Nobody here has needed to use money for months and I don't see where that will change for us in the future. Please, help yourself to whatever you want." Mulder smiled gratefully and the two men shook hands.

Thirty minutes later the foursome made their way to the North Slope General Store and Marketplace. Skinner twisted the doorknob and found it unlocked. Bells tinkled overhead as they pushed the door open and stepped into the darkened store; Mary located a switch on the wall. Light flooded the store to reveal well-stocked shelves of dry goods, clothing, shoes and other basic supplies. Skinner and Mulder found several empty boxes under the counter and they carefully began to make their selections, taking only what they absolutely needed. Toothpaste, deodorant, soap and other basic necessities were placed in the boxes along with flour, sugar, salt and other staples that they felt they would need.

Mary and Scully moved to the clothing department and selected several outfits for Michael, Matthew and Meggie who were rapidly outgrowing their clothes. They chose several toys as well. Balls and bats, board games and a baby doll were packed into the box. Mary was browsing through a rack of shoes, looking for a pair of sneakers for Michael to wear during the approaching summer months, when she saw Scully stop before a display of baby goods. She watched her friend's hands drift over the tiny clothes and she glanced across the room to see Mulder watching his wife.

"Go ahead and take what you need," Mary encouraged. Scully wistfully fingered a beautifully stitched blanket and patted a pile of adorable little outfits in pretty pastel blues and greens and yellows, cheerfully decorated with smiling animals. Instead she settled on several one-piece rompers and a large stack of cloth diapers, putting them into the box before resolutely moving away from the display. Mary's eyes met Mulder's... he nodded and winked at her and she quickly snatched up the blanket and grabbed a number of the gaily-adorned outfits and several plush, stuffed animals, pushing them into the box and covering them up with their other selections. Her broad grin was echoed in the one her best friend's husband flashed at her.

Seven hours after they had arrived, they exchanged farewells with a small group of people who had come to see them off. Scully promised to come to Barrow on a more regular basis after the baby was born to see to its residents' medical needs. After a round of hugs and profuse thanks, they climbed into the helicopter and buckled themselves into their seats for the short trip back to Mt. Vu'luk.


Mary awoke later that night to a terrible pounding on the door to her cabin. Throwing off the blankets, she ran to the door and yanked it open to find a wild-eyed Mulder waiting. He was shivering in the cold, night air and she grabbed him with both hands and pulled him into the cabin.

"What is it?" she demanded, glancing over her shoulder as her father and Michael poked their heads out of the bedroom they shared. Mulder clutched her hands in both of his.

"It's Scully," he said in a desperate voice. "Something's wrong with the baby!" His eyes pleaded with her to hurry. Mary yanked her hands from his and ran toward her room to get changed.

"Mulder, go back and wait with Dana," she said. "I'll be there in a minute." He nodded and fled back toward his cabin. "Michael," she called and her nephew looked up in surprise. "Go get Sarah," she ordered. "Tell her that something is wrong with Dana and the baby." Michael jammed his feet into his boots and yanked his parka from a peg on the wall, racing to do as he was told. Mary ripped her nightgown over her head and dragged on a pair of jeans and a sweater. Stuffing her feet into her boots, she hurried back into the living room to grab her own parka. She spared a helpless glance toward her father.

"I don't know how long I'll be," she told him. Her father nodded knowingly.

"I'll pray," he said quietly and pressed his lips to her forehead. "Now hurry," he told her. She could see the light come on in Sarah's cabin and she heard Michael's urgent voice carry across the silent village as he explained the situation to Sarah.

She burst into Mulder's cabin and found Scully curled up in the center of the bed. Mulder was wrapped around his wife's body and he was whispering to her soothingly. Scully looked up when she heard Mary enter the room and she held out her hand, her voice breaking on a sob at the sight of her friend.

"Mary... oh God. The baby!" Mary hurried across the room and clutched Scully's hand in her own.

"Are you in labor, Dana?" she asked as her fingers settled over the inside of Scully's wrist, checking her pulse. Her eyes widened as she felt the frantic throbbing beneath her fingers. Scully shook her head and watched her with wide, frightened eyes.

"No," she gasped tearfully. "But I have some cramps. And I'm bleeding." Everyone looked up as Sarah rushed into the bedroom. She sized up the situation quickly and firmly pulled Mulder away from Scully's side. He backed up against the wall, his worried eyes never leaving his wife. Sarah laid a soothing hand on Scully's shoulder.

"I need you to lay down on your back, Dana," she said softly. "I need to examine you." Scully nodded and her eyes were dark with fear but she made no attempt to move.

"Come on, sweetheart," Sarah encouraged. She looked across the bed at Mulder and he leaned over his wife, crooning to her softly to stretch out on the mattress and allow Mary and Sarah to examine her. She tugged him down onto the bed beside her and buried her face against his thigh as the two women gently pushed her nightgown up around her hips and pulled her underwear down her legs. Their eyes were grim as they studied the spots of blood staining the cotton panties.

Sarah hurried into the bathroom and quickly scrubbed her hands under near-scalding water. She knelt between Scully's legs and called softly to the frightened woman, demanding her attention.

"I'm going to examine you," she said gently but firmly. Scully nodded and turned her face away again, pressing into her husband, whose hand stroked her head soothingly. Mulder's eyes begged the two women for help. After everything they'd been through and triumphed over this past year, he couldn't lose Scully and the baby. Not now. It would surely kill him...

Mary watched, feeling helpless, as the midwife slid gentle fingers inside of Scully, probing carefully. She watched the older woman's eyes shut as she called on years of experience and skilled hands to make a diagnosis. After what seemed an eternity, Sarah withdrew her fingers and wiped her hands on a towel.

"The sac has not been ruptured," she announced. "When was the last time you felt the baby move?"

Scully tried to clear her jumbled thoughts. "About two hours ago," she said. Mary grabbed a stethoscope out of Scully's medical bag and everyone held their breath as she listened for the baby's heartbeat. She closed her eyes in concentration as she counted the rapid beats of the baby's heart.

"Sounds good," she declared as she straightened up. "Do you want to hear?" she asked. Scully nodded tearfully and Mulder helped her to carefully sit up as Mary fit the rubber tips of the stethoscope into her ears. A tiny smile trembled on Scully's lips as she heard the baby's heartbeat. Mulder looked up at Sarah with concerned eyes, feeling some relief at the apparent health of their child but still scared as hell about Scully.

"What is it?" he asked. "Why is she bleeding?" Sarah shrugged, not unkindly, and put away the stethoscope.

"Tension... stress, change of diet... take your pick." She affixed stern eyes on Scully's frightened face. "You've been overdoing it for months now," she said. "And your body is rebelling." Scully hung her head and nodded, tears sliding down her cheeks. Sarah's face softened and she slid closer, gathering the younger woman's hands into her own.

"You've taken care of everyone else. Now you need to take care of yourself and your baby," she lectured gently. "Bed rest," she pronounced. "Until the baby is born, you are not to go near the clinic. Stay off your feet as much as possible." Sarah smoothed a tender hand over Scully's bright hair, waiting for her reply.

Scully's mind rebelled at the thought of spending the next month lying in bed, but she knew she would do whatever was necessary to ensure the safe delivery of her child. She nodded dejectedly.

"I know... I will," she said softly. Glancing up at Mulder, her eyes filled with tears again.

"I'm so sorry, Mulder," she whispered. He shook his head and gathered her into his arms, holding her as if she would shatter into a million pieces. He whispered lovingly to her.

"Shh," he murmured into her hair. "It doesn't matter. We'll just do whatever we need to do." Mary cleared her throat, shaky with relief herself.

"Let's get you into some clean clothes and change these sheets," she suggested. Mulder nodded, lifting Scully into his arms and setting her down on the chair in the corner of the room. While the two women put fresh sheets on the bed, he pulled clean underwear and fresh pajamas from the bureau and helped Scully into the clean nightwear.

When she was settled back in bed, Mary sat down next to her and placed a warm hand over her stomach.

"I know you're going to go crazy lying here in bed for the next several weeks," she said knowingly. "I promise I'll come by every day." She pressed a kiss to her friend's forehead. Scully nodded tearfully and whispered her thanks to both women as they prepared to take their leave.

"I'll see you out," Mulder said. He walked them both to the door with his arms over their shoulders, then took turns hugging each of them with grateful affection.

"Thank you," he whispered fervently. "Thank you so much!" He kissed them both on their cheeks and watched from his door until they were safely in their cabins before turning off the lights and climbing back into bed, curling his body protectively around his wife and child. Scully sighed, already in a light doze, exhausted from the draining anxiety of the day and the panic of the evening. Mulder rested his hand underneath the swell of her stomach and smiled into her hair when the warmth of his palm permeated her skin and within the comfort of her womb, their child kicked. Nose buried against Scully's soft hair, Mulder whispered to their child, "Daddy loves you, Little One... I'm counting on you to take good care of Mommy..."

He fell asleep with his wife warming his body and the reassuring movements of their son calming his soul.

~ Chapter Thirty Six ~

Scully was bored. Only midway through the second week of enforced bed rest, she was ready to tear out her hair. Mulder would rise up from their bed every morning and get dressed for the day before bringing breakfast to her. After breakfast, he would quickly clean up, gently remind her that she was to rest and then sweetly kiss her goodbye before leaving the cabin to go about his daily chores. Spring was upon them and the residents of Mt. Vu'luk were taking advantage of the lengthening days by making repairs to the buildings before the heavy spring breakup began. Busy hands were at work in the greenhouse, sowing the crop that would be harvested in early summer. Although Scully did not claim to have a green thumb, she itched to bury her hands in the loamy soil of the greenhouse; desperate to breathe in the pungent fragrance of the fertile dirt and feel the heat of the sun intensified through the glass panels of the greenhouse roof. Beverly had explained that there would be a second planting in about two months' time in which Scully's assistance would be more than welcome, but that was of little comfort to her at the moment.

To everyone's delight and no one's surprise Skinner had proposed to Mary, right in the middle of a Sunday Gathering lunch. He had jumped to his feet during dessert, staring down at Mary as she laughed with Patrick and Beverly seated across from them... and with high color in his cheeks and no advance warning had grasped her wrist, pulled her to her feet and dragged her off to the empty schoolroom two doors down. Tara, reporting back later that day to Mulder and Scully, had recalled the shocked Mary with glee, hooting, "They were gone a full twenty minutes before Walter finally brought her back in, both of them beet- red." Mary's eyes had been wide with wonder; she'd opened her mouth twice to speak but nothing had come out. Skinner had finally taken pity on her and had blurted out in a gruff voice.

"We're getting married!" The room had exploded with excitement, Skinner caught right in the center of it and turning redder by the minute... Scully would have given anything to see it. But she was missing out on the Sunday Gatherings, as was Mulder who refused to leave her alone and spent the entire day with her.

Now a wedding was in the works and the women of the village were busy with the details as the menu for the reception was discussed and refined and plans were made to decorate the chapel for the big event, while Mary patiently stood still and allowed Tara to fuss over the alterations being made to her dress. She faithfully stopped in to visit Scully every day, reporting to her the smallest details of the wedding planning and while Scully rejoiced in her friend's happiness, she couldn't help but feel a little left out. Her own wedding had been such a rushed and frantic affair... now she worried that her well-meaning friends and overly-protective husband would not even allow her out of bed long enough to attend the festivities.

Scully was determined to attend that wedding at any cost.

Winter was over and the village was rousing, bursting to life, while Scully lay still and the world passed by without her. The days were long, with only Nanook for company, and there was little in the form of entertainment. She would place a stack of records onto the record player and the sad, sweet strains of the oldies would whisper through the room. Her eyesight had been badly strained over the last several months as she had spent hours squinting at the computer, pouring over research manuals and studying her notes without the benefit of her glasses. A forgotten novel lying open at the second chapter bore testament to the fact that reading only produced a headache now.

Scully sighed and shifted in the bed, drawing a pillow close and resting the burden of her belly against its soft weight. The four walls of the bedroom were closing in on her as she calculated the time left until her due date. Scully had too many hours each day on her hands to think.

And worry.

The day after she had awakened terrified by the sight of the blood spotting her underwear, Mulder had taken her to the clinic for an ultrasound. Mary was waiting for them and with Mulder, helped Scully to climb onto the bed in the examination room. Her clothes had been pushed aside and rearranged and Mary had slathered the gel over her seemingly enormous belly. The wand floated over her gel-coated skin and the baby's heartbeat filled the room. There was something odd about the heartbeat, Scully had thought - but then she was distracted, her attention riveted to the grainy black and white image displayed on the monitor to her left.

Mary moved the wand slowly over her stomach and pointed to the screen with her other hand.

"There," she said with a note of relief in her voice. "You can see for yourself that everything is fine. You have a very active baby," she smiled, watching the baby's limbs lazily push and twist in Scully's womb. Mary glanced over at Mulder's enraptured, but confused face and she grinned again and began to trace her fingers over the image on the screen.

"Here you go, Mulder," she said softly. "Can you see the baby's feet?" she asked. He nodded and leaned closer to the screen, his hand clenched tight around Scully's while Mary continued to point out his child's features.

"That's the cord," she said, pointing. "And there," she exclaimed. "The baby is sucking his thumb." A wide smile broke over her face. "There's the other arm," she continued. "And that's..." A puzzled frown crossed her face and she leaned closer to the screen, moving the wand over Scully's distended stomach, trying to gain a different angle and a better view.

"What is that?" she murmured. Scully propped herself up on her elbows as she strained to see the screen.

"What?" she demanded. "Mary, what is it?" Her friend rocked back on her heels and turned toward the couple looking anxiously at the monitor. She licked her lips and turned back to the image on the screen as she puzzled out what exactly it was that she was seeing. Finally, she raised her eyes and a brilliant smile lit up her face.

"Twins!" she exclaimed happily. Mulder's face registered shock and then hesitant joy as he peered at the monitor, while Scully's features were indeterminate and guarded.

"Look," Mary said, pointing to the screen. A spindly arm and another head with indistinguishable features peeked out from behind their baby, its face turned away from them. Mary smiled again as Mulder gathered his wife into his arms and buried his face in her hair. She quickly typed several commands into the ultrasound's keyboard, freezing the picture on the screen and printed out a hard copy. She eased the door closed behind her as she left to give her friends some privacy; consequently she did not see the agitated look on Scully's face as she stared intently over Mulder's shoulder at the frozen image of the tiny lives growing inside of her.

Twins... Sweet Jesus. Mulder was holding her so tenderly and whispering his awe and wonderment - and unending love for all three of them - into her hair. And all Scully could hear was Krycek's taunting voice playing over and over in her head...

"Is this Agent Mulder's child or something unspeakable growing inside of you?"

Now, almost ten days later, Scully waited and worried. A twin? What were the chances, even with Spender's interference, that she who had been previously barren, could suddenly bear not one, but two healthy babies? She wondered many things, starting with the possibility of twins in Mulder's genetic makeup, to the uncertainty of random fertility anomalies brought on by the procedure involuntarily performed on her almost two years past. In the lonely hours of her confinement, she was helpless to put a halt to the maddening thoughts swirling through her head. Did this second being have the same features that she had already memorized of the first? The same tiny toes? The delicate nose and teensy fingers?

Or did her child share the protective environment of its mother's womb with an abomination, and if so, what would they do? This second life was part of her - biologically hers, feeding from her body and receiving nutrition and life in the same manner as its womb-mate. The obvious difference in size worried her to no end, not to mention the inability to see its little face...

Scully shifted again in anguish and Nanook raised her head from her resting place on the floor to climb onto the mattress. She burrowed her warm body against the distraught woman and Scully wrapped trembling arms around the dog, burying her face in the soft, white fur and sobbing out her fears. Hours later, when Mulder returned home, he found Nanook curled up in the center of his bed. The dog opened liquid blue eyes and whoofed softly in greeting, careful not to disturb the woman who had dried her tears on her fur. Mulder smiled at the peaceful picture they presented, unaware of the turbulent dreams plaguing his wife's sleep. He clucked softly at the faithful dog and pointed to the door, knowing Nanook in her dedication to Scully would not have moved a muscle. The poor sweetheart had to be bursting... the big Husky whined gratefully as Mulder let her out, and she completed her business neatly and quickly, loping right back in and climbing up on the bed so gently and carefully that Scully never stirred. Mulder sat on the edge of the bed and made a fuss over Nanook as she settled down once more close to his wife's side, quite willing to sacrifice the rest of her day in protective care. With a sigh of ecstasy at the scratching behind her ears and a thankful lick of her master's hand Nanook stretched out and went back to dozing, leaving Mulder free to begin dinner.


"Tara! Wait up!"

Tara spun on a heel and waited for Beverly to catch up with her. The glare off the snow made her wish for her sunglasses, but since they were still sitting on the dash of the Explorer they left in Deadhorse... Tara shielded her watering eyes and smiled as Beverly got closer, almost running in the loose snow.

"Morning, Beverly! Just in time. Come help me gather eggs. Walter can't do it today; he's helping Manly at the treatment plant." The two women fell into step together and walked in the brisk spring morning. Sunshine in the AM hours... it was a wonderful thing, Tara decided. Small things made her very happy these days - like gaining ten minutes of daylight a day. This was a good thing. She grinned at Beverly as they walked along, and gestured at the bright sky, sighing, "Don't you just love it? Spring is finally here, even if we still have mounds of snow." Beverly nodded and smiled at her friend's enthusiasm.

"Yes, May is the beginning of it. In just a few weeks we will enter into the endless day of the summer season. It is a true celebration for us. And speaking of celebrations," she stepped ahead to the barn and held the door open for Tara, "I wanted to ask you if you'd given any thought to having a baby shower for Dana. She's got to be going nuts, flat on her back in bed all day! I think we need to entertain her, if only for one day."

Tara nodded as she walked over to the wall and pulled down the egg basket, finding a clean cloth to cushion the eggs. "Yes, I was just talking to Bill last night. He spent yesterday afternoon with her and I gather she really tried his patience - what there is of it!" she laughed. "You can certainly tell they're brother and sister. They played cards and took turns cheating and bickered so loudly that Nanook got to barking!" The women began working their way down the line of clucking hens, Tara taking their eggs with minimal pecking and squawking. She added, "I would love to have a shower for her; I think it would really make her feel good. I had about a week of bed rest with Meggie and I truly thought I'd flip put before it was all over. And Dana's in bed for a month, poor thing! I think it was sweet of Michael to give her Nanook for the duration. That is one devoted dog. She even sleeps on the bed with Dana; Mulder says he comes home and finds them all curled up together, dozing."

Beverly nodded as she held on to the basket and followed Tara. "Michael is a very intuitive boy - and Huskys are known for their loving disposition."

Tara suffered a mean peck from one of the older hens but still managed to steal an egg or two, placing them gently in the basket, as Beverly voiced her thoughts on the shower. "Well, if we are going to make this happen let's plan on doing it toward the end of the week. I crocheted her a baby blanket and matching sweater - I'd bought the prettiest baby yarn the last time I was in Kenai visiting my mother." Beverly swallowed a small lump in her throat as she thought about her beloved mother, then determinably continued, "I had bought it with the thought of making a receiving set for my cousin in Prudhoe. But the poor child suffered a miscarriage before I could even get started. I began working on the blanket set for Dana last month and just finished it a few days ago. Thank God I originally bought enough for more than one blanket. Just think of it... twins!"

Tara nodded and smiled, remembering her surprise and joy upon hearing the good news from first Mary, and then Scully. Her smile faded a bit as she recalled her sister's worry. Oh, Dana had hidden it well, but Tara could tell. She was worried. The other twin was tiny in comparison to its brother and they could not establish its sex with the ultrasound. And although she couldn't be sure exactly why Dana was so worried - for she kept much of it to herself - Tara was smart enough to know it had to center around her fear of the virus. And Tara was determined to keep her thoughts to herself and not burden Dana or Bill - or Mulder, whom she had grown to love dearly.

Now Tara collected eggs from the last hen and motioned Beverly over to the goats' pen, both women cooing at the newest kid, a mottled billy with the longest eyelashes they'd ever seen. The tiny baby was nestled in the curve of his mother's body, nursing like a fiend while the nanny chewed her cud contentedly. Tara leaned against the pen and smiled at the sweet sight mother and baby made.

"Dana wanted so much to come over and see this little tyke. But Mulder won't let her out of bed. I think the sooner we can organize a shower the better. It shouldn't be hard to put together and we can have it right at her bedside. She won't even have to get up. Mary gave me a stack of baby things that she nabbed when they were in Barrow doing the vaccinations. I guess Dana had seen some cute clothes and other things at the general store but refused to pick up more than the bare necessities. I'm going to wrap it in a big box or two and it can be from all of us."

Beverly smiled as she thought of how surprised Dana would be when she opened the box. She ticked off shower items on her fingers as she thought of them.

"We need a few simple decorations, and food - little appetizers would be nice, although we are severely limited. I am sure I can come up with some ideas! And I will make my potato skins. They are to die for - made from blue potatoes." Tara's eyebrows shot up at the mention of colored vegetables, and Beverly chuckled at the look on her face. She added, "That's right - blue. You'll see. They are very hardy and do well up here, growing any time of the year in the greenhouse. A quarter of the smaller house is boxed off with dirt that goes down three feet. Plenty of depth for tubers and carrots. And Patrick made a platform for it a few years ago, to keep it off the ground and safe from freezing."

"But blue potatoes!" Tara was amazed. "Why haven't I seen them before? Doesn't anyone eat them? Nobody has brought blue potatoes to the Gathering lunches!" Beverly shook her head as they walked back to the chicken pen to pick up their outerwear.

"Would you believe I am the only one who likes them? Everyone else just looks at them and shudders, seeing only the color. Patrick won't even eat them. I just grow them in a small patch of the tuber box, and eat them at home. I have never brought them to the Gathering because I cook for everyone and I know they would not be enjoyed." She grinned at the thought of bringing her blue potato skins to the shower and imagining the look on Dana's face when she saw them.

Tara collected the egg basket and walked out of the barn with Beverly, locking the barn behind her and assuring her friend that she'd crate and distribute the eggs later that day. Beverly left her at her door with a promise to take care of all the food for the shower. Tara thanked her and entered her cabin, grinning at the sight of Bill rolling around the floor with both Matty and Meggie climbing all over him trying their best to tickle him. Tara placed the egg basket safely on her kitchen table and wriggled out of her parka, commenting, "Under Daddy's arms, Matty - he's real ticklish there!" Matty whooped in glee and burrowed his little fingers under his father's arm, digging all ten digits in and causing Bill to screech with laughter and not a little pain.

"Tara, that hurts! Matty, Son, don't hurt Daddy; you're supposed to love me..." Matty immediately stopped gouging him and his little face crumpled with worry as he regarded his father.

"I hurt you, Daddy? I'm sowwy!" The child's chin wobbled, and Bill was quick to reassure Matty, embracing him and snuggling him close.

"No, it's okay, Matty! You didn't hurt me, Son - honest. Daddy likes to be tickled, really!" Tara snorted at the blatant lie, and mumbled under her breath as she filled the kitchen sink with hot water and egg wash.

"That's not what you said last night, Bill..."

**

Although Bill had cautioned her to warn Scully in advance of her impending baby shower, Tara decided to surprise her sister-in-law, figuring it would do Dana good. She did tell Mulder who thought it was a wonderful idea and promised to make himself scarce that day. In their village, with so many spring repairs and much planting to accomplish, keeping busy and making oneself disappear all day long would never be a problem.

With the help of Mary, Tara broke into the clinic and swiped a handful of thin rubber surgical gloves, determined that Dana would have balloons. Granted, balloons with fingers... but somehow that was fitting for a doctor, she thought. Michael begged to help her blow them up and he and Tara spent a hilarious afternoon doing just that. Bill had watched them struggle to stretch the rubber enough to force air into the palms and fingers of the gloves; Tara's face was bright red before she managed to get her first glove stretched and full of air. She tied it off with a bit of string and fell back against the sofa, gasping for air. Bill guffawed loudly and she swatted at him with one weak, slow hand which he avoided easily.

"Well, let's see, Darlin'... that only took you twenty minutes..." Tara flashed him a dirty look and flung a handful of the gloves at his face.

"Bill, stop poking fun at me, and help us out here! You can start by stretching these damn things out using those big paws you call hands." Bill obligingly began stretching the fingers and palms of the gloves, laying them aside in a neat pile, as he fought to keep from laughing at Michael who was struggling to blow up one of the stretched gloves. He kindly deigned to blow up a few himself and completed the task in half the time, much to Tara's disgust. Bill held up the silly looking balloon and regarded it seriously.

"You know, this is one boring-as-hell balloon, Tara. It needs something. Maybe draw a happy face on it. What do you think, Michael?" he addressed the thin boy, who blushed profusely at being asked his opinion. He gazed at Bill earnestly as he voiced an idea that had been knocking around in his head ever since he'd asked Tara to let him help out.

"Well, Dana and Mulder don't have names picked out for the babies, do they? I got a Magic Marker pen set; all different colors. Maybe we could write names all over the balloons, in different colors. You know - some good names and some silly ones, too. So she'd laugh. I think Dana needs to laugh." At the amazed looks on the adults' faces, Michael blushed again, then turned absolute crimson when Tara reached out and gave him a hug.

"Michael, that's a great idea. Very creative! And you're right -Dana needs to laugh. Go get your pens, okay? And start making a list of names. Bill and I will finish up these balloons. Won't we, Bill?" She threw a 'don't-even-think-of-saying-no' look at her husband, who signed with loud resignation. He winked at Michael as he whined to Tara.

"Gee whiz... I always get to do the fun things..."

On a sunny Thursday in the morning the women of Mt. Vu'luk met in secrecy. They gathered in the schoolhouse where they had some table room, and laid their bounty down to exclaim over. There were tiny little rompers and sleepers in pale blue, yellow and soft aqua, pattered with sweet little kittens and playful mice cavorting back to front. There were tiny booties, one pair knitted to look like saddle shoes, and several caps and bonnets. Tiny sweaters and shirts; a set of sweats with adorable baby blue whales swimming in a rainbow sea. All compliments of the North Slope General Store...

Mary had found four empty boxes and the women split up the clothes and the blankets and stuffed toys Mary had also grabbed. They wrapped the boxes in leftover Christmas paper, knowing Dana wouldn't mind at all. The packages still looked pretty and it was more important to have something to rip open, as Sophie laughingly remarked. Then she opened up the bag she'd carried in, and showed everyone what she had made... and there was utter silence before the 'Oohs' and 'Ahhs' filled the room.

Two identical parkas made of mink and fox, the mink shaded from pale brown to almost cream and the fox slightly reddish in color. Each had a row of carved ivory buttons dancing down the front in the shape of orca whales, and each little hood and sleeves were trimmed in colorful braiding. A ruff of softest mink edged the hood and had drawstrings to pull the hood closed for maximum face protection. Tara had never seen anything more precious - and she voiced out loud in amazement the amount of time that went into something this minute and perfect. Sophie had waved away the praise, explaining that she'd begun working on the first one as soon as Dana had announced her pregnancy, and then setting a world record for fastest stitching when it was discovered that there would be twins.

"Ah, this is nothing. When I was younger my fur parkas and kuspuks always won awards and blue ribbons when I entered them in the Tanana State Fair in Fairbanks. They were much fancier than these. My son Jim lived there for many years and I would send him my entries every year. I will show you all my ribbons someday." Sophie fingered the fox on the little sleeves gently before placing the parkas into an empty box. Reaching into the bag she withdrew two pair of tiny mukluks made of spotted ermine and trimmed in mink. Upon seeing them Beverly whooped and hugged her.

"Sophie! I KNEW you'd give these to Dana! I remember these well... even though I was just a little girl myself. You made them years and years ago, for your twin girls!" Tara's head jerked around and she stared at Sophie, shocked that in all these months of living here she'd not heard more about Sophie's children. She had to ask.

"Sophie, you had twins, too? I had no idea! Where do they live?" In her eagerness to know more about Sophie's children Tara never stopped to think they might have passed on or not made it through the colonization. Sophie's wrinkled face creased into a sad smile.

"Oh my dear - they passed away years ago. Both of them, within a month of each other. They could never stand to be apart and never married, preferring each other's company to anyone else. Pammy and Patsy, my girls. Thirty years old when they died, Child. Pammy developed ovarian cancer and I swear Patsy found a way to follow her into death." Sophie held the little boots in her gnarled hands and her smile was full of remembered love for her girls.

"I want Dana to have these - she will need them when her little ones start toddling around out in the snow. I would have given her one pair - how lucky that I had two!" With one last tender touch of her fingers Sophie laid them on top of the parkas and taped the lid on the box, and her memories.

With arms full of gaily wrapped gifts and balloons shaped like surgical gloves, trays of appetizers and three bottles of sparkling cranberry cider, the women of Mt. Vu'luk prepared to ambush Dana Mulder, Pregnant Lady. With Tara leading the way they tiptoed through the snow in the afternoon sun, trying their best not to giggle. Tara reached the front door of Dana's cabin and opened it soundlessly; from the bedroom Nanook woofed very softly and padded to the door, wagging her tail. >From the bedroom they heard Dana's sleepy, "Nanook, come back to bed Sweetheart..." Tara grinned and pointed to the bedroom door - and they followed the dog back to her bed - and right into the face of one very surprised Dana.

Tara watched her sister-in-law smile and laugh at the silly balloons, pretending to take some of the baby names written on them seriously.

"Fartquart and Booboola... don't tell me. Bill thought those up, didn't he?" Dana glanced at Tara with a lopsided grin and Tara nodded back, shaking her head at her husband's silliness.

"Oh, yes. Bill had several choice names picked out. I had to restrain him - Michael was the one writing the names on the balloons!" Scully cupped one of the inflated gloves in her hands, admiring it - and her expression was stern as she met Mary's laughing eyes. She pretended to lecture her friend.

"And how many poor innocent gloves had to sacrifice their rubber to make me laugh, Mary?"

Mary choked on her cider and wiped it off her chin, exclaiming, "Coming from you, Dana - that question sounds downright obscene!" Everyone laughed, which roused Nanook and set her off barking loudly. Sarah flipped her a cheesepuff and she shut up in a hurry, chomping in delight at the tasty treat.

Tara watched through the next hour or so, as Dana opened her gifts and sighed over the lovely clothes and blankets. She teared up when she opened Beverly's hand made blankets and sweaters; but she almost lost it completely when she dug into Sophie's gift and pulled out the little parkas and mukluks. Those tears pooling in her eyes ran down her cheeks as she held up the tiny, furry clothes; it was clear she was overwhelmed. She laid them on her lap and held out her arms to Sophie, who hobbled over to the bed and sat on the edge, cradling her and whispering, "Now, don't take on so, Child! It was nothing, truly. I have a lot of fur and much of it was already pre-cut into shapes, ready to sew. It was my honor and pleasure to make this for your babies. They will still be very tiny when our winter hits again - you will need to keep their little bodies warm!"

Tara watched Sophie wipe away Dana's tears and saw something much more than just awe in her sister-in-law's eyes. She saw worry there, too. Dana hid it well, over the rest of the shower. She ate some of the appetizers, seeming to enjoy the blue potato skins that Beverly made; sipping her cider and listening to the gossip. She joined in when it became Mary's turn to receive the good-natured teasing about her upcoming wedding. Yet Tara could see Dana's heart wasn't in it. Doubtful anyone else noticed it, but Tara knew her sister as well as she knew herself, despite the sparseness of their visits before the world had come unraveled. Tara sighed under her breath as she poured more cider into empty glasses. Whatever it was Dana would not let anyone in until she was ready.

Scully turned off the shower and pushed back the shower curtain. She squeezed the excess water out of her hair and reached for a towel hanging on a hook outside of the shower stall. Blotting the moisture from her skin, she carefully stepped out of the shower. Looking up, she saw Mulder standing in front of the sink, shaving. In the last remaining weeks of pregnancy, her center of gravity was way off and Mulder worried that she would lose her balance and fall. She indulged his concerns by agreeing to take her shower before he left the cabin in the mornings. She was sure that if the shower stall wasn't so small, he would insist on being in there with her. As it was, he contented himself by performing his morning rituals of shaving and brushing his teeth while she was bathing so that he could remain close at hand should she need him.

As she slid her arms into her robe, she saw his eyes run over her lush form in the mirror and a quick glance downward showed the evidence of his desire rising beneath the towel wrapped around his waist. He cleared his throat and lifted the razor, cutting through the lather covering his face in a long, smooth stroke.

"I'll be done in a few minutes," he mumbled and Scully nodded, sidling past him on her way out of the room. She climbed onto the bed and rubbed the towel briskly over her hair. She was reaching for her brush on the table next to the bed when she heard Mulder groan softly. Concerned, Scully awkwardly slid out of the bed and padded carefully across the room to peer through the half open door of the bathroom.

Mulder's towel was pooled around his feet and his back was bowed over the sink as he stood with one hand braced against the smooth porcelain. His other hand was wrapped firmly around his hardened flesh. Another low sound slipped from his throat and his face was tortured as he slid his hand roughly over his swollen length. The muscles of his back rippled as his hand moved on himself. Scully watched him for exactly four seconds, feeling the tingle of desire pooling soft and deep. It felt good... felt like enough for her.

But not enough for Mulder... he'd been deprived of the assuage of his needs for weeks now, since before she went on bed rest. Scully moved toward the bathroom door, smiling to herself.

Mulder's head was bent, his eyes tightly closed as he imagined Scully's tight wet sheath enclosing him, instead of his hand... hell, her hand would be equally wonderful - but she needed her rest, not a humped-up husband demanding his rights. He concentrated harder on working himself toward release; so focused that he jumped in shock when Scully settled one hand on the damp skin of his back and cupped the fingers of her other hand lightly around his pumping hand. Her lips pressed into his shoulder and she spoke into his skin.

"Let me," she whispered as she trailed her hand over his spine. Mulder shuddered and shook his head. She was sweet and generous and he was so tempted... but she was too far along. It wasn't safe for her.

"No, Scully," he whispered and took a step back. "We can't," he reminded her. She shook her head and moved close. Her robe hung open and her heavy breasts brushed across his arm. The feel of those satiny globes made him tremble anew with desire, and he clamped down hard on it. Scully kissed his chest and trailed a wet tongue lightly across each nipple, before she replied.

"I can't," she said softly, "but you can." She brushed his hand aside and wrapped her own fingers gently around his straining penis. He shivered and shook his head again, even as his hips thrust forward helplessly, reacting to the amazing feel and warmth of her small hand.

"No," he whispered again. "You're supposed to be in bed," he protested, but his voice lacked conviction - and she smiled softly as she stroked him.

"We could move this to the bed if you prefer," she suggested. "But Mulder, it's all right for me to be out of bed for a little while every day. I promise not to overdo it," she vowed. She trailed her fingertips lightly up and down over his quivering flesh and swiped her thumb over the velvety head once. Twice. Each time his body clenched and jerked in response to the caress. He needed this, so much... Her lips brushed against his ear as she whispered again.

"Let me."

Mulder shivered and he nodded as he dropped his head onto her shoulder. Scully's fingers tightened around him and she began stroking him firmly from root to tip. Her other hand slid over his neck and she buried her fingers in his hair, lightly raking her nails over his scalp; he quivered and moaned under the dual caress. His hips began rocking forward, pushing his throbbing flesh into the warm fist of her hand. She could feel his lips moving against her throat as he whispered her name over and over and his hands slid under her robe, cupping her rounded hips securely, ever mindful of her safety.

Scully's movements sped up as his breathing hitched and changed. She would have liked to have taken him in her mouth and love him properly but she'd never be able to get down on her knees and she knew Mulder wouldn't let her anyway. A hand job would have to suffice... judging by the soft groans coming from his throat and the way he whispered her name, her hand was more than enough for him. Her fingers slid over him, matching the rhythm of the gasping pants below her ear. When he began to tremble her arm tightened around him and her fingers clenched in his hair as he stiffened against her. His mouth opened against her shoulder and a low growl was ripped from him as he shuddered and shook, spilling himself over her hand and burgeoning stomach. Her hand slowed and gentled as she wrung every drop from his body and she released him from her grasp, sending one final loving caress over his damp penis.

Wrapping her arms around Mulder's body, Scully pressed her swollen breasts and belly against him, cradling him to her and whispering to him soothingly as the tremors wracking his body slowed and stopped.

Mulder lifted his head from her shoulder and she tilted her head back as he drew himself to his full height. He wound his arms low around her back and pulled her up against him, on her tiptoes.

"Thank you," he murmured before covering her mouth with his. Their lips met in a slow kiss that spoke of sated desire and tender affection. Mulder pulled away from her clinging lips and he turned back to the sink, running a washcloth under warm water. Dropping to his knees he gently cleaned the sticky residue of his semen from her hand and stomach. Before he tossed it in the sink he swirled it over his abdomen and still somewhat swollen penis, ridding himself of the last of his fluid. He discarded the soiled washcloth, then closed his eyes and rested his cheek against the fertile mound of his wife's stomach.

"I love you," he whispered. Scully's heart burst with love as she watched Mulder press kiss after gentle kiss into her belly, up to her breasts; with featherlight lips he kissed each tender nipple. His soft mouth and gentle tongue felt so good... and when he stood and led her back to their bedroom, crawling into the bed and curling his body around hers, she sighed, reveling in the quiet contentment of the moment.... so glad to be able to give him this.

Almost as much as he'd given to her.

~ Chapter Thirty Seven ~

Somehow the day kept running through his mind like scenes from a movie, while he was making slow, exquisite love to his bride. Snippets of the day, some verbal and some just images, floating in and around the fine mist of desire which soaked him to the skin as his body moved on hers, and the connection between them pounded through his blood.

Walter Skinner was enjoying the hell out of his wedding night...

All day long he'd been in a haze of longing anticipation, already flipping his mental journal pages to the night and their bed in their very own cabin; possessive 'they' in all aspects. He'd awoken alone in the new cabin, on this his wedding day; missing the warmth of Mary but understanding the importance of some traditions. She'd spent the night with her father and Michael. This was right and proper, Skinner conceded. It had given him an opportunity to put the finishing touches on the cabin that used to belong to Sarah - and who'd given it to Skinner and Mary as a wedding gift. The conversation was forever etched in his mind as one of the most unselfish acts of kindness anyone had done for him...

"Sarah, we can't take your home!" Mary had been adamant and Skinner had nodded, sitting side by side in this very room. Sarah had smiled and squeezed Mary's hand.

"And why not? What do I need with two cabins? I should have moved years ago, but I never got around to doing it. Patrick always said he'd help me but I hung onto the cabins, thinking someday maybe he would have need of them. Well, that did not happen, and now I have just what you two need. A place for you and a place for Jon and Michael." Mary had sighed softly and squeezed Sarah's hand in response, and then she and Skinner had both looked around the unusual cabin.

It had been built with a guest in mind, Skinner realized. On the outside actually two cabins, sitting close together and connected by a heated breezeway, each cabin was completely private and each had two bedrooms and a full kitchen and bath. The larger cabin had a living area, while the smaller cabin's living room had been sacrificed for an extra bedroom. Sarah's mother-in-law had occupied the smaller cabin; it had been built specially for her. Together the two cabins were much more than the widowed Sarah needed, and Patrick had built his own cabin three years ago.

Sarah had cleared her throat, bringing Skinner's attention back to her. She had smiled at him gently, and reached out her other hand to clasp his reassuringly.

"I do nothing unwillingly, Walter. You should know that about me, by now. This cabin is too big for my old bones to rattle around in. Patrick worries about me; keeps thinking I'll fall." She shook her head indulgently. "He thinks I'm going to break, I guess. But it is good for a son to worry about his mother; he honors me with his worry and concern. The least I can do is respect his wish, and find a smaller place, nearer to him. And that empty cabin next to his only needs a piece of the roof fixed. I will move there. And you will in turn honor me, by accepting this place for you and your family. You will need the room, Mary - for Jon and Michael." Sarah's smiling eyes had locked on to Mary's, who had nodded and smiled back, blinking tears out of her vision. She had impulsively leaned forward and kissed the old woman's face, whispering to her.

"Sarah, Walter and I would be honored... wouldn't we?" Mary's imploring gaze had caught Skinner and he had nodded as well, and had grinned at both women.

"You bet, Sarah - and thank you."

And so it was done - the roof on Sarah's new cabin was fixed in no time, and she moved the very next day, Manly and Patrick helping her with the furniture and heavier things. It had not taken very long... Beverly had spent half a day cleaning the empty cabins, refusing to let Mary lift a finger to help. And then Manly and Patrick had moved Mary and Skinner's belongings right in, waving away Skinner's help as well. Mary and Skinner had spent the day cuddled in the gathering hall, planning and laughing and just enjoying their free time together, for Scully had refused to let Mary into the clinic the day before her wedding...

The fire in the stove crackled and threw heat into the cabin, but that heat had nothing on the intensity of what sparked between the two bodies entwined in the bed. The quilts and blankets had been tossed to the floor; they were not needed. The filmy nightgown Mary had borrowed from Beverly had landed on top of the blankets. As lovely as she'd looked in the pale blue confection Skinner had wanted her skin against his. She had been clothed all day, was indeed gorgeous beyond belief in her mother's wedding gown. Skinner had been amazed to see it - then discovered Jon Honea had packed it in with his belongings, unable to bear leaving it at the rectory. Mary had broken down and cried in her father's arms when he'd brought the gown to her...

Mary had walked to him with her head held high and her long black hair pouring down her back like a sable banner, and Skinner's throat had closed up with emotion. In the glow of the tiny chapel his bride was as lovely as anything he'd ever beheld in his entire life. Skinner's eyes had locked upon hers and everyone else had ceased to exist for him; the soft sniffling of Tara and Scully, seated on the first pew closest to the door in case Scully had to beat a hasty exit to the bathroom. He'd been especially overjoyed to see Scully up on her feet; it had meant everything to Mary and to him, having her at their wedding.

Walter Skinner had adored Mary clothed in creamy antique satin... now he adored her a hundred-fold more, clothed in nothing but her equally creamy skin. He'd pulled the nightgown from her body with barely- disguised urgency.

Mary hadn't minded his urgency... not a bit.

In the dim room her hair swung over him in a midnight shimmer of silk; it had grown in the past six months and now hung past her waist. She pressed him down into the tangled sheets and her hair cascaded over one shoulder and dripped down onto his chest as she took one of his small hard nipples in her mouth and bit down gently. He shuddered and his big hands gripped her waist, hard. Mary's eyes never left her husband's as she nipped at his sensitive skin, working her way over hard pecs and a muscled stomach with her slippery hair caressing him in the wake of her eager mouth and kneading hands. Down his chest and over his tight abdomen... body slipping out of his grip and moving steadily south until she reached her goal, and her fingers strove to enclose all that lovely hard flesh on display between his heavily muscled thighs.

She sat back a little on his legs and stared at the sight of her small hands running the length and breadth of his erection; dusky fingers against darkly reddened flesh as hard as marble... She could look at him, admire him all day. His male beauty was beyond compare. Mary released him and used both hands to pull her heavy hair over her shoulders, then she smiled as she reached out one tender index finger and traced it down the throbbing skin, to the base and back up, swirling one teasing nail around the broad tip. And when her husband gasped out a hoarse, "What are you doing to me, Mary..." she had a ready answer. She fluttered her fingers over the silky skin and her reply left him reeling.

"I'm admiring a true work of art, Husband... I have always been a lover of beauty." She bent forward and her mouth grazed him in a most sensitive spot, followed by her tongue, accompanied by all ten fingers and two warm palms...

Skinner wound his hands into her hair and groaned.

Against his burning skin her mouth burned even hotter, her lips and tongue gliding up and down his ridged length but never settling in one spot. Teasing him... stretching out the need until Skinner's head was thrashing on the pillow and his breath hissed between his teeth in one long sibilant exhale. His fingers knotted and clenched in her hair, fighting the urge to push her face into him, to make her take all of him instead of just bits and pieces. Mary looked up at him with eyes as hot as her mouth, which hovered just over the satiny head, waiting for him to lose it... daring him. She darted out a small pink tongue and let it barely touch him, feeling his entire body tighten under hers - and when she blew a breath over the wetness she'd left behind, his hips bucked into her face and his hands grasped her hair and he pushed against her mouth, groaning harshly when her mouth opened wide and took him inside.

For Skinner the unselfish act was one more reason to adore her, for Mary was one of the very few women he'd known in his life that really enjoyed the giving of it. Her mouth and throat felt incredible and he could do nothing but lie back and let her take what she wanted, and hope he lasted long enough to return the favor...

Her hair cascaded around him like a black waterfall as she made love to him with her mouth and her hands. Skinner held the silky strands up and away from her face to watch the sensual by-play. And he thought back to a few short hours ago, when he'd slid his hands underneath her heavy hair and grasping two fistfuls of it, had brought it to his lips and kissed the fragrant skeins of it. Mere seconds later he'd used it to pull her lips close enough to cover with his own as her father had pronounced them man and wife... when he'd kissed her hair, Mary's eyes had filled with tears and her lips had trembled.

Now he watched those full lips stroke him, and feeling her throat enclose him and her tongue caress him this way was almost more than he could handle; Skinner brought her hair to his face and pressed it to his mouth as his hips rocked slowly, slowly...

When he could hold back no longer Skinner lifted her head and extricated himself as carefully as possible, then tilted her face up to his so he could see her heavy-lidded eyes and rosy, swollen mouth. She took his breath away... what little he had left to take. He started to move her onto her back but Mary pushed against him and her low, firm, "No," stopped him cold. Skinner stared at his new wife in confusion. Her answering grin was reassuring, as she instructed him, "Sit on the edge of the bed, Walter." She tugged at his arm until she had him positioned to her satisfaction, then she slipped off the bed and opened the closet door, rooting around for a second until she found what she wanted, and propped it directly across from the bed, against the wall.

A full-length mirror...

Mary approached the bed, and Skinner; insinuating herself between his legs she bent down and covered his mouth with hers, kissing him deeply as he sighed into her mouth and his hands moved restlessly over her body. He began to push his fingers inside her and Mary pulled her hips away from his roving hand, again with a firm, "No. Not yet - not that way..." Skinner obediently removed his hand, slipping his arms around her and kissing her, waiting to see where she would lead him next.

When she suddenly broke their kiss and spun around to face the mirror, leaned back against his broad chest and curved a hand behind her to maneuver his hard length underneath and to the front of her wetness, Skinner got the picture.

The full-length picture... and it was the most erotic sight he'd ever beheld. Between her thighs and pressing up against her soft curls Skinner saw the darkly- flushed tip of his penis jut forth like a piece of living sculpture; the look and feel of it nestled there forced a gutteral moan from his throat. God... the way she looked... small and fragile, but looks were deceiving. The power she had over him was formidable...

Her hair rippled over his arm and down his side to pool on his thigh, and in a graceful splay of slender legs she opened herself to him and lifted her hips up and away from his erection, the better for him to observe. In the light coming in from the open bathroom he could see her, glistening, ready for him. Inviting... arousing. Skinner stared at her and he couldn't stop himself from groaning aloud. Mary slipped an arm up around his neck and drew his head down for a kiss, her eyes never leaving his as he put his hands on her hips and lifted her higher, while she repositioned him and guided him inside. They watched each other shudder with the impact of flesh absorbed within flesh...

Skinner was fascinated by the sight of them together in the mirror, his eyes glued to their reflection as he saw his hands raise Mary's hips and then bring her down upon him, again and again... each time forcing a gasping breath from her lungs. She anchored her arm around his neck and her other hand reached into her thicket of dark curls and toyed with her swollen clit, fingers occasionally brushing against him as he moved faster, and deeper within her. Mary watched her hand giving herself pleasure as her husband's driving strokes coiled her tighter, and tighter - the intensity of his stare burning her in the mirror, as hot as the flesh that impaled her. Knowing she was on the edge of her release - wanting it to never end -

Screaming when it broke over her and inside her and the full body-shudder she experienced pulled strongly at him... until with three final hard thrusts he was right there with her...

His shout as he climaxed was loud enough to break a mirror... fortunately for them, theirs held together. Mary lifted eyes gone heavy with satisfaction, her stare devouring the sight of her husband's reflection; his entire body flushed with the force of their coupling and his chest heaving beneath her back. She leaned in against his shoulder and her voice was low and vibrated with emotion.

"God... look at us. Look. Do you see what I see, Walter? I see love. I see endless need and spent desire and I see my husband, whom I adore beyond all else..."

Skinner's arms tightened about Mary's damp body and he pressed his mouth into her shoulder as he stared at the picture they made, here in their new bedroom at the beginning of their new life together. It was a sight he knew he'd never tire of seeing. Still trapped within her indescribable warmth, touching the very womb of her... Skinner could think of only one other gift that would make his world complete. His hoarse rumble against her ear made her shiver.

"I want a child with you, Mary..." The sweet words brought tears to her eyes and she turned her head and caught his mouth; kissed him tenderly, feeling him still so far within her and sending a prayer heavenward that locking him inside for these few precious minutes would give him his wish... Against his lips she was affirming.

"Yes. I want it, too - so much I ache, Walter." She stared up into his dark eyes and her own filled with tears that dampened her cheeks as she made a vow for them to keep.

"Soon. Maybe tonight... maybe it has already happened. But I'd like to think you gave me a son, or a daughter tonight, Love..."

In the mirror the newlyweds pressed themselves close to one another and whispered of their future.

** ~ Chapter Thirty Eight ~

June

Scully felt the first contraction shortly after Mulder left the house in the morning. The sun was shining brightly both day and night now but with black shades and heavy curtains over the windows, the bedroom was cool and dark. She had been experiencing Braxton-Hicks contractions for several days as her uterus began preparing to expel its tiny passengers. Scully blew out a breath she hadn't been aware she was holding as the pain faded; she smoothed a hand over her rounded belly, relaxing back into the pillows. That one had been different from any contraction she had felt so far and she had been caught unprepared for its intensity.

Long moments passed without another contraction and her eyes fluttered shut. Boredom and enforced bed rest had combined to make her lethargic over the final weeks of her pregnancy and she had found herself taking frequent naps during the day. She was startled out of a comfortable doze when the second contraction hit, curling low and hard in her womb. Gasping, she sat up and looked at the clock. She guessed that roughly thirty minutes had passed since the first contraction. She rubbed a hand over her stomach. Scully found her watch on the nightstand and strapped it around her wrist. She had things to do and she had to get them done before the pains began to come with more frequency. She struggled out of bed and cautiously stood, holding onto the bedpost for support. When she was sure her legs would hold her, she began to make her way slowly toward the bathroom.

Grabbing a towel, razor and a can of Mulder's shaving cream, she lowered the lid of the toilet seat and sat down, clumsily propping one foot on the sink. Squirting the shaving cream into the palm of her hand, she began to smooth it over her leg. Reaching across the broad swell of her stomach, she awkwardly began shaving. As she dragged the razor along her leg, she remembered a story that her mother had always told about how she had calmly and insistently painted her toenails while in labor with Melissa, as her husband paced and raged that it was time to leave for the base hospital. Somehow that trivial yet calming little chore had made absolute sense to her and Missy, although Bill, Charlie and their dad would always roll their eyes in pretended disgust...

Mulder, she knew, would be worse. Scully had briefly considered sending for him after the second contraction, but had quickly discarded the idea. He had never been able to handle seeing her in pain and she knew that this delivery would be as difficult on him emotionally as it would be on her physically. It was best to get the worst of the more sporadic contractions out of the way and spare herself an over- abundance of Mulder-angst.

She finished shaving, then washed her face and brushed her hair back, securing it into a neat ponytail. She went back into the bedroom and changed out of her pajamas and into a clean nightgown. She was stripping the bed when the third contraction washed over her. This one was stronger than the other two and she braced her hands on the mattress for support as she waited for the pain to subside. Huffing out a steady breath, she looked at her watch. Still almost thirty minutes between contractions, she noted; she finished making the bed with fresh linens. Scully looked around the room and her eyes fell on the two cradles sitting side-by-side in the corner of the room. Mulder had spent every spare moment working on the second cradle after the ultrasound had shown the twin lives growing inside her womb. Her troubled eyes traced over the tiny bed with its fresh coat of varnish lovingly applied by Mulder only two days earlier. She determinedly pushed the disturbing thoughts out of her head. She would know soon enough.

Scully pulled open a drawer and gently lifted out two soft receiving blankets and two impossibly small diapers along with tiny pajamas in pale shades of blue and yellow and laid them in the waiting cradles. Lastly, she laid clean towels and washcloths by the bed. Between contractions, Scully straightened up the bedroom and cleaned the cabin, nervous energy preventing her from sitting still.

Four hours after her labor had begun, she was hit with a particularly strong contraction. Caught off-guard, she leaned forward, clutching the table for support and gasping for breath as the sudden pain curled through her belly and spread low in her back. It was at this moment that Mulder chose to come home for lunch and he found Scully in the middle of the sun-filled room, eyes squeezed shut and with a white- knuckled grip on the edge of the table. Mulder dropped the small tool kit he'd been carrying; it narrowly missed his foot.

"Scully!" he cried as he raced to her side. She blew out a long breath as the pain receded and looked up into her husband's worried face.

"I'm alright," she assured him quickly. He reached out to brush her stomach with tentative fingers. Through the nightgown he could feel the hard knot as their babies shifted and prepared to drop into birthing position. Taking several deep breaths Mulder forced himself to remain as calm as possible.

"Is it...?" he asked. Scully nodded and laid her hand over his.

"The contractions started about four hours ago," she said. Mulder's eyes rounded and a look of anger crossed his face. Four hours -! Jesus!

"Why didn't you send for me?" he demanded. Scully laid a restraining hand on his arm and looked up at him with a reassuring smile.

"It's okay," she said softly. "First babies can take a long time. I wasn't planning on giving birth without you," she promised. Mulder's eyes were turbulent and he swept her into his arms, carrying her on swift legs toward the front door.

"Mulder?" she asked with a bewildered look. "Where are you taking me?" Mulder glanced down at her face in astonishment.

"Where am I...?" he spluttered. "I'm taking you to the clinic!" he said, stating what he thought should be obvious. Scully shook her head and began to squirm in his arms. Mulder blew out an impatient breath and tightened his grip.

"Stop that," he demanded. "You're going to fall!" She looked up at him challengingly.

"I'm not going to the clinic," she said resolutely. "I'm going to deliver here, at home." Her husband's jaw dropped in shock.

"Here?" Mulder demanded. "But... but all of the equipment is..." He broke off as she pursed her lips and shook her head slowly back and forth.

"No," she said stubbornly. Mulder began to argue again, but he recognized the determined set of her jaw and he knew she wasn't going to budge. With a loud sigh he retraced his steps, her nightgown fluttering around her bare legs.

"Fine," he huffed in exasperation as he carried her into the bedroom. "But you aren't supposed to be on your feet," he declared as he set her down in the center of the newly made bed. "I'm going to get Mary and Sarah." He turned to leave the room.

Scully grabbed his hand quickly. "No, wait!" she exclaimed as she pulled him back toward the bed. "It's too early to call them," she said. Mulder's face was a combination of fear and disbelief. He sank down onto the bed and grasped one of her hands, feeling the panic begin to set in.

"Scully, you're in labor!" he said. "Please, let me get them!" And with a sigh, Scully acquiesced. The pains were still coming every thirty minutes or so now and she knew Mulder would not rest until she had been examined. She nodded and he raced out of the cabin. She was blowing out short breaths and counting her way through the next contraction when she heard the door slam open and Mulder's feet pound across the living room.

"We're back!" he called unnecessarily as he hurried to her side. He sat down on the bed next to her and smoothed his hand down the column of her spine as she bowed forward through the pain. When it subsided, she looked down at her watch and then up into Mary's smiling face.

"How far apart are they?" the nurse asked as she sank down onto the mattress. She lifted Scully's hand into her lap and calmly wrapped her fingers around her wrist, quickly checking her pulse.

"That one was about twenty-five minutes after the last one," Scully told her. Mary nodded and urged her to lean back against the pillows, tugging on a pair of latex gloves. Scully struggled to raise her hips as Mary pulled her nightgown up her thighs so that she could examine her. A few moments later, the younger woman looked up and met Scully's expectant gaze.

"You're just a little more than one centimeter," she said as she tore the gloves from her hands. "You should rest while you can," she said quietly. Standing she looked into Mulder's anxious face. "You should both get some rest," she suggested before turning to leave. Mulder leapt to his feet, in a panic.

"You're leaving?" he asked incredulously. He caught the hem of Mary's shirt between his fingers. "How can you leave?" he asked. "She's in labor!" Mary wrapped strong fingers around his and squeezed gently.

"Mulder, she has hours to go before she delivers these babies," Mary told him. "Labor usually takes a long time," she said. "First time mothers can sometimes labor for up to twenty or thirty hours before the baby is born." Mulder paled and she laid a reassuring hand on his cheek.

"She's strong and healthy and I don't think it's going to take that long," she said comfortingly. She led him out of the bedroom and stopped near the front door. "There's nothing I can do for her right now. But you can help her," she said, hoping that by giving him something to do, she could help to calm him. "Rub her back, bring her something to drink," she suggested. "Talk to her. SING to her. Help her to rest." Mary smiled and pulled her friend forward, wrapping her arms around his lean frame.

"It's going to be okay," she told him bracingly. "Sarah and I will stay close and we'll come by to check on you. Soon," she promised. Mulder nodded jerkily and as the door closed behind her, he scrubbed his hands over his face and turned back toward the bedroom. Mary knew what she was doing, he told himself. He was the one with no prior birthing experience with which to compare. He walked back into the bedroom and found Scully lying in the middle of the bed, peeking at him from beneath her lashes. Mulder managed a shaky smile and a silly, falsetto, "Miz Scarlett, Ah doan' know nuthin' 'bout birthin' no babies!"

Scully snorted out a tired laugh that ended on a squeak as the chuckle rode out on the coattails of another contraction. She groaned.

"Mulder, don't you dare make me laugh..." She held out a hand to him and her husband climbed into bed, curling his body behind hers and rubbing a warm, soothing palm over her belly.


The afternoon passed slowly. Scully's labor varied in both frequency and intensity and Mulder marveled at his wife's ability to nap in between contractions. Sarah and Mary stopped in regularly throughout the afternoon and early evening to check on her progress and they were pleased and upbeat with each examination. By eight o'clock in the evening, Scully's cervix had dilated to approximately four centimeters. Sarah looked up and met Scully's tired eyes with a smile.

"Four centimeters," she declared. She laid a hand on Scully's thigh and squeezed softly. "The contractions are going to start coming faster and they will be more sustained now," she told the younger woman. Scully nodded and her hand tightened around Mulder's as the pain began building once again. She hung her head and panted softly and Mulder whispered into her ear until the pain had receded slightly. Still panting, she smiled shakily at Sarah.

"Wow!" she exclaimed. "That one was strong." She swiped a trembling hand over her brow, pushing back the hair that had long ago escaped its ponytail. "What was the time on that one?" she asked. Sarah looked at the clock on the nightstand.

"About eight minutes," she told her, taking a glass of water from Mary and offering it her. "Small sips," she instructed and Scully nodded, gratefully allowing the cool water to moisten her dry mouth. She handed the glass back to Sarah and leaned her head against Mulder's shoulder. She reached up with one hand and pulled his face close to hers.

"How are you doing?" she asked gently, brushing her lips over his. Mulder smoothed his hand over her tangled hair and smiled against her mouth, determined to lie to her if necessary.

"I'm doing just fine." Outwardly, he struggled to maintain a calm appearance but deep inside, he was a mass of jumbled nerves. Scully shook her head ruefully. She was all too familiar with the look of studied calm on his face that she knew was a front to cover the panic within. She was about to call him on it when her hand involuntarily tightened around the back of his neck as another powerful contraction swept through her. She could feel Mulder's heart thundering against her back as he wrapped protective arms around her until the spasms had subsided once more. He dropped his cheek on her bright hair and prayed for enough strength, not only for her but for him as well.

Scully's labor continued like that for another hour or more and she was becoming tired and tense as the contractions began to move closer and closer together. Suddenly, when she was approximately seven centimeters dilated, her contractions began to slow and then they seemed to stop.

"What is it?" she demanded as Sarah sat between her parted legs to examine her again. "What have the contractions stopped?" Her eyes were large with fear and every muscle in her body was rigid with tension. Sarah smoothed the nightgown back down over her legs. Grasping Scully by the hands, she glanced up at Mulder, whose face had lost all pretense of studied calm and looked out-and-out frightened.

"Help me," she said as she eased Scully's feet onto the floor. Sarah smoothed her fingers over the backs of Scully's hands. "Sometimes, when the mother has been laboring for a long time, she becomes too tense and that can cause labor to stop," she explained. Scully nodded. Medically speaking, she knew all of that, but she had long ago stopped reacting to what was happening to her body like a doctor. She was tired. She was in pain and she was afraid. Sarah looked into Mulder's eyes.

"You need to help her relax," she said and she began to pull Scully to her feet. "A warm shower might help," she said. Mulder shook his head.

"How does that..." he began to ask in confusion. Mary spoke up from where she had been watching worriedly from the doorway. She pasted a calm look on her face as she met his troubled eyes.

"Climb into the shower with her and hold her," she said. "A warm shower and the comfort of your arms will provide a physical and emotional timeout for her," she explained. "It might help her body to readjust and recommit to the job before her." Mulder nodded and wrapped his arm firmly around his wife's waist, helping her toward the bathroom. Mary had moved into the small room ahead of them, turning on the water and adjusting the temperature. She laid out towels and a fresh nightgown and as she slipped out of the room, she laid one hand on Mulder's arm.

"Stimulation of the nipples can encourage the uterus to contract," she told him softly. Mulder flushed and his eyes darted away from hers but Mary just tightened her grip on his arm, forcing him to meet her gaze.

"We need to get the contractions started again," she said firmly. Mulder nodded and tried to slide past her but she wasn't finished. "Don't overdue it," she cautioned, "or it can cause contractions to last more than two minutes in duration. The babies need more time to rest between contractions." Mulder's mind swirled with a combination of embarrassment, confusion and fear. He didn't want to talk to Mary about something this intimate. And yet, who else could he talk to? Mulder blew out a shaky breath as he faced his and Scully's best friend with bright red cheeks.

"How do I know if I'm..." He broke off, unable to continue this line of conversation. Mary smiled sympathetically and patted him on the arm.

"Just be gentle," she advised as she pulled the door closed behind them. Scully was leaning tiredly against the sink and Mulder hastened to pull her sweat-soaked nightgown over her head. He quickly stripped out of his own clothes and climbed into the shower stall. He carefully helped her into the narrow stall with him and backed up against the wall, pulling her against his chest and wrapping his arms around her. There wasn't enough room in the tiny box but they made do as best they could - Scully was weary enough not to care how tight the fit was. Her head found its favorite resting place below Mulder's chin and she slumped against him as his hands swept up and down her back in long, smooth strokes.

The warm water sprayed over her aching limbs and she began to relax by slow degrees as the steady beat of his heart beneath her ear and the warmth of the water trickling over her body began to lull her. Mulder fought down his body's natural response to having his wife wet and naked in his arms and he concentrated on helping her to relax, whispering encouragingly to her as his fingers stroked and caressed. She felt his hand settle on the back of her head and she tilted her face, blinking against the fine spray of the water. His mouth lowered to hers in a gentle, oh so gentle kiss as he cupped her breasts in his palms, sweeping his thumbs delicately across the sensitive tips. They stayed that way for what seemed like hours; she lying heavily in his embrace; he awed by the responsibility entrusted to him as his hands moved with gentle purpose over her body. The peaceful interlude was interrupted when Scully's body grew rigid in his arms as her uterus began to tighten once again in a powerful contraction.

Mulder held her securely until it had passed, and then he quickly turned off the water and helped her out of the shower stall. He ran a towel over both of them and eased the clean nightgown over her head, sitting her down on the closed lid of the toilet while he rapidly dressed. Then he picked her up gently in strong arms that reacted to her extra weight as if she were no heavier than a feather - and holding her closely to his heart he took her back to bed, settling her against the pillows and kissing her soft mouth in tiny sweet kisses, before taking his place beside her and curling himself around her again, supporting her sore back.

Sarah let them rest for several minutes before leaning over the bed and rousing them. "Come on, Dana," she said firmly. "It's better for you to keep moving right now." She stroked a strand of wet hair off of Scully's face and smiled as the younger woman briefly nestled her cheek into Sarah's warm palm. "We don't want the contractions to stop again," Sarah finished and she slid her fingers down Scully's pale cheek. Mulder stood and helped his wife to her feet. Firming his grip around Scully's waist, he laid his other hand on top of her belly, noting for the first time how her burden had dropped over the last few days.

Leaning heavily on her husband's arm, Scully let him lead her in a slow walk through the cabin. She was beginning to focus on the internal workings of her body and Mulder's voice was a low murmur of comfort in her ear. Mary and Sarah melted into the background as the couple moved from room to room and despite her worry, Mary couldn't help but smile at the picture they presented - the tall, dark-haired man bent protectively over the small woman curled so trustingly against him.

Scully stopped in her tracks as another contraction caught her in its powerful grip. She leaned forward over Mulder's arm, gritting her teeth and trying to breathe through the pain as it radiated across her middle, pushing into her back and spreading down into her legs. A low moan of distress escaped her lips and as the pain briefly faded, she tilted her head back and looked up at him.

"Mulder, please," she said as she clutched his arms with her hands. "I'm so tired. I want to lie down for a little while." Mulder nodded as he studied the small face turned up to his. With one hand, he pushed the damp hair from her cheek. Her face was deathly pale and heavy bruises ringed eyes that were wide and dark with pain and fear. Mulder's heart clenched as he gazed into her frightened eyes. She had been so calm and brave over the many long hours since he had come home for lunch and he had forgotten that she had confessed to being terrified of giving birth only a few short months earlier. Mulder cupped his wife's face and thought about how small she was; how narrow through the hips. And he was so worried... he'd been a big baby - nine pounds and almost twenty-two inches long. His mother had always joked that her Fox had spilt her just about in half when she'd delivered him.

Mulder never discovered until years later that his mother had almost died giving birth to him. And as he supported Scully and kept her weight off her feet Mulder remembered the difference in size between their babies... Their son would cause his mother a lot of pain - and history could repeat itself...

He bent down, intent on carrying her back to bed, but a startled gasp from Scully stopped him. She was staring sightlessly at a spot on his T-shirt and her lips were rounded in a perfect "O" of surprise.

"What is it?" he asked worriedly. Scully's eyes moved slowly up along his chest to meet his wary gaze.

"Something's... something is happening," she whispered as first a trickle and then a warm flood of liquid poured from between her legs, pooling on the floor at their feet. Mulder looked down in shock at her small feet standing in a puddle of fluid then he burst into motion, scooping her into his arms and hurrying toward the bedroom.

"Her water just broke," he announced nervously as he shouldered his way into the room and laid her in the middle of the mattress. Mary settled on the bed between Scully's legs and examined her while Sarah used a towel to dry her legs and feet.

"It sure has," Mary confirmed. "You are fully dilated," she crowed. Sarah leaned over the tired couple and stroked gentle hands over their heads.

"It won't be long now, my dears," she assured them.

Mulder used a cool, wet cloth to wipe Scully's face as she writhed on the bed when another contraction assailed her body. One after another they came, giving her little to no rest in between. Gasping, Scully struggled to sit up and Mulder helped her, slipping behind her to support her back, his hands shaking. Scully looked wild-eyed at Sarah.

"I need... I need to push," she panted. Sarah nodded and rose from the edge of the bed. Mulder looked up in surprise.

"Where are you going?" he asked as she moved away from the bed and into the other room. He craned his head to see what she was doing.

"Bring her over here," Sarah directed, pointing to a small stool that was set up near the fireplace in the living room. He had been so focused on Scully that he hadn't noticed it earlier when they were walking through the cabin. Mulder looked around the bedroom and then peered back at Sarah through the doorway. His arms tightened protectively around his wife as she moaned softly against the pain of another contraction.

"Why can't she just stay in bed?" he asked in confusion. "It's got to be a hell of a lot more comfortable than that thing," he protested, eyeing the wooden stool. Mary shook her head.

"It will be easier for her in the birthing chair," she told him. "Sarah has been a midwife for many years," she reminded him. "And she has used this chair for almost every delivery she has participated in. Squatting will increase the flare of the pelvis allowing the baby to slide through easier," she explained. "Besides, we want to have gravity working for her, not against her." Mulder nodded doubtfully, still worried - but he lifted Scully into his arms and carried her out of the bedroom.

The birthing chair was set low to the ground. It had a curved seat and back, against which she could lean comfortably. Two handles jutted up from the seat and Scully immediately clutched them with both hands as the next contraction bore down on her. Sarah was waiting near the chair and she stripped the sweat-soaked nightgown over Scully's head, replacing it with one of Mulder's oversized T-shirts, tugging the soft cotton over Scully's breasts and giving her the illusion and comfort of modesty, although she realized that the younger woman was far from caring about such things at this moment. She pointed to the floor behind the chair and Mulder knelt down and placed his hands over his wife's on the handles, watching with frightened eyes as Mary settled into place on the floor between Scully's spread legs.

"I'm too old to be sitting on the floor," Sarah explained under Mulder's questioning look. "But Mary has delivered several babies and I will be right here the entire time," she said reassuringly. Mary set warm hands on Scully's ankles and lightly chafed the skin of her calves as she sought her attention.

"Okay, Dana," she said in a low, soothing voice. "When the next contraction peaks, I want you to push." Scully tightened her grip on the wooden handles and nodded. Mary rose to her knees and set one hand on Scully's stomach so that she could feel the contraction as it built. Scully locked her eyes on her friend's face and saw her nod.

"Now, Dana!" she exclaimed. "Push. Push now!" Scully closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath and bore down with all of her strength. The contraction subsided and she could hear Mulder's voice near her ear, praising and encouraging her.

Mary set a hand on one of Scully's quivering legs. "Good, Dana," she said. "Now, here it comes again," she warned. "Can you feel it?" Scully nodded and braced herself again.

And on it went for almost another hour. Scully knew, or thought she had known how painful this would be, but nothing she had read or heard had prepared her for the pain and utter exhaustion of childbirth. Each contraction swelled and peaked and she bore down every time, straining and grunting with her efforts. Her focus narrowed and the other occupants of the room faded into background noise as her body struggled to deliver itself of the tiny creatures within. She collapsed back into Mulder's waiting arms and he wiped her face and neck with a cool cloth. She could feel his heart thundering in his chest and she heard the low rumble of his voice whispering words of love and praise in her ear.

For Mulder the reality of seeing a woman give birth was frightening enough - but that it was his wife, delicate and small- boned... Scully was strong but contractions like these would have decimated anyone else. He didn't know how she'd hung on this long. And he was beyond worried and beyond afraid for her and their babies. Mulder fought against the taunting voice in his ear that whispered to him of all that could go wrong with the birth...

Breech delivery. Massive tearing, especially as her body struggled to expel their much-larger son. Umbilical asphyxiation. Arterial clotting. Mulder knew enough of them, stored in his damned memory, to keep him in endless panic for days and weeks to come. He could feel himself breaking up and ruthlessly pushed it way down. Now wasn't the time to come unhinged. His wife needed him to be strong for her...

After what seemed to be endless pushing sessions Scully struggled to open her eyes and she looked first into the beloved face of her husband and then down into Mary's earnest one. "I can't," she panted. Mary shook her head and leaned closer.

"Dana, you're doing so great," she told her encouragingly. "I know you can do this!" Scully rolled her head against Mulder's chest and licked dry lips. Mulder held a cool wet washcloth to her mouth and let Scully moisten her lips with it. She sighed brokenly and the weary tears slipped down her cheeks.

"No, Mary," she protested. "Something is wrong. I can feel it," she said, lifting beseeching eyes to Sarah who was sitting in a chair just behind Mary. "Sarah, please," she said pleadingly. Sarah looked up at the clock on the mantle and then down into Scully's exhausted face. She had hoped that Scully would have been closer to actually delivering by now, but things had not progressed as quickly as she had anticipated. There were a number of reasons for the length of the labor. Scully was a first time mother; she was pregnant with twins and she was a small woman. All of these things could and most likely were contributing to the lengthy delivery and Sarah was not inclined to panic yet. But Scully was tiring. She was not getting much of a break between contractions and she was convinced that something was wrong with her babies. It wouldn't hurt to check, just to be sure, Sarah reasoned. She looked down and set her hand on Scully's knee.

"All right, Dana," she said quickly. "Let's take a look." She bent low and quietly gave Mary instructions on how to proceed with the examination. Mary slid a gloved hand into Scully's vaginal opening, probing as gently as possible. Scully moaned softly and turned her face into Mulder's chest. Her fingers locked around his wrists and she tried not to tense against the invasion of Mary's hand.

"I can feel the baby's head!" Mary exclaimed, turning to look to her mentor for further instructions.

"Be very careful," Sarah cautioned, "You should be able to feel the baby's forehead and nose," she advised. Mary did her best to block out Scully's low exclamations of pain and the way her hips jerked, instinctively trying to dislodge her hand. She closed her eyes and concentrated, probing gently with upturned fingertips.

"No," she said, turning again to Sarah. "I can feel the back of the baby's head," she told her in a low voice. Mulder glanced up sharply, alert to the note of anxiety that had entered Mary's voice.

"What is it?" he demanded tensely. Sarah leaned forward to speak with the distraught couple.

"The baby is facing the wrong way," she began. Scully's eyes closed in defeat and a tiny "No..." escaped her lips, but Mulder was more vocal in his anxiety.

"Breech? It can't be breech!" he exclaimed. "Mary just said she could feel the baby's head." His eyes darted wildly between the two women as he searched for an explanation. Sarah shook her head and tried again to explain.

"No, Mulder. The baby is not in the breech position," she assured him. "But the baby is turned on its side." Mulder rubbed a hand over his bristled jaw and shook his head in confusion.

"I don't understand," he said. "Can she deliver the baby this way?" Sarah nodded and paused, thinking for a moment.

"This happens sometimes and usually the baby turns into the correct position before birth," she explained. "But it slows the delivery and Dana is so tired already. I'm reluctant to let her labor continue much longer. It's stressful on Dana and the babies." Mulder's eyes were terrified as he looked down into his wife's exhausted face.

Jesus... if Sarah was suggesting Caesarian - if she was even remotely contemplating the idea... Mulder could feel himself break out into a cold sweat. They were in the middle of nowhere, with a nurse and a midwife - and a scared sh