Title: Gabriel
Author: Mish
Classification: A/U, Post-col
Keywords: MSR, Angst
Rating: NC-17 for violence and sexual situations. Underage readers, you have been warned.
Spoilers: Through "Requiem"
Disclaimer: The X-files as we know it belongs to Chris Carter, FOX television, and 1013 Productions.

Summary: Seeker of answers, bringer of truth...he alone can reveal the hidden memories of her heart.

Begun: January 4, 2002
Finished: June 26, 2002

Notes:

This is a continuation of "Julia". I recommend reading that story first in order to make sense of this one.

Now, for the many thank-yous:

Sybil: For keeping me on track, and never letting me falter. You're the best, sweetie.

mountainphile: For encouragement and listening when I despaired about ever getting this right. Love you, dear.

Hugs and kisses to Musea, for being there at every turn. I will never find a better group of writers and friends. Thanks, my sisters.

To the stalkers... you know who you are. Most especially, Inya, Tali, Shan, Caro, and all the faithful readers and feedbackers throughout my journey through "Julia" and "Gabriel". I know I'm omitting lots of names, so please forgive me. Just know that you're all loved and appreciated!

Thanks so much for reading.


Chapter One

Disclaimer, etc. in Headers

Just east of Denver, Colorado September 5, 2001
5:07 p.m.

The clickety-clack of the train beneath his feet acted as a sedative, its repetitive motion lulling him into a light doze. But he wouldn't relinquish all of his faculties to sleep; he'd learned during the first trip in July that the nights were cold - and the men he worked with were no better than common thieves.

He'd gotten some funny looks that first day from the mostly t-shirt clad group on the train platform as he stood there sweating in his jacket. It didn't take long for them to realize that the night air was thinner and much colder as they'd plunged deeper into the Rockies. Just as within the first week, he found himself attacked while he slept. All for the warmth of fleece-lined Gore-tex. Good thing the foreman had chosen that moment to take a leak, seeing the scuffle in the tent next door and firing a round from his pistol to break up the fight.

Though his pay was cut by half that week - the company didn't like troublemakers. He was warned that the next time he incited the men, he was gone. Dropped off the train in the middle of nowhere. So long, sucker. Protestations of his innocence fell on deaf ears; after a brief moment of past insolence that rose unbidden, he realized it was better just to keep his mouth shut and his eyes open.

These days, he caught catnaps when he could, the knife he got from the cook in exchange for his only pair of socks tucked and ready in his belt, plainly displayed for all to see. His left hand curled around its handle, he'd used it several times to ward off threats. Guns were a luxury enjoyed by the company's goons who made sure the grunts did the work.

Right now, he didn't know which he would prefer - the knife or the socks. The days weree getting cooler as well, and his feet suffered constantly with blisters from the heavy boots. They were a damn good pair of socks, too, he thought. Made for protection from the cold and given to him by the Colonel before he left.

He could see it mirrored in his friend's eyes, silently shared - a memory of dainty feet hanging from the back of a delivery van. Of him slipping socks over those painted toes like Cinderella slippers... of her teeth-chattering smile and beaming blue eyes, relieved and filled with the joy of freedom.

Sky blue, like the vast expanse outside the window to his right, marred only by the smears of dust on the glass. He saw her in everything. In the red fire of the sunset and the pale white of the heat lightning at night. Heard her sighs in the wind that stirred his hair and felt her breath in the sun on his face.

Touched her skin every time he dreamed, waking with hot, silent tears squeezed through grime- laden eyelids. Her loss hurt him still; sharp, piercing pain that he assuaged only with the slam of his pick into the soil.

Questions filled his mind again, but he refused to let them surface. Only when she could answer would he ask.

"Comin' up on Denver, boys. Grab what ya need. You know the drill."

The foreman's voice made him look away from the rolling landscape to reach under his seat for his backpack. He'd accumulated a collection of useful things in his travels; some, courtesy of the company. Blanket, canteen, flashlight and two-way radio for communication in the holes. But those were simply necessary. He'd bartered some of his pay for what he knew he'd eventually need most - packs of beef jerky, matches, and other odds and ends that would serve him well once he made the break.

*If* he ever made the break. Shaking off the dire thought, he rose from his seat as the train slowed to a stop.

He *would* make the break. He had no other choice but to believe that.

Undisclosed Location West Virginia Mountains April 7, 2001
3:50 a.m.

The floor was cold at his back, in sharp contrast to the hot, searing pain in his chest. Sticky, iron-scented blood seeped through his fingers as he cried her name.

"Scully!"

Over and over, through the miasma of disbelief, he kept on, scrambling to his knees as the cold air rushed in through the open door. "Damn it, stop! Scully!"

The far off hum of machinery reached his ears and he crawled toward it, finally getting his feet under him as the slap of boots against the concrete floors came from the other direction. Shouts of alarm from the far end of the bare hall didn't stop him. Though the blood that flowed from him seemed to drain him and he staggered, bracing himself on the wall for support.

"Scully!"

Blinding light came from the open door just ten yards away, and a sudden inrush of diesel-laced air assaulted his naked body. The hum became louder and more mechanically menacing, but he kept on, forcing his legs to move.

"Mulder, stop!"

It was Frohike's voice, more demanding than he'd ever thought possible. Coming from close behind now, followed by a stream of salty curses.

Almost there, he was almost there. He had to get to her, to stop her. Dizziness made his head swim; he knew the blood loss was catching up with him fast.

A warm hand wrenched him down, just as a bullet zinged past his head. Then more, and more, seeming to ricochet off the walls to pierce his skin. But he wasn't hit, was he? He didn't know anymore. Scully hadn't shot him, had she? Why couldn't he feel his arm?

"Shit!" Frohike again. What the hell was going on? "Get down, get down!"

More gunfire criss-crossed the hall before Mulder's glazed eyes as he slumped down the wall. Must have really taken a hit this time, was his last thought before he slipped into unconsciousness.

Idlewild Mining Camp Just west of Denver, Colorado September 5, 2001
6:15 p.m.

"Fuckin' K-whores," Jesse growled, as he threw his blanket next to Mulder's in the tent. "You'd think they could at least give us a tent without a fuckin' hole in it."

Gabriel grimaced at the moth-eaten tent, but said nothing. He'd seen better and he'd seen worse. At least he hadn't seen a rattlesnake, like the ones that loved to seek shade in their tent outside Albuquerque.

Jesse was fairly new; they'd picked him up in Reno a month ago at the start of their rotation there. He was built like a steamroller and had a big mouth, 'K-whores' mumbled at every opportunity, whether it be at the beans and ham for dinner, or the warm beer on Saturday night. Like everyone else, though, he didn't complain too loudly. The company wanted 'K' - as krycekite came to be known as - and they didn't care who dug it up. And while not the easiest way to make money these days, it was the fastest. If you survived the contract.

"We don't start til the mornin'," he said to Gabriel, finally satisfied with the placement of his blanket. "Wanna check out the town?"

Gabriel shook his head, avoiding eye contact. "Nah. Think I'll just get something to eat and sack out. I need to check the lists again." An hour's leave wouldn't be enough to do all the searching he planned on doing; he'd get a fresh start early Sunday morning.

"The lists?" The big man's tone was incredulous. "Who you lookin' for anyway?"

The 'lists' were posted weekly on the Internet, which thrived now that the Administration's clamp on electronic communication was gone. Rolls of the found, those who resurfaced still, looking for lost loved ones. A shot in the dark, really - but one thing the people refused to give up on was hope.

The only drawback was the lack of computers; the former Administration had confiscated hardware in an effort to quell cohesive organization of the Resistance. It hadn't worked, of course; the new world was proof of that. Now, only a privileged few had access, but the numbers of computers were growing. Gabriel did what many others in the crew did - sacrificed part of his pay to the foreman for use of his laptop once a week. It was worth it; the only way he could keep up with his loosely scattered friends was through the newsgroup the Colonel had set up before he set out on the road as well.

Months had gone by with no word - yet. He was confident that they would succeed. There was really no other option.

"I'm just looking," he told Jesse. "Never know who you might find."

Jesse was okay, he supposed. Might be a big blowhard, but Gabriel could tell he didn't have a sneaky bone in his body. He didn't *have* to sneak around and thieve like the rest. With his almost seven foot tall frame and biceps the size of a defensive lineman, he had proven to be a valuable commodity to the company. He could lift three times the weight of a normal man. Still didn't mean he got a bed to sleep in, but he got a bit more of everything else there was to be had. And he'd taken a liking to Gabriel, that much he knew.

The setting sun cast a burnished sheen to Jesse's forehead beneath the close cut scalp and his teeth, when he smiled, were bright in the dim tent. "Man, you need to get out more. Cut off that skanky hair and get rid of that shit on your face. There might be *women* in that town over there. And if I *ever* seen anybody that needs to get laid, it's you."

At that, Gabriel let his face loosen into a grin. Half-turning, he said in reply, "What makes you think I'm not getting laid on a regular basis, huh?" He went into the nearest town every Sunday like the rest of the crew did, but for different reasons. He'd even visited some of the same barrooms and whorehouses in an effort to tamp down some of the suspicion, though he hadn't availed himself of the female companionship. After a few weeks of working with these men, he discovered there were definitely a few who preferred any port in a storm, so to speak. So far, they'd left him alone. Plenty of willing partners in the camp, and one thing he *didn't* need was a pack of gorillas thinking he was anything but straight.

Jesse's smile faded. "You think you foolin' anybody? I hear you at night - all that moanin' about 'Scully.' Who the hell is Scully, anyway? I'da never pegged you for a fag."

At that, Gabriel's face hardened and he looked away. "None of your God damned business," he bit out, cursing himself for allowing the pitiful yearning of his dreams to give that tidbit of information away.

"Was she your woman?"

"Shut up, Jesse." Instinctively, his left hand went to the knife in his belt. If he had to, he wouldn't hesitate to kill the man.

"It ain't no use lookin' for her, you know." Jesse's voice was softer now, coming from the open flap of the tent. "Believe me, man. I know what I'm talkin' about. She ain't comin' back." At Gabriel's silence, he sighed. "Suit yourself." The dust tickled Gabriel's nose, signaling Jesse's departure.

He relaxed, but not enough to loose the grip on the knife. Taking a deep breath, he turned to make sure Jesse had gone before allowing himself to sag a bit.

Jesse's words weren't meant to hurt, he knew. Though he'd not let himself get close to anyone in the crew, he had talked to Jesse a few times, only when the need for human contact overwhelmed him. He knew that Jesse had lost his wife and children to the Invasion; the man had told him of his search and the day he'd finally realized they weren't coming home. How it had made him cry for once in his life - and how it had freed him to begin life once again. Jesse now looked forward to making a bit of money and settling down with another woman; this was the first time he'd pushed Gabriel in the same direction.

It meant the man was getting too close. Gabriel knew he'd have to watch his step carefully from now on. He didn't need to care about anyone - didn't want anyone caring about him. His plans forbade the emotional attachment of friendship; one day, he'd have to make some difficult decisions and he wanted nothing to interfere.

There was only one thing he wanted. He walked to the foreman's tent, purpose in his step. Time was wasting; he wanted to make the most of this little break.

April 7, 2001
En Route to Tennessee 5:35 a.m.

"Keep still."

The hand that laid against his shoulder was firm and Mulder struggled to escape its painful pressure as he tried to open his eyes.

"I said, keep still!" The admonishment was hissed into his face.

Mulder cracked open his eyes to see Frohike's face float above him. He felt the rumble of tires beneath his back, grimaced at the way the truck dipped and swayed. They must be on one of the mountain passes, he knew. Skimpy daylight bled through the cracks in the tarp that fluttered about them.

Gulping away the cobwebs, he rolled his head from side to side, taking in the anxious face of Langly, who crouched at the back end, his gun barrel steady through the narrow gap in the covering. Frohike worked feverishly beside him; Mulder felt the pressure on his shoulder release for a second and saw the bloodied pad fly over Frohike's shoulder. In seconds, another had replaced it, and he gasped at the renewed burn of pain.

Through cracked lips, he formed the question. "Scully?"

Frohike dropped his eyes to his work. "Byers is driving us to Tennessee. We're gonna be okay, Mulder."

Tennessee?

"Alternate location. Gotta hand it to Krycek; he had all the bases covered," he said with a grim laugh. "We'll be there in a couple of hours. I think we lost 'em."

No, he wasn't saying what Mulder most wanted to hear. He tried again, this time louder and more distinct. "Scully? Where is Scully?"

"Just settle down, Mulder. You've lost a lot of blood."

Mulder gritted his teeth, more so against Frohike's ignorance of him than the sharp pains. He squirmed under the rough wool blanket that covered his legs and muttered, "God damn it, Frohike, answer me!" The movement of the truck, combined with the fear growing in his stomach, produced waves of nausea that pushed at his throat. He opened his eyes wide, then let them roll around, looking for some point to fix on. But everything was moving too fast; the truck, the air, the sliding past the subject he most wanted to speak of. "Where the hell is Scully?"

Frohike reached past him; Mulder watched his hand disappear, then come back, fisted around a syringe.

"No!" Mulder's left hand rose up to curl around Frohike's wrist. Hot, frightened tears welled up and overflowed down his temples. "Just tell me where she is... why won't you tell me?" His eyelids drooped shut, the smell of blood and gunpowder filling his nose with acrid dread.

His friend jerked his wrist from Mulder's grip and spoke in a soothing tone. "She's in the truck behind us, man. Don't worry."

"Are you sure?" Mulder gritted out, forcing his eyes to open again, trying to keep Frohike's face before him.

Frohike loomed over him again, this time with a vial of clear liquid in his other hand. Some sort of sedative or painkiller, Mulder thought absently. Hard on the heels of that thought was another - he didn't answer me.

"Stop the truck. I want to see her." Frohike dissolved into an unfocused haze, courtesy of Mulder's weakening vision.

"Can't, Mulder. No stopping until we reach the new bunker."

Anger made his chest tight; the son-of-a-bitch was lying to him. "Stop this fucking truck. Right now." His hand flailed in the air and grabbed hold of Frohike's vest. Holding on, he pulled himself to a sitting position, his adrenaline on its last legs.

"Cool it, Mulder. You're in no shape -"

Mulder pinned the little man with his gaze, unblinking and feverish, stopping the excuses in a frozen instant. "Stop this truck or I'll fucking kill you." His right arm moved up with some difficulty, and though it was numb, he brought it up, his fingers curling around Frohike's throat.

He wasn't surprised at the threat coming from his mouth. He wasn't surprised at anything he did anymore. Just as he knew he'd carry through if he didn't get his way; Scully was more important to him than anything or anyone.

Frohike tensed under Mulder's hands, the syringe and vial dropping to the floor as his hands wrapped around Mulder's arm. With his dwindling breath he gasped, "Langly!"

They were lying to him, just as everyone else had. Only Scully ever told him the truth, and she was gone. But Mulder knew he had a chance to catch up with her, if they'd only listen to him. She can't have gone far; she was in the mountains somewhere, probably shivering from the cold and scared out of her mind.

No, she wasn't scared. Scully never got scared. Not like he did - not like he was now.

Frohike's face was beet red, but Mulder paid it no mind, saying, "I'll kill you, Frohike. Stop this truck so I can go after her. She needs me."

Langly's pale face appeared in his peripheral vision and he flinched at the sting, realizing what they'd done. "You - Damn it!" Suddenly, his leaden arms fell away and he slumped to the floor once again, feeling the sedative course through his veins. "Scully needs me. Frohike, she - needs -"

His friend's hoarse voice came to him a last time before he succumbed to sleep.

"She doesn't need you. She fucking *shot* you, you fool."

Idlewild Mining Camp Just west of Denver, Colorado September 5, 2001
6:42 p.m.

Times were hard, but they were improving. The new government consisted of eight territories. Though the country was no longer unified in government, it was understood that unification was the ultimate goal. Those left behind to rebuild had seen the need for a more localized, immediate way to serve the people - thus, the territories, each with a governor.

People were encouraged to work, asked to contribute any way they could. And most did, though there were bands of criminals scattered throughout the land, bent on stealing and killing to survive. If one stayed close to a populated area, then chances were good for safety and survival. But safety wasn't what Gabriel had in mind; the only things he wanted were a means to move and a method to search.

From the day he heard the announcement over the grainy television channel, he knew that the company presented him with the best opportunity for both. The call had gone out for able-bodied men, willing to brave the frontiers of the new territories in search of unlimited wealth. It had taken some time to make ready, and he'd grown restless waiting for forged papers and healed flesh.

Despite his friends' understandable worries, they had joined in his quest, spread out throughout the new territories, taking jobs with the company just as he had in an effort to search and obtain information. The only contact they all had with each other was the newsgroup, and Gabriel sat down at the foreman's table to check it once again.

There were several new messages on the newsgroup, more than usual. His heart leapt for a second, then quickly quieted as he spied the subject lines. One from Byers, labeled 'just checking in'. A scan of that one detailed the weather in upstate New York as 'lovely'. Gabriel grunted, wondering if Byers' hands were as raw as his were right now. Not likely.

Langly's message was a moaning complaint, reminiscing about Taco Bell and cursing the flat-footed 'doofuses' of the Upper Midwest. Not a sign of her, and he'd traveled through several states, hitting the major cities in his search for a decent hamburger. Of course, that wasn't his top priority, he assured them. The message fairly reeked with residual fear at the prospect of an unsatisfied Gabriel.

The Colonel was the only one who told it like it was, despite having felt that dissatisfaction first hand. His message, sent from the Arkansas caves, was terse and to the point. I'm doing the best I can, he stated. He'd even managed to impress the company with his computing skills and was bumped up to the foreman's assistant. A position with continuous access to the computer and a direct line to points throughout the territories, he had access to information the others could only dream of.

Gabriel eagerly gobbled up the Colonel's messages, but so far, there was nothing but vague descriptions of women who would appear and then disappear without a trace. Slender, small, women with reddish hair and blue eyes - most of them frightened and alone, putting their photographs on the network. Looking for family members or caretakers, they bartered themselves for the meager possibility of a new life.

The Colonel knew these women weren't her, but he forwarded the grainy pictures in a slim hope that a face that was changed once could be changed again. But all it took was one look by Gabriel and he knew the soul within wasn't hers. The Colonel didn't dare post her photograph out there; if she was being held against her will, it would be disastrous for it to be known there was someone looking for her. They'd find her. It would take time, but they would.

Today, there was no photograph. Just a short, weary message that stated that the Colonel had exhausted all known resources. He'd continue to check daily for new information, but all that were alive - which wasn't many - had been accounted for, as far as the territorial governors were concerned. Now more than ever, they urged the people to take the step forward into the future. Leave behind the old and embrace the new.

With a frustrated sigh, Gabriel scrubbed at his bristly face. He wouldn't give up. It wasn't his nature to do so, despite the months living under his father's thumb where he wanted nothing more than to die.

She'd changed all that. She'd made him remember the man he was. Though now, he was only half of the whole. Without her, life would never be the same. Hope was all he had left and he refused to let it go, just as he held on to her with both hands.

No matter what anyone said. She was out there, and he was going to find her.

To save her or kill her, he wasn't sure.

 


Chapter Two

Disclaimer, etc. in Headers

Idlewild Mining Camp Just west of Denver, Colorado September 15, 2001
8:13 a.m.

Sweat ran in hot rivulets down Gabriel's back, and the sun beat upon his bare chest with furious heat. Despite the cool night before, the temperature today approached ninety, he was certain. At times, he felt as though the pick was glued to his calloused hands, the wood melted onto his skin. But he kept hitting at the rocks brought up from the mine, breaking them into smaller pieces for the trip to the processor beyond the hill.

The first time he'd gone shirtless, he'd worried about the scar that nearly divided his chest in half. Would someone question him about it? He didn't think anyone but a select few knew of its existence; when he'd done his father's bidding on national TV, only his face and neck were visible, and that betraying part of his skin was very well covered now. Besides, he soon found out that his scar was nothing compared to the assortment of tattoos and puckered flesh his fellow workers displayed.

Most had been injured and not so long ago, from the looks of their skin. Possibly in the Invasion - but most probably in the aftermath, at the hands of Guardsmen. Gabriel's pitiful reminders were put to shame by these battle- scarred men who fought back. None of what distorted his flesh would be considered an honor. Especially the newest.

He paused for a moment and reached for his canteen, guzzling the water while he stretched his back. With dirty fingernails, he scratched at the newest memento of yet another betrayal, wondering if this part of his chest would ever not be numb.

Undisclosed location The Smoky Mountains April 8, 2001
5:45 a.m.

He didn't want to hear any more. If he could raise his arms, he'd put his hands over his ears and scream away Frohike's voice. But he was restrained - for his own safety, they said. Like they gave a rat's ass about his well-being. If they did, they wouldn't be filling his head with all these lies.

"You said you remember waking up and Scully was gone. Do you remember being shot?"

Jerking his head back to the left, he faced the ashen face of Byers. "How many times do I have to fucking say it?" Mulder growled. "They came and took her! I was on my way after her when I got shot!"

"Mulder, you were already wounded by the time we got there. We couldn't have gotten there more than a half-minute after we heard the first shot."

Mulder closed his eyes at Frohike's attempt at logic, wanting to shake the little man until his ears bled.

"The commandos didn't come into the bunker until *after* you'd made it to the hallway. I saw you stagger out the door myself. Bleeding like a stuck pig, I might add." His friend leaned closer, finishing softly, "Don't you see?"

"Don't I see what?" he shot back, piercing the concerned face with a furious glare. "That you're trying to cover up your piss-poor excuse for security?"

"Damn it, Mulder, she shot you once before!"

"For my own protection!" Why couldn't they see that Scully would never do this to him? He clenched his jaw, the futile attempt at opening their eyes abandoned for now. "Just do it, God damn it."

All three hovered close now, their faces pale with fear. As Frohike turned to the table beside him, he shook his head, though he said nothing. It was Byers who reiterated what Mulder had already been told. "You realize we don't have enough morphine for the procedure. We have to use it sparingly - save it for after we -" With a gulp, he looked away.

Mulder knew this bunker was not as well-equipped as the one in West Virginia. Krycek had slowly fed off of its stores to support the growing number of men he acquired for the assault. "Yeah," he whispered, shutting his eyes against the agony to come. "Just get it over with."

He felt as though he was back in D.C., slobbering with a numbed jaw as his dentist prepared the drill. Except this time, he didn't have the luxury of a waiting room magazine, or the press of the hygienist's breasts against his arm, or the bitter taste of novocaine on his -

At the first probe of the forceps, he screamed.

"Hold his head, Byers." Frohike's command was stern. "Langly, get something for him to bite down on."

God, it was killing him. Waves of scarlet fire radiated from his shoulder and his arm twitched, the nerves reacting with electric avoidance. In seconds, he felt cool fingers pulling at his jaw.

"It's okay, Mulder," Frohike murmured. "I've stopped for now. Open your mouth."

He'd stopped? Mulder still felt the pierce of the metal and he opened glazed eyes, letting his lips go lax as some of the pain faded. The smell of leather filled his nostrils, but it wasn't enough to dampen the stench of blood. Absently, he realized they'd put a belt in his mouth. He clamped down hard, giving them a nod.

Jesus! Frohike hadn't given him any warning as he dug into Mulder's flesh once again. "I've almost got it..."

Mulder whimpered, trying to keep a hold on his bearings, not trusting them enough any more to leave his body in blessed unconsciousness. After they were done, he told himself. I can put up with this for a minute longer.

Suddenly, the pain was gone. "Got it!" Frohike's grim smile and the clang of metal against metal made Mulder sag with relief. His whole body trembled and he didn't even feel the first pierce of the suturing needle.

"How the hell did Scully ever do this?"

Scully... Mulder felt the belt slide from his mouth as the first tear slipped free.

"She didn't, buttwad." That was Langly's voice. "Her specialty was slicing and dicing, remember?"

"Yeah," came the short response. "Then she graduated to shootin' and scootin'."

With a last hitching breath, Mulder let go.

Idlewild Mining Camp Just west of Denver, Colorado September 15, 2001
8:16 a.m.

Slam after slam, he worked with mindless accuracy, neatly slicing the huge boulders into quarters. It was good that he didn't have to think; sometimes his brain felt like it would explode, he had so much energy to expend. If he couldn't put that energy to use where he really wanted to, then this was the next best thing.

The repetitive work did his disability a world of good, he had to admit. Though he still had trouble moving his fingers like he wanted, his arm was strong again, able to flex and curl almost normally. It was a miracle he hadn't lost the use of it altogether; the Colonel wasn't exactly a top notch surgeon.

*She* would have done it right. Slicing and dicing, my ass, he thought. Those morons had never felt the gentle, healing touch of those delicate fingers. And they had been so ready to buy into the 'shootin and scootin' scenario as well. To be honest, they'd almost convinced him, too.

When he'd first started his search, his anger had warred with his love for her. Despite the way the Gunmen had listed all the reasons for her actions, he was torn between wanting to hug her and strangle her, should he see her again. His father, curse his evil soul, had implied that last night in the tower that the only reason she'd come to him was to kill him. Put him down like the betraying, murderous scum he was.

"My name is Julia."

Plain as day, muttered huskily in the bunker before she'd departed. It all made no sense to him still. The only thing he knew for sure was that she had, indeed, fired the shot designed to kill. It was only because he'd feinted left at the last second that he wasn't dead.

Undisclosed location The Smoky Mountains April 10, 2001
12:15 p.m.

Mulder sat up on the cot and grimaced at the pull of flesh. He still couldn't feel too much below his shoulder in his right arm, though the healing wound itself was raw with piercing pain, especially when he moved. He couldn't blame the Colonel; an inexperienced hand in removing a bullet was bound to have caused some nerve damage. But he couldn't bring himself to give thanks to his friend.

He couldn't bring himself to do much of anything these days. The bowl of soup on the table beside him was hardly touched. He slept only when the pull of fatigue made him close his eyes. The boys melted into the other rooms of the small bunker, making themselves scarce in the face of his hostility. Really, he couldn't blame them. A warm word from him now would probably choke him. Only one person could coax him from his misery and she was gone.

Suddenly, the door burst open and Mulder started at the intrusion.

"Got something for you to see," Frohike said, flipping on the lamp next to the cot. Byers and Langly followed, between them a cart loaded with a TV and videotape recorder.

Mulder squinted at the yellow glare, really not in the mood for theatrics. Spying the videotape in Frohike's hand, he said wryly, "You found my copy of 'Debbie Does Dallas'? Really guys, this is above and beyond the call of duty." Settling back against the concrete wall, he stretched his legs out on the cot.

After rolling the cart to the side of his cot and plugging the equipment into the wall socket, Byers and Langly retreated to the far end of the room, saying nothing. Like frightened rabbits, they kept well away from his sarcastic snare. He would have laughed at their fear if he felt like showing teeth. Maybe he'd snarl instead - really give them something to talk about behind his back. Just like he knew they did on the subject of Scully.

Yeah, that's right, he told them with a narrowing of his gaze. She tried to kill me and I've gone fucking nuts. Quite a pair, aren't we?

The monitor flipped on under Frohike's touch; Mulder tensed as he saw Frohike pop the tape in before turning to face him.

"You know as part of the security in West Virginia, we monitored several parts of the bunker," he began tentatively. "Though you've got to realize we'd never spy on you."

Dread filled Mulder's chest, along with a healthy dose of anger. "Like hell you wouldn't." Nausea churned in his stomach; just the thought of anyone watching or listening in, especially after living with surveillance for months in the tower, was enough to make him want to scream. There was one thing he *was* sure of as far as that night was concerned - he could still taste the fragrant silk of her skin on his tongue.

Frohike pursed his lips, the affront making him stretch to his full height. "The cameras were always on, Mulder - but they didn't record unless triggered by movement. The monitors in the control room only received constant feed from the obvious breach points. Every exit, and all the hallways in or out. No one had access to the other cameras except for us, and we would never do that to you and Scully."

At the hurt-filled dressing down, Mulder lowered his eyes, picking at the worn blanket beneath him. An apology hovered on his lips, but the ice around his heart was thick and the most he could manage was a husky, "Show me."

Idlewild Mining Camp Just west of Denver, Colorado September 15, 2001
8:27 a.m.

"Hey man, didn't see you at breakfast." Jesse's greeting was curious as he bent beside Gabriel to hoist a few huge chunks of rock into his cart.

"Overslept," Gabriel replied with a grunt, hitting the rocks again. The force of the pick's penetration into the stone reverberated up his arm. He was tired today, and missing the 6:00 a.m. meal hadn't helped. He'd used the computer in the foreman's tent until lights out at 10:00, then stumbled to his tent to toss and turn with frustration.

No where left to look, the Colonel had said days ago, only to repeat it again last night in answer to Gabriel's constant queries. The solemn, unforgiving declaration haunted his dreams, bringing him visions of her, calling out his name with frightened pleas of help. They stayed with him still today, swimming before his watering eyes like ghosts.

As the load filled the cart, Jesse kept talking. "Man, I gotta tell you about last night. The 'Love Man' had the ladies buzzin', I tell you."

Jesse had frequented the whore houses every chance he got since they'd been in this camp. He couldn't go every night, and Gabriel supposed it was just as well... he was getting mighty tired of hearing about Jesse's sexual exploits. Love Man, indeed. Gabriel had gone into the outskirts of Denver last Sunday just to look around; he asked a few questions at every stop, but didn't venture too far into the population. It was best to keep a low profile.

At Jesse's broken-record intrusion, Gabriel almost hauled off and slugged him. He wasn't in the mood for anything but his own morose thoughts. "Later." His arm had begun to hurt, like it did when he was overdoing it. Though he kept on - if the foreman saw him favoring a limb, he'd surely be sent to the doc. And the doc had ultimate say-so on work fitness; you couldn't work, you got canned.

Jesse grabbed the handles of his cart and paused behind Gabriel, saying, "Got some real lookers at the Silver Moon, man. High class bitches, not like those clap-ridden whores back in Tucson."

Irritation threaded through Gabriel's reply. "I said later, Jesse. Leave me alone."

"Okay," Jesse said, "but you're missin' out. I think you'd like Layla, or maybe even Jenny. That Miss Eliza, she got some -"

Gabriel's hand shot out, stilling Jesse's departure. His eyes narrowed on the black man's face. "*What* did you say?"

Jesse jerked away from Gabriel, his own eyes becoming slits in the sunshine. "I said you'd like Layla," he said, with no small amount of confusion at Gabriel's abrupt about-face.

"No, after that." Come on, spill it again, he screamed silently. I wasn't paying attention the first time.

"Jenny? You like that name?"

"No, God damn it!"

His yell didn't go unnoticed by the foreman, and Gabriel could have spit nails with anger at himself for creating a scene.

"Hey! You two get back to work!" The foreman's stare was leveled at them, his hand clutched around his radio, ready to call in security.

Gabriel had seen how the foreman dealt with disruptions of any kind. Call it in to the company, which immediately contacted the territorial police. *If* there was anyone left alive to be arrested, they would be. The foreman wasn't particularly keen on stepping into the fray. And he didn't distinguish friendly conversation from unfriendly - loud voices meant the work wasn't getting done.

"Jesse," Gabriel growled, his hand slipping around the man's slick bicep, "don't go. Talk to me."

Jesse grimaced, wrenching his arm away. "Don't be gettin' me in trouble, man." His eyes darted to the approaching foreman before coming back to Gabriel. "I'll catch you at lunch, okay?"

"No you won't." The foreman's voice drifted over their shoulders. "No lunch for either of you."

"*What*?" Jesse and Gabriel answered in unison, incredulity making the question echo in the pit.

"You heard me. This little conversation just used up your lunch time. Now, get back to work." He turned to leave, kicking up dust in his wake.

Jesse took it in stride, shrugging his shoulders at Gabriel before turning away. The look on his face said it all - it was no use arguing with the man. At least they still had jobs.

Gabriel, however, was incensed. This was the closest he'd come to any sort of lead in the months since he'd set out and he'd had enough of the company's strict rules. With a growl, he took a step toward the foreman, his knife coming up with menace.

Only to be stopped short by a beefy arm around his neck and a hot whisper in his ear. "Cool it, man!" Jesse hissed, easily snatching the knife from Gabriel's shaky hand. "You ain't got a lick o'sense, do you? I don't know why I bother." He gave Gabriel a squeeze to punctuate his warning. "Now, you gonna settle down?"

Jesus, what had he almost done? Guaranteed himself a trip to territorial prison, is what. With a deep breath, he asked, unwilling to let Jesse go just yet, "Eliza?"

At that, Jesse released him, whirling him around to say, "*That's* what this is all about?"

Gabriel didn't want to waste time. Chest heaving, he pursued the subject. "Dark hair, dark eyes, voice like someone botched a nose job?"

With a rueful smile, Jesse flipped the knife and handed it back to Gabriel. "You know, I'da never figured you for the Elvira type - she's one cold bitch." Chuckling, he turned to his cart and his muscles bulged as he lifted the hundreds of pounds of rocks. "Yeah. Maybe tomorrow night I'll take you up there - if you can keep your God damned mouth shut 'til then."

As Jesse walked away, Gabriel slid the knife back into his belt and went for his pick. So it wasn't the one he was looking for; it wasn't the reason he traveled from one hellhole to another, working his body from sunrise to sunset only to work his mind as he laid awake each night. It wasn't her.

But it *was* someone he'd thought was dead. A link to the people he knew still lurked in the shadows of the new government. Maybe a link to the answers, maybe not. The best chance he'd gotten so far - it would be foolish to pass it up.

His sun-dried lips cracked open just a hair at the first slam of it into the rock. Then a little wider, and a little wider, with every successive hit.

The men who passed by looked at him like he'd lost his mind. Maybe he had - he couldn't stop smiling. It felt damned good.

 


Chapter Three

Disclaimer, etc. in Headers

Idlewild Mining Camp Just west of Denver, Colorado September 15, 2001
6:30 p.m.

Were they ever going to sound the horn? Gabriel was exhausted, not having had anything to eat since dinner the night before. His whole body seemed to quiver as his muscles screamed from lack of nourishment. The sun was setting and it was getting cooler; he unknotted his shirt from around his waist and slipped it on, wrinkling his nose at his stench. He knew he was going to linger at the dinner table too long to be able to avail himself of the meager hot water in the showers - it was going to be a quick, cold dousing tonight. But food, something that should be a priority, was not uppermost on his to-do list this evening.

Information from Jesse was number one today. Everything else could wait.

At the blare of the horn, he dropped his pick and practically ran to the mess tent.

Undisclosed location The Smoky Mountains April 10, 2001
12:20 p.m.

The screen sprang to life, a sea of grainy black and white fuzz. But not for long, as it quickly changed into a dark picture. There wasn't much light to aid the camera's functioning, but Mulder could see what had triggered it.

Squirming. On the left side of the makeshift bed, under the covers. Scully.

Several soft sighs of distress floated to his ears; with a gasp, he knew he'd been right - she was having a nightmare. He slept on beside her, oblivious to her fright. He saw her arms flail under the covers and his throat got tight. He should have woken up then. But he'd gotten soft since their escape, letting the simple joy of freedom cloud his mind to possible danger.

He kept his eyes glued to the screen, ignoring Frohike's study of his face. They were wrong, and the tape would prove it. He expected the commandos to break down the door at any moment and drag her away; he didn't know if he could bear to see it, but he kept watching anyway.

Suddenly, she rolled from the bed, her skin ghostly on the tape. For a moment she stood, trembling as she scanned the floor. Then, dropping to all fours, she crawled frantically on the concrete floor, soft, mewling sounds of anxiety coming from her throat. First she donned her jeans, then her boots, then *his* sweatshirt. He could tell it was his by the way it hung to mid-thigh. God, he hoped she still had it; it would keep her warm.

"Scully?"

At the sound of his own voice, Mulder held his breath. It was about time you woke up, you fool, he told himself silently. As if he could change the outcome by wishing it different.

But she didn't stop moving, not even when he turned on the lamp. Again, he called out, "Scully!"

Her eyes were wide and wild; yes, she was lost in a nightmare, he could tell.

A sleep-slowed hand closed around her ankle; watching her fall, he grimaced and looked away, sure he must have hurt her.

"Keep watching," Frohike ordered.

Powerless to resist, Mulder raised his eyes once again, biting his lip to keep from yelling out her name in time with his video twin. It came out anyway through thin lips, his echoed, "Damn it, stop!" From the corner of his eye, he saw Frohike's face become firm, his eyes skittering away to give a confirming blink at his friends.

But Mulder didn't want to give up just yet. Leaning in closer, his hands fisted as he watched Scully struggle against his hold. Don't let go, he pleaded with himself. Stop her before she leaves.

In a flash, she'd turned, gun in hand.

No. It wasn't true. It couldn't be.

"Whoa," he heard himself say, saw the blankets fall away from his naked form as he knelt, hands up. "You're dreaming, Scully. Drop the gun."

Mulder waited for the door to burst open. For the heavens to crash in... for the men he knew had tried to steal her rush in and shoot him.

But it didn't happen. As if in slow motion, he saw her free hand reach for the door knob. With a last gasp, he saw himself lunge for her. With a pained heart, he saw her shoot him. Blood spurted immediately and he fell back, disbelief echoing in his voice.

"Scully."

Her eyes were clear and unblinking as she dropped the gun to her side.

"My name is Julia."

It was her voice, sounding like sandpaper, but still it was hers. Limp fingers let the gun clatter to the floor and she walked away.

"Scully!"

Idlewild Mining Camp Just west of Denver, Colorado September 15, 2001
6:35 p.m.

"Jesse!" he hissed, coming up behind the man seated at the rickety folding table.

Startled, Jesse flashed a pair of pissy eyes at him, nearly choking on his mouthful of food. He shrugged off Gabriel's hand and took a swallow of water. "Go get you somethin' to eat, man, before they let us back in line for seconds."

Though Gabriel's stomach rumbled with hunger, he was too excited to wait. "Jesse, I gotta talk to you."

Jesse didn't pick his head up as he kept shoveling the stew into his face. "I ain't talkin' to you until I'm full. Fuck off."

Gabriel knew Jesse was bound to be still angry at this morning's run-in with the foreman. With a purse of his lips, he decided to relent for a few minutes, giving in to Jesse's temperament. A full belly was more cooperative than an angry, empty one.

"Don't go anywhere," he warned, turning to search out the end of the mess line.

"Go get your food. I ain't goin' nowhere."

As Gabriel walked away, he heard a muffled, "Fool."

Yes, he was a fool. Ten times over. But it was too late to change now.

Undisclosed location The Smoky Mountains April 10, 2001
12:25 p.m.

Mulder pressed pause, freezing the frame of his bare ass halfway out the door.

"How do you know this is legit?" He knew what Frohike had shown him was damning for her, but there was always a slim hope the tape had been tampered with. It wouldn't be the first time he'd seen altered videotape.

Frohike grinned, a grim, humorless thing. "You know, she asked us the same thing once... when we saw you shoot that girl at the airport. The only confirmation was that little piece of gold you still have around your neck."

Lowering his eyes, Mulder's left hand strayed to the cross and he closed his fingers around it. "Still doesn't mean this hasn't been tampered with," he muttered, defiant to the end.

"Every fifteen minutes, the feed was downloaded to the central network computer, then backed up to the alternate site - right here." Frohike glanced at his buddies across the room before turning back to Mulder. "About half an hour after we abandoned the bunker in West Virginia, the feed abruptly ended. We figure it's all been destroyed by now."

"They still could have -"

"What? Taken the time to mess with this tape? For God's sake, Mulder, why?" Impatience edged Frohike's voice and he ran a gloved hand across his brow, stepping closer to murmur, "You don't believe me? Back up the tape."

Mulder's eyes shot up as fury consumed him. "You son-of-a-bitch. Got your jollies, did you?" he snarled, curling up from the cot.

As the other two men slipped from the room, Frohike shoved against the uninjured side of his chest, red-faced with his own anger. "The second we saw what it was, we indexed ahead to the next click on," he pointed out. "I might be a pervert, but even I know when to stop, Mulder. I told you, I'd never do that to you. Or to her." He stood and straightened his vest, giving Mulder a dignified, cold glare. "Watch it. If you think they somehow stole into your room with a look-a-like, then now's the time to found out, wouldn't you say?"

Mulder flinched at the slam of the door behind Frohike. How did he do that, anyway? Once, Mulder believed that the only one who could read the way his mind worked was Scully. Now it seemed he was as transparent as a pane of glass.

There had to be an explanation, and this was the only one that made sense. Somehow, they'd gotten in, replaced Scully with someone who looked like her - an assassin who wouldn't hesitate to shoot him. Maybe the woman he'd made love with just hours before the ambush wasn't even her. It was possible, he told himself.

The remote laid on the cot beside him. With his left hand, he picked it up and pressed rewind, taking a deep breath for courage.

Idlewild Mining Camp Just west of Denver, Colorado September 15, 2001
6:45 p.m.

By the time Gabriel made it back to the table, Jesse was finishing up, standing to leave. Dropping the metal tray with a furious slam, Gabriel leaned over the table. "Where the hell are you going? You said you'd stay."

"Chill out, man," Jesse said with a small smile. "I'm goin' to get some more. I'll be right back." He picked up his own empty tray and gave Gabriel a once-over, crinkling his nose. "You better look like takin' a shower tonight. I ain't sleepin' in the same tent as you with you smellin' like that."

Gabriel sighed, content for now that the other man had softened a bit toward him enough to enter into small talk. He'd be back. With dirty hands, Gabriel picked up his bread and stuffed it into his mouth. "Like you smell like roses," he muttered around the yeasty dough. That's it, he thought. Just cool it. Can't afford to arouse too much suspicion.

"At least I still got somethin' on me you ain't got," Jesse laughed. "Somethin' you ain't had in years, probably. The smell of a woman."

As Jesse walked away, Gabriel bit back his reply. The scent of a woman was something he'd never forget, something he enjoyed not so long ago, in spite of Jesse's poking. And not just any woman, either.

This one had been special - light like spring grass and dark like the heady burn of fine brandy just before it touched your tongue. Scented in a hundred different places, with an intoxicating warmth that would fill his head and make him forget who he was in her arms.

Yes, he remembered. Even now, with the spicy steam wafting from his tray that lifted toward his face, he isolated *her* - and shoved all else from his mind.

Undisclosed location The Smoky Mountains April 10, 2001
12:30 p.m.

At the first sight of her, his heart seized in his chest. Though forever preserved in the gray tones of the video, his mind splashed color on the screen to surround her in vivid life. The red-gold of her hair, the pale white of her skin, the sky-blue of her eyes that were remarkably warm against the dingy beige of the pillowcase.

As the two figures on the screen moved together as one, his body was drawn closer to the image, as if pulled by an unseen magnet. It should have disgusted him, this intrusion into their love. Maybe it should even have aroused him, like in years past, when he sought the solace of porn in his solitary apartment. It did neither. All it did was create an ache deep within; the pain of loss blossoming with every frame that slipped by.

If he'd only known it was to be the last time... if he'd known to touch her lips with his in a few more kisses, to hold himself within her for a few seconds more, to keep his arms around her in a chain that would have bound her to him... if he'd only known.

Look at her, you fool, he silently admonished his other self. Tell her you love her, tell her not to leave you. Stop fucking her and get some God damned rope to tie her wrist to yours.

But no - his phantom self thrust into her again and again, smiling at the way her body wrapped around him, confident that she could not be free.

"Come on sweetheart. Come for me, Scully," the bastard said, commanding her to give it all to him. He grunted above her like a pig, and Mulder could no longer stand to watch the rutting, instead fastening his gaze on her beautiful face.

He brought a finger to the screen, inching closer until, with a slam of his knees on the concrete, he knelt before the monitor. She was amazing to behold, her mouth lax, her eyes slitted, yet still focused on the man moving above her, her hands stealing down his back to urge him on.

As if hit with a jolt of electricity, she suddenly stiffened and her face dissolved into a portrait of pleasure, her smile seeming to shimmer in the dim light of the lamp. Mulder touched it, feeling the warmth tingle through his fingertips as he gasped for breath.

"No," he whispered to her in a final plea, sure she could hear him beg her not to let it end. His other self pressed her into the pallet and groaned for them both, and Mulder knew then his hopes were dashed to bits.

It was her. There was no overwhelming physical evidence to believe it was, but he did so with all his mind and soul. No one had ever looked at him the way she did; even before she'd revealed herself to him in the tower, she'd graced him with attentive, sympathetic, *desirous* looks. As she did on the tape, loving him with small kisses of satisfaction to his face. Letting him roll away into blissful ignorance of what was to come; her love for him plain to see on her face, damp with tears of joy.

"No!" he whispered again with vehemence as the man let his arms fall from her. Fool - he was a fool for not holding on.

But she *did*, curling into his side with a touch of her lips to his chest.

"Promise me you'll do that again."

Idiot, Mulder screamed inwardly. God damn it, stop being so fucking complacent!

She nodded into his shoulder and let him doze.

Mulder's face was hot and his lungs gulped for air as she lifted, the curve of her back blocking the sight of his stupid face. But he could see her fingers curl into his hair and he remembered it, the way they slid over his scalp. And he tossed it off, saying, "I need a haircut, don't I?" though now he would give anything to feel her hand. Anything.

As if she felt him watching, her chin tilted just a bit and her lips gave him a soundless, <No. I like it.>

The banter was lost to the ringing in his ears and the thumping of his heart. Silent, wrenching sobs burst from him as she bestowed her favor, the yellow ribbon sliding from her fingers to his. It twined about his knuckles like a satin talisman and he remembered how it remained all through their journey here, though it was now dotted with blood.

The light went out but he could still see her as she settled next to him, her fingers still rubbing the strands of his hair in a silent touch, as if unwilling to lose contact.

"Okay, maybe not for a couple of weeks." His voice drifted out of the darkness. "Then it's *got* to go."

A glimpse of pearly white teeth made his hand slide down to hit the pause button. Then it was back up, caressing the cool screen where she laid in frozen happiness. Salty tears touched his lips and his shoulder began to throb as he dropped his chin.

"Scully," he whispered brokenly. "Why?"

 

Idlewild Mining Camp Just west of Denver, Colorado September 15, 2001
6:57 p.m.

"You gonna eat that?"

Gabriel was amazed at the amount of food Jesse was able to eat. With a short smile, he pushed his tray of half-eaten food in Jesse's direction. "Be my guest." Truth was, he was getting very impatient. Jesse had said he was going to talk to him at the dinner table, but so far, no go. With a full belly, the man should be amenable by now, Gabriel figured. If not, then he was due for a bad case of heartburn, because Gabriel wasn't waiting a moment longer to question him - whether or not it upset his meal.

But how to approach the subject without making Jesse suspicious, as Gabriel was sure he'd almost done in the pit today. A bit of interest was called for, along with a bit of diversion. "You know of a good place in town to get something better to eat than this?"

Jesse didn't look up as he shoveled Gabriel's dinner into his mouth. "Sure. If you got the money." He reached for his water. "Like I said, the Silver Moon got it all, man. Women, drink, food. All for a price."

"The Silver Moon, eh?"

Jesse let out a belch and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand before lifting serious, dark eyes to Gabriel. "You ain't foolin' me, you know."

Gabriel felt the blood drain from his face under the scraggly beard; he *knew* he'd been too pushy today. He forced out a chuckle and fidgeted with his fork, rapping out a drumbeat on the wooden table. "What do you mean?"

"You didn't want a God damned thing to do with the Silver Moon until I told you about Miss Eliza. How do you know her, anyway?"

He schooled his features, the lie coming easily. "I don't. I just recognized the name, that's all." Think fast, he told himself. A lie is best told between two truths - he could hear the voice from long ago still echo in his ears. "You say she's the mistress of the Silver Moon?"

"No, I didn't say that," Jesse murmured, his eyes narrowing. "You just assumed she was... but yeah. And don't be tellin' me you hadn't heard that name before today, especially when you asked me what she looked like. You know her, Gabe. Admit it."

He forced himself to slump in his chair, affecting a lazy pose. "Yeah, I know her, though it's not *her* I really want to know, if you know what I mean?" He shrugged and added, "Back in St. Louis, before I signed on with the company, I knew her. She was just getting her girls together back then and taking them west. One of them was pretty special to me - I've been looking for her ever since."

Jesse perked up at the pseudo-admission, leaning over the table. "What's her name? Maybe she's still with Miss Eliza?"

Gabriel mirrored Jesse's pose, looking from side to side before whispering, "Does she have a girl named Karen with her?"

"Karen?" Jesse paused, wrinkling his cheek with a grimace. "Nah, don't think so." After a moment, his eyes widened slightly. "You think Miss Eliza changed Karen's name?"

Gabriel pretended to give it some thought. "Mmm... maybe. All I know is - I've never found anyone who could satisfy me like Karen, you know what I mean?"

"I bet it's Jenny," Jesse stated. "Pretty little thing - blond hair, blue eyes, shaped like a Barbie doll - that her?"

"Yes!" Gabriel nudged Jesse's arm. "You gotta take me there with you tomorrow night, okay?"

Jesse laughed and pushed away from the table. As he leaned over, he shoved Gabriel's tray back to him, whispering, "Jenny got brown hair and green eyes, man."

Gabriel swallowed and looked at his empty tray as he felt the flush of capture stain his cheeks. "I'll go without you."

"And step right into some shit, I bet."

He raised burning eyes to Jesse and bit out, "I don't need your help. This is between me and her."

"Hey - you started this, remember?"

Pushing away from the table, he picked up his tray. "And I'm gonna finish it - just forget I even asked about her, okay?"

Jesse's huge hand curled around his arm. "I ain't gonna ask no more questions. I figure you got business with her and it ain't my concern. As long as you don't get us into trouble, I'll watch your back. If I don't, who will?" He smiled and released Gabriel to pick up his own tray, turning to leave.

Gabriel watched with open-mouthed fascination, then quickly clamped it shut as Jesse whirled to make a final statement. "But we ain't goin' if you don't clean yourself up. And if you don't wanna get rid of that shit on your face, at least take the scissors to it, okay? You enough to make any woman scream and run away, and just being with the Love Man won't be enough to get you in, you get my drift?" Laughing, he threw his tray into the pile at the tent exit and walked away, rubbing his stomach.

Gabriel couldn't help but laugh as well, though with more relief than humor. One more day. One more day until he finally had something - rather, someone - to start him on his way.

Eliza had made it out alive. And if he knew her like he thought he did, she still had connections. The way she made her living these days was proof positive; someone had to have set her up, if the establishment was as high-class as Jesse claimed. A cat always fell on its feet.

Besides, there was the little matter of a gunshot wound to one very special, very *womanly-scented* back....

 


Chapter Four

Disclaimer, etc. in Headers

The Silver Moon Denver, Colorado September 16, 2001
6:17 p.m.

"Quit bein' so fidgety," Jesse murmured across the table, digging into his steak with relish. "Eat your steak. She'll show up in a little while. Business is just startin' to pick up."

Gabriel's right hand shook as he pierced the charred meat with the knife. He supposed he *should* try to eat some; this steak had cost him a week's pay. God only knew how much the tricks went for - and he'd bet his bottom dollar there wasn't an hourly rate. This place charged by the minute. But he had to admit, it was far above any other similar places he'd seen in his travels.

It was like they'd stepped back in time to the Old West. A long teak bar, from which flowed liquor pushed by several bartenders, took up the far wall, the patrons who filtered in starting to take up its many stools. Beyond the double doors to its right, the kitchen spit out steak after steak. There was no menu; what good would it be, anyway? The men who came in here didn't want soup and salad - they wanted burnt beef, sharp whiskey and a good lay.

Country music that had to be at least ten years old blared from unseen speakers in the wall. He and Jesse sat at a small table in the corner of the big room, well away from the growing crowd. Just to the left of the bar was another room, this one smaller but no less ostentatious, with tasseled red velvet curtains hanging from the entryway. Gambling was the featured pleasure in that room; he wondered just how much money streamed in and out of this town. There was more going on here than mining. His mind raced as he ate, noticing the men that moved in and out were not just miners. Some looked like businessmen, dressed in silk suits, some looked like territorial officers, their guns strapped to their belts like Colt 45's.

If he wasn't there for another reason entirely, Gabriel knew he'd probably enjoy himself in this palace of sin. Despite the fall of the Administration, the men of this new country still ruled. He'd always been of an open mind toward women and their abilities, especially one woman in particular, whom he'd set up against any man, any day. But he couldn't deny that a place like this made the testosterone surge in his body - it was one big playpen, filled with toys for rich men.

As he surveyed the room with a hooded gaze, his eyes kept straying to the last room at the far end, this one with a pair of saloon-style swinging doors flanked by a pair of goons with guns. Every now and then, he could see a swirl of silk beneath the doors in the pink-tinged smoky air; if he tried hard enough, he could almost smell the perfume that mingled with the cigar smoke and the dark yeast of spilled beer.

Eliza was in there, he knew it. And if she wasn't, she soon would be, Jesse having explained to him that the upstairs rooms were accessed from a staircase in that room. There were only a handful, and he'd visited them all with the exception of one at the end of the hall. Miss Eliza's room, Jesse was told in a hushed whisper by one of the girls last week. She oversaw most transactions downstairs, at times delegating the negotiations to her right- hand man. But at sunrise she retired to her room with the barked command to the girls to call it a day; they didn't come out again until early evening. She didn't want them overworked; made the men hungrier, the girl had told Jesse. And hungry men paid more for the feel of a woman.

Gabriel shifted in his chair with restlessness, shoving the plate away. He'd waited almost twenty-four hours for this opportunity, milling about the camp on his day off without even checking the newsgroup, too excited to sit still. Jesse had slept most of the day and had warned him to do the same - the night was going to be a long one, even though they had to work tomorrow. One didn't waste a penny at the Silver Moon, staying until dawn. Or until your money ran out, whichever came first. The big man had puffed up with pride, bragging that the girls were lingering with him on the sly, giving him twice as much time as other paying customers. Miss Eliza hadn't caught on yet, too busy keeping an eye on all aspects of her business to notice.

"You wait a bit, get some, then try your luck at the tables," he'd winked. "You win, you go back for more." And so far, Jesse was lucky in cards as well as lust, it seemed.

Gabriel pasted a smirk on his face, though he didn't feel like joining in on Jesse's playfulness, keeping his eyes on the room across the way. It was only when Jesse changed the subject that he faced him again. "What?" He wasn't sure he'd heard right, what with Jesse's mouth full of food.

"Overheard the foreman talking to some o'the men today. Said we're shippin' out tomorrow."

No, they couldn't leave. He was so close, he could feel it. "Why? We haven't even been here for two weeks yet."

Jesse shrugged. "Story is they've found a big one - out in Idaho. The company's sending half their crews out there. They wanna get it up fast."

A ship, Gabriel reasoned. Had to be; the mother lode, as far as the company was concerned. But he could care less, though he asked, "Are you sure we're leaving tomorrow?"

"Yep. Probably not until we pack up the equipment - maybe by noon. You goin' with us?" The last was said with some worry.

Gabriel clenched his jaw, unable to lie to Jesse - the man would see through him, anyway.. "I don't know."

Jesse leaned closer and hissed, "Don't you be gettin' any ideas, Gabe. If you ain't back by the time we leave, they'll send the territorial police after you."

A flash of black hair above the swinging doors caught Gabriel's attention and he stood, ignoring Jesse's warning. "Time to go in," he muttered.

Jesse grabbed his arm. "You listen to what I'm sayin', man. This ain't worth it."

Gabriel looked down at him and said with conviction, "It is to me."

Sighing, Jesse released him and reached for Gabriel's plate. "Then try to at least not get into any trouble, okay? They got guns all over this place, most of 'em unfriendly."

Gabriel nodded, pulling the edges of his coat closer together in an effort to hide his knife. Though most of the men in here carried some form of protection, it was best not to flaunt it. The territorial police understood the need for a knife, mostly looking the other way, but not if one flashed it around like a red flag to a bull.

Elbowing his way through the crowd, he kept his eyes on the doors ahead and his hands close to his coat. Everything he'd gathered over the months was hidden in the inner pockets - money, packs of jerky, matches and a small flask of water. He didn't expect to go back to camp tonight, if all went well. The most important thing he owned was folded in his shirt pocket, laying next to his heart. Her picture... waiting to be replaced by the real deal.

Like Jesse had ordered, he'd cleaned up a bit, trimming his beard to where it laid neatly on his cheeks. The dirt was gone from his hands and face, scrubbed away after an hour's standing under the shower this afternoon. His hair was pulled back with the ribbon; it smelled of plain Ivory soap, the only kind supplied by the company. He'd even brushed his teeth, something he'd fallen out of the habit of - he really should take better care of his teeth, the gums had bled a little at the friction of the toothbrush.

But things like personal hygiene weren't important in this wild, unforgiving land. Especially when there was no one to appreciate the fresh breath of a kiss or the touch of a clean hand. Hopefully, that was all about to change.

The two burly men at the swinging doors hardly gave him a glance as he pushed his way in.

Undisclosed location The Smoky Mountains April 10, 2001
7:30 p.m.

The guys looked up from their dinner as he approached. "Mulder, you okay?" Byers asked, standing to offer a hand.

Mulder ignored it with a crease of his brow, stopping just short of the table's edge. "I - I need to apologize," he began, working for the words through a throat sore with residual grief.

All three stood, murmuring individual brush-offs of his words with embarrassment.

He stood firm, gripping the back of a chair for strength. "No." Letting his eyes drift over them, he sought to make amends, the sorrowful hours spent in his room that afternoon leading to an inevitable conclusion. "You guys saved my life - once again. And I've been an ass."

"Dude, it's okay, we understand." Langly fell back, clearing his throat and nudging up his glasses before crossing his arms. "We miss her, too," he finished softly, red color creeping up his cheeks.

"Shut up, doofus," Frohike hissed, then walked around the table to pull out a chair. "Sit down, Mulder - before you fall down."

Mulder felt as though his world had tilted on its axis, and it wasn't just from the bullet wound. The afternoon's misery had drained him, left him almost unable to function. It was by sheer will alone that he'd made the trek to the kitchen, feeling the need to make things right with his friends. He slumped shivering into the chair, his bare chest and feet icy with cold.

"Get a blanket," Frohike ordered above his head.

In moments, he felt warmth envelop him; relief followed close behind, lapping at his brain. Though he nearly lost his bearings when a plate of hot stew was set before him. "Guys, I can't eat."

"Eat." Mulder almost laughed at the way Frohike had grown accustomed to throwing his weight around. He picked up his head and grinned, intending to deny he was hungry, but Frohike continued, "You hungry for more than food?"

His grin faded and he swallowed hard, tears threatening to spew forth again. Lowering his eyes, he nodded.

"Then food comes first, Mulder. You can't find what you're looking for if you don't have the strength to take the first step."

The first step... Mulder's left hand trembled as he picked up the fork. He almost gagged on the carrot, but he kept it down. Then another bite, and another... all the while wondering how many steps he'd have to take to find her.

The Silver Moon Denver, Colorado September 16, 2001
6:57 p.m.

One step, then two into the dim room, and he paused, putting his hands into his coat pockets with a deep breath. Relax, he told himself, though his palms were sweaty as his fingers curled into them.

Light from several silk-covered lamps gave the room an eerie glow. It wasn't as crowded in this room, not like it was in the bar. Several men sat on ornate tapestry couches spread about the room, some puffing on cigars, some nursing glasses of liquor. Still others circled the scantily-clad women like vultures, looking the merchandise up and down with greedy, hot eyes.

Gabriel dismissed the blond who sidled up to him with a purse of his lips, quickly scanning the women for a sign of red hair, though he didn't really expect to find the right shade. The assortment was varied, and he caught his breath at a glimpse of a small redhead. Shrugging off the blond's clingy hands, he walked the few feet to her side with shaky legs. Her shoulders were bare under the fall of hair, and she wore a flimsy teddy that revealed more than it concealed. With a whispered, "Scully?" he placed a hand on her arm.

She turned and gave him a smile. "Hi, handsome. See anything you like?"

It wasn't her. His face fell and he backed away, stopping short at the voice that came from the landing of the stairwell.

"Gentlemen, welcome to the Silver Moon."

Strong, arrogant, nasally - he'd know that cat scratch anywhere. Turning, he wondered how he'd missed her when he'd come in; despite her role as madam, she outshone the whores in makeup and clothes, her sequined gown almost blinding in the dim light. Clenching his jaw, he let himself dissolve into the corner shadows. It wasn't time yet. Besides, it was goon central in there, the huge men standing ready to step in if the customers' negotiations became heated. It was okay to look and touch a bit, but one had to wait his turn. Highest bidders got first crack at the ladies, according to Jesse.

"Let's get down to business, shall we?" Eliza continued, gesturing the whores to stand before her. "Your choice, gentlemen... we start at five hundred dollars."

Gabriel gulped. Five hundred dollars? He was lucky if he had a hundred in his pocket. Not that he was looking to get laid, but he *was* looking to get upstairs and into Eliza's office. Better yet, into Eliza's face.

Five minutes passed, then ten, the bidding topping out at two thousand dollars. A balding, slim man in a black suit stepped forward to claim his prize - a girl of no more than twenty, with black, curly hair that hung to her waist and liquid brown eyes that beckoned him upstairs. Every girl followed in succession, most going for at least a thousand dollars.

"Guess I shoulda told you it was kinda expensive."

The murmur in his ear made him jump. Gabriel gave Jesse a disbelieving glare and hissed, "Two thousand dollars? Are they lined with gold?"

Jesse chuckled, leaning against the wall as the crowd thinned. "They say Miss Eliza got a healer tucked away up there somewhere."

"A healer?" Gabriel's chest tightened with the realization that Jesse was most likely speaking of a hybrid, a Jeremiah-like shapeshifter.

"You know, some kind of medicine man - can heal with just a touch. Back in Mississippi, they used to call'em healers."

It wasn't common knowledge that some hybrids could heal with just a touch; Gabriel had only known one in his life, and chances were, he was dead. Of course, there were bound to be other shapeshifters roaming the country. Offering their services to people like Eliza in exchange for protection.

"Makes them girls tight as virgins during the day. The first men gotta pay more if that's what they're lookin' for. Prices go way down as the night wears on." A short smile accompanied the folding of his arms across his massive chest. "Me? Never did care for splittin' a woman in two. Wait a few hours and I can slide in like a hot knife into butter."

Swallowing hard, Gabriel closed his eyes and said a quick prayer of thanks to whatever deity was listening it these days... he didn't know what he would have done if she'd been in that group of enslaved women. But what if she was? What if she just wasn't here right now? Despite the warning bells going off in his head, he had to know. Reaching into his pocket, he lifted fearful eyes to Jesse. "Have you - have you ever seen her here?"

Jesse took the photograph from him and whistled. "Man, she's somethin'."

Gabriel ignored the open admiration and bit out, "Have you?"

Jesse folded the picture and passed it back to him, his grin fading to a serious stare. "Nah, man. I'd remember someone like her."

Sagging, Gabriel's fingers shook as he put the picture back into his pocket and looked away.

"She your woman, Gabe?" came the soft question. "Is that who you lookin' for?"

Why lie anymore? He was so tired and so close, he could feel it in the air of this booming city. Something told him Jesse could be trusted, though he didn't want to give away any information that could possibly get him into trouble.

"Yeah," he murmured, feeling Jesse's eyes scan his profile. "That's who I'm looking for."

A slow sigh drifted from Jesse. "Aw, man... you oughta know better than that. It's one in a million you'll find her."

"She's alive. I know she is." He turned to Jesse, feeling the emotions he's kept in check all these months shine from his eyes. "Don't try to stop me, Jesse. If things get bad... just pretend you don't know me, okay?" Lowering his eyes, he figured Jesse wouldn't want to know him anyway, if he knew what Gabriel had done in his other life - if he knew that Gabriel most likely had sent his family to his death on the ships.

Gabriel flinched at the touch of Jesse's hand on his shoulder. "Like I said, just don't give me a reason *not* to know you, okay?"

Undisclosed location The Smoky Mountains April 15, 2001
10:45 a.m.

"So... what do we know?" Mulder hovered in the control room of the new bunker, pacing as the guys worked their magic.

"We know she can speak, when she couldn't before," Byers said, turning from his computer terminal to face Mulder. "And we know she didn't recognize you, nor stop when you asked her to. And she disappeared onto what sounded like a helicopter from where we were in the bunker."

Frohike gave Byers a pinched look, silently admonishing him for turning away from his work. With a cough, Byers turned back around to his terminal. Mulder was still amazed at the way Frohike had essentially become the leader of their band; more amazing was the way the other two deferred to him. They didn't grovel, just looked to him for guidance. He couldn't really blame them - lots of lost souls these days didn't have the luxury of someone willing to look after them.

"We know she shot you," Frohike pointed out, then quickly added, "though we all agree she can't have been in her right mind." The boys had been swayed to Mulder's insistence that she didn't shoot him deliberately; it was an act of a mind being told to flee at all costs.

"And we all agree it was most probably the chip Krycek gave her that was directing her outside, telling her to go somewhere - making her believe she was Julia." Mulder dared them with his eyes to disagree; though they believed she hadn't shot him deliberately, there had been some talk of her having had a mental breakdown of sorts, her mind bringing Julia back to replace Scully. It was a possibility Mulder had dismissed instantly. Why would she suddenly succumb to that kind of psychosis? The stress of the past year hadn't been enough to force it upon her - it was ridiculous to think that it would happen when she was finally safe and happy. No - it was the chip.

"Even if you could find her, Mulder," Frohike continued, "you can't take the risk of pulling that chip out. It didn't take long for her cancer to come back when she took out the original."

Mulder pierced the little man with his gaze. "It wouldn't come back that fast - it was at least a year before she developed the tumor the first time."

All three glanced at him, then Langly and Byers turned back to their work, leaving it to Frohike to say, "We saw it, Mulder. On tape. We just didn't tell her anything. Saw her take out the chip, saw the nosebleeds begin almost right away - saw Krycek give her the new chip and ddemand that she use it or she wouldn't be the one to go after you." He paused, standing to add, "If you take it out, you'll be signing her death warrant."

It wasn't fair. Mulder turned, hiding his anguish from his friends, rubbing at the back of his neck with his good hand. "But if it's controlling her, she wouldn't want it in her." That he knew for certain, just as he knew he had no chance of getting her back if she was being brainwashed. She'd kill him before she'd let him touch her.

"Would you rather watch her die?"

Frohike's whisper stabbed at his back. He knew the answer to that question. With her death, his world would end. But he didn't know if he could stand to know she was alive and imprisoned - her mind trapped in Julia, never to bee released again.

There were considerations, yes. But none of this stopped him from going after her. He'd decide when he found her - something he swore to himself he was going to do.

The Silver Moon Denver, Colorado September 17, 2001
3:25 a.m.

"Now," Jesse said, nodding.

Gabriel raised his hand, keeping his face in the shadows as he bid on the girl. A hundred dollars, then one-fifty, then two; he felt beads of sweat break out on his forehead.

"Keep goin'," Jesse whispered. "I got five hundred in my pocket. We going' in together."

Gabriel flashed him a surprised look, keeping one eye on the bidding.

Jesse smiled and drawled, "I ain't got a thing for you, Gabe, so get that scared rabbit look off your face." He crossed his arms, making himself a menacing sight as he added softly, "I'll keep her busy while you look around."

Luckily, the man they were bidding against caught the eye of another girl who'd sashayed down the stairs during this round. She smiled at Gabriel, too, but he ignored her, tired of waiting for the opportunity. The girl they had in mind slumped with fatigue; a coaxing word or two and she'd fall right in with the suggestion to just lie back and enjoy it.

Eliza pinched the girl, making her stand straighter. "We have two hundred fifty dollars. Going once... twice..." She nodded at Gabriel. "Yours, sir. Or should I say *sirs*?" Jesse smiled and nodded, and Eliza finished, "You have half an hour." As he stepped forward, her eyes narrowed, but she said nothing, her attention grabbed by the other girl who was ready for another customer.

Gabriel kept well away from Eliza, slipping past her when the girl beckoned him with a wave and a yawn. As he crept up the stairs behind her, he heard Eliza begin again.

"Now here's a lively one, gents... shall we start at two hundred?"

"Get up there, man. Quit wastin' time." That was Jesse's voice behind him. Gabriel grinned, amazed at the man's attachment to his cause, at the risk he was taking by following him upstairs. Then again, maybe Jesse just wanted to enjoy a bit of female company - he'd become mighty impatient himself at the long wait.

The girl opened the first door on the right, and Gabriel gave the door at the end of the hall a good stare before walking in behind her. A double bed, night stand equipped with wash basin and all types of sexual aids, a chair and a single lamp which burned with muted light - the only furnishings in an otherwise empty room. Jesse made himself at home, flopping onto the bed with a groan and a smile.

"What'll it be, gents?" he heard behind him. He turned and flushed at the sight of her naked, skinny body. Geez, she was fast. "Guess I can figure it out, huh?" she continued, hanging her robe on one of the hooks on the wall. "Just don't suffocate me, okay? And ya gotta wear the rubber - that's the rules."

"Get up here," Jesse ordered. She complied, dragging her feet.

"Like this?" She laid flat on the mussed sheets, still as a department-store mannequin. And about as appealing, Gabriel thought.

In moments, Jesse had reached for a scarf on the night stand, giving Gabriel a sly look. The girl just watched with bored eyes, as if it wasn't anything to be alarmed about. "He's gonna watch or what?" she asked Jesse. At their silence, she rolled her eyes. "Fine by me. Less work." She looked like she'd gladly let him silently watch her while he satisfied himself. Money was money, and it didn't matter if he never said a word to her or laid a finger on her.

"We only have a half hour, you know," she sighed, flashing Jesse a thoroughly disinterested look before her eyes were hidden by the scarf.

"You just lie back and relax, baby," Jesse murmured, then gave Gabriel a sharp nod toward the door.

"Sure thing, honey," she purred. "Whatever floats your boat."

Her awful bleached hair, her sallow looks, her infuriating voice - he shook his head with disgust as he watched Jesse move in. Not wanting to waste another moment, he headed for the door, letting Jesse do his stuff.

It was time to get down to business. After a quick scan of the hall, he made for Eliza's office, silently squeezing the door shut behind him.

 


Chapter Five

Disclaimer, etc. in Headers

The Silver Moon Denver, Colorado September 17, 2001
3:35 a.m.

He cracked open the door and scanned the hall before slipping out. Behind every door he passed, he could hear muffled moans and movement; he almost grinned at the distinct sound of Jesse's voice that drifted through the sounds of sex. *Almost* grinned - right now, he had more pressing matters to attend to.

Pressing his ear to the last door, he waited for a moment or two, listening to see if Eliza had made it back upstairs. He heard nothing, not even the rustle of clothing, so he gently turned the knob and stole inside, using both hands to softly close it behind him. Of course, just minutes ago she'd still been downstairs in negotiations. He figured he had five minutes at the most before she'd return to her quarters; all the girls with the exception of the one remaining downstairs were now engaged with customers. Eliza would have a few minutes to spare, so he had to move quickly.

The room was furnished in the same garish tones as the parlor below, and compared to the other bedrooms, this one was not made for business. A huge bed graced the far wall, but it was immaculate - looked like it hadn't been slept in. Did she have nothing but money on her mind? Shrugging off the obvious conclusion, he turned and spied a desk on the opposite wall, the single lamp beside it illuminating the papers strewn on its surface.

Good place to begin, he thought, rapidly scanning them with shaking fingers.

He wasn't keen on getting caught, and the slight fear made him fumble a bit. With any luck, he'd be out of there before Eliza came up and screamed bloody murder. By tomorrow morning, the crew would be gone, and Gabriel with them. Or not - maybe he'd find what he was looking for in this place. In either case, he wasn't worried. He was anxious; anticipating the end of a long, hard journey.

But there was nothing; not even a sort of bookkeeping system. Most of the pages were full of scribbles and that puzzled him - almost like they'd been arranged as ornaments, without worry as to significance. Several logbooks sat on the blotter, but they were filled with the same sloppy marks. With a snort of frustration, he eyed the cigar box on the corner of the desk, its lid propped open with the overflow of money. This made no sense; Eliza, looking thoroughly in character as a seller of other women's flesh. Gobbling up the money downstairs with greedy fingers and satisfied smiles, she would not be so lax with it once in hand.

Even the God damned door hadn't been locked.

The realization sent a new spurt of fright through him and he backed away, sensing that all was not what it seemed. But he didn't get far - just beyond the door, he heard Eliza's bark at one of the girls. Catching sight of the closet nestled in the corner, he ducked in just as the hall door opened.

With a crack of the door, he watched her move about the room. A broad sigh and a jerky roll of her neck on her shoulders accompanied her toss of the most recent transaction's net into the cigar box.

Then she stood still and her voice came to him, though she didn't turn around. "I know you're there," she said, eerily calm. "You may as well come out, Agent Mulder."

Agent Mulder? What was this shit? The only way she knew him was as the Minister of Justice - what the hell was she trying to pull? Whatever it was, it ratcheted up his uneasiness to monumental proportions and he flung open the door, reaching for his knife. So what if she knew who he was and that he was here... he wanted answers and he wanted them now. She could set the hounds of hell after him when all was said and done - he'd be long gone.

Wrapping an arm about Eliza's waist, he held the knife to her throat. "Where is she?" It was all he needed to ask, and he knew it. This woman had made it out alive and was doing very well for herself; the mystery that surrounded her enveloped a lot more than this whore house.

"Who, Agent Mulder?" It was an innocent question and she didn't move a hair when he pressed the knife closer into her skin.

"You know damn well who I'm talking about," he hissed. "Now tell me what the hell you're doing here and if you have her." His arm tightened and he added, "Don't underestimate me, you bitch. You know I would love nothing better than to just slit your fucking throat right here. Tell me, God damn it!" Bloodlust began to consume him; with the way she was jerking him around, he knew his temper wouldn't hold for long.

"Tell you what, Agent Mulder?"

Her body began to move - it almost seemed to melt in his hold. Speechless, he realized too late who - or what - he was dealing with, as he tried to step away.

But the creature whirled on him in an instant, his huge hand coming up to encircle Gabriel's neck. The plastic curves of Eliza's face transformed into hard, chiseled cheeks and almost lifeless eyes. Its face came closer and the low menace of its voice sent a familiar shiver up Gabriel's spine as he began to gasp for breath.

"We've done this before, haven't we, Agent Mulder?"

That the bounty hunter still wore the ridiculous evening gown shot through Gabriel's mind, but laughter wasn't an option. His right hand came up to grasp at the arm that pinned him, but its feeble strength was no match for the alien's power.

The bounty hunter launched Gabriel across the room with a seemingly effortless flick of his wrist. As his head hit the opposite wall next to the door, he saw stars, but he didn't lose his grip on the knife. Little good it would do him, though - unless he could sink it into the alien's one vulnerable spot, the back of its neck.

It moved forward slowly, still speaking. "Except this time it's not your sister you seek, is it?" The creature bent over and grabbed him by his jacket before murmuring, "The answer is the same, Agent Mulder... she's alive."

Gabriel knew in that moment that the alien knew where she was; he could see it in the unholy smirk, feel it in the burn of its eyes. "Where is she?" he croaked one last time.

The bounty hunter picked him up with one hand and had his other hand poised to strike. "You'll see her soon enough, Agent Mulder. I've been waiting for you."

Waiting for him? That was his last thought before the hand hit his face, knocking him into unconsciousness.

Undisclosed location The Smoky Mountains May 15, 2001
3:16 p.m.

"I'm going after her."

Mulder's statement brooked no argument. He didn't expect any from his friends, really. They knew he'd follow her to the ends of the earth; literally, he'd done that already years ago. In his mind, this was no different. More difficult, yes, what with no shadow informant to give him a head start.

He wasn't fully healed and he doubted he ever would be, given the muscle and nerve damage he'd suffered from the bullet wound and Frohike's subsequent removal of it. However, he could still use his right arm - he just had to concentrate. As he stood up from the table, his left hand wrapped around his right wrist, holding it steady. Though the guys knew of his new disability, he was loathe to show any weakness before them. He knew they'd try to talk him out of it, or at the least, delay his departure.

And it came almost instantly, as Frohike raised disbelieving eyes to Mulder's stern face. "No way."

"Who's gonna stop me? You?" The itch to pursue her was about to eat him alive, the thousand little fingers moving on his skin shoving him along mercilessly.

Frohike stood, palms on the table. "Yeah," he drawled, his confidence puffing out his chest. "Look at you, Mulder. You couldn't chase after a snail on a hot day."

Mulder felt his face get hot and he crossed over to the bank of computers where Byers and Langly sat in frightened silence. Ignoring Frohike's slam, he bent to Langly. "Just give me a place to start."

The blond fidgeted for a moment, but kept his eyes on the screen as he replied, "Umm... I really don't have anything for you, Mulder." Jerking his head up, he added quickly, "Not yet, anyway."

"And just how the hell are you supposed to move around out there, Mulder?" Frohike faced him, his voice harsh with the attempt at reason. "You set one foot out of this place and the territorial police will be all over you like stink on shit."

Feeling himself falter, he grabbed the edge of Langly's chair and spun to face Frohike. "I'll think of something."

Frohike crossed his arms and gave Mulder an open, honest stare. "Okay. Let's say you walk out of here tomorrow. By some chance, you manage to travel, keeping low - though I don't know how the hell you're going to do that. Where you gonna start?"

"There's gotta be some money around here... I'll - I'll get to the nearest town and catchh a bus, or a train."

"To where? You know where you wanna go?"

Mulder swallowed and looked away, his hand shaking as he raked it through his long hair. "No," he admitted, then raised feverish eyes to Frohike. "But I can't just sit here anymore. I *have* to do something."

"Then sit down, Mulder. I have an idea."

At the soft command, Mulder sagged, knowing his friend was right on this one. Much as he wanted to break free and find her, this operation was going to take some planning. And Frohike had proven a master strategist - he'd gotten them all this far, hadn't he?

Sitting at the table once again, Mulder exhaled in a sigh. "Okay. Lay it on me."

Frohike sat as well and began, "The mining company - those looking for krycekite. Perfect way to travel these days. We can *all* join up." He ignored the startled stares of Langly and Byers and continued, "If Scully was taken by the same men we've dealt with in the past, then they've still got some power and probably have her well-hidden. No way we're gonna find her by staring at the computers all day. We need to have transport - free, easy means of searching."

Mulder liked the idea so far. "I'm listening."

His friend half-smiled. "First of all, you've got to lose the pretty boy looks."

"Pretty boy looks?" Mulder snorted. "Have you taken a good look at me lately?"

"Personally, I never saw the appeal, Mulder." Frohike's wry statement was delivered with an undertone of jealousy. "Though some did."

Dropping his eyes, Mulder replied in a murmur, "Stop it, you're making me swell-headed." He had no desire to talk about his relationship with Scully; their lives were not subject to discussion. Only one topic allowed that included her, and he quickly resumed that tack. "So what - we don't exactly have the services of a plastic surgeon at hand, you know."

"Don't need one," Frohike pointed out. "Just a little facial hair should do it. And let your hair keep growing - the longer, the better."

"But that could take a month or more!"

"You could use the time to recuperate." Frohike stood. "And we could use the time to set things up."

"Set things up?"

"Do a bit of poking around the Internet, set us up some new identities, change *our* looks."

Byers and Langly both piped up at that, breaking in with, "Our looks?"

Mulder stood as well, shaking his head. "Sorry guys, but this one's mine alone."

"No it isn't," Frohike said, his words serious and his manner unflappable. "This one's important - and we're not staying behind this time."

The other two men got up from their chairs and faced Mulder, standing behind Frohike with arms crossed. Their nods were short, but adamant.

It was *very* important to Mulder. After a moment or two of vacillation, he realized that they loved Scully as much as he did. He'd always known she was the better of them both.

Seemed everyone knew that before he did - before he let her slip away from him.

Outside Denver, Colorado September 17, 2001
10:08 a.m.

The bed of the truck was hard beneath his back and he groaned as he drifted up through the black pain of oblivion. Piecemeal scenes of his last waking moments slammed into him, just like the bounty hunter's fist had done...

God, it all made sense. A weird, still wacky sense, but some of it fell open before him like an instructional manual of extraterrestrial life. Jesse's comment that Eliza had a right- hand man; the supposition that she had a healer hidden upstairs. The *healer* was the alien, just as he was the assistant - and Eliza. His total disregard for the money, though it probably went somewhere. Like to whoever he was working for. Whoever he was taking Gabriel to meet.

"I've been waiting for you," he'd said. What the hell did that mean?

Waiting for him - for what? The aliens wanted him alive now. His mind raced as he strove to put the puzzle together. It can't be his father... he was dead, or on a stairway to heaven, so to speak. The ships had retreated back into the unknown. For now, anyway. Why would this monster want him?

Unless it was as some sort of bargaining tool. The alien's shapeshifting ability was an asset and he could very well stay hidden forever in the scant population. Especially in this wilderness where no one cared who you were or where you were going. But there was always the chance of discovery and people these days would love nothing better than to torch any hybrid, good or bad.

Maybe he'd been left behind and was willing to trade Gabriel for passage home. Memories of his time aboard the alien vessel made him cold with fear; yes, his father had let them experiment on him, mostly for the cure for the old bastard's illness. But the torture was real, though he couldn't remember anything really but the pain. The aliens had known he was a threat to them and had entrusted his father to keep him under control.

Is that where he was going? To another ship? No, he wouldn't. Though the alien had implied that Gabriel would see her when he got to wherever they were going, he did not want it to be in these circumstances. Now that he knew she was alive and close, he knew only one other thing - he had to escape and find her.

Undisclosed location The Smoky Mountains July 15, 2001
8:16 a.m.

Two months of waiting and he was damned tired of it. The Gunmen, hampered by the lack of equipment and goods, had worked at a snail's pace getting their needs together. The bunker was a woeful step down from the one in West Virginia; really, just a repository for emergency supplies.

It hadn't taken long for Mulder to figure out that there had been no truck behind them, as Frohike had said that first day on the run. He'd been lying to him, keeping up the ruse for several weeks, explaining that others had made it out, too - they were just in other bunkers scattered throughout the mountains. There *were* no others besides them. No connections, no relief, no tangible place to hide and communicate like they had before.

His friends were not wanted by the territorial police, not like he was. But they only ventured out into the nearby villages - ghettos, really - in search of food. And then, they didn't dare linger long, didn't take the chance on asking questions or making their presence known. Their disguises were inventive and they just gathered what they needed once or twice a month, then returned to watch Mulder stew with restless energy.

They bargained with leftover guns and ammunition; Frohike had been uneasy about depleting their protective resources, but survival came first. It wasn't like they could eat lead - not that way, anyway. Mulder had once told them all to leave him, to begin again with their lives. They were free to do what they wished now, without fear of reprisal.

"And let you go off and get yourself killed?" Frohike had snorted. "How many times do I have to tell you - we're in this together. Besides, I don't have a yen to be put on the rack for your sorry ass."

He'd been half-teasing, but Mulder knew it to be true. There were men still alive that knew of his association with the trio and they would dearly love to get their hands on a link to Mulder's whereabouts. Would they simply ask politely? Hell, no. The Administration had been replaced by men bent on revenge, striving to erase all who'd betrayed the human race - who might still rise to assist the Colonists in a return engagement.

And they would come back, Mulder knew. Maybe not for years, but they would. If he wasn't such an ungrateful fuck, he'd stand up and applaud their paranoia to anyone who cared to listen. I was right all along, he wanted to scream to the skies. And now you think I'm one of them - fuck you all.

Times like those were few and far between, however. His pride laid in tatters around his morose existence; the pride of self-righteous indignation that had once made him unstoppable had also cost him the dearest thing in his life.

Scully. Taken from him while he slept in the stupid dreams of a man who thought he had it all - vindication, hope for the future, his friends around him in safety, and the one woman who would stand by him always. That she'd done all she did to save him still amazed him. Sure, he'd done things for her. Going against seemingly insurmountable odds to rescue her from peril many times.

But he'd never changed for her. She'd never asked him to - and she never would. She'd changed her face, that classic, beautiful structure of skin and bone that declared her to be Maggie Scully's daughter. Removed her father's legacy of pride and dignity to bow before men as a vessel of lust.

It sickened him even now, thinking how he'd given in to that lust. Though she'd told him she loved him and had done what she did just for him, he still couldn't help but feel that his response was just another act in Fox Mulder's tendency to use her and then retreat behind his staunch beliefs.

Had he ever told her he loved her? After they'd reached the safety of the bunker, he'd enjoyed her body, lived in her love - but had he ever given her the affirmation that she needed? On his frequent sleepless nights, he tried to think back, sure he had said the words.

"They'll love you, as I do."

No, that wasn't good enough.

"I love watching you."

Still not right. The pain in his chest on those nights refused to abate and he'd let silent tears wet his dingy pillow. No, he'd never actually said, "I love you, Scully."

It was what he regretted most.

"Got it."

Frohike's blustery entrance snapped Mulder from his slump at the table. "Got what?"

Frohike reached into his pocket and tossed Mulder a folded piece of paper. As he opened it, he noticed to unmistakable smear of blood in its top right corner.

But he went for the obvious first. "Territorial papers," he breathed, looking up from the official stamp at the bottom with a gleam of hope. "How the hell did you get these?"

Every citizen carried around papers from the territorial government; it was required to move around freely and to hold down a job. They'd not been able to get their hands on a bonafide ID until now, and they were not confident in their ability to leave the bunker without them.

Frohike cleared his throat and sat down. "Let's just say this guy won't be needing them anymore."

Mulder swallowed and read the man's name. Well, just one name, really. Johnston. Employed by the company, now apparently dead.

"Frohike, you didn't..." The words stuck in his throat; surely his friend wouldn't have -?

Coloring, Frohike leaned back. "Of course not. I may be one of the best commandos around these days, but I never had a taste for murder." At Mulder's sheepish grin, he continued, "Found the guy strung up about a mile from here. Best I can figure, he tried to skip out on the company."

Mulder nodded, knowing that the company had exclusive rights to you once you signed that contract. They didn't take kindly to deserters. It made him uneasy to think of signing up with such a group, but it was the only option they had at this point.

"I know this is a stupid question," he began, lifting humorous eyes to Frohike, "but can you duplicate this - believably?"

Frohike puffed up. "Is Langly a virgin?"

Mulder gave him a grim smile. "You tell me."

Chuckling, Frohike stood. "All I need is a name, Mulder."

Mulder handed the precious piece of paper back to his friend. "Gabriel."

"Just Gabriel?"

The territorial police didn't care if you had one name or twenty, neither did they care where you came from or what you did before. No need for social security numbers, or a driver's license, or tax withholdings. All one needed was that little piece of gold that Frohike held in his hand.

"Yeah, just Gabriel." At Frohike's perplexed look, he stood as well and headed for the door, fingering his heavy beard. "Long story."

Outside Denver, Colorado September 17, 2001
10:10 a.m.

Sunlight bled through the flaps in the canvas covering of the truck bed and he knew the sun had risen. It had more than risen - from the heat in the back of the truck, he figured it was approaching mid-day. But they couldn't have gotten far to their destination; the truck was moving at a snail's pace, picking its way through the destruction on the outskirts of the city. Gabriel had seen for himself as he'd come from the camp yesterday that there was really only one cleared road in and out, and that one was patrolled by the territorial police. The bounty hunter would not want to cause suspicion and therefore would stay away from the better path.

The ride was bumpy and slow and Gabriel winced as he sat up, trying to wriggle his hands from the rope-bound trap. His ankles were tied as well and his knife was long gone. He considered a leap from the back of the truck for just a moment, then quickly discarded the idea. What good what it do if he was hog-tied?

But he couldn't wait until they stopped. Anything show of force against the alien was ineffective and he knew it. The being could simply pick him up like a sack of potatoes and deposit him at anyone's feet without breaking a sweat. He had to think of something, and fast.

He spied a crowbar in the corner of the bed and an idea began to form. Creeping to it, he picked it up with both hands and got to his knees behind the cab, peeking through the glass with stealth, careful not to let the creature see him.

With all his strength - and fighting the leftover dizziness from the blow to the head - he pulled back and rammed the straight end of the crowbar through the glass. He knew what was coming, and he rolled back instantly, just as the bounty hunter slumped forward. The truck began to careen wildly and the acrid fumes of its blood flooded the dark cavern in the tarp.

Gabriel tried to hold his breath as he rolled to the wooden tailgate, but the truck dipped and swayed and he gasped as he realized they were tipping over. Jesus, they were on a mountain pass, he thought. No wonder the ride had been so rocky.

The truck slid to the left, and Gabriel could no longer hold his breath. He gasped and immediately grimaced at the burn that attacked his eyes and nose. But he kept going, vaulting himself over the edge of the truck, his lungs fighting for clear air. With a blow to his chest, he hit the ground and rolled, coming to a halt as the truck slid into a steep, rocky fall.

Grimacing, he fell to his back, blinking a few times to clear his head. Other than the sounds of nature that surrounded him, he heard nothing. A quick check for broken bones and injury, then he shook off the beginnings of a headache and crawled to his knees. He brought his hands to his eyes and winced at the puffy feel of them; but they weren't as badly burned as the first time he'd encountered such a creature. Though they were slitted and hurt like hell, he could still see.

He looked around and spotted the truck on its side below him, the two wheels facing up slowing to a stop. What it still alive? Damn, he didn't feel like checking, but he knew he had to get these ropes off somehow. Surely there was something in the truck, some piece of twisted metal he could use.

As he began to creep toward the truck, he heard a shout from above.

"Gabe!"

Gabriel raised his head and squinted in the sunlight. The hulking figure at the top of the incline was in shadow and he whispered, "Jesse?" before pain made him close his eyes.

 


Chapter Six

Disclaimer, etc. in Headers

Outside Denver, Colorado September 17, 2001
10:14 a.m.

He couldn't have been dazed for more than a few moments, as he heard the rustle of leaves come closer. The sun blared into Gabriel's swollen eyes and he gasped, lowering his head against the bright pain.

"Easy, man," came the murmur beside him, as the huge arms sat him upright. "Hold on - lemme cut you out o' these."

As soon as his hands were free, Gabriel reached up to tenderly examine his itchy face, asking Jesse in a rush, "Is it dead?"

Jesse cut the rope around Gabriel's ankles in one neat slice and looked up from his crouch, puzzlement clouding his face. "Is what dead?"

Gabriel didn't have time to explain; he got up and swayed in place, adrenaline waning in a heartbeat. "Shit."

"Yo, man, take it easy," Jesse said, holding him up with both hands. "I don't see no one around but you, Gabe. What the hell you doin' tied up in the back of that truck, anyway?"

"Better question is - what the hell are you doing following us?" Though thankful Jesse had freed him, Gabriel was pissed at the way his friend had put himself in danger by coming after him. Jesse was still in danger, as was Gabriel. He grabbed the knife from Jesse's hand and moved toward the overturned vehicle, giving his rescuer a stern warning. "Stay back."

Against Jesse's muttered curse of protest, Gabriel staggered to the truck, knife held out.

"God damn it, Gabe -"

"Stay back!" he hissed, waving Jesse away. To his relief, the man didn't follow him, though Jesse's salty language trailed after him, echoing in the close confines of the forest.

He crept up to the broken driver's side window and peeked in. Nothing but some torn clothes, half-melted by the now harmless green blood. Heaving a sigh, he closed his eyes for a moment. Yes, it was dead. But it took its destination and *her* whereabouts with it to hell.

Shit. He hadn't meant to kill it, only incapacitate it temporarily until he could slip from the truck. Sure, it would have followed him - but at least he would have had time to come up with a plan of action. Now he was once again without direction.

A thought suddenly came to him - no, he wasn't. The road they'd been on winded up into the mountains; the *only* road, as far as he could see. He scrambled up the incline, hearing Jesse behind him.

Only to be greeted by the skittish whinny of a huge horse, its chestnut coat gleaming in the sunshine with beads of sweat. "Whoa," he murmured, holding up his hands.

His ticket out of here, he knew.

"Fuck, man," Jesse growled beside him. "Don't go scaring off our ride back. I don't feel like walkin'."

Gabriel slid the knife into his belt and reached for the reins of the animal, soothing murmurs interspersed between his question to Jesse. "Where the hell did you get the horse?"

"I stole it from outside the Silver Moon." Jesse's teeth flashed in a satisfied smile. "When you didn't come back to the room after ten minutes, I left Layla with a big smile on her face and snuck into the hall. Just in time to see this big, ugly sucker draggin' your ass down the back stairs." A rare shine of embarrassment made him chuckle. "Fuckin' thing threw me three times. Took me forever to catch up with you."

"You didn't have to come after me," Gabriel muttered.

"Sure I did," the man answered, as if Gabriel were nuts for thinking otherwise. "We gotta get back to the camp, Gabe. Train's leavin' at noon and we gotta be on it."

Hating what he was about to do to Jesse, his gaze skirted the woods around him and he said, "I'm not going back." The road before him beckoned and he stared at the way it disappeared around the next bend.

"You're not going back?" Jesse was incredulous. "Man, what the fuck you talkin' about? You comin' back with me." He took a step forward.

Gabriel brought the knife up and slowly drew the horse away. "Back off," he warned, giving Jesse a narrowed stare. Though his eyes still felt like shit, he could see well enough to defend himself, if necessary. Not that he wanted it to come down to that, but he was determined to continue. "I'm going up that road and you're not going to stop me."

"Aw, man - don't do this. They're gonna come after you," Jesse pleaded, hands raised as Gabriel kept moving away with the horse. "Is she worth all this trouble?"

Clenching his jaw, he ignored the question as he lifted himself onto the horse's back. It danced a bit in the rocky dirt, but didn't bolt. Gabriel wasn't a horseman by any means, but he silently thanked his long-gone mother for forcing him to hobnob with the rich and at least learn how to handle a country club horse his fourteenth summer back on the Vineyard. Like riding a bike, he knew, taking firm hold of the reins as he turned back to Jesse, who stood some yards away, sputtering with frustration.

"Gabe, you can't -"

"Sorry to make you walk back, Jesse," he said, with a snap of his wrist tossing the knife into the dirt at Jesse's feet. The horse turned at the press of his knee and he rode away, flinging over his shoulder, "You should be able to make the noon train if you start now. So long."

Jesse's voice followed him up the trail. "You motherfucker! Don't you leave me like this!"

Gabriel felt awful for Jesse's long walk back to town, but he wasn't about to stop, the horse picking up speed at his urging. He took one last look over his shoulder as he rounded the curve in the road. Jesse was still muttering, though he'd turned in the opposite direction. Good. He was going back.

That off his mind, Gabriel surged forward, not knowing where the road would end... but damned determined to find out.

Undisclosed location The Smoky Mountains July 20, 2001
1:57 p.m.

The room was alive with activity and Mulder could feel their energy bounce off the walls. So close now... just a couple more days, then he'd be out and on his way. The guys were looking over the papers with a fine-toothed comb as Mulder paced, his hair swinging out behind him like an avenging angel.

"Quit wearing a hole in the floor, Mulder," Frohike murmured, not looking up from his magnifying glass. "Sit down before you run into something."

"What the hell would I run into?" he asked, his jaw clenched as he kept making a circle around the table.

"Oh, you'd find something," Frohike answered with a wry huff. "I've never seen a man more susceptible to injury. Not that you're clumsy, just... face it, you attract trouble."

That was the understatement of the year. Mulder finally gave in to the bit of truth in Frohike's words and sat at the table, though his fingers drummed against it like sharp taps of a hammer.

"So - think we can all set out tomorrow?" He was understandably anxious and it wasn't like him to bow to another's decision-making, especially Frohike's. But the little man had grown into a leader and Mulder had let him take over the role, at first too worn out physically to protest. Then, as time went by, he found that lifting the burden of command from his shoulders was a good thing for him mentally as well. It freed him to concentrate, to make his mind ready for what was bound to be a difficult journey.

What if they never found her? Could he stand to give up one day? No. As long as he had breath and the wits to survive, he'd never stop looking.

"Yeah," Frohike said, shoving the paper to Langly, who waited patiently to peruse it a second time. "Maybe late tomorrow, but I figure we each have a good two days or so of walking and hitching to get to a company depot."

They were all setting out in different directions; according to the company bulletins posted on the Internet, there were sign-up depots scattered in the major metropolitan areas. Men who wanted to work were asked to show up at the train depot each morning. You got picked, you got on a train.

Mulder had picked St. Louis - the Gateway to the West. He'd didn't quite know why at the time, though something was telling him deep inside to follow the sun. Good a place as any to start, he figured.

"Remember... try to stay off the main roads. If you can get a safe ride, do it, but don't put yourself in danger, understand?" Frohike warned, looking straight at Mulder.

Byers and Langly grunted their agreement and Mulder nodded, though he knew he'd take any chance at all to plunge ahead.

"Looks like we have papers, gentlemen," Byers broke in with a smile, looking up from the last of them.

Mulder still couldn't get used to Byers without a beard. And that long hair? God, did he himself look that ridiculous? It was like straw, sticking out in all directions, the strands waving at each other.

Frohike had shaved his head to a fine, stiff crewcut that matched the gray stubble on his face. His vitality now was something to behold; gone were the loose jowls of fat and dull, mousy eyes behind thick glasses. He'd gone out about a month ago and stayed gone for a week while they wondered and worried. Then he'd simply walked in one sunny day, sans glasses. He'd found a traveling doctor, he'd said. One who'd fitted him with a pair of contact lenses from his wagon of medical goods. Traded his glasses for them, he smiled. Along with the only issue of Celebrity Skin he had left in his possession; Mulder had laughed, knowing Frohike guarded that with his life, carrying it around everywhere.

Frohike, despite his newfound confidence, was still a geek at heart. Willing to try anything to charm the ladies, though he did so on the pretense of ridding himself of an identifying piece of goods.

That wasn't fair, Mulder told himself. Frohike was doing the best he could - hell, they were *all* doing their best. For her. For the one constant in their miserable little lives, the one ray of sunshine left in a decimated, desolate world.

"A few final touches," Frohike drawled, "then we're all set." He looked pointedly at Langly.

As they all did, waiting for the argument to come. Which wasn't but a second's pause away.

"C'mon, guys - I can tuck it under a cap." Gulping, he sat up straighter in his chair and shoved his glasses up his nose. "It's not that distinctive, really."

Mulder could have laughed out loud at the panic on Langly's face. Instead, he threw a glance at Frohike, urging him on with a knit of his brow as if to say, put your foot down.

"You know the plan, Ringo. Short becomes long and long becomes short." Frohike's voice was adamant but soothing, as he stood. He mirrored Mulder's look, arching a brow for help.

Mulder rose as well; so did Byers, who sauntered over to the cabinet on the far wall with a whistle. Langly sputtered, though he was obviously too scared to move. "I can dye it! Black - we gotta have something around here -"

His protest was cut short as Frohike grabbed his arms, pinning him to the chair as he pulled Langly's wrists behind him. "It'll be over before you know it," he whispered.

Mulder crouched before Langly, grabbing hold of his flailing legs. "Look at it this way, Ringo," he said with a rueful smile, "if I could trade places with you, I would." He hated his long hair and hoped for the day it would all be cut off.

Preferably by a pair of slim, white hands.

At the first snip of the scissors in Byers' hands, Langly wailed, "My manhood..."

"Shut up, you wuss," Frohike growled.

Mulder's eyes met Frohike's over Langly's crestfallen face. Frohike smiled and gave Mulder a wink. "You wanna find Scully, don't you?" he directed at Langly. Frohike was enjoying this way too much, Mulder could see.

A sniffle and then, "Yeah."

Frohike gave his arms a shake. "Then be a man. You don't see Mulder complaining about all that hair, do you?"

The golden locks kept falling into Langly's lap and he raised teary eyes to Mulder, though he answered Frohike. "That's because she doesn't give a shit how *he* looks. I have a reputation to uphold with the chicks."

They were all silent for a moment or two as that statement echoed in the room. Then Frohike chuckled and Byers joined in, followed by Mulder. Before long, laughter filled the air around them, including Langly's. Suddenly struck by how ridiculous they all looked, how *unfamiliar*, it occurred to them all that this plan just might work.

As Langly sobered, he lifted his head and nodded for Byers to continue, leveling Mulder with a fierce stare, his voice snide, but brave. "You better hold on to her this time, doofus... 'cause this is the *last* time this hair's coming off, got it?"

Mulder smiled. "I'll do my best... Samson."

The name looked fine on Langly's new papers.

The Rocky Mountains September 17, 2001
6:45 p.m.

Gabriel was exhausted and he knew the horse was just about pushed to its limits. Sunset had not crept up on him - it had roared in a few minutes ago, as darkness slammed onto the road. The narrow trail had gotten increasingly more treacherous and overgrown, with the forest growing dense and wild on both sides.

Hours had passed and by his estimate, he'd gone maybe twenty miles deeper into the mountains. It was slow-going and frustration gnawed at his gut; slight panic enveloped him as he realized he may not find what he was looking for after all. Not tonight, anyway. The unforgiving line of trees to either side of him seemed to press on him, mocking his purpose. But he shook it off and sighed in the midst of the rising buzz of insects. The horse hung his head and Gabriel decided it was time for a rest, or the animal would simply die under him. He heard a trickle of water nearby and as the moon rose, he could see a spring to the left.

He slowly dropped himself to the ground and led the animal to the water, where he fell to his knees beside it. It tasted good, clear and cold as it soothed his parched throat. A few splashes to his still swollen eyes felt even better, almost refreshing. Again, he lowered his head to drink greedily then sat back as the horse kept nuzzling the water a few feet downstream.

With a small groan, he laid back against the undergrowth and listened to the night sounds float on the breeze. He drew his jacket closer, shivering against the cool ground beneath him. But he welcomed the soft, natural mattress of leaves and closed his eyes. A few minutes sleep was all he needed, then he'd start again.

Undisclosed location The Smoky Mountains July 21, 2001
8:57 p.m.

"Traveling at night should be safer and easier," Frohike said, as they checked themselves one last time. "Try to keep out of the populated areas, but don't stray too far off the beaten path - lots of hungry people out there."

Mulder nodded, knowing the world was more dangerous now than any concrete jungle had ever been. As he folded his forged papers and put them in his pocket, he took one last look at his friends.

Byers - Fitzgerald now, at his insistence he keep some part of himself intact - fidgeted with his worn coveralls as if it was a painful cloak of horsehair. Somehow, he didn't look lost in the unfamiliar clothes; to Mulder, Byers looked as he always had when faced with a challenge... frightened, but unwilling to let it show.

Admiration welled up in Mulder for them all as he watched them transform from wannabes to warriors. From Langly's unconscious rubbing of his shorn scalp to Frohike's donning of his fingerless gloves, the little nuances of their personalities meshed into a cohesive show of force.

It gave Mulder pause and he wondered if they could possibly survive without each other. They'd been together for so long, just like he and Scully... and he knew what life was like without her. The guys worked best as a unit, that was plain to see. Was he doing the wrong thing by letting them separate for his cause? Sure, it was because of Frohike's orders, but Mulder knew he could have walked out of here a month ago and they'd have been unable to stop him. Of course, they'd have followed anyway. So maybe it was best they'd planned it this way - they'd had time to strengthen their cccombined resolve.

"I'm reporting to the company office in Arkansas right away," Frohike said, reiterating the location of their home base, so to speak. A week before, he'd gone to the nearest depot and offered his services to the company as a master of computers and technology, hoping for just such an assignment. Mulder could have hit him when he found out where Frohike had gone, thinking his friend was sure to get into trouble.

But Frohike returned with a big smile and a job in Little Rock - he'd convinced the company's recruiters he had business to settle before he could join up. To their surprise, the company had agreed, letting him report a week later - they were desperate for men with intelligence... and self-confidence, Frohike had laughed.

Yeah, Frohike had that in spades, Mulder thought, as he listened to the guy's bark. "As soon as you get settled, find a computer. Check into the newsgroup at least once a week. When we have a solid lead, we'll meet, okay? And I mean a *solid* lead, Mulder - got that?"

"What if I get lonesome?" He winked at Frohike and was rewarded with a huff.

"You still got your right hand, don't you?" As soon as the words left his mouth, Frohike paled. "I'm sorry, man - I didn't mean to -"

Mulder brought his right hand up and flexed the trembling fingers. "Don't sweat it, Melvin." He didn't want Frohike to feel guilty for a slip of the tongue, but neither did he feel like pursuing the subject. Instead, he brought his head up with a small smile, extending his hand in a effort to hold it steady. "Well guys, this is it. See ya around."

With murmurs of goodbye, Langly and Byers shook his hand and disappeared out the door. They were traveling together as far as Cincinnati, where they would take off into opposite directions.

Frohike motioned for Mulder to go as well and he did, following the long tunnel cut into the rock to the surface. He heard the slam of the steel door behind him and as he stepped into the clear night air, he paused, waiting for Frohike to come up behind him.

In a few seconds, Frohike had joined him. They were also traveling together the first leg of their journey, but that was only to the depot where Frohike had signed up. Mulder thought it best he continue to St. Louis before putting his papers to the test and Frohike had agreed.

"Help me out with this, Mulder," Frohike said, pulling on the camouflage netting after he shut the wooden door to the tunnel.

Mulder complied and, after they'd draped the blanket of leaves and brush over the doorway, they picked up the wooden slat that barred the door and slipped it into place. "Condemned" reflected back at them in the pale moonlight. The bunker now had all the characteristics of a mine long abandoned; it was rather sad to be leaving it behind and Mulder knew that the guys were more disturbed by it than he was. It was comfortable to them - a hole filled with all the necessities... computers, food, and computers.

But there was no way they could ever come back here once they'd found Scully. Rendevous, if and when it came, was already set in a place far from here. Where friends awaited and life was good, they understood. In the wilds of Canada with Walter Skinner, where they could all live out their lives in peace.

The archived data from the computers had been transferred yesterday, including Scully's notes on the vaccine. Sent through a secure satellite connection to Skinner - all they needed now was Scully. Her notes had been very precise and useful, but the lack of qualified personnel hampered the vaccine's perfection. With the vaccine, they'd never have to worry about invasion again. With her, they'd find a qualified savior.

That wasn't why Mulder wanted her back, though. And everyone knew it. Vaccine be damned - he wanted to put his arms around her and let himself dissolve into the safety of her embrace.

"Come on, let's go," he murmured, turning toward the future.

Frohike didn't follow and Mulder halted after a few steps, the question on his face as he turned back.

"Uh... I didn't want to give you this in front of the other two, Mulder." He reached into the zippered pocket of his jacket.

"What?" Mulder was impatient. "Everything's in order, right?"

"Yeah, this is just a little present from me to you." Frohike handed the paper to him.

As Mulder unfolded the paper, the moon emerged from behind the high clouds and he caught his breath at the face in his hands.

It was her. Scully. Julia. Whoever - it was her. "Where did you get this?"

"Found it in the data dump yesterday - must've picked it up from the Administration's network. Figured you'd want it." Frohike shrugged, a sheepish grin fading. "Or not. I'll take it back -"

"No." Mulder knew he looked like he'd had the wind kicked out of him; did Frohike think he wouldn't want a photo of her? Even if she didn't look the same? He didn't give a shit what she looked like. Raising hot eyes to Frohike he whispered, "Thanks."

Frohike stepped forward, lowering his voice to firmness of steel. "No matter what she's done, she's still Scully. You understand that, don't you?"

Mulder bit his lip and nodded, unable to speak.

"And if you *ever* hurt her, in any way, ever again... you'll answer to me. Got it?" A sharp poke at Mulder's chest punctuated the warning.

Mulder fell into step beside him, gently folding the paper and putting in the pocket of his shirt. "Frohike?"

"Yeah?"

"I'd never hurt her. Not intentionally. You know that, don't you?"

"Yeah, buddy," he sighed. "But sometimes it doesn't work out that way. Sometimes nothing works out the way you want it to."

The Rocky Mountains September 17, 2001
7:45 p.m.

Gabriel awoke with a start and sat up, leaves scattering at his abrupt movement. His horse stood nearby, picking at the grass with lazy nudges. Other than the horse's shuffling, there was only the sound of the wind in the trees. But a nagging uneasiness made him move and he stood, shushing the horse with a hand to its neck.

He fumbled for the photo in his pocket, as if he half expected it to be missing. But no, it was there, and he pulled it out, fisting it as if seeking strength from the smooth, calm face. The partial moon cast the colors in gray, just like the night. Just like the feeling he had that the gray was hiding the red approach of danger.

He had to get moving. Something wasn't right, but you couldn't tell it from the stillness...

"Shit," he muttered, finally figuring out what the animals of the forest had already. Something - or someone - was out there lurking. Quickly but quietly, he got on the horse and started up the road again, scanning the trees for danger. He went slowly at first, then gave the horse a nudge. Before long, he was at a nice gallop, leaving the bad feeling far behind.

There was nothing to be afraid of; he was just nervous. Why shouldn't he be? He set his sights on the next rise and surged forward. As he made it to the top of the hill, the horse suddenly shied, almost throwing him.

"Whoa," he said, as a smattering of bats came out of the trees. They were gone as quickly as they'd come, frightening the horse more than him, though his heart thudded in his chest.

It became even more frantic at the glow in the distance. It didn't frighten him, though... he'd gotten to the point where a light in the sky was rather ho-hum. No, this wasn't a tractor beam, or a star ship... not even a little piece of metal that had blossomed into a bright, traveling sun. This was better than any of those... on a par with the old 'hoaxster with a garbage can lid and a flashlight'.

Why? Because it was very much of this world. Faint, but there - at the summit of the incline, he supposed. Probably a couple of miles further up the road, nestled into the mountainside like a beacon.

A dwelling, a building of some sort. Definitely big, as he adjusted his sight to take in the pinpricks of other lights scattered here and there, like candles in windows.

He'd found it. He looked at the photo again and smiled.

Suddenly, he was flat on his back, his horse scampering away into the night. The piece of paper flew from his fingers and he tried to catch it, but it was gone. "Son of a -"

"Shut up." Harsh, black hands grabbed him from the ground as another's pinned his arms behind his back. Hot, coffee-dark breath bled through the knit-covered face before him. "Private property, asshole."

The slam to the side of his head made him see stars, but he managed to focus again in a second or two. His first thought - the company had sent the territorial police after him. But that couldn't be; he was only a few hours gone and they didn't mobilize that fast. He figured he'd have at least a day's head start on them, if they even bothered in this wilderness.

No, these were commandos of some sort. Dressed from head to toe in black, their faces and heads covered until only their eyes shone in the night with feral menace. There were two he could see - the one in front of him and the one hee knew was holding him from behind. There was at least one more, as the one in front nodded to the side and said, "Go after the horse. Take it up to the Ranch - *quietly*."

The Ranch. Now Gabriel knew that *was* a fortress he'd seen in the distance. Guarded by some pretty fancy firepower, as he noted the automatic weapons each man clutched. "Hey guys, I'm a bit lost -"

His words were cut off by the gun butt to his stomach. "Shut the fuck up." The gun came up again, this time barrel first, pressing against his temple.

"No, man," came the hiss from behind Gabriel. "No gunfire, remember?" His voice became sarcastic. "Can't disturb the princess."

What? Gabriel's ears were roaring from the pain. What had the goon said?

"I got a better idea. We could make like he deserted the company - save the territorial police some trouble, eh?"

"Yeah, but make it quick. Damn, what's the use of carrying these guns if we can't use 'em?"

In moments, Gabriel was being dragged into the woods. As they went deeper into the darkness, he regained some of his strength and began to fight the hold, elbowing the man behind him.

"You motherfucker!" he heard in his ear, followed by the sickening *pop* of something tearing in his left shoulder.

Gabriel screamed, a low, hoarse bellow of pain that echoed in the trees. With his right arm at half-strength and his left now useless, he sagged against the ground, his body giving up the fight for a dizzying moment.

Next thing he knew, he was hanging from a tree, the rope around his neck slowly cutting off his air. He groped with his right hand at the vise and heard laughter above his wheezing.

"No use fighting it, man. Say bye-bye."

Their laughter faded into the woods as he struggled. God, he couldn't breathe; the rope hadn't broken his neck, not yet. But it was only a matter of moments before it would choke him to death.

All else went from his mind except for one thought: he was going to fail. He was never going to see her again.

He went limp as he fell into unconsciousness.

The Rocky Mountains September 17, 2001
8:00 p.m.

"Easy."

The whisper penetrated his ears as he gasped for breath.

"Gently, Matthew, gently." Fingers pulled at the rope around Gabriel's neck. "Breathe... breathe... it's okay."

Gabriel sucked in a ragged, painful breath, and his throat felt like it was on fire. Strong arms cradled him and he tried to open his eyes, but found the effort was too much.

"Miss?" Another voice, this one rumbling under his back. Deeper, louder, but not by much. "We need to get out of here."

With that, Gabriel felt himself begin to move. He was being carried, that much he knew. Screaming pain radiated from his shoulder and he jerked against the hold. Movement ceased for a moment and he felt his legs settle against the ground. Rough fingers clamped around his shoulder and he spasmed again, trying to avoid the pain.

"I don't think it's dislocated, Miss. But it's been injured - he doesn't want me touching it."

His whole body seemed to be one big mass of pain and he struggled to get his eyes open. When he did, he knew he shouldn't have, as the trees spun around him.

"Oh, no," came the mutter above him. "Miss, he's puking."

The voice that answered was muffled, but close. "Put him on his side, quickly."

Gabriel felt what little was in his stomach come right up as the soothing voice continued. "Don't worry. You're okay."

God, he thought. He must be in heaven, because that voice sounded so familiar, so beloved. It was impossible, though - what the hell would she be doing out here? Yeah, he knew she was close, but he couldn't be *that* lucky.

"Okay, let's go."

Gabriel knew they were on the move again and he decided that it wasn't her - he was beginning to become feverish with pain, that was all. He could feel his body light up with painful fire as his skin burned. But whoever it was, they weren't going to hurt him. That much he knew. He let himself go again, this time knowing he'd be back.

The Rocky Mountains September 17, 2001
8:45 p.m.

Murmurs drifted into his ears and he fought the waves that dragged him down, slowly turning his head to the warmth at his right. He licked his parched lips and slowly cracked open his eyes, trying to focus on the figures that danced before the fire light. One tall and obviously tense, its stance hovering over the smaller, cloaked wraith at his side.

"We've got the shoulder set, Miss," the man was saying. "I don't think it's a good idea for you to spend the night here tonight. Whoever did this to him could still be in the woods. It'd be safer if we spent the night at the Ranch."

The Ranch? Gabriel jerked at that, struggling against his confinement. In the next instant, he realized he wasn't confined. In fact, he was naked. Stretched out upon a bed so soft he seemed to melt into the mattress. His left arm was bound to his body; immobilized by strips of material. Several blankets weighed him down, but they felt so good, as he shivered with fever. He opened his mouth to ask for water, but found he couldn't speak.

"He needs someone to look after him, Matthew," the little one said. "At least until his fever breaks."

"I'm taking you home, Miss - no arguments. Then I'll come back and stay with him for a while, okay? You can come back in the morning."

Water, he needed water. God damn it, why weren't they looking at him? He dragged his right hand out from under the covers and tried to get their attention. All he succeeded in doing was knocking down the water pitcher on the night stand.

The two figures stopped their arguing and turned to stare at him, their faces shadowed.

Yeah, it's me, he wanted to shout. Get me some fucking water!

The little one whispered something to the one called Matthew, who moved forward to get the pitcher. He slipped out of sight and Gabriel hoped he was going for water.

"Are you thirsty?" The voice came from beneath the hood of the cloak, the mouth speaking hidden by its black folds.

Gabriel nodded and he closed his eyes as the glass came closer. The bed sagged by his side and he drank, coughing at the slide of the water down his damaged throat.

"Slowly."

He couldn't drink anymore; he let his head fall back as his eyes opened.

The rumble of joy started from deep within him... his chest heaved, his eyes burned, his hand shook as it brushed the soft velvet at his hip.

"Okay?"

Her smile was gentle, her profile lit with gold from the fire light, and her eyes - he caught his meager breath at the startling blue he'd only seen in his dreams these many months.

And he was helpless to stop it.

Her brow creased as her smile faded. "Shh... don't cry..." Her hand - her cool, soft fingers - brushed his forehead and temple. "Youu're okay, you're going to be all right."

God, it was her. Jesus, Joseph and all the angels... he'd found her. She'd found *him*.

Leaning closer, she searched his face, her whisper meant for his ears alone. "Are you the one?"

The one? What was she talking about? God, yes, he was the one... anything, anyone she wanted him to be. A fresh onslaught of tears blurred his vision.

She pressed forward, desperation lighting her eyes. "Are you?"

"Miss?"

She turned from him and he latched on to her wrist. No, damn it. She couldn't leave - she might never come back. Or worse... maybe he was delirious and she wasn't really there at all. All this talk of being the 'one', wavering pictures of black cloaks and huge hands... maybe it was just a dream.

Giving a tug, he forced her to look back, his tears clouding his vision. Stay, he wanted to cry out. Scully!

"Sleep now," she was saying over the panicked thump of his heart. "I'll come back tomorrow."

But he refused to let her go, using his last remaining bit of strength to hold on. He struggled to sit up and she sucked in a breath, fright erasing her concern.

"Matthew..."

"God damn it, Scully - it's me!" His lips moved, but no sound came out. The words were stuck somewhere in his chest and it was too painful to force them through his vocal cords. He began to hyperventilate, though his grip remained strong.

"Matthew!" She stood, yanking at his hold, fear making tears come to her eyes.

No, no... it's me, Scully... no...

"Let go," came the growl above him. A hand wrapped around his arm and another pushed at his chest. "I don't want to hurt you."

But Gabriel didn't care - she was leaving him again. God, after all this time, she was only there for a minute. It was cruel. It was God punishing him for all he'd done - a God he hadn't believed in until now. A vengeful God who laughed at him, letting him see her one last time only to take her away.

Sobs made him gasp for air and he felt her slender arm slip from his fingers as he fell back, the lack of oxygen finally catching up with him as his eyes rolled back in his head.

 


Chapter Seven

Disclaimer, etc. in Headers

The Rocky Mountains September 18, 2001
7:08 a.m.

A groan rumbled from his chest as he shifted in the bed. God, he hurt *everywhere* - even his feet. Slowly, he moved his legs and his arms, and he was assaulted by a short-lived wave of panic at the realization that he couldn't move his left arm. Sliding his right hand under the covers, he felt the bindings and knew he'd been injured... *again*. Frohike was right - he was an accident waiting to happen. Not that he was going to admit that when he saw Frohike at breakfast...

Breakfast. Something smelled damn good; not at all like the Gunmen's cooking. Not enough of the vinegary odor of Tabasco...

His eyes went wide; he wasn't in the bunker. It all came back to him in a rush - she was here. Here, wherever here was. He struggled to raise his head from the pillow, then dropped it as a man stepped forth from the shadows, his slender form looming over the bed.

Shit! Gabriel felt the blood drain from his face with shock, then just as quickly return as he drew a relieved, shallow breath. It wasn't a man - it was just a boy. A *big* boy, to be sure, but young nonetheless. A shock of light brown hair fell over curious eyes as the boy colored, embarrassed to be caught lurking. Gabriel figured him to be seventeen or eighteen, no more than that, despite his over six foot frame.

"Easy," he said, hanging his head for a moment against Gabriel's scrutiny. His voice was cultured, with just a hint of the King's English softening the tones. "I'm not going to hurt you. Gabriel, isn't it?"

How the hell did he know that?

The boy nodded at the pile of clothes in the corner - Gabriel's clothes, torn and muddy. "Your papers. You work for the company, don't you?"

His papers... Jesus, the photograph... no, he'd lost that, hadn't he? With a twinge of sadness, he remembered it slipping from his hand as he was attacked. He tried to speak, but nothing came out but a painful wheeze of air.

"Your vocal cords must have been damaged by the rope," the boy explained, moving closer, though he still kept a safe distance, his hands hidden in the pockets of well-worn jeans. "My name is Matthew, by the way. Matthew Spencer."

Definitely not US born and raised, Gabriel realized; either that, or the boy was schooled abroad. He nodded, bringing his hand up to rub at his throat, feeling the sticky stuff under his fingers.

"Don't do that!" One hand came out of Matthew's pocket to punctuate the warning as he stepped forward. "I just put some salve on the rope burns. We thought about bringing you up to the Ranch, but decided you probably didn't need to attract the wrong kind of attention, if you know what I mean."

We? God, he was talking about... was it true? Had he really seen her? Touched her?

Once again, Gabriel struggled to sit up; he had to find out if it was really her and if she was here with this man. Matthew took another step and Gabriel hesitated, not wanting to take the chance on another rebuke, though he raised hopeful eyes to his keeper.

"Got yourself into a fine mess, didn't you?" Matthew asked, reaching for the water pitcher. "Here, I know you've got to be thirsty."

He was, but for more than water. Answers, he needed answers. But he remembered his panic of the last time he'd seen those big hands and he didn't relish the idea of being pinned to the bed again. He took the glass of water and sipped slowly, wincing with each swallow.

"Guess I'm going to have to fetch the bedpan, too, eh?"

God, yes, Gabriel thought, giving Matthew a sigh as he passed the glass back to him. Matthew didn't go far, just to a small room off the main room where Gabriel could see a sink and toilet through the door. He returned with a white porcelain pail and set it on the floor next to the bed. "Think you can stand? Or am I *really* going to have to help you?" He threw back the covers and stood, hands on hips, shuffling his feet with an avoiding cough.

With a grimace, Gabriel swung his legs over the side of the bed and Matthew pulled on his outstretched hand. He wasn't *that* incapacitated. Though he swayed a bit when he stood, he managed to relieve himself as Matthew chuckled and looked the other way.

"Never feel bad enough not to do that for yourself, huh?"

Gabriel's face was dry and cracked, and it felt even worse when the grin at Matthew's observation blossomed. It quickly died, though, as he concentrated on remaining upright. Which was quite a feat; funny how all those times in the hospital it had seemed humiliating to be burdened with a catheter. Now he knew why the doctors insisted on those instruments of torture... because a simple thing like taking a leak became a monumental task when you felt like you'd been run over by a truck.

After he was done, he sank back down to the mattress with a gulp and watched Matthew take the pail into the bathroom. The toilet flushed and over the din of running water, he heard the boy comment, "No blood. That's good."

Yeah, that was the only saving grace in a body that was thoroughly worn out. Gabriel took the opportunity to inspect his wrapped arm, picking at the white material. It looked like it was made from a torn up sheet; crossing tightly around his chest and back, holding his elbow close to his body. At least he could move his hand, though not more than an inch or two away from his abdomen. Despite its Civil War era appearance, it was a professional job of immobilizing his arm. More proof, he hoped.

"Don't fool with that," Matthew said as he came back into the room and headed for the small kitchen to wash his hands. "I don't think you've got much to worry about - maybe just some ligament damage. But we figure you have to keep it immobile for a few days, a week at the most."

We. There it was again. The plural when Gabriel only counted one other in the room besides himself. He waved a hand at Matthew to get his attention. <We?> he mouthed.

Matthew motioned for Gabriel to sit back against the pillows as he came back with a tray. "Me and the Miss," he said, as if Gabriel's question was ridiculous. "Don't you remember?"

Remember? Those precious few moments were burned onto his brain forever. But was the 'Miss' who he hoped it was?

Matthew balanced the tray with one hand while he threw the covers over Gabriel's lap. "We found you hanging from a tree last night. Just a few more seconds and you'd have been dead. What'd you do? Skip out on the company?"

Something like that, Gabriel nodded, though he was pretty sure the men who'd accosted him last night were not company workers or territorial police. They were outfitted for stealth and terminal action, put in these woods to protect something. Or someone.

"That's the reason we didn't bring you to the Ranch - the doctor would have notified the territorial police. I assume you wouldn't have liked that, right?"

Gabriel shook his head with a rueful smile and let Matthew place the tray on his lap. The plate of eggs and biscuits looked and smelled delicious, but Gabriel's stomach turned. He knew he had to eat something, though, but first he wanted one tiny bit of information. Bringing his right hand up, he signaled Matthew for a pencil and paper.

"Umm... don't see any around here," Matthew murmured. "I'll bring some back later, okay?"

That wasn't good enough. Gabriel ignored the possible consequences and grabbed Matthew's hand amidst the boy's surprised, "Hey!" He flattened out the palm on the tray, where he forced his shaking fingers to write out the word, his dirty nail scratching out a red line on the skin.

M - I - S - S?

To Gabriel's relief, the boy didn't fight back, though he did retreat with a step back. An imaginary wall of protectiveness sprang up between them, Matthew's friendly manner shortened with a cautious, "The Miss - she lives up at the Ranch. So do I. The Ranch, this cabin... just about everything on this mountain - it all belongs to my grandfather."

If 'The Miss' was her, then what the hell was she doing up here? And how did she get here?

"The Ranch is about three quarters of a mile up the trail to the north. You're in the cabin the Miss uses as a studio."

Her studio? Gabriel's brows drew together - since when had Scully been an artist of *any* kind? Unless it wasn't her. His heart sank; maybe it had been a dream after all.

Matthew perked up at Gabriel's hesitation, gesturing to the alcove nestled in the front of the cabin as he walked toward the bay windows. "We have running water and iffy electricity, but the Miss likes to paint up here because the natural light is much better." Throwing back the curtains, Matthew smiled at the burst of sunlight. "The Ranch faces the afternoon sun - the Miss, she likes morning sun. And the peace and quiet."

Gabriel squinted at the onset of light, then let his eyes widen at the array of canvas and paint scattered about the alcove. He didn't have an eye for art by any means - and this selection wasn't exactly on a par with the masters - but even from his seat on the bed, he could see the emotion that rioted across every half-finished picture. Vivid colors on some, the stark black of charcoal on others, they spoke of a tormented mind. In search of something indefinable, but refusing to give up.

The tray was shoved to the side as he slowly stood, grabbing the bedpost at the end of the huge bed for support. He had to see - he had to know.

"You scared the Miss yesterday, Gabriel," Matthew continued, but Gabriel was only half- listening as he moved closer to the one canvas that seemed to be complete. "Not that she'd ever admit that to me. But I could tell."

Just a few more steps, and the writing at the bottom would come into focus...

"She sent me to see how you were and bring you some food. I told her if you promised me you wouldn't scare her again, I'd take her back up here. She doesn't go anywhere without me." His chest puffed up with pride.

Damn it, the boy needed to shut up, Gabriel thought, his legs becoming more unstable. With a last step, he made it to the cushioned chaise by the window and ran his fingers over the dried paint.

It was a representation of two women, back-to- back, almost mirror images of each other. Their faces were blank in profile, though their tears spoke of anguish.

"I have to go now," Matthew said. "You need me to help you back to the bed?"

No, he shook his head, giving Matthew a small smile.

"You promise me you won't try to hurt the Miss? Because if you hurt her, I'll have to kill you." He stuffed his hands into his pockets and stood tall, looking down his nose at Gabriel.

It was false bravado, delivered in a trembling voice. Matthew was tall but skinny, not having matured quite yet. But he had enough of the typical sass of the teenager in him to throw his weight around. Gabriel knew he could easily take him on a good day; but that day was far off. For now, he pandered to the boy's take charge attitude and gave him what he needed to hear.

<I promise I won't hurt her.> He mouthed the words with a sincere nod and Matthew seemed to be satisfied. He let out an exhale and relaxed a bit, moving to the other side of the room.

"I'll be back about mid-afternoon with more food, Gabriel. And a change of clothes, if I can find any to fit you. You might have to wear mine." He picked up Gabriel's pile of clothes and tucked them under his arm. "I'm going to leave these in the woods for the bears - along with a nice trail of hamburger blood."

For the men who might still be looking for him. Gabriel was amazed at the lengths to which Matthew was willing to protect him and he let it show on his face.

"The Miss isn't too fond of the company - she says they're no better than slavemongers."

Gabriel nodded in agreement, remembering the harsh taskmasters with little regret at having skipped out. As he saw Matthew move away, though, he started. His papers were in those clothes and he'd probably need them again one day soon. Verifiable identity was a good thing to have, even if you were now a wanted man for skipping out.

Matthew was a step ahead of him, reaching into his pocket. "Your papers." Handing them to Gabriel, he added, "And this was caught in your hair - you want it?"

The ribbon; it was a wonder it hadn't been lost forever, he thought. Gabriel took it from Matthew and brought it close, nodding his thanks. Matthew's lips turned up in a lopsided grin and he walked to the door. "Try to eat and get some rest." With that statement, he flung open the wooden door and departed, shutting it firmly behind him.

Strength had returned with a vengeance. He watched Matthew leave, saw him through the window as the young man lumbered down the trail into the woods beyond the clearing.

All was silent as he looked again at the painting, blinking once and swallowing before daring to hope the name wasn't a figment of his imagination.

It wasn't. He smiled, tracing the bold slash of black with his finger.

Julia.

Undisclosed location The Smoky Mountains July 22, 2001
5:54 a.m.

Sometimes nothing works out the way you want it to.

Frohike's words had echoed through the forest and Mulder had ignored them - well, tried to, anyway. But they wouldn't leave him alone; and though he thought he knew what Frohike had meant by them, he had to make sure.

They stopped at the edge of a blacktop road and watched the sunrise paint the mountains in an orange glow. This was it - the parting of ways.

Frohike turned to him and extended a hand. "Well, Mulder... good luck."

Mulder took the offered hand. "Hope to see you soon." If was a remark tossed into the damp dawn like an afterthought, but they both knew if they ever saw one another again, it would be under better circumstances. No face-to-face contact allowed otherwise.

Frohike nodded and averted his eyes with a shrug before turning to head up the road.

"Frohike?"

His friend stopped and turned. "Yeah?"

"If it's the chip - if she can never be who she was again..." He left the sentence unfinished, knowing Frohike would understand where his mind was going.

"Your decision, man," Frohike answered. "But if you take it out, it'll kill her. *I'm* not going to make that decision. If I find her first, it's staying in until you get there."

"Thanks a lot," Mulder muttered dryly.

"Hey - that's the price you pay for her favor, dude. Speaking of..." Frohike reached into his jacket pocket and Mulder saw his fingers pull something out; it slipped from the gloved hand to travel on the breeze. It fluttered over to Mulder and he picked it from the air.

Her ribbon - the yellow piece of satin she'd given him that last night - wrapped around his fingers. He raised narrowed eyes to Frohike. "Did you steal this from me?"

"Found it on the floor of the control room as we were leaving. Jesus, Mulder... you need to take better care of your things, you know?" With a smile, he turned and walked away.

Mulder fell silent, the heavy burden of life and death dragging his steps as he, too, turned.

The Rocky Mountains September 18, 2001
1:48 p.m.

It had taken him probably a half hour to get up from his seat at the window and wrap a blanket around himself. He smelled and his hair was stiff with crusted mud, but at least he wasn't naked anymore. The bed had looked awfully inviting after that drain of his strength, but he didn't want to succumb to the temptation of sleep. Not until he knew for sure.

Matthew had said she wasn't coming today. He couldn't really blame her; to have some hairy, grimy thing clutch at you like a madman was enough to frighten the bravest of souls. Just in case, though, he'd tried to wash some of the dirt from his skin and had rubbed the washcloth he'd found over his teeth. The soap, despite its feminine smell, had tasted awful and he'd almost lost what little breakfast he'd eaten. But at least his face above the beard was fairly clean, teeth and all.

He sat in the huge cushion-covered rocker by the fire place and shivered, his gaze not wavering from the door. He'd drawn the drapes after Matthew had left as a cautionary measure. Who knew if the men who'd almost killed him were still out there? And he'd not wanted to stoke the fire for fear someone would see the smoke. Hopefully Matthew's diversion would make it appear he'd been an overnight feast for the wolves; only time would tell.

The wait was killing him. He shifted his weary body in the rocking chair and jerked his head up when he found himself nodding off. The rumble of his empty stomach should have been enough to keep him awake, but it wasn't. He'd tried to eat more of his breakfast after it had gotten cold and his queasiness had settled. But that was hours ago... damn it, where was Matthew?

Where was *she*?

In the silence of the cabin, he could hear the crackle of leaves outside. Someone was coming... Gabriel grabbed the arm of the rocker with his good - his *best*, at the moment - hand and tried to make his weak legs cooperate. Grimacing, he cursed the way his body seemed to hurt more now than it had this morning - and damn his knees for refusing to lock.

"Whoa."

Gabriel looked up to find Matthew at his side, the door open to let in the sunlight. For a lanky fellow, he moved fast, Gabriel thought. Matthew grabbed his arm and helped him to stand. Gabriel knew he had anticipation plastered all over his face, and Matthew's next words reflected that.

"It's just me," he smiled. Damn, Gabriel thought - the kid must be at least an inch taller than he was. Would have been a hell of a basketball player. "Brought you some early dinner and some clothes. You can roll up the pants legs." Laughing, he guided Gabriel to the small table in the kitchen and helped him to sit.

Gabriel looked at the open door wistfully and hung his head when he realized she wasn't coming. Not today, anyway.

"You sure can look like a lost puppy when you want to, can't you?" Matthew turned from the table and opened the bag on the counter. "Here you go - just a few sandwiches. But I brought some more eggs and bread, and some coffee I snuck out of the kitchen at the Ranch. There's canned goods over there." He nodded at the cabinet by the sink. "We don't keep perishables here, but I'll try to sneak out some meat every day. You can cook, can't you?"

Gabriel nodded, not really interested in the conversation. Shit. He wanted to see her so badly, it gnawed at his gut.

Matthew walked to the bathroom and came back with an armful of supplies. "Gotta check you out - the Miss said that's number one on the list. After giving you the food, of course."

Crouching before Gabriel, the young man began to clean the greasy goo off of Gabriel's neck with a wet washcloth. At Gabriel's wince, he gentled his touch, saying, "I see you cleaned up a bit. Good. You should be able to do this for yourself tomorrow."

Gabriel's eyes shot up. They were going to leave him alone from now on?

"Relax, Gabriel," Matthew chuckled, his attention focused on his task. "You're just gonna have to start doing some things for yourself, that's all. Me and the Miss - we'll be by now and then. When you're better, we'll help you get out of here and away from the company."

But here is where I belong, he wanted to scream. Instead, he sighed, his sadness at her absence weighing him down with every minute that passed.

"Eat, Gabriel," Matthew urged, finishing up by applying a light coat of the salve. His voice lowered to a murmur. "I know how you feel, you know. It happened to me, too."

At that, Gabriel raised a brow. Had this boy been attacked and left for dead, too?

"I'm talking about the Miss," Matthew explained, as if there was no other subject as dear. "I wasn't near as bad off as you. I'd been living here for a long time when they brought her here. Took one look at her and I knew she was something special. And that she was *way* too old for me - I told my Grandpa that next time he felt like being charitable, he needed to find me a sixteen-year-old."

Grandpa? Gabriel paused in the act of reaching for the unappetizing sandwich and lifted a brow, hoping Matthew caught his question.

"My Grandpa owns this Ranch," Matthew explained with pride, then sobered a bit to add, "My parents were killed in the invasion, though I don't remember it. Don't remember much of anything, really. Grandpa says it's okay not to remember; the trauma must have been too much for me. I was pretty banged up, so he says. The break in my leg must have been wicked, because it aches still when it gets cold. I'm *not* looking forward to winter." He smiled and squinted at his handiwork, smearing a last bit of what Gabriel supposed was antibiotic ointment on the rope burns.

This was interesting. He picked up the sandwich as Matthew stood, taking a bite, then another, urging Matthew to continue with his nod. The boy moved to the sink and kept talking while he washed his hands.

"Grandpa brought me here from Virginia right after the invasion began... though like I said, I can't remember much of it. It was like the trauma erased my past, you know?" Matthew dried his hands and turned. "Want some water?"

Gabriel quickly swallowed, ignoring the pull of bruised flesh, and nodded. After Matthew sat and handed him the glass, Gabriel gulped the water down and mouthed, <Virginia?> The boy's origins were *very* interesting, indeed.

"Yeah. Dunno where exactly. But we used to have a ranch there, too, I think. I remember horses. We even salvaged some photographs of the place; got a really neat one of Grandpa atop this huge stallion." Matthew's voice became sarcastic just a bit, and he added, "Of course, he's got the ever-present smoke in hand. I keep telling him those things will kill him one day. He keeps saying he's trying to quit...."

Gabriel stilled, a shiver up his spine the only electrical impulse in a body gone rigid with fear. The boy couldn't be speaking of - damn it, he was dead! Wasn't he?

"He comes and goes on business a lot. One day, he showed up with Miss Julia. She was in pretty bad shape." Matthew rambled on, oblivious to Gabriel's sudden inaction. "She was awake, but not, you know? Took her weeks to snap out of it. Some kind of waking coma, the doctor said."

Gabriel was listening to every word. At the 'waking coma', he dropped the sandwich from his nerveless fingers and reached for Matthew's arm, alarm widening his eyes.

"She's okay," Matthew said, slowly pulling Gabriel's hand away. "She's just not happy here, I can tell. My grandpa told me all about my life before, which helped. But she doesn't have anyone to tell her about hers. Grandpa said he'd found her wandering about the streets of Denver; she was half-starved, like someone had just left her to die."

His sandwich forgotten, Gabriel signaled to Matthew for something to write with. This time, the teen obliged, pulling a small notepad and pencil from his pocket, lowering his voice to a whisper.

"Just so you know, Gabriel... the Miss, she still has problems. Bad nightmares, trouble remembering. I don't want you to upset her, okay?"

Gabriel scribbled a few words on the paper, trying hard to keep his writing neat. It was very difficult though, and it ended up a jumble of letters he hoped Matthew could decipher. He had to know; but he also had to step lightly.

<Grandpa name?>

The boy's eyes narrowed, but he offered, "Spencer. Charles Spencer. I thought I told you my last name already?"

Oh, shit. Spencer... Spender. Couldn't be the same man, could it? Gabriel ground his teeth as his mind raced. No. Just an eerie coincidence. The old man was dead; damn it, Gabriel himself had put the bullet through the old bastard's icy heart. No way could he have gotten out of the building - the wound had been mortal, he was sure of it.

Stop this, he told himself. Just because 'Grandpa' smokes and has a similar last name, it doesn't mean he's the devil reborn yet again. Besides, there was the matter of the boy himself; could Jeffrey Spender have had a teenage son? No way. As for Gabriel, he was pretty damn sure he'd never had any children. Though not from lack of trying on his father's part, the fucker. He shrugged off all the old fears and hatred and looked at Matthew.

The boy was becoming suspicious of Gabriel's line of questioning. He could see it in the murky blue depths of his narrowed eyes and the way the boy backed away from their conversation, his arms crossing as he slumped in his chair. Trying to allay Matthew's blossoming distrust, he scribbled a few words on the pad, passing it to the boy with an open, calm face.

Matthew took the paper from him and slowly read, "'Why trust me?'"

Gabriel nodded. Yes, why was Matthew trusting him? He could very well have been one of the scum that combed the countryside these days, just looking to kill for the hell of it.

Matthew laughed, his mood lightening as Gabriel heaved an imaginary sigh of relief. "Well, it's not like you can do much of anything, now is it? Besides, you're just a stray... we know you didn't get close enough to the Ranch to do us any harm. The Guards would've picked you up and taken you back to town, like they do anyone who gets close."

Take him back to town? Yeah, right. At the end of a rope. Who was fooling who here? Matthew's grandfather may have been a charitable sort, but only when he felt like it. And the boy didn't know what the guards really did to intruders; of course, he *was* just a lad. It wasn't like he needed to know just how dangerous the outside world was. If one had money - and it looked like his grandfather had loads, from the size of the fortress he'd seen last night - then it was possible to isolate yourself and your loved ones from the horrors of the past months. The Rocky Mountains were the perfect place.

"And face it, Gabriel - you look like you've had it rough, all covered with scars. I figure the Miss, she felt sorry for you. It's nice to have some company for a change. The people at the Ranch - well, they're not the most friendly sort, you know?"

People? Gabriel scratched out on the pad, pouncing on Matthew's opening.

"The workers. They keep the place up for Grandpa. But they keep their distance. Can't really blame them, I guess. Times have changed." He hung his head as a slight sadness shadowed his eyes. Clearing his throat, he stood. "Uh... I think I better go now, Gabriel. Gotta get back to the Ranch. I won't come tonight, but I'll be back tomorrow, okay?"

Gabriel tried to stand as well, but it was slow going.

"Don't worry about the lights and the fire, Gabriel. It doesn't matter who sees them - we keep a light on pretty much all the time, because we sometimes spend the night here. No one's going to bother you." Matthew was already at the door. "I'll come back tomorrow." With a nod and a smile, he was gone, closing the door behind him.

Gabriel finally had his feet under him and through the kitchen window he caught sight of Matthew slipping off the small porch. She hadn't come; she wasn't coming today. The ache at her absence grew and he hung his head in defeat. He tried to tell himself to stop being so impatient - it was only going to get him in trouble. He'd have to tread lightly with the boy. Yes, he was in no shape to be a threat. Not yet. But Matthew knew it was just a matter of time before Gabriel was well again. Best to earn his trust completely before then.

As he turned to make his way back to the bed, his ear caught a murmur, then another.

Shit... she was out there. Fumbling, he held on to the table and moved as quickly as he could to the door. But the voices were fading; with a heave, he flung open the door, leaning against its frame as pain shot up his arm.

Disappearing into the trees were a giant of a boy... and a black-garbed figure that seemed dwarfed by him. Its hands were moving impatiently and for a moment, Gabriel saw a flash of bright hair slip out from under the hood.

Jesus, she'd been there all the time. Lurking beyond the porch, but he'd been too stupid to even get up and look. He was slipping.

Sighing, he straightened. It was okay; he'd damn well be ready tomorrow.

 


Chapter Eight

The Rocky Mountains September 19, 2001
6:45 a.m.

He felt better when he rose from the bed that morning. Still sore, but at least he was able to walk without feeling like he was going to fall down at any moment. He slipped on the pants Matthew had brought him and found he didn't have the energy to roll up the pants legs. So they dragged the floor; they covered him, that was all that mattered. He'd tried to don the socks and shoes, but found he couldn't bend far enough to get them on. So he stayed barefoot.

A mouse scurried through his legs as he picked up a small log to throw on the dying fire. He was cold and needed warmth. Short of going back to bed, he'd have to make do with the small fire. Matthew had said the Guards paid no attention to the cabin; he wondered if it was because they'd been ordered to stay away by whoever it was running this place.

There were lots of questions he wanted answers for and he'd get them, eventually. Right now, all he wanted was to see her again.

He made a pot of bitter, strong coffee and opened a can of peaches. The syrup slid down his sore throat and he chewed the fruit into a mash that just as easy to swallow. The rush of sugar and caffeine invigorated him and he wasted no time splashing the sleep from his eyes with icy water from the sink. Pulling the rocker to a position facing the door, he sat in front of the fire to wait.

His mind began to work as he watched the sunrise lighten the room. Number one: it was her. Though he hadn't yet faced her with all his faculties, he had no doubt of that fact. Well, maybe just a little; all the times he'd believed without proof paled in comparison to this. One good look, that's all he needed. She'd get such a kick out of his skepticism.

Number two: she wasn't being held here against her will. At least, not within the walls of the Ranch. It appeared as if she could move about freely, though something told him she didn't go far without Matthew trailing along.

Number three: she still thought she was Julia. Or she had been *told* she was Julia. The paintings he'd scoured last night were all mirrors of the one he'd first noticed; she knew she was Julia, but she also knew there was something missing in her psyche. Fair enough. Even when the chip had called her to Ruskin Dam, she hadn't been totally out of it, from what her session with Dr. Verber had told him. She'd recognized Cassandra and had known enough about what was happening to get herself away from the danger.

He could work around that. Okay, so maybe he couldn't come right out and tell her she was Scully - not right now, anyway. There was the little matter of his bruised voice, which made expression of such a grave matter very difficult. And she probably wouldn't believe him, anyway, even with the doubts she had as represented by the paintings. First, he had to earn her trust.

Number four: Just how the hell was he going to do that? He'd scared her the other night, despite Matthew's insistence that she was going to help him. This was a biggie. He was no good at ingratiating himself to anyone.

Number five: Another biggie. The bounty hunter and his purpose for kidnaping him from the brothel. Had he been working alone? More likely, he'd been bringing Gabriel to someone else. The alien could have killed him in an instant, but he hadn't. Alive and delivered to an unknown person - he'd probably never know who now. Unless it was the mysterious 'Grandpa'. Although, maybe the bounty hunter had been on his way to kidnap Julia as well. Knowing that Gabriel would eventually find her, he waited, disguised as Eliza. Wait for Gabriel to show up, then nab them both.

On to number six: Just who the hell was that grandfather of Matthew's, anyway? Some benevolent soul who took pity on her and kept her safe... again, not likely. Though if the bounty hunter had been working to kidnap them both, then 'Grandpa' was unlikely to be the recipient of the alien's efforts. Why kidnap Julia when he had her already?

All this thinking was giving Gabriel a headache.

There was one conclusion to be made, however he looked at it - she *was* being watched over. In a loose net, to be sure, but under watch still. Even if what Matthew said was true, it still didn't explain how she ended up in Denver or why she'd been taken from the bunker in the first place. That was something that still pierced at his gut with agonizing pain - why take her?

He sighed, knowing he may not ever understand that question. All he knew was that he needed her with him, as Julia or Scully, it didn't matter. If he could make her see that, then he could take her away from here and make damn sure nobody got to her next time. Even if he had to chain her to him... even if he had to take the chip out...

Number seven:

"Don't move."

Gabriel's breath hitched at the husky command and he lifted his chin against the slight prick of the knife at his throat. God, she smelled good. Like cool Colorado air and leaves of red- gold ... His lips turned up in a grin; damn him, he really *was* slipping. And despite her not realizing who she was, she still had enough of the real her within her to get the jump on him. She was good.

Number seven: the cabin had a back door.

"Matthew is right outside, but I wanted to come in alone first." Her words tickled his temple and he clenched his fingers around the arm of the rocker, sheer joy at her presence threatening to make his heart jump out of his chest. Concentrate, he told himself. This is your test. You'd better pass it or you'll find yourself out on your ass in a flash.

"Are you the one?"

Number eight: you should have seen that one coming again. Fool! he scribbled on the yellow notepad in his mind.

"Are you? Yes or no?"

Now that was a rather difficult question to answer, especially with a knife held to one's throat, he thought. Yes, I'm the one, he sees himself saying - right before she slits his neck because she's been told someone's coming to kill her. Great.

Or no, I'm not the one - the one you've been told to wait for, to keep yourself safe for, the one they've told you will eventually return for you, even though it's probably not true. Then she really washes her hands of you.

Damned if he does, damned if he doesn't.

Instead, he feigned a gasp and lowered his head, as if seized with pain. She relented almost immediately, her hand lowering just a fraction; it was enough for him to wrench the knife from her. She sucked in a surprised breath, then nothing. By the time he raised his head, she was gone from behind him.

Frantically, he looked around the room, trying to adjust his eyes from the light streaming through the kitchen window to the shadows at his left. He struggled to stand, adrenaline making his legs weak.

"All it would take," came from the dark alcove, "is one scream of Matthew's name."

He conceded to her logic with a slow nod of his head, straightening his spine. But he had a point to make as well. With a snap of his wrist, he sent the knife flying, burying it in the doorframe.

That's all it would take from me, he told her silently, leveling her with a stare. If that's what I wanted.

His eyes were rapidly picking her up in the darkness; she still had that same black cloak on, but he saw the pale outline of her face framed in the hood, its square jaw loosening into a grin.

"Point taken," she said. "Gabriel. I take it you don't want to answer my question."

No, what he wanted to do was step forward and take her into his arms, but that wasn't an option. He stood still, his chest heaving with excitement.

"Then I won't ask it again, okay?"

Jesus, that wasn't what he meant at all...

"Miss Julia?"

Matthew opened the door wide, letting his eyes roam about the room before spying the knife at his shoulder. He dropped the duffel bag and flat case he held and pulled the knife from the wood. "Everything okay in here?" Giving Gabriel a wary look, he fisted the knife handle.

"We're fine, Matthew," she answered, stepping into the light as she lowered the hood of her cloak. "Put the bag on the table, please - and you know where my case goes."

Oh, God, oh Jesus... yeah, it was her all right. All beautiful and small and so *pink* with good health he thought he might faint from the brilliance of her smile.

Matthew lifted the duffel to the table with a grunt and turned for the flat case, bringing it almost reverently to the alcove before moving back to her side. She gave him a smile of thanks.

"Would you go back to the Ranch and get my glasses? I seem to have forgotten them on my bedside table." She took the knife from Matthew's hand and slipped it into her pocket.

God, he couldn't take his eyes from her. Drinking in her face and voice... yes, her voice. The voice he hadn't heard truly for months; the words she'd spoken as she left the bunker faded, just as the memory of what she'd done to him left for good. So what if she'd just held him at knife point? He didn't care, because he had her back with him.

"Miss, I don't think I should leave you alone."

"Nonsense," she huffed. "And how many times have I told you to stop calling me 'Miss' - it's just Julia."

"Grandpa says it's impolite."

"We're friends, aren't we?"

"Yes, but -"

"Then stop it. You're making me feel old." She gave Matthew a pat on the arm and continued, "Now, go along. We're doing just fine, aren't we, Gabriel?"

Oh, yeah, they were doing just great. Fabulous, spectacular... get the hell out already, Matthew. His smile was shaky and he felt like the biggest goof that ever walked on two feet, but he felt wonderful.

"Now, go. I'm just going to unpack what we've brought. I'll be fine." She ushered Matthew out the door, leaving it open for the light. As she turned back, she whispered, "He's only sixteen, you know. I have this horrible feeling I'm old enough to be his mother, but I refuse to let him treat me like I am."

Sixteen? God, in the old world, he'd have had a *great* future in the NBA, Gabriel thought. And yes, with a little stretch, she could possibly be old enough to have given birth to the boy. But she certainly didn't look like it, not to his eyes, anyway.

Her hair was pulled away from her face into a braid that snaked down the back of her neck. It had gotten so long and little tendrils of gold escaped to caress her brow and cheeks, making her look like she was much younger than her years. Her hands went into her pockets.

"It's cold in here, Gabriel," she stated, moving in a circle around him to the fire. He turned with her, unable to tear his gaze from her even for a moment. She easily lifted a few more logs into the fireplace. "Matthew told you that you didn't have to worry about the smoke - we're here a lot, even at night."

So she *had* listened in on their one-sided conversation yesterday. Shivering from more than the cold, he stood in place, waiting for her to continue. Still smiling softly, he let his eyes roam over her face.

She saw his stare and flushed a bit, smiling herself. "Sorry about the way I greeted you. Think of it as a test. Matthew said he thought we could trust you. But I had to be sure." Once again, she moved silently across the floor, hissing at the cold wind that blew in before she slammed the door shut. "Besides, you couldn't hurt a flea - not in the shape you're in. But just in case... the knife stays right here." She patted her pocket and began to empty the contents of the duffel on the table.

Gabriel didn't know where to start or what to do - he knew what he *felt* like doing. Buut somehow, he didn't think she'd take too kindly to his tongue down her throat. Instead, he moved gingerly to the table, picking his way through the semi-dark room. Just a she felt his legs would give out from sheer relief at seeing her, he reached the chair and flopped into it, fastening his gaze on the beauty before him.

She pulled the string over the table and the light bulb flickered for a moment, then blared. He blinked at the sudden light, feeling his eyes narrow painfully. They were still red from exposure to the alien blood, but they were much better than even the night before.

"Too much?" she asked, reaching for the string again.

No, he shook his head firmly. He wanted to look at her - God, he'd never get enough of looking at her, never again. He reached for the pad and pencil he'd left on the table last night and, with painstaking determination, scrawled a heavy, <Beautiful,> onto the white sheet, giving in to the urge to at least compliment her.

She shrank back at that, her eyes narrowing as she paused, a can of chili hovering in mid-air. "Umm... Gabriel -"

Shit, that was just a bit too forward. Some effort at gaining her trust. God, he felt like he was Matthew's age again, trying to get the most popular girl in school to give him the time of day. He was no good at it then, and now, looking like a hobo, he really had no hope at all. Think of something quick, he told himself.

Gabriel looked over at the array of paintings in the alcove and pointed, hoping his explanation was enough to satisfy her. She may not know who she really was, but she still had a sharp mind - one that was wary of flattery.

Sighing, Julia turned to put the can into the cabinet. "I'm not much of an artist, I'm afraid. Too much unknown." She paused and lowered her chin, as if debating whether or not she should continue. But she did, giving him a glance. "It was why I asked you if you were the one... he's supposed to come for me one day."

<Who?> Gabriel wrote, then raised his head for her answer.

"The one I dream about, but cannot see. The one I know is coming for me one day."

God, he was thoroughly confused. She expected someone to come for her? How could she when she didn't even know who she really was? Julia had no history, no family. If their roles were reversed, he'd be clamoring for answers, trying to get out of here with his every waking breath.

She laughed shortly as she continued to put away the supplies. "Guess I should explain myself, huh?"

He nodded, anxious to hear what she had to say.

"I've only been here a few months, Gabriel. I know what Matthew told you - that his grandfather found me in Denver. That's true, I suppose. But unfortunately, I can't remember anything prior to waking up at the Ranch. Of course, I've been told about the invasion. But I've lost everything from my old life. And there isn't anyone here who knows me from before. All I knew was my name." Her eyes misted over as she took a pan from the cabinet. "Then the dreams started. I see someone who knows me, who knows what happened to me, why I'm -" she broke off, biting her lip before continuing. "The doctor tells me I'm seeing someone from my past. Chances are, he's dead. They told me my memory would return eventually, not to rush it - the stress wasn't good for me. I just thought maybe you'd know me...." She trailed off, turning to the stove. "Ridiculous, isn't it? I'm not psychic."

And he'd missed his chance. No way in hell she'd believe him now if he said he was the one. Too convenient - hell, *he'd* be mighty suspicious at the sudden turnaround, if he was her. He clenched his teeth against the agony of the easy way out slipping through his fingers.

All right, so that explained the 'one' thing - and why she seemed content to wait around this place. Was her mental health that fragile? Was she hurt some other way, something he couldn't see?

Another, more important fact - whoever had her was taking very good care of her. She had a definite glow of good health; so did Matthew, for that matter. Maybe his grandfather was just paranoid - and he obviously had the money to take care of anyone who got too close.

"Would you like some eggs for breakfast?" She turned, eggs in hand over the heating pan.

He bent over the pad again. What to say? Should he go for broke and write her name? No - best not to risk Matthew seeing it, in case he was not the innocent he appeared to be. And the fire place was too far away to quickly dispose of the paper, should the boy walk in. Inspiration struck, and he scrawled the word.

Look at it, he silently pleaded. Don't you recognize the name? The name I *wanted* to take instead?

Shaking her head, she raised confused eyes to his. "Jibril? I don't understand - is that even a word? Are you sure you're okay, Gabriel?"

Frustration gathered in his chest. This doing without a voice was a bitch, he decided, then realized he had a backup - sign language. If her knowledge of it hadn't been erased with her memory, that is.

Picking his right hand up, he told himself to concentrate... start slowly. One letter at a time, something she would not mistake, but would awaken her to the possibility of more. Small beads of sweat broke out on his forehead; damn the misfiring nerves in his arm.

E - G - G - S. Y - E - S.

Her eyes widened and she let the eggs drop from her fingers to the pan, where they shattered. "I understand you. God, Gabriel, do it again."

He blinked with brief relief, then exhaled, keeping his gaze on her wondrous face as he picked his way carefully to her sleeping mind. <Name.>

"Yes, Julia. You knew that already. Say something else, please." Excitement made her smile and she turned from the stove to stand beside him, touching his fingers with hers. "How do I know what you're saying? Do you know what this means?"

He nodded, fully understanding her happiness at the memory of such language. It took her by surprise, but it also told her something about herself that hadn't been filtered through another person - she could read sign language. A bit of history that she embraced, much in the same way her fingers wrapped around his.

Gabriel swallowed, his eyes drifting to the sight of her fingers cradling his. Touching - she was touching him. The warmth of her hands radiated up his arm and he found he couldn't look away. She kept speaking, apparently not noticing his sudden, tense silence.

"It means my mind remembered. It's not much, but it was *me*." Like holding a precious flower, she let her hands peel away from around his. "Say something again, Gabriel. Anything," she breathed, her blue eyes misting over.

God, what could he say? Her real name? His real name? Matthew would be back at any moment; though Gabriel suspected the boy was an innocent, one thing he knew for sure - he also had a big mouth. The things Gabriel had learned from him in the short time since he'd been here was proof of that. Best not to give Matthew a word he could pass along that would set off alarms. Searching his mind for something that could possibly give her another piece of memory, he settled on a simple sentence.

<I am the bringer of truth.>

All was still for a moment and he held his breath as she processed the words, blinking twice as she backed away. "It *is* you, isn't it?" she breathed.

Before he could answer, she'd run to the alcove. He saw her fumble with her case and he slowly stood, his stiff muscles protesting just a bit in his effort to follow. But he needn't have bothered, because she was back in a heartbeat, her eyes flashing with anguish as she held a drawing before him with trembling hands. "Is this you?" she whispered, her voice cracking.

Is was agony to tear his eyes from the face that was so close, when all he wanted was to touch it with his lips. But he did, lowering his chin to look at what she'd adamantly shoved at him.

It was a sketch, flowing black lines upon cream- colored parchment. A vague representation of a man, the shadows of his face hidden behind a fall of long, curly hair as he laid in naked splendor upon a makeshift bed of blankets.

Gabriel caught his breath - is that who she saw in her dreams? He tensed at the sight of a very familiar adornment in the otherwise stark picture - the cross. Lying on the bare chest just below the averted, sleeping face... his hand crept up his bare skin looking for it, eager to confirm her suspicions.

But it was gone. He looked at her once again, this time with tears in his eyes. The one link to her - the *proof* he so desperately needed - was missing. With all the rough handling he'd received from the bounty hunter and those men, it must have gotten torn off.

"Is it?"

The smell of burning eggs reached his nose. She didn't even notice it, never once wavering from her search for the truth. "This is you."

As he debated his approach of the conclusion he saw already dawning in her eyes, she suddenly gasped, the parchment crumbling as her fingers fisted around it. He stilled, his eyes going wide as he saw her head snap back.

Oh, shit, he thought, reaching his good arm around her. He staggered as she began to jerk in his hold, her eyes rolling back in her head. God, it was some kind of seizure - visions of Max Fenig from years ago assaulted him and he knew he had to do something or she'd injure herself.

Letting his legs bend, his fell to his knees with her cradled in his arm, wincing as he hit the floor. Her arms were flailing and he used his chest as confinement, bringing her close to try to trap those hands against his body. But he couldn't bring her close enough, not with the bulk of his bandaged arm between them. He didn't know what else to do and he settled for just curling his arm beneath her neck.

He waited for long, agonizing moments as her body slowly stopped, his panicked tears dropping upon her ashen cheeks. When the last of the tremors died, he brought one knee up and used the vee of his legs to hold her as he brushed her cheek with his fingers. She was still breathing, though out of it totally. But she was okay - he hoped. Only time would tell.

As her breaths became even and deep, he gathered her close to him, savoring the chance to hold her in his embrace. Then he went perfectly still, his face buried in her warm neck. Something wasn't right. The hand that was almost confined by the immovable sling trembled as its knuckles brushed against her torso.

Pulling back, he realized the bulk of his arm wasn't the only impediment to the touch of his body to hers. The cloak was flat against her body and his eyes widened at the sight. Huge, silent sobs broke from his throat as he lowered his head, closing his eyes to brush a kiss to her cold cheek.

And he understood everything. Why she'd been taken from him. That she hadn't been found wandering the streets of Denver after all. That 'Charles Spencer' was not the good-as-gold 'Grandpa' that Matthew thought him to be.

Because 'Grandpa' had gotten what he wanted. Had probably stationed the bounty hunter in Denver to prevent Gabriel from getting too close. And had ordered his guards to kill anyone who approached the fortress.

Julia - the one he'd let slip away from him... the one who didn't even realize just how important she was... was pregnant.

 


Chapter Nine

The Rocky Mountains September 19, 2001
7:25 a.m.

Emotion made him tremble, the combination of shock and sadness drawing the breath from his lungs in a burst of fire. It couldn't be true, it just couldn't. He rubbed his hot cheek against her cold, soft skin and willed her to open her eyes. Wake up and tell him it was his baby. Tell him that when they'd made love that one last time, they'd created a miracle.

But he knew that was impossible. She couldn't conceive, not by natural means. The chip his father had assumed was still in her had been replaced by another - totally different, or so Krycek claimed. That left only one possibility and it slammed into him again, this time with the force of a fist to his gut.

It all made sense. Horrifying, anguished sense.

"What did you do to her?"

The yell took Gabriel by surprise, as did the hands that yanked Julia away from his hold. He fell back, curling up as raw pain shot into his shoulder. Nothing, he wanted to scream - I didn't do a God damned thing. Not now and certainly not then.

The pain slowly subsided, only to be replaced by a dull ache in his arms and chest; he wanted to howl at their sudden emptiness. He rolled to a sitting position, gasping and frantically looking about the room. Matthew was leaning over the bed, crooning to the listless form.

"It's okay, Miss Julia," he was saying, his voice trembling with fright. His big fingers fumbled with the buttons of her cloak, as if he thought she was suffocating. "I'm here now. Come on, wake up."

Gabriel slowly made his way to his feet, grabbing one of the kitchen chairs for leverage and ultimately, support. The pregnancy took a back seat to concern for her and he shuffled forward, only to be stopped by Matthew's hissed, "Stay back."

At the moment, it was best to comply. His senses still reeling from the revelations of the last few minutes, he sank into the rocker and hung his head. What the hell had just happened? Just when it seemed they were making progress, she'd been felled by some sort of seizure, almost epileptic in nature. Had she been injured before they'd found her? Or was it a result of their conversation? God, he hoped the child was okay, no matter what its origin.

Matthew whipped his head in Gabriel's direction. "She asked you, didn't she?"

Nodding, Gabriel began to stand, then stopped at Matthew's growl.

"She knows better than that - it happens every time." He turned back to Julia, taking her hand in his. "The doctor warned her against trying to remember too soon. She gets these... fits. Used to be really bad and she'd stop breathing."

A surge of anxiety pierced Gabriel. She hadn't stopped breathing, he was sure of it. But it had been very frightening just the same. It also wasn't symptomatic of amnesia; he'd had experience with amnesiacs - he couldn't ever recall one reacting with such physical trauma when they tried to regain memories.

Of course, Julia's wasn't a normal case of amnesia, he'd bet his life on it. The last few minutes flashed through his mind; her pressuring him for an answer, his almost-concession, her seizure - his comparison of her to Max... her - God, he couldn't even *think* it. Like a tape recorder, he backed up his thoughts and fixated on one glaring detail.

Shit. Max said he hadn't developed epilepsy until after his first abduction experience. Another case came to mind immediately - Peggy O'Dell and her sudden fit as they confronted her beside Billy Miles' bed so long ago in Oregon. He recalled others here and there, all abduction victims, all burdened with implants. Was it possible? Was the implant programmed to trigger a seizure if too many memories threatened to surface? That had to be it.

But Krycek had said the implant couldn't be used against her. Not for calling her, anyway. But what if it's basic purpose was still there; a monitoring device with the capability to suppress memory? Or worse - what if Cancerman had tampered with it while she was in the Tower?

Charles Spencer. Grandpa.

Jesus. Gabriel's riotous thoughts began to gel, the conclusion he'd made moments ago now inescapable. If his father *had* done something to it, then it was highly likely she'd been summoned from the bunker via the chip. Very possible that it wiped her memory.

Even his father's claim of restoring her fertility was not outside the realm of possibility. His breathing quickened at the thought... maybe it was his baby after all. He allowed himself a moment of hope, then squashed it with logic. No. It was foolish to think that their one last time together had produced a baby.

"It's not good for her, the doctor said so. And you've got to promise me you won't let her get like this again, Gabriel... or I'm going to have to take you away," Matthew went on, though Gabriel listened with half an ear.

"You'll do no such thing."

*That* he heard.

Matthew turned back to Julia and Gabriel melted into the rocker at the sound of her beloved voice, unsure if he should let himself be seen by her again. He didn't even know if he could look at her without losing control.

Someone had done this to her. Matthew's grandfather, Charles Spencer - whatever the hell his name was, he was still the same evil man. Stolen her mind, given her a child of dubious origin, and worst of all - rendered her unable to grasp at her memories. He wanted to break something; to shatter furniture to match his splintered heart.

"Miss? Thank goodness you're okay." Matthew's voice held a broad smile. "Can I get you something? Some water?"

"Yes, please," came the weary answer, followed by a small sigh. "Something's burning, Matthew."

"Oh, no." He rushed to the stove and removed the pan of eggs, stifling the smoke under the faucet.

Gabriel sat still and kept his eyes averted from the bed as the boy cleaned up. He could feel her stare, but he refused to look her way, unwilling to take the chance of sending her into oblivion once again.

As Matthew busied himself at the sink, Gabriel's mind rushed to think of a plan of action. Should he leave? Try to hide out in the forest until Frohike and the others arrived - *if* Jesse had even contacted them. No. Now that he'd seen her, *touched* her, he couldn't walk away. They'd have to drag him, kicking and screaming.

Telling her who he really was - who she was to him - was out of the question. Well, maybe not. Not if he could figure out a way to negate the effects of the chip. Hypnosis? Medication, smuggled to him through Matthew? She'd spoken of a doctor; with the isolation of the Ranch, it sounded like he was in attendance, or able to be rushed in at a moment's notice. Maybe after a few days, he could sneak up there and have a look. Get Matthew to take him in so he could do a bit of snooping around, maybe find some medication. Suppress the seizures and then reveal the truth... but would the drugs hurt her child? Damn, he wished he knew more about the physiological sometimes. But that was always *her* forte, not his.

He was just going to have to think of something and fast. No way was he going to take the chance of another seizure; even if it meant he'd have to wait for reinforcements in the cold, dark forest. Avoid her, that was the only recourse he had at the moment. Keep himself from her, though being apart from her would be ten times worse now than it had been months ago. Especially if Charles Spencer was who Gabriel suspected he was.

He shouldn't have broached the subject of 'the truth' at the table; it had set her off. Too much, too soon. He wanted to kick himself he'd always charged ahead like a bull in a china shop. Thank goodness she was okay, or he'd never forgive himself this time.

"It's not your fault."

Her soft voice broke into his stream of thought and he sighed, hanging his head.

"It just happens when I push too hard. It hasn't happened in a couple of months, though. I thought maybe they'd gone... maybe I was ready to remember."

Gabriel clutched the arm of the rocker, sitting rigid and immovable, even by the small plea for understanding in her voice.

"I can see it upset you and I'm sorry. I won't do it again, I promise."

"Miss, I'm going to the Ranch for the ATV, so I can take you home," Matthew said, coming back to the bed to hand her the glass of water.

"I can walk back, Matthew."

"No, you can't," he ordered, then flustered at what Gabriel figured was a scathing stare. "Or you shouldn't, anyway. Won't take me but ten minutes to run there and a few more to drive back."

"I'm not seeing the doctor." She was adamant and Gabriel could picture the steel blue of her eyes in his mind. It almost made him smile. Almost.

"You don't have to," he pleaded. "I won't tell anyone about this - I know better than that." He flashed Gabriel a look, as if he blamed the whole incident on him still. Turning back to her, he said, "You just leave him alone while I'm gone. If it happens again, I *am* telling the doctor." He stalked out, muttering to himself all the way to the edge of the porch, where he took off in a run.

Gabriel still didn't trust himself to look at her. She said nothing for a few moments, but he could hear her shift in the bed - was she trying to stand? He wasn't in the best shape himself and the tumble he'd taken with her had seriously drained his strength. But that was nothing compared to the emotional wallop her pregnancy brought on. Despite his feeling as though the simple act of breathing was a trial, alarm swept over him and he snapped his head in her direction, ready to call upon his last burst of energy if need be. No way could he sit still and let her fall again.

She smiled as she completed the roll to her side, her cheek flattening against the pillow. "Made you look."

If he wasn't still so angry at himself, he would grin in return; she knew exactly how he'd react to her mock attempt to rise from the bed. She faced him, her cloak billowing out around her, one nail caught between her teeth in dubious apology. A memory of her, naked and flushed as she'd lain beside him in their bed, assaulted him and he gulped, willing his eyes to look away. But they wouldn't obey and he drank in the sight like the finest hot chocolate. It warmed him and he tamped his grin down at the last second.

"I saw that," she murmured. "You can't fool me, Gabriel. You like me."

Rolling his eyes, he sighed. *That* was the understatement of the year. It was his 'like' for her that had contributed to the mess this morning. He'd have to learn to control that pesky feeling - or at least not give her any more seizure-inducing ideas.

"Not in *that* way," she continued, her face pinkening with embarrassment at her mistaken implication. "I just... I'm glad you're here. I miss having someone to talk to."

His brow creased; did she not have any friends at the Ranch? She had Matthew; though he could see that the relationship there was distant, probably due to the big age difference. The boy didn't completely understand all that was going on with her and, instead of trying to figure it out, he withdrew into protector mode, his raging hormones having him convinced only he qualified for the job.

"Matthew is more of my cohort in amnesia than my friend," she said. "He doesn't remember and he's perfectly happy not doing so. That I insist on knowing about my past scares him - I think *I* scare him."

Hell, she'd always scared *him*. The one person in the world who made him succeed in spite of his own low expectations. It was scary how this one bundle of logic and love had wormed her way under his skin and proven herself to be the ultimate goal, no matter what they used to throw in his path as temptation.

Diana, the suspicious clone of his sister, the answers to every question he'd ever asked - none of it was enough to sway him from her side. And they'd done it again, tried to tear him from her forever. But once again, he'd managed to resume his orbit around her brilliance. Okay, so it was more of a 'her gravity had pulled him in' kind of thing. No wonder she scared him sometimes; not even Diana had exercised such a hold on him before.

Scary? Yes. Did he care? No. Hell, she'd shot him - *again* - and here he was, back for more.

"Do I scare you, Gabriel?"

And she thought she wasn't psychic.

He shook his head, though he knew it was a pitiful lie.

"I scare the people at the Ranch, you know. They avoid me all the time. Only the doctor has anything to do with me, and then it's only to give me checkups." She yawned and added, "Maybe it's because of the seizures - people are always scared of what they don't understand."

He watched as her lids drooped to half-mast. The seizure had made her sleepy. He knew he really shouldn't press her, but he had to know one more thing. Now, as her body relaxed, he thought maybe it was ready for a simple question. Too tired to seize again, he hoped.

<Seizures - medication?>

"It's not epilepsy. I just have to control myself," she murmured, her eyes closing as she settled deeper into the bed. "Besides, it's not an option. Bad for the baby, so the doctor tells me."

His heart literally stopped for a moment as the pregnancy once again came to the fore. Much as he wanted to dismiss it like a bad dream, it was there between them. Even if he could help her regain who she once was, it would *still* be there. Growing every day, rounding her figure and mocking him with evidence that she could be gotten to at any time, by anyone.

On shaky legs, he forced himself to stand. He let his gaze run over her, but the voluminous cloak was effective in hiding her body from his greedy scan of her form. She laid on her side still, one hand tucked under her pillow, the other limp as it peeked out from the folds of black velvet at her hip.

He had to see, had to touch, to explore, before Matthew returned. It might be the last chance he'd ever have to touch her. Slowly, he crept forward, stopping to crouch beside the bed with a sigh of pain at his stretching muscles. She slept on, oblivious to his hand undoing the remaining buttons of her cloak. When he'd gotten the last one free, he gently lifted her hand from her hip, wincing at the sight of the bruises around her wrist. He'd put them there night before last, as he remembered grabbing her in an effort to make her stay. He brought her wrist to his lips before laying her arm along the curve of her body.

He held his breath as he parted the cloak; it was heavy and all it wanted to do was fall over her again. But he finally succeeded in pushing enough of the material away; his eyes took in the beige linen that was embroidered with vines and flowers leading from the bodice to the unmistakable swell of her belly.

God, it was true; no use thinking it was all a bad dream. Maybe four or five months along; he gently laid his hand on the crisp material, careful not to wake her. A slight flutter beneath his palm made him exhale in an amazed huff.

It all made sense - the doctors not wanting to medicate her, their insistence she take it easy and not force her memory to return. The seizures can't have been good for the baby; the chance of fetal hypoxia during such an event was a grim reality.

Damn, she wasn't even supposed to be able to conceive! Despite his father's machinations, Gabriel knew she wasn't pregnant when she left the bunker for the last time. And they'd only made love that one time since her last period. Was it his? Not likely. In fact, it was highly likely that even she didn't know who the father was. If there was even a father to this child. She'd been experimented on again - there was the possibility the child she carried was not even hers. Not even human.

Tears welled up at the cruelty of it all. He brushed the roundness of her stomach and for once, was glad she couldn't remember. He was certain this wasn't a normal conception, and he wanted to keep that fact from her for as long as possible.

It occurred to him that this meant he'd have to keep everything from her. Their past, his identity, her identity - the memories were bringing on the seizures. Medication was out of the question, and even more so, the removal of the chip. No way was he putting her or her baby in jeopardy, not for his selfish desire to have her back with him.

But neither was he leaving her alone in this place. Frohike and the others would come for him, even if he had to find a way to a computer himself to let them know he'd found her. And when they came? As content as she looked living in the wilds of Colorado, something about her spoke of restlessness; he knew if he got her to trust him enough, she'd go with him, no matter who he was. The desire to live without constraints was still within her - he just had to make her comfortable enough with him to put herself in his hands.

A mechanical rumble from outside made him pull his hand away from her and stand. He didn't want Matthew to see him so close to her, not right now, anyway. It would take the boy a while to get over this morning's scare. As he got to his feet, he leaned over and put his lips to her cheek. She sighed but didn't awaken, rolling over just a bit to her back.

Gabriel backed away, staring at her burgeoning waistline. He'd find his answers - just not at her expense. Never at her expense.

He walked back to the kitchen table; the crunch of paper beneath his feet made him pause. Slowly, he bent to retrieve the crumpled sketch just before Matthew walked in, tucking it into his sling. The young man flashed him a wary look and moved to her side, laying his hand atop hers to give it a small shake. "Miss? I'm back - are you ready?"

"Mmm... sleepy. Leave me alone," she mumbled.

"It's okay, Miss. You can sleep. Just let me get you home." Gently, he slid his arms under her and lifted with no effort at all. She said nothing, just sighed in her sleep as her head lolled against Matthew's shoulder.

Gabriel clenched his hand into a fist and lowered his head. Helpless, that's what he was. It should be him doing all this for her; him who was responsible for her protection.

"You can stay a few more days, then I think it's best you go," Matthew hissed. "I don't care where, just leave."

With a purse of his lips, he shouldered his way through the door and down the steps. Without missing a beat, he climbed onto the four-wheel vehicle with her in his arms. Cradling her in one arm, he steered them away from the cabin, only looking back to give Gabriel a stern look.

Do what I say, that look said. Go away.

Gabriel stepped out onto the porch and watched until they disappeared into the trees. He pulled the sketch from its hiding place and took a deep breath, looking at its stark lines of pain, love and loss, his decision made.

Too bad, Matthew, he thought. I'm not going anywhere. Not without her.

 


Chapter Ten

The Rocky Mountains September 20, 2001
8:45 a.m.

Would she come back today? Gabriel eyed the gray morning outside the kitchen window. He had the fire roaring now; it was warm in the cabin. Good thing too, because he knew it wouldn't be very long before the mild sunshine would give way to snow. He could feel the cold approaching, most especially in his battered bones.

In spite of the cold, he felt better. He'd tried using his voice after downing a cup of hot coffee and found he could say a few words before it gave out again. Not that he knew what he'd say to her if she came; he was wary of bringing on another seizure. But he had to find a way to notify the others of his discovery and to summon help. She probably wouldn't show up anyway - chances were, Matthew would be around sometime today to urge him along. Gabriel knew he'd blown his chance with the boy, even though the events of yesterday morning were not something he had any control over.

He paced his small quarters, stretching his legs in an effort to quell his frightened thoughts. What if Matthew told his grandfather about the new resident in the cabin? If the boy's grandfather was who he suspected, he'd waste no time in putting Gabriel under his thumb. And it was no use trying to escape; he was defenseless at this point, unable to put up much of a fight against anyone or anything. He had to hope the boy would keep silent.

Gabriel stopped before the fire, bending to toss another log onto the flames. Standing so close, it was really warm, and he brushed a bead of sweat from his brow, though he knew it wasn't only the fire making his skin bleed fear. He fully expected the guards to come at any moment, and he wasn't surprised to hear the cabin door open behind him. He had to hand it to Matthew - the boy was persistent.

Hell on non-resistance, he thought. "I'm not leaving," he rasped, fisting his hand at his side as he straightened.

"Of course you aren't," came the soft reply.

He whirled, his heart tripping at the feminine tones that were so dear. In a voice that had all the coarseness of sandpaper and the strength of tissue, he whispered, "Julia?"

Silhouetted by the wintry light from the open door, her cloaked form shivered. "Can I come in? I promise I won't harass you." Her smile was slight and nervous and, true to her word, she didn't overstep the boundary of the door without his consent.

Yes, yes, he wanted to scream. The cabin is yours... *I'm* yours, though you don't realize it. But fear gripped him suddenly; he was scared of what his presence could do to her. The harm he could bring to her and to her baby was very real and dangerous, should she press him again. He didn't know if he could keep her from seeing the truth - the truth that could kill her - in his eyes.

"Please?" she asked, a sad nip of pleading in the question. "I'm freezing. I won't stay long."

You can do this, he admonished himself. Just don't let her get too close. Not yet - not until you have a plan of action. He knew the best thing for her health right now was the safety of the Ranch. But that was a catch-22 - she was safe, but in the hands of the enemy.

As these thoughts ran through his mind, he found himself nodding, giving her permission to enter. His body wanted her close, despite the rationalization of his mind. A self-derisive grin slashed across his mouth as he turned back to the fire. He was such a wuss when it came to denying her anything.

He heard the door close. "Thank you."

Stay calm, don't give anything away. It became a litany in his mind as he heard her move about the room. Where was Matthew? What the hell was she doing here alone?

The rustle of clothing coming closer made his neck stiffen and his ears prick beneath his fall of hair. "Matthew is seeing the doctor this morning." Her tentative explanation did not ease his tension. In fact, it made him more anxious, knowing they were truly alone. "He's really a frail boy, despite his size. His body is susceptible to infection and his temperature was up a bit this morning." Her sigh was tinged with a hopeful smile. "So I get to tend to you - if you don't mind?"

Damn, but that sweet voice was close. He could almost feel it caressing his skin.

"Gabriel, let me see your neck, okay?"

Close? It was right behind him now, beckoning with a concern he was unable to resist. He turned and almost reeled at the sight of her standing before him, the cloak gone. A simple, scoop-necked shift fell to mid-calf, fashioned of muted blue cotton, the tiny row of white buttons falling over the round belly. At the sight of her bare feet, he raised a creased brow, spying her shoes by the door.

"It's hot in here," she stated, her hands gesturing to the fire. "Normally, I suppose it would be comfortable, but lately, I can't stand too much heat." One slim hand settled on her belly and she winked. "One second I'm cold, the next I'm burning up. Typical, they tell me."

She had no idea what 'burning up' felt like - his skin was going to melt at any second, just from the warmth she brought upon him. Idiot, he told himself. Get that look off your face... the one you know she can read like an open book.

He lowered his gaze in the face of her curiosity, then started and averted his face at the feel of her hands on his chin. "I just want to see," she murmured.

Squirming under her scrutiny, he shifted from one foot to the other, his heel catching on the hem of the too-long pants. His right hand shot out and landed on the first thing he could reach. Damn. In spite of her growing abdomen, her waist felt just as familiar in its curves as it ever was, sloping beneath his remembering, greedy fingers... with a jerk, he pulled away as if burned, then hissed at the actual danger of the fire licking perilously close to his back.

Pursing her lips, she withdrew to wrap her arms about her waist, sadness clouding her eyes. "I'm sorry," she murmured, her eyelashes fluttering down as she took his rebuke to heart. "I'll just get the first aid kit and you can do it yourself, all right?" In a flash, she'd skittered away.

Damn it. Gabriel clenched his fist as he watched her disappear into the bathroom. Seemed any course of action was likely to hurt her, despite being done with the best of intentions. Let her get too close and risk physical harm; keep her at arms' length and hurt her tender feelings. He kept forgetting that she wasn't Scully. Scully could take his barbs and retreats for what they were and bounce right back without missing a beat. Julia, on the other hand, was a lost soul with an open, friendly manner. It was obvious she was starved for contact with someone who was a peer; she needed to be with someone her own age, someone who could possibly understand what she was going through. And he'd just treated her like a leper.

She came back into the room, carefully avoiding his gaze as she set the supplies on the table, and said, "You should be able to do for yourself." Before he could make his way to her side, she'd walked around the opposite side of the table and grabbed her cloak.

Forcing his legs to move faster, he headed for the door. A small, "Damn," accompanied her attempt to slip on her socks and shoes as she bent down. When she straightened, he was set up like a roadblock at the door.

"Don't go," he whispered, knowing the path he'd chosen was dangerous. But the words kept on coming from his heart and he ignored the alarms going off in his brain. "Stay. I'm sorry if I -" The apology dwindled as his voice gavve out; he put out a hand to touch her, then thought better of it, forcing it to curl at his thigh as he bit his lip.

Her blue gaze searched his face, her hands holding the cloak together in a white-knuckled grip. "There's something about you, Gabriel. No, wait -" She put a hand on his arm as he made to sidestep her, then lifted it when she noticed his flinch. Her lips curled into a small smile. "It's just a feeling I have. I'm not trying to corner you, you know. Maybe I know you from somewhere... maybe you don't know me. It's possible. Anything's possible."

And well he knew it. It was foolish of him to think that she was going to let go of this so easily; her suspicions, while not yet confirmed, were still alive and well. Her lips spoke of maybes, but her eyes were clear and bright with certainty. But he had one leg left to stand on - his denial of the truth. As long as hhe insisted they didn't know one another, she could not refute it. It galled him to live this lie, but for now, it was the only safe path to follow.

Brushing aside his self-loathing with a sigh, he decided upon his next words with something that had served him well in the past. A bit of levity was in order, and he tried to deflect her a bit without crushing her hopes. "I think I would have remembered you," he lied, his hoarse voice wrapped around a leering, joking grin, his wink aimed at tamping down her rampant intuition.

One brow went up as her lips pursed with curiosity. "You know, I'm sure I believed the same thing once," she murmured, still trying to read his face with those piercing, knowing eyes. "Gabriel?"

Yes? his brow asked in return.

"Face it, neither of us are in any shape to actually *do* anything about it... and, at the risk of sounding like I'm trying to pick you up in a bar... do I know you?"

Ahhh... would that they *were* strangers in a smoky, jazz-filled club. Their eyes meeting across a room as they sipped false courage in a glass - slowly meandering through the fading crowd until their hands touched and the dance began for them.

He sighed, wondering if they ever had a chance at such simple pleasures. They would, if he had any say in the matter. For now, just being with her was enough. He shook his head and grinned sadly, gesturing to the table. "Can I buy you a drink, anyway?" It came out as a near ghost of a question; he'd have to take it easy for the next few minutes. Words were something he couldn't afford to waste, not while with her.

He thought of those months she spent without a voice and realized it must have been hell. The sound and taste of words were something he'd never take for granted again - and as soon as he could safely do so, he'd put his lips and tongue to use. In a more tender way than ever before.

Thankfully, she chuckled and the cloak fell away as she kicked off her shoes. "Whatcha got, Slick?" Backing away, she draped the cloak over one of the kitchen chairs and lifted the lid on the boiler on the stove. "Coffee?" she asked, facing him with a grimace.

More relaxed now, he followed her, easing into the chair opposite hers with a nod and a half- shrug.

"No can do, Gabriel." Eyes filled with mirth glanced down, then back up. "He already jumps around like a basketball player."

At the mention of her pregnancy, Gabriel colored, though he schooled his face into an impassive mask. With a jut of his chin in the general direction of her stomach he mouthed, <How far along?> He held his breath while he waited for her answer.

Julia reached into the cabinet and came back with a teapot. As she filled it with water from the sink, she said, her back to him, "The doctor doesn't really know for sure - maybe 20 to 22 weeks. Without my history and the proper equipment, it's hard to determine with pinpoint accuracy." A short laugh followed her to the stove. "And someone who's worked as a researcher before the invasion is bound to have limited expertise in pregnancy, don't you think?"

Anywhere from five to almost six months. Could be his... then again, could not be. Mentally, he slammed the hope down. No way was that baby his, and he'd just as soon forget about it.

Instead, his mind latched on the word 'researcher'. Was this doctor actually one of his father's people? Trained in human/alien genetics, just waiting for the birth of this baby? He shuddered inwardly at the thought, but somehow knew it was so, despite his yearning for it to be otherwise. "Researcher?" he asked, straining his throat with the word.

She rummaged through the cabinet again, this time pulling out a box of tea bags. "Decaf," she said pointedly. "Want some?" At the negative shake of his head, she continued, preparing her cup as the water began to hiss from the teapot. "Just a rumor I heard - about the research, you know. Matthew is primarily the reason we have a physician in residence. He has some chronic condition that flares up now and again. Some doctor, though - he smokes like a smokestack. So does everyone else at the Ranch." Her nose wrinkled with distaste. "Not in front of me, thank goodness. But I can smell it all over them."

Nicotine. One of the reasons the bees weren't as effective as the aliens thought they'd be. His father had known this; to guarantee he'd have a support staff without having to use the vaccine, he'd surrounded himself with smokers just like himself.

It made perfect sense to Gabriel. The old man had wanted power, yes. To set himself up in the capital of the free world like a king on the highest mountain... but he would have been a fool not to have a second base of operations. How Matthew figured into the scenario had yet to be determined; maybe he had a younger brother he never knew about. The old bastard, despite his foul breath and proclivity for murder and mayhem, seemed to get around quite a bit in his younger days.

Was this doctor experimenting on Julia? On the baby, even in the womb? Even now, taking blood from the fetus in an effort to keep the old man alive? God, he wanted to ask so badly, but knew the questions would inevitably arouse her curious nature once again. He had no right as a simple guest to be asking about such personal matters. But if he was careful... he reached for the pad and pencil on the table.

<What about a hospital?> he wrote, then shoved it in her direction.

She stirred half a teaspoon of sugar into her tea and sat down, taking a small sip. "We have everything we need here, they tell me. Except for the bells and whistles, of course. To spare me the pain, they'll put me under."

And when she woke up, they'd give her the bad news, he thought. So sorry, but your baby was stillborn. *If* she even survived the birth. A nice, convenient overdose of anesthesia would do the trick.

His thoughts turned his stomach and the chair suffered under his agitation as he stood, scraping the legs in a harsh rasp against the floor. His good hand came up to scratch at his beard as his thoughts whirled.

"Gabriel?" Her worried call of his name followed him to the fireplace.

He had to get her out of here, and fast. Only one thing to do. It was risky, but necessary. Turning back to her, he walked to the table and picked up the pen once again.

<Do you have a computer at the Ranch?> Please say you do, he prayed.

She raised confused eyes to his. "A computer? Yes, of course we do, but -"

"Friends of mine," he rasped, bringing his hand up to soothe the stretch of tender, healing skin on his neck. "Contact them."

"Gabriel, I don't think it's a good idea for you to be seen at the Ranch."

With a snort of frustration, he snapped his head from side to side, wishing like hell he could speak long enough to explain. Instead, he scrawled a hasty, <NO - YOU> on the pad and pointed at her for emphasis.

"Me? You want me to contact them?"

He nodded, forcing air through his bruised throat. "Come... get me."

For a second, her face fell as she realized he was speaking of leaving. A sharp pang of guilt at the way he was keeping her in the dark assailed him, but he had no intention of telling her just yet she would be accompanying him. How the hell he was going to manage that, he didn't know. Maybe the Colonel had one more plan up his strategic sleeve.

Lowering her gaze, she shoved the cup of tea away. "Sure," she whispered. "Just tell me how."

God, he wanted nothing more than to reveal all, to make her smile again. To show her she had a family after all - maybe not in the strictest sense of the word, but in the most important way. She had people who loved her and wanted her with them. One day soon... he clamped his jaw over the urge to comfort her with promises of the future and quickly wrote the name of the newsgroup on the paper.

<Don't give your name. Just tell the Colonel where I am and that I need help, to come for me.> And for you, too, he added silently. Hesitation at just how much could be revealed to her on the newsgroup was discarded; they only spoke in vague generalizations for fear of discovery, mostly using Gunmen code to converse. Frohike would not risk giving away personal information about her on the newsgroup; he'd only circulated photographs of other women in the hopes Gabriel would sense a likeness in the lost eyes. If she opened one of those attachments, he could always shrug it off as searching for a wife between friends - lots of men bartered for women that way these days. Bought and paid for on an Internet auction block.

But what if Frohike didn't believe that Gabriel had found her? Gabriel scanned his memory quickly for a confirming nuance only they would know. Actually, it was likely the little man would weep at his keyboard when he saw the next sentence, knowing Gabriel would only have given the favor to the one they'd been searching for.

<Tell him I gave you the yellow ribbon.>

The fingers of his right hand trembled just a bit as he reached into his hair, pulling the ribbon free with a tug of his fingers. His unruly mop threatened to blind him as it swung free into his face, but it was just as well, as his emotions threatened to burst forth from his eyes. A little cover was called for at this moment, and he took advantage while he could.

The ribbon was dirty, and small dots of his own blood from so long ago still marred its otherwise smooth perfection. But it was hers, and it was back where it belonged.

He shivered at the touch of her hand in his. The pads of her fingers slid over the satin and she shook her head, her mouth dropping with regret. "Gabriel, I can't take this - it's yours. I'll just tell him I saw it... he'll believe it's you."

Gabriel was adamant in his refusal to take it back, instead clasping her hand in his to bring it close to his body. Holding her still with the hand in the sling, he used his free hand to wrap the ribbon around her wrist and hand. <Keep it,> he mouthed, not hesitating to return to her this little piece of herself.

Smiling, she lowered her eyelashes, gazing upon their clasped hands as she ran her satin-wrapped thumb over his palm. "You know what this means, don't you?"

They were engaged? God *damn* it, he wished he had the strength of voice to tease her! Only somehow, it wouldn't quite be a tease, he knew.

"You no longer have anything to hold back your hair." Amused blue eyes lighted on his face and he gulped, glancing around the cabin with worry. Surely there had to be something around there to tie it back? His eyes softened with relief as they caught sight of the gauze on the table.

"Uh-uh," she said, her eyes darting to the gauze then back to him. "My price for contacting your friends, Gabriel... a haircut and shave."

Oh, this was too good to pass up. Pulling his hand from hers, he passed his index finger over her downy cheek. It hurt like hell, but he managed to say, "You *are* a bit scruffy."

Her cheek twitched under his finger. "Nice try, Slick. But you're not getting out of it that easily." Turning, she reached for the paper with the contact information on it and her cloak, then walked to the door, where she donned her socks and shoes. "My price is firm, Gabriel. Take it or leave it." She waved the paper, her hand on the door knob, one eyebrow cocked in challenge.

He had no choice. Saying a silent prayer to the gods that this wasn't a bad move, he nodded, hoping the sight of his face wouldn't trigger another seizure. Somehow though, he didn't think it would. The sketch told him that the man in her dreams was faceless. And God knew his wasn't the type of mug women swooned over, especially since the added repellant of the scar.

"Good. Don't forget to clean the rope burns and re-apply the salve, okay?" Opening the door, she turned back with a smile. "You know, I bet you're handsome under all that hair. A quick mind *and* a handsome face? Impossible to resist, you know... I wonder how I'll ever let you go."

Though the last was delivered with light-hearted flair, her eyes were sober as they looked into his, unwavering for a long moment. She was serious, he realized. He could feel himself begin to falter under that stare. Then she broke the spell, chuckling as she opened the door.

"Geez, Gabriel, that's some panic face you have there. Almost puts me off... almost."

As she shut the door behind her, he remembered to breathe.

 


Chapter Eleven

The Rocky Mountains September 20, 2001
5:45 p.m.

Gabriel let his head loll against the back of the tub with a contented sigh. He'd slept most of the day, only rising to eat and stretch his legs every few hours. The respite was welcome, especially after Julia's probing that morning. When she hadn't returned by mid-afternoon, he figured she wasn't going to come back to the cabin that day, and he decided it was time for a good washing.

After he unwrapped his arm, he found he had a decent range of motion, though it still hurt like a bitch when he tried to overextend in any direction. He wasn't going to wrap it again, but he knew the sling would still be necessary for a few days. He wouldn't miss the bindings, that was certain. And the skin of his throat and neck was healing nicely; in a week, he'd be good to go. Hopefully his friends would arrive by then; already he was getting the itch to be as far away from this place as possible. More than that, he wanted *her* away from here. He wouldn't be satisfied until she was safe.

But for now, he lazed in the hot water and felt the grime sluice away from his body, invigorating him in preparation for the flight to come. He would have preferred a shower, but there was none - only a huge, claw-footed tub that nearly took up one wall of the small bathroom. He wondered if he'd be able to get out of it easily, but not from pain at his injuries. He felt decadent somehow, not wanting to abandon the soapy water that smelled of her.

Just as he was about to give in to the urge to nap, he heard a noise in the cabin, one that made him sit upright. Someone was in the outer room - panic made him still, when all he wanted to do was fly from the tub, naked or not. Damn it, he should have brought one of the kitchen knives in the bathroom with him.

"Gabriel?"

Her soft call of his name blew the breath from his lungs with relief. But panic set in just as quickly - naked and wet was *not* the way he wanted to greet her. Shit, shit, shit, his mind screamed. That's what you get for letting your guard down, moron.

"Gabriel, are you in there?" The voice came closer, just beyond the open door of the bathroom.

He was also a stupid fool for not closing the door of the bathroom. He slid in the tub, trying to use his good arm to lever himself up while draping the washcloth - the pitifully small washcloth - over his hips. However, his feet couldn't get a grip on the slick surface and he fell back with a splash, just as she peeked in around the door.

Her mouth dropped for a fraction of a second, but she recovered quickly, smiling at the drops of water he wiped from his sputtering face. "Sorry," she chuckled, turning to lean against the doorjamb, arms crossed. "Didn't mean to surprise you like that."

Like hell she was sorry, he thought. He could see the smirk on that profile and hear the mirth in her voice. Just as he could feel the hot blush of embarrassment paint his chest and cheeks as he sank lower into the thankfully murky water. This was ridiculous; she'd seen him in the buff lots of times, but he couldn't help but feel exposed. Like a schoolboy trembling before his first woman. "I didn't think you were coming back," he said, his voice stronger from its hours-long rest, though it still sounded like someone had dragged their fingernails down his throat.

"I brought you some more clothes. I swiped them from the laundry. Hopefully, they'll fit you better than Matthew's."

Is that all she came for? He opened his mouth to let her have it about venturing out so close to sunset, but she continued, cutting off his tirade with a sly glance over her shoulder.

"I spoke to the Colonel today."

Gabriel held his breath at the pronouncement; what had Frohike told her? Not much, if her appearance was anything to go by. She was the picture of good health - if she'd seized again, she certainly wouldn't have had the strength to come to the cabin so soon.

"He said to tell you they're coming, as soon as possible. He also said he expects me to grace him with a ribbon in return this time - wonder what he meant by that?" Completing the turn, she faced him fully, her eyes wide and searching. "I mean, he's never met me before, has he? Why would I give him a ribbon *this* time?"

He could not answer; anything he said would, at the least, keep the questions coming. Deny everything - remember that, he told himself. Keeping silent was the best form of denial. He lowered his head and watched the steam rise from the water.

The seconds crawled by and he felt her gaze move over his face in a gentle, yet piercing forage for truth. Without looking up he deliberately steered the conversation into safer territory. "How's Matthew?"

Her sigh was pained, but not from worry over the boy, he knew. "He still has a temperature, but the doctor says it's just a virus. He's being a royal pain, trying to get up out of bed. Another couple of days and he'll be okay - if he takes it easy."

He deemed it safe to look at her as he said, "Good. That's good." Another awkward pause followed his scratchy statement and he cleared his throat, plunging ahead. "Julia, would you mind?" He gestured with a nod for her to leave so he could get out of the tub.

But she didn't budge, answering his unspoken command with a gentle rebuke, her eyebrow shooting up. "Please. I've seen a naked man before. At least I *hope* I have." With a quirk of her lips, she waved at the protrusion under the buttons of her dress.

Rolling his eyes, he answered, "Not me." Yet another lie; the color in his cheeks flamed now with the remembrance of just how many times she *had* seen him naked. Every one stood out in his mind like a photo album of treasured moments, albeit just a tad on the erotic side. A decidedly un-Hallmark collection... but one he wouldn't part with for all the world.

"Sure I have."

His embarrassment ratcheted up to enormous proportions and he gulped as he realized it wasn't only the abstract reacting to her husky voice and subtle innuendo. A part of him long asleep stirred under the washcloth and he shifted in the water, giving her what he hoped was a scathing, leave-me-alone stare.

"Your first night here. You couldn't very well sleep in those muddy clothes, now could you?"

Inwardly, he groaned, his eyes slipping shut. "Julia," he began, intending to beg for some privacy, but she cut him off.

"Well, Matthew was the one who undressed you, really. I just caught a glimpse here and there."

The disappointed purse of her lips told him she'd tried like hell to look. It made him more uncomfortable; her very being exuded curiosity and he knew she'd never stop trying to get under his skin. His only hope was the power of his lies, something that was proving to be damned difficult with an iffy voice. But he couldn't stop trying, even though his plea came out more like a gentle breeze than a roaring tornado. "Julia, please -"

"You didn't wash your hair, did you?" She was good at stifling his weak resistance, her question delivered with schoolteacher reprimand.

"I was just about to," he hissed through clenched teeth, even though he knew the task was beyond his ability to move his arm. Anything to get her away from him before he thoroughly humiliated himself by dragging her into the tub with him.

"Yeah, right," she snorted. His eyes flew open and he saw her smile as she walked forward in her bare feet through the water on the floor. "Can you sit up?"

"Julia, watch the water," he cried, seriously taxing his voice until the last word came out in a hoarse croak.

She took her time, reaching up to the shelf on the wall behind his head. "I'm being careful, Slick."

He cringed at the awful nickname she'd bestowed upon him as he sat up, trying to fold in two to hide his growing arousal from her. If he hadn't just worn out his voice on his alarmed near- shout, he would have told her that he hated when she called him that. No way was he a 'Slick', not by any means. Never had been, never would be. Certainly not where she was concerned; for God's sake, it had taken him years to let himself love her, and then only because of their dire circumstances.

He heard the splash of water behind him and he tensed, wondering what she was up to. She wasn't actually going to wash his hair, was she? God help him.

"Gabriel," she breathed, sadness tinging her voice.

In that instant, he knew she'd seen the lash marks on his back. Before, in the dimness of the outer room, it had been difficult for anyone to notice the faint red lines. He hung his head and started at the feel of her fingers, his body curling in upon itself. Don't say anything else, he pleaded silently. I don't know if I could stand your pity once again. It was bad enough that his back reacted to the familiar touch, shivering as if asking for more.

Thankfully, she said nothing more, just cleared her throat and moved behind him. The rush of water over his head made him gasp. Yes, it looked like his torture was just beginning.

"Sorry," she murmured. "I'll warn you next time, okay?"

Like that would help any, he thought. No amount of warning would ease his growing anxiety - just be cool, he told himself. Let her do this and she'll be satisfied. Once you're out of the tub, you'll have room to maneuver.

The perfume of the shampoo wafted over him in the split second before he felt its cold slide over his scalp. Then he almost purred at the touch of her fingers in his wet hair.

Sit still... don't move... breathe. He had to admit, he was getting good at calming himself; his body relaxed into the sphere of her warmth.

Until her hands began to move. Her short nails scraped over his skull and the heels of her palms massaged his curls into a frenzy of sweet- smelling foam. Jesus, it felt like he'd died and gone to heaven.

"Was it... bad?" Her hesitation drifted over his shoulder and he tensed, wondering where she was going with this. "The invasion. Was it that bad?"

He didn't feel like talking about it; to bring up the horrors as he was trying to control his physical reaction to her would seriously tax his emotions. "Later," he whispered, hoping she would simply forget to ask later. Much as he wanted her to remember him, this was one subject best put off for as long as possible.

Her hands kept moving through his hair. "You'll tell me before you leave, won't you? Because I want to know - and no one here will tell me."

"I promise." If he had his way, she'd remember on her own. He didn't want to be the one to give her those memories, especially since he hadn't lived through them with her. His experience with the invasion began and ended on an alien ship, oblivious to everything but his own pain. Then, living in the lap of luxury with his father didn't exactly make him an expert on life after the bees.

What would he tell her, anyway? He knew what he *wanted* to tell her. That he'd been lifeless until she'd come for him. That if not for her, he'd surely have long since been insane or dead.

No, life after the invasion was a subject he'd avoid as long as possible. Especially in light of the fact that the serenity in these mountains was meant to be undisturbed. With as little disruption as possible, he'd get her out of here. That's all that mattered.

Who wanted to think about such things at a time like this? He gave himself up to her touch with a silent sigh, letting all his worries fade for this precious few minutes. The gentle scrub of her hands made his whole body feel like jello and he found himself leaning to the right, his eyes closed in the joy of pure sensation.

"Oh!" A little thump accompanied her exclamation and his eyes shot open to find her face inches away from his, her arms practically encircling his neck. He started to sit upright, but she wouldn't give way, saying, "It's okay - you stay right there. I just couldn't reach you any more, so I knelt down."

Her bright, laughing eyes, her lazy smile, the even more familiar husky timber of her voice... Gabriel drowned in them and his lips opened to gulp in air as he sat, mesmerized by her proximity. The front of her dress was damp and the soap bubbles trailed slowly down her forearms to the cuffs of her shoved-up sleeves, but she didn't seem bothered by it at all. In fact, her smile became broader.

"Gabriel?" she chuckled, her cheeks rosy with heat from the water and embarrassment. "You still with me?"

Shaking off his stupor, he lowered his chin, feeling like a lovesick fool. She wasn't laughing at him, he knew. Her tender heart wouldn't allow her to have fun at another's expense. Somehow, that made his staring even worse, because she saw it all in his face and let it go, when she could have pounced on his vulnerability. If the roles were reversed, he would have done so in a heartbeat, delving into her as far as he could go. Which never was too deep; she always had a knack for repairing any breach in her armor before he could penetrate.

Had it ever been this difficult for her? He'd always considered himself an open book as far as letting his grief, anger, or happiness show. Hell, even though he'd never told her so - except for the drugged confession in Bermuda, which didn't count, in his opinion - he always thought she could see his love for her. It wasn't something he made an effort to hide. Now, he was finding it a monumental task to keep it all in. Sometimes he felt as if he would explode. Like now, as she touched him with such gentleness he thought he would cry. How the hell did she ever withstand the need to just let go? She was made of much sterner stuff, that was certain.

"Here goes the rinse again."

He closed his eyes at the warning and sat still as the warm water washed all traces of soap away. Now what? Did she expect him to get out of the tub with her watching?

"There. All finished."

Resisting the urge to shake like a wet dog, he brought a hand up to wipe the strands of hair from his face. The next thing he knew, a towel was shoved in his face.

"Dry off. We have work to do." Up and gone, she disappeared around the corner of the bathroom door.

Work? Did the Colonel give her some sort of specific instructions to follow? Gabriel hoped he hadn't; the less she was involved in their escape, the better. Although the real person behind that soft exterior and those easy smiles would likely want to know every nuance of the plan. But if she already knew too much, he'd have to acquiesce to her involvement. He just hoped it wouldn't overtax her, physically *and* mentally.

With his weight balanced on his right side, he gingerly got to his feet and stepped out of the tub. It wasn't as difficult as he thought it was going to be; the hot water had soothed his muscles and he felt more limber than he had in days. He turned to pull the plug on the tub and almost slipped at the voice behind him, hastily wrapping the towel around his waist.

"Your clothes," she said, dropping them on the lid of the toilet. "They should fit you better, if I judged the size correctly." A small, flirty grin blossomed on her face as her eyes shifted down, then back up again. "Nice," she purred, turning to leave.

Jesus, she was going to kill him yet. Raising suddenly pleading eyes to the ceiling, he prayed to an iffy deity who seemed determined to test his wavering belief. Give me strength, his mind screamed.

He took his time toweling off, listening to her putter around the main room of the cabin. What the hell was she doing? A thump, then a scrape of a chair; the sound of water running in the sink and the clatter of instruments of some kind in its metal basin - if he didn't know better, he'd say she was preparing for an operation.

Shit. He paused in the act of pulling on the faded denim shirt, realization dawning.

She quickly confirmed his suspicions, her voice demanding and precise. "Leave the shirt off, Gabriel. You owe me a haircut and a shave."

His mind raced - how to put her off? Easy. Just tell her he didn't have the proper use of his arm yet to shave or trim his hair.

"And before you come in here and give me that 'I'm injured' look... *I'm* going to do the honors."

 


Chapter Twelve

The Rocky Mountains September 20, 2001
6:15 p.m.

There was no way to get out of it, or even to sneak around it. She'd done as he asked and contacted Frohike, so she expected him to hold up his end of the bargain. Such a simple task, really - a haircut and shave. But his heart threatened to pound out of his chest as he slipped the sling over his head and adjusted his arm into it. At least the bulk of his arm in front of him afforded him some protection against her sure encroachment.

He walked slowly from the bathroom and stopped at the sight of the tableau laid out before the fireplace. She'd pulled a kitchen chair and a small table from the alcove to the rug in front of the fire, and had all the needed instruments of what he knew was going to be sheer torture on the flat surface of the table. She looked up and gave him a smile, gesturing toward the chair.

"Sit. I promise not to hurt you too much." Her wink was playful.

His eyes were wide as he took that first step toward what promised to be pleasure and pain.

His body numb with fear - and no small amount of excitement - he did as she asked, sitting on the chair she'd pulled close to the fireplace. He followed her every move with greedy eyes - watched as she fingered the things she would need on the table next to him. The scissors, comb, and razor, all placed on a clean towel with what was, unbeknownst to her, the precision of surgical preparation. A small hand mirror reflected the meager light in the room as she put it beside the instruments. Next came the steaming pan of water and a bar of purplish soap. He already smelled like a girl, but he didn't care.

The firelight cast her in a red-orange glow, and when she stood just... *there* ... he could see the outline of her body through the linen shift. The swell of her breasts and the curve of her hip as it met her thigh; he swallowed down his growing arousal and shifted his gaze to the bare feet that peeked from beneath the hem of her dress. Such small, dainty feet. Unconsciously, his own bare feet slid across the floor in search of hers - with a start, he stopped them just in time and decided maybe it was best to close his eyes against the temptation she presented.

But it was damned hard, especially when the clean, siren scent that was hers alone wafted over him. It hadn't been that noticeable in the bathroom, blending in with the fragrance of the shampoo. Now, it slammed into him. God, she was close, he thought, only to have it confirmed when her voice drifted over his heated face.

"Shall I cut your hair first?"

Mute with the almost overwhelming need to touch her, he simply nodded, his wet locks falling forward to tickle his shoulders. The beads of water trickling down his chest helped cool his ardor and he drew a deep breath, waiting for the feel of his fingers in his hair once again.

Light as a feather, she lifted the heavy, curling mass away from his neck and the grinding of the scissors' blades sheared through him. His teeth mirrored the cutting action, clamping down as with one fell swoop, half his hair was gone.

"That was easy enough," she chuckled behind him. "Now for the hard part."

He'd thought the hard part was the shampoo. God, was he wrong. Joy was beginning to melt his bones; he had hated the disguise, despite its necessity. Exposure was a gamble, but truthfully, he was tired of hiding from her. If he couldn't tell her who he was, then at least he could let her see the real face behind all that hair.

Most of all, he didn't care what he looked like, as long as she kept touching him. She could butcher his hair to the point where he looked like a porcupine, and still he would be happy. It couldn't be any worse than the haircuts he used to pay a good money for back home, so long ago. Though this freebie might end up costing him his feeble hold on sanity...

She kept working, snipping and combing as the hair continued to come off. His eyes popped open as an errant curl skittered down his torso to land in his lap.

"Sorry," she murmured, reaching down to pick it from his jeans-clad thigh. At her nearness, he jerked away, his left hand fisting in the sling. She noticed his avoidance, asking softly, "Did I get any in your eyes?"

He shook his head, dodging the warm breast that brushed his shoulder.

"I'll try to catch them before they fall, okay?" Her voice was filled with regret, as if she'd somehow hurt him. But he couldn't bring himself to tell her it was okay; damn him, he couldn't even manage to look her in the eye. If he did, they'd find themselves tangled on the rug in a heartbeat. And he couldn't do that to her.

Instead, he nodded again, urging her to continue. She said nothing, just returned to her task; he sagged a bit with relief as she moved around to stand behind him once again. This time, she cut and combed with a swift sureness, as if more comfortable with what she was doing. He knew if he dared look at her, he'd find her brow creased in concentration, maybe the tip of her tongue darting out to wet the corner of her mouth. It was a signature of hers, the way her face reacted to her mind's workings.

But he didn't want to look; therein laid trouble. He sat still as stone under her fingers and after a while, he relaxed enough to open his eyes once more, though he trained his vision on the dancing flames of the fire. He felt his ears get cold at their exposure to the chilly air of the room and he couldn't suppress the shiver that ran through him, especially when she ran her finger over the lobe on his right side.

"Wouldn't want that to take root, would we?"

Jesus, she was a delight to behold, laughter coming so easily to her now, warmth and joy seeming to surround her, despite the clouds she lived under daily. He wanted to let the forest grow around them, to keep out everyone and everything so he could hold her and love her to his heart's content...

"There," she pronounced, jerking him back to awareness as she came to stand before him with crossed arms. She cocked her head to one side, then the other, surveying her work with a purse of her lips before smiling. "I left it just a bit long on top - what can I say? I like the way it curls. Would you like to see before we move on?" She shifted, reaching for the mirror.

Gabriel shook his head, his right hand coming up to feel the wavy strands. A lopsided grin blossomed on his face; in the ensuing months since he'd had a haircut, his hair must have taken on life of its own. No longer weighed down, it sprang about his head, much curlier than he remembered. He'd never hear the end of it from the Colonel, who was bound to seethe with jealousy.

He looked up and his grin faded as he faced her head-on, her smile taking his breath away. It wasn't fair that she stood before him with such innocence, her mind deprived of all they once were to each other. Frustration burned his eyes and he dropped his chin, looking away lest she picked up on his sudden sadness.

With a short sigh, she spoke. "Well... let's do something about that face now, shall we?"

OhGodohGodohGodnooo... But he couldn't move, even though he wanted to run from her. A selfish part of him craved more of her touch and he was helpless to deny himself, even though he knew this was going to be more difficult than the haircut.

She moved to the table, shoving up the sagging sleeves of her thin dress before wetting the towel in the hot water. A soft hiss made him sit up straighter as if to rise, but she turned her head and gave him a wink. "It's okay - just a bit hot. My skin is just not as tough as yours." Her hands were slightly red as she wrung out the towel, the water bleeding through her fingers like rivers of tears. With her profile to him, she formed an 'o' with her mouth and gently puffed cooling air on the steaming white terrycloth.

It was almost his undoing. He squirmed in his chair, trying to decide if maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all. His groin tightened in the confines of his jeans and a fine sheen of sweat broke out on his forehead.

"There," she said, letting the towel unfold with a wave. "Tilt your head back, please, Gabriel."

Like he could refuse her, he thought, despite his rapidly escalating desire for her. Letting his eyes slip shut, his neck popped as his head fell back. In seconds, the towel was wrapped around his bristly cheeks, and he jumped a bit at the heat of it. Guilt flashed through him at the realization that her silken skin had probably felt the burn ten times more than his leathery covering, in the basin *and* in the bathtub.

He could hear her splash around in the water and the smell of lavender mixed with the steamy smell of the towel.

"I hope you don't mind, but this is the only razor I have," he heard her say. "It's one I use on my legs. You can use it from now on, if you want to. I don't think I'll be able to reach them for much longer."

A picture of her running the razor over her naked legs in that huge, claw-footed bathtub made him groan under the towel. He wanted to rip the towel off and beg her to let him do that mundane task for her from now on. He'd wash her hair, scrub her back, shave her legs - do everything her pregnancy wouldn't allow her to do.

I'll be your slave, Scully, his mind sobbed.

Cool air graced his warm cheeks as she took the towel away. Replacing it with her hands, she lathered his face with the soap, her voice close at his side. "Too girly, I know. But it's all I have, sorry."

Sorry? He'd gladly rub his girly-smelling face into his pillow tonight, if it meant he'd see her in his dreams. At the cessation of her speech, he opened his eyes, unable to withstand his self-imposed blindness any longer.

"Hi there," she smiled, her hands massaging the soap into his beard. "Ready to begin?"

He blinked twice, feeling as though he was an idiotic fool. Mesmerized by her brandy-warm voice and strong, yet gentle touch, by the sight of the few wisps of red hair that had escaped her braid and the pull of those happy eyes, he sat there, struck dumb by her simple attention.

"Okay, then." Wiping her hands on the towel, she reached for the razor. "Let me know if I hurt you, okay?" She pulled the table a bit closer for easier access to the water and then began.

Slowly drawing the razor down his cheek, taking the beard with it as he watched her... her mouth lax and her eyelids lowered in concentration. In this, she worked as he imagined she'd done with his haircut, taking her time with meticulous glides of the blade against his skin. His breathing slowed to match hers; in, out, in... out. He was lulled to the point of fascination, and jerked only when he felt the cut below his temple.

"Oh, I'm so sorry!" she whispered, almost stumbling in her search for the towel. His hand shot out, steadying her with a grip of her waist, the pain really non-existent in the face of her distress. She brought the towel up to dab at the cut, her hand shaking and her eyes full. "I'm too clumsy these days," she apologized.

Gabriel shook his head, decrying her guilt with a re-assuring lift of his gaze. He knew what he had in mind was dangerous, but he'd be damned if he'd see her injure herself in a fall. With a slight pull at her waist, he allowed his legs to spread wide, urging her to stand between them, his eyes silently asking for the intrusion.

She hesitated, the reticence of isolation these many months blooming in a pink flush on her cheeks. Gabriel didn't want to push her, but his trembling fingers betrayed him, brushing over the fabric at her waist like a plea. With a breathy exhale, she smiled, dropping her eyes as she put the towel away.

"Guess it *would* be better, wouldn't it?" She chuckled at her embarrassment and moved closer, tilting his chin up with one small finger, the razor poised. "This doesn't guarantee your safety, you realize." Her teeth tugged on the fullness of her lower lip as she poised the razor over his jaw. "I may not remember what I did before, but I *really* don't think I was very adept with any type of sharp instruments."

At that, Gabriel's face broke into a broad smile and his husky laughter filled the room. She pulled the razor away and said with an affronted air, "It's not funny! I don't want to hurt you, Gabriel."

Sobering with the greatest difficulty, he pursed his lips, though he could feel his good humor still shine from his eyes. Jutting out his chin, he offered his face to her, promising compliance with a lift of the corners of his mouth.

"That's better," she stated, shifting from one foot to the other within the trap of his legs. She licked her lips and moved in. "Now, keep still."

I'm not going anywhere, he pledged silently, shutting his eyes in simple acquiescence. It would take an earthquake of catastrophic proportions to move him from that chair. The devil himself could walk in, flanked by Elvis and - well, no use wondering what an EBE looked like. Been there, done that...

Jesus! His wandering thoughts were cut short by the soft cushion that pressed against his wrapped arm. He knew what that was - don't look, don't open your eyes. But they fluttered open anyway and his lips dropped open as well.

"Gabriel." Her slow warning made him close his mouth quickly and she kept on, though he knew she hadn't caught on to what he was seeing.

Her breasts, made fuller by the pregnancy, brushed against his chest, right above the sling. The roundness below them - her baby - was firm against the knuckles of his left hand. The rope of her braided hair snaked down her collarbone and he wanted to cry at the beauty of the yellow ribbon that was bowed around its curling tip. It was back where it belonged; *he* was back where he belonged.

Every now and then, she swirled the razor in the water, shifting and stretching, the braid moving with her. He was hypnotized by the sight of it and her; she was bathed in firelight, glowing with health and heat. As he watched, a red flush crept up her neck and a single bead of sweat traveled slowly down between her breasts.

"Almost done," she murmured, still unaware of his scrutiny. "Lift your chin, please."

He did so, knowing she was being doubly careful around the scraped skin of his lower neck. The rope had bit into him just below the edge of the beard.

"I think I can get it all," she said. "Just be very still - I don't want to hurt you."

Hurt him? God, she could never hurt him. The gunshot was a distant memory, filed away as an aberration - the product of a mind under the control of another. This - *this* was the real woman, even though she knew not who she was. The gentle touch and loathe to bring pain to anyone was still there, making her as 'Scully' as she could be.

"Just one more spot," she said, gripping his chin to make him look at her. "Do this." She gave him the 'time to shave the moustache grimace' and he complied, bringing his upper lip down, his eyes straying from her chest to her mouth.

"Good." She scraped the hair from his lips and chin and he felt the warmth of her breath on his face as she leaned over him. Dry tufts of imaginary cotton took up residence in his mouth as he watched her tongue dart out to wet her lips.

If she knew the direction his thoughts had taken... how he wanted to pull her face down to his for a kiss, then let his lips travel over the graceful arch of her neck to bury themselves in the cleft of her breasts... she'd run. Take herself far from his madness and never look back.

The hand at her waist slid around her back slowly, giving in to the pull of her warmth. Heat drifted up between them to fill his head with thoughts of the sensual exploration of days past. Slow, languid lovemaking in a dim room on a pallet of blankets; hot, hurried couplings in a shower stall and soft, satisfied kisses of completion and love.

Her name clogged his throat, threatening to burst forth. At the last second, it was denied birth, as she laid the razor on the table and gently drew the towel over his face, cleaning away the last of the soap. The towel fell away from her fingers to the floor as she drew in a sharp breath.

"Oh, Gabriel." Her words were husky and her eyes glazed over with tears as her fingers slid over the scar on his chin; she'd seen its end on his chest, but not its beginning on his face and neck. "Who did this to you?" With a bite of his lip, he looked down, feeling more hideous than he ever had before. When he looked like a grizzly bear, he felt so abnormal, wishing that he could rid himself of the cloak of the accused. Now he felt naked, his past exposed for her to see. He turned his head, trying to keep his scar from her white fingers.

But she held fast, her hand curling about his face, her thumb caressing his cheek. "I knew you were handsome under all that hair," she whispered, her smile chasing away the shadows. For a second, her eyes clouded over and he held his breath, dreading yet hoping for a sign she knew him.

Remembrance was there for just a second; whether brushing the clouds in those blue eyes away of its own accord, or reflecting that which he knew was shining from his own moist gaze - it was there. Did he dare risk her safety by letting it overtake them? He so wanted it to happen.

But then it was gone in a flash. "I guess we're done," she said, lowering her gaze with a sigh. His hand slipped from her body before he knew it.

Her face fell with disappointment, more in herself than in the lost moment. He knew she wanted it. But just like him, she knew the possibilities. In spite of her bravado after the seizure, it had frightened her. That wasn't the only scary thing, he realized. She knew as well as he did that they were treading into intimate territory. What was always there between them was pulling them together like magnets. Her body knew him, remembered the lingering touches and movements, craved it just as his did, though she herself knew not why. And though her physical self was virginal no longer, her mind certainly was. Stripped of the memory of lovemaking, it trembled with the fear of the unknown.

In the midst of his amazing discovery, he almost failed to notice her shying away, stepping back from the brink as she closed in on herself with a sigh.

But he wasn't finished; little did she know he was just beginning.

Before she could break the warmth around them, he caught her hand, bringing its warmth to his lips. Closing his eyes, he pressed his mouth to her palm, bestowing his thanks in a reverent kiss. Giving her the promise of more to come in the slow brush of his open mouth to the soft, damp skin.

The hitch of her breath reached his ears in the split second before she pulled away fully. He opened his eyes to see her silhouetted in the firelight, hands clasped, surprise warring with something familiar - desire. He'd seen it enough to recognize the burn in her eyes.

That dilated, heavy-lidded stare... those parted, pink lips and flushed cheeks... it wasn't fair what he was doing to her, he knew. But God, he wanted her. Even if she'd never remember him, he wanted her trust back. He wanted her mind and her body... her love.

Gabriel, the bringer of a new truth. No matter who they were, they were meant to be together.

She cleared her throat and looked everywhere but at him. "Well... I - I need to get back. I'll come back tomorrow, okay?" Moving to the door, she slipped on her shoes and cloak.

No, no, she couldn't leave. He stood, the force of his need slamming the chair backward. His lips moved, his throat aching with the attempt at speech, his hand shaking as it stretched out toward her.

She started, stopping to look at him, her hand on the door knob. "No, Gabriel," she pleaded, bringing the edges of her cloak together, fear and confusion shadowing her face and voice. "Let me go. I'll come back tomorrow, I promise." A blast of cold air came through the door, and she was gone into the twilight.

Raspy and filled with tears, his thready voice echoed in the empty room.

"Scully."

 


Chapter Thirteen

The Rocky Mountains September 23, 2001
4:25 p.m.

On the afternoon of the third day, he was too exhausted to keep his eyes open any longer. Three days... three fucking days without seeing her. The first day after she'd flown from him, he really hadn't expected her to brave his presence, though he wanted her to come to the cabin so very badly. Keeping vigil by the fire, he'd listened to the creak of the rocker count the seconds that went by at a snail's pace.

She didn't come.

That night, when the rumble of his stomach forced him to seek food, he pulled his stiff bones from the ancient rocker and made a sandwich. He ate only half, though he savored a cup of her decaffeinated tea, imagining he pulled the taste from her lips. Sleep was fitful, filled with stark memories of every time he'd ever lost her.

Pfaster, Duane Barry, Gerry Shnauz... striking, black and white reels of the pain and frustration he'd had to live through. In real life, she'd come back, every time. In the dreams, she stayed gone. Endless loops of his searches dogged his slumbering brain until the last, when she walked from the bunker. In that one, the end was more horrific. He woke in the wee hours of the morning, gasping for breath, the image of her lifeless body in his arms making his cheeks wet with tears.

The next day, she should have come. She knew he was waiting, didn't she? At least a dozen times he'd been tempted to leave the security of the cabin and storm the Ranch, declaring to one and all just who he was and where the hell was his woman. Caveman, of course. And utterly ridiculous, not to mention unsafe. He didn't give a shit about himself; but poking the sleeping giant with a stick was bound to make problems for her.

He'd been too bold, yes. Insinuating himself into her friendly sphere only to awaken the desire that hadn't been erased with her memory. He'd tried, really. Tried to keep himself from her, but in the end, it became impossible. Her face, her voice, the scent of her skin - it had drawn him over the edge.

Today, he was wracked with worry. Though his arm was sore, he refused to wear the sling out of sheer obstinance. His slurred thoughts made him doze off and on and the dreams were getting more frightening with every turn. Only the pain in his arm kept him from sleeping more than a few minutes and he was thankful for it - he didn't want to dream. He wanted her back.

Lying on the bench beneath the alcove window, he made a vow. He wouldn't touch her again, if only she'd come walking up that path. Hard on the heels of that thought came another - tomorrow, he was taking that path, danger be damned. He had to see for himself that she was okay.

Let her come, let her come. The litany rolled over his weary mind with the monotony of a passing train, lulling him into an uneasy sleep.

**********

5:55 p.m.

Cracking his eyes, he felt the side of his face tingle as if a beam of warmth thawed the cold skin of his cheek. Shifting slowly on the bench, his neck screamed from being crammed up against the alcove wall behind him and he grimaced, bringing up his hand to rub at the tense muscles.

"You don't need the sling anymore. That's good." The sigh that accompanied the congratulatory sentiment was its perfect opposite, laced with a hint of sadness. "And you can hardly see the bruising on your neck anymore."

Julia. For a second he felt like crying over the miracle of her presence. But the trailing tones of her voice spoke of just how unsure she was with this visit and he knew any sudden show of emotion would likely scare her away. However, there was nothing he could do about the joy in his gaze as it lighted on her seated form in the rocker. A sketch pad laid open in her lap and the fingers that gripped the pen were white with tension. Her eyelids lowered, her interest shifting to a speck on the floor.

"The light isn't good in here in the evenings, but you looked so peaceful sleeping there I couldn't resist." She spared a quick glance his way, then resumed her fascination with the dusty floorboards.

Peaceful? God, if she only knew just how stormy his insides were. How badly he wanted to fall to his knees at her feet and beg her to never leave him again. His body began to do just that, sitting up from its reclined position.

"No, don't move," she whispered.

Was she going to fly? He stilled with bated breath, mentally calculating their respective distances from the door. His damn legs were weak from sleep, but he'd crawl if necessary to prevent her escape.

Lifting and turning the sketch pad, she held it up like a stop sign, halfway hiding behind it. "See? I'm almost finished."

It was him... a flat, black outline of unconscious longing, his head turned from her to face the window, his hand lying palm up upon the bench in supplication. She'd drawn every nuance of his form. From the denim shirt that laid open, revealing the wicked scar... to the day- old stubble that adorned his hollow cheeks... to the bare foot that remained on the floor even while he slept, ready to lift up his body should she walk through the door.

That she could do this was amazing to him. She'd never shown an aptitude for art before; at least, not one that she ever revealed to him. He pictured a young Dana, sitting with colored pencils in her mother's backyard, wanting so badly to create a portrait of the bluebird in the rose bush - but letting it go at her father's urging to hit the books. Never again to be expressed while there were other, more important things to do, to learn. Until it was set free the moment all else was lost.

The ability obviously made her happy; he hoped it stayed once she regained the rest that was Scully. He would insist that this piece of Dana remain, even if it was for his eyes alone.

He relaxed, though his head didn't budge, his eyes refusing to look away from her. Unblinking, he watched her as she took up the sketch again. She knew he was staring but never wavered in concentration, her lower lip caught between her teeth.

If possible, she was more beautiful to his starved gaze than ever before. The braid was gone, but the ribbon still flowed over her exposed neck, holding back her hair in a binding that let just as much break free as it held in. In the late afternoon sunlight, the strands that framed her cheeks made a halo around her face. The dress today was as simple as the others, a loose, boat-necked pullover of cream-colored cotton; very wrinkled, as if she'd been fisting the material with indecision all day.

He imagined her pacing the Ranch these past three days, her bare feet wearing a hole in the floor. Speaking of - yes, the shoes were gone. Relief made him loose his gaze and he blinked, swallowing down his smile.

Bare feet meant she would stay for a while.

Her voice broke into his short-lived triumph, just a tiny bit louder than the scratch of the pen on the paper.

"Those pictures, Gabriel." She paused in speech but not in drawing. "Why are they in the messages? Why..." The effort to draw became too much for her and she stopped, lifting her attention from her work to search his face. "The Colonel - he always asks you if it's her. Why?"

He should have known she'd go digging. The latent artist in her may have been tamped down all these years, but that urge to seek out answers would never go away, not even with his father's best efforts. He sighed, wondering just how much he could tell her. He was so tired of lying.

Looking away for the first time since he'd woken to her face, he watched the shadows creep into the forest. "I'm... looking for someone."

Her gasp was almost inaudible. "Like me?"

His head snapped back. Was she asking if he was looking for her? No. Her face betrayed no sign that she expected him to say yes. She looked upon him as a soul torn apart from his other half - 'the one', as she'd named it.

"Yes," he murmured, "just like you." Though his lips spoke of generalities, his throat clogged with the truth. She *was* his one... would always be.

Her half-smile was wistful. "Whoever she was, she must have been beautiful. Light of hair and fair of face, to use the Colonel's words."

Sometimes, the Colonel could be a poet. Gabriel wished he had that power, especially with the object of his love sitting so close. "She was - *is* - the most beautiful person," he said, watching as Julia looked up again. "Inside and out."

"What happened to her?"

Lowering his chin, he realized he'd stepped into a quandary. All thoughts of telling a tale of 'bartering for a woman' had flown from his mind, gone as he laid there drunken with the sight of her. Quickly, he fumbled for an explanation.

"She - she just disappeared one day." He raised a hand to his brow and rubbed at the pain of remembrance that pounded in his head.

"During the invasion?"

It would be easier to say yes, but he kept on, the purity of the truth cleansing his tongue as it flowed forth. "No. After. I think she was taken. Kidnapped."

"Kidnapped? Who would do that?"

He chuckled, a mirthless bite through his teeth. "I have an idea. Best for you not to know, Julia."

Thankfully, she abandoned the direction their conversation had taken, instead returning to an earlier point. "The photographs? Why so many? Don't you know what she looks like?"

"She may have changed." He looked up, noting her confusion. "Believe me, it's possible."

She fell silent at that, dropping her head to take up her work once again. The only sound in the room for long moments was the scratch of the pen against the paper. Gabriel finally gave up his constant watching of her, satisfied she was comfortable enough to stay.

As he watched the long rays of broken sunlight stream from behind the cabin to slice across the weeds outside the window, he wondered where they would go now. Should he pursue the meager beginnings of their renewed relationship and risk scaring her away again? Or should he just hog-tie her when Frohike arrived and spirit her away from the Ranch? Not the best idea, for a number of reasons. Least of which was - she'd probably kick his ass. Julia might not have anything but the barest hint of Scully in that mind, but what was there was ferocious and tenacious.

"Matthew is not doing well." Her sad statement broke the silence.

His head whipped around. "What's wrong with him?" The boy was just another face in the small sea of people left since the invasion; Gabriel had formed no real attachment to him, but her worry was palpable and he sought to comfort her as best he could.

"His fever is not going down this time. The doctor sent for Matthew's Grandpa yesterday - told him to come home. But it's going to take a day or two, from what I hear."

So Grandpa was away, was he? "Where is he? Matthew's grandfather, I mean."

"I don't know where he goes, but he stays gone for weeks at a time. Business, Matthew tells me. What kind of business, I don't know." She sighed, her brow creasing. "I wish he'd hurry home. In his delirium, Matthew asks for his Grandpa."

Gabriel softened his face, his voice soothing and calm. "He'll be okay, Julia."

Her eyes were bright with a sheen of tears. "I hope so. He's my only friend."

Gabriel said nothing at that, just averted his gaze at her subtle implication. She was so scared of losing the boy. Not just because she obviously cared for him, but because she didn't want to be left at the Ranch alone. He knew the last few days had been difficult for her and not only from dealing with Matthew's illness. Her whole manner spoke of the way she'd closed in on herself with her thoughts.

The way her eyes could only meet his for a few moments. The deliberate distance between the rocker and the bench, when before she'd taken every opportunity to touch him, to be near him. Her slow, soft sentences, as if any rise in volume would upset the tentative truce of the last few minutes.

There was something on her mind, he could sense it. She was debating how to approach the subject, hiding behind the sketch as she gathered the facts. He'd given her some clues, he knew. The ribbon, the exposure to the Colonel and the photographs on the newsgroup; the tale of her disappearance, though thinly veiled with references so vague as to apply to anyone.

"Your voice is stronger." The words were just as sad as her comment on Matthew.

He looked her way, caressing her face with a sober, heartfelt look. "No one to talk to."

The hint taken, she flushed from her chest to her cheeks, slowly offering, "I'm sorry, Gabriel. Matthew needed me." Hesitating for a moment, she brushed her lower lip with her tongue. It looked chapped, as if she'd spent the last three days giving it grief. "And I needed time."

She stated the obvious; he could have let her off the hook and looked away. Instead, he nodded, his soft regard apologetic in return. He wanted to soothe her chapped lips with his. "I know. I'm sorry, too."

Her feet came up to settle on the bottom rung of the rocker and she leaned slightly forward as if to make herself a smaller target. He wondered at the reason for her sudden withdrawal, especially in light of her comments on his recuperation. Then it dawned on him where this was going, confirmed by her question the instant before he opened his mouth to stumble forth.

"You'll be leaving soon, won't you?"

The muted sorrow on her face made him want to deny the fact. As far as she knew, he was leaving her behind. Now wasn't the time to venture into the subject of her leaving with him, not when she'd just summoned enough courage to face him again. Really, he wasn't too keen on asking her yet. 'Grandpa' was coming home; he looked forward to doing a bit of sneaking around the outskirts of the Ranch, now that he felt better. The more information he gathered before escape, the better for them both.

She was still a bit skittish, mostly because of worry for the baby, he knew. Truthfully, he was just as concerned for her baby's health; if she wasn't in his father's grasp, he'd leave her exactly where she was.

Sighing, he whispered, "Yes. As soon as my friends arrive." He didn't tell her that his wait was liable to stretch out to a week; Frohike was good, but not *that* good. Making their way from one side of the country to the other was bound to take the Gunmen some time.

"I see. That was a rather silly question, wasn't it?" She rose from the rocker, the pad held close to her body.

Gabriel shifted his other leg to the floor, ready to go after her. But she surprised him, only circling the rocker to stand before the fire.

"And if I asked you to stay?" She faced him, resolute in voice and form, her blue eyes unflinching at her disclosure.

Skittish? Whatever the hell had given him *that* idea? He stood, holding his arm close to his abdomen, the stiff limb not cooperating when he tried to lower it. At least it helped hold in the butterflies that threatened to break through his skin, the ones that had taken up residence in his stomach at the realization that she was serious. The time spent away from him the past three days had made her think, just as it had him.

She didn't know why, but she knew enough to wonder at the possibilities. But like always, they approached the same goal from opposite ends of the spectrum. He wished he could tell her she was coming with him, but even if she said yes, it wasn't like she could walk into the Ranch and say, "Toodles. Thanks for your hospitality." Telling her she'd have to covertly leave meant having to answer questions about the necessity of such a plan.

Maybe just sneaking in and snatching her was the way to go, after all. It wasn't like she cared for him in *that* way, after all. She may have suspected who he was to her, but she wasn't sure enough to just throw caution to the wind. God, there was too much to consider, especially with her standing before him looking as if her world would end if he said no.

It pained him to have to say it, be he did, his good hand fisting at his side. "I can't." And neither could she, though she didn't know that yet. God, he ached with the need to tell her. Instead, he clamped his jaw over the forbidden, begging her with his narrowed, regretful gaze to understand, to sense the unspoken future.

Rolling her eyes, she half-turned, her frustration apparent in the hoarse, "You're a wanted man, I know. The company will come looking for you."

She'd gotten it all wrong. Well, it was half right, but it wasn't like he gave a rat's ass about the company and their goons. He only cared about her. "Julia -"

"No, Gabriel. I understand. It was foolish to hope that a total stranger would come to think of me that way in just a few days."

But he *did* think of her that way - had always thought of her that way. Couldn't she see it written all over his face? Better yet... if she hoped he felt something for her that meant that she felt something in return...

He reeled with the revelations of the last minute. No way could he be that lucky. Maybe she was just very lonely, or the pregnancy had made her want more in the way of security and love. Hormones. Had to be hormones.

"Don't look at me like that," she said, anger getting the better of her. "I'm not hormonal, or whining like a spoiled child. I felt something about you from the moment I laid eyes on you. Your reaction when you saw me... you can't tell me you'd never seen me before."

"I told you - the photographs -"

"Oh, just stop it, okay?" Frustration slumped her shoulders and she huffed, "You're not being honest with me, Gabriel. I know it and you know it."

"Me?" All right, so he'd basically lied from the beginning and still would, no matter what. But he hadn't lied in the tender way he looked at her, the greedy, yet gentle way he touched her, or the longing that graced his every word.

"Yes, you." Storming to stand in front of him, she held out the sketch, urging him to take it. He did, the paper hot in his hand. "You, Gabriel. You're the one."

Swallowing hard, he looked down at the drawing and felt the blood drain from his face.

He looked just as he had moments ago, lying on the bench, his face averted as he slept. The portrait was very good, very detailed. Right down to the scar on his face and chest... right down to the final touch she'd added in the last few minutes. The one that nestled in the hollow of his throat with telling hope.

The cross.

It was such a familiar, beloved sight that he felt his throat constrict with its loss once again. Though he wished that first day it was still there, wanted it to serve as proof of who he was, he knew it was fate that it had disappeared. She would surely have known it was him if he'd had the necklace. And now, she seemed determined to encircle his neck with the imaginary badge of commitment.

In other circumstances, he would weep with joy. If he were a more selfish man, he would pounce on her assumption and ride the wave of ecstasy that would result. She'd give herself to him without reservation; all he had to do was nod his head.

But he couldn't. Frightened of her response to the truth, he simply handed the sketch back to her, his words threaded with grief. "Julia, I wish I could tell you what you want to hear." That, in itself, was the truth.

Grabbing the sketch with a dubious frown, she turned away from him. "You could if you wanted to." She shifted, looking up with sad confusion. "What I don't understand is why. Is it because of my seizures? Are you afraid to tell me because of them?"

Say yes and he'd be confirming her suspicions. Say no and watch her blooming hope die, something she knew he didn't want. Another trap, carefully laid by a mind just as sharp as ever, despite the memory loss. Pausing, he searched for the right words, bringing his hand up to caress her shoulder. She started at the touch, but didn't move away, dropping the next bombshell with soft clarity.

"I can remember some things, you know."

It was his turn to stiffen. His throat moved with the effort to keep his voice calm. "What do you mean?" He thought she couldn't remember anything.

"In the last three days, I've had a lot of time to think. All I have to do is stay calm; to let the memories come to me." She moved away, laying the sketch on the rocker as if it were a fragile piece of glass. "I'm not speaking of names or faces. I'm talking about little things."

"No seizures?" Could it be possible to pursue a different, less treacherous path?

"No. But these pieces of me are small, almost fleeting. I figure they're not of any real danger to me... if I pretend they can't hurt me." Turning, she faced him, her hands clasped above her belly. "Feelings. Smells. Sounds... sometimes even words that come and go before I can recognize the voice."

He stepped forward just a bit, anxious to hear what exactly she knew. "Like what?"

She moved forward as well, though she kept a safe distance. It looked like she was more afraid he'd take flight than the other way around. "'You're my one in five billion.'"

It was all he could do to hold himself upright, to not show how the simple sentence had staggered him. As he struggled to find a response that would not give too much away, she continued, edging closer, her gaze steady and bright.

"The 'one'. I figure if I used to be 'his one', then he must have been mine, right?"

<Are you the one?>

Her first words to him so many nights ago rolled around in his brain, threatening to make it explode with excitement. That's where she'd gotten that cryptic question from - straight from one of the few places that remained intact in her memory. Gabriel knew he was staring at her now, could feel his hunger for her grow in his eyes and in the hand that itched to touch her. A trembling hand, the fingers clenching at his thigh - it wanted to reach out and cradle her head. To dig deep into her skull and pull out more of those tidbits - little puzzle pieces that, when joined, became all of what they were to one another.

He licked his parched lips. "What else?" he croaked, swaying a bit.

Her next step brought her into the last rays of sunlight that peeked through the kitchen window. The cabin was muted with shadows now, but she shone like a beacon, drawing him in. Her eyes were sure and her face proud, yet soft and tender, luring him in with a silent promise that none of this was hurting her.

"Sometimes, when I clear my mind of all else and not force it... I hear other things, other words." Her voice lowered to a murmur. "'It's me'... 'You think I'm crazy'. A voice telling me that when you hit a baseball, 'the rest of the world just fades away'." She smiled. "I wonder if that's really true."

Of course it is, he wanted to cry out. Instead, his grin joined hers, shaky with anticipation at the precipice ahead. "What? No 'I love you'? I mean, if this guy was your 'one in five billion', surely you'd remember that, wouldn't you?" The air in his lungs was trapped as he waited for her answer.

"Oh, it's there. But something tells me I didn't believe it - at the time, anyway."

And she believed it now. Her whole mien spoke of belief - in what she knew to be true, but not said. Taking another step toward that belief, she stood so close he could feel her warmth through the gap in his shirt.

"I know you can't say it... won't let yourself say it," she said, looking at him with softly pleading eyes. "But can I at least pretend that you have? For a little while?"

Oh, this was definitely dangerous. She was offering her hand as they stood together at the cliff, enticing him to take that first step with her into the freefall below. Suddenly, it was a choice of monumental proportions, one guaranteed to exhilarate - but with a chance of devastating failure. Should he risk it?

"I'm not asking you to be him, Gabriel." The words left unsaid - I already know you are - remained in the ether, tucked away until she was ready to embrace the fact without fear of reprisal. "I'm asking you to let me pretend. Nothing can hurt me if I pretend."

The past nights, spent alone and anguished, had been the worst he'd ever had to endure. Knowing she was so near, yet so unattainable. This opportunity, cloaked in the veil of pretense, gnawed at his whole body. His heart wanted it. His mind catalogued the careful maneuvering he'd have to do. And his hand made the decision for them both, coming up to touch her face.

He licked his lips and swallowed, his voice shaking with the need to give them both their heart's desire. "You have to promise me something."

Her cheek sank into the caress as her eyes lost their urgency and her voice lost all trace of strength. "Anything."

God, he was crazy to be doing this. He began to shake from the inside out, his madness manifesting itself in the thready command, "You feel even the slightest twinge, you tell me, Julia."

"I promise," she whispered, her gaze misting over as her hands came up. He didn't move as she feathered her fingers over his shirt. With a hitch of breath, she lowered her eyelashes, hushed joy coloring her voice. "Can I touch you?"

He couldn't move, couldn't back away from her encroachment. The feel of her fingers through the denim burned him more than the touch of her hands through his hair not long ago. This time, she wasn't touching him as an injured man in need of help. She touched him now as if he were a long lost lover, re-acquainting herself with his body. "Yes," he sighed, feeling himself drown in her proximity as his eyes lost the battle to remain open.

Feeling... pure sensation engulfed him as her hands bridged the gap of his shirt, brushing over the frayed edges to meet on his bare skin. He sucked in a deep breath, the scent of her hair filling his head.

The hand at her cheek shifted and his fingers wound through her hair with shaky remembrance, only stopping at the circle of the ribbon. The arm that ached still now screamed with a new pain - this one borne of the need to bring her closer. He did, sneaking it out from between them, ignoring the muscles that cramped with protest. As his arm settled around her back, its pain quieted, content in its familiar, beloved position just above her hips.

With a soft, hitching breath, she turned her head, settling her cheek against his pounding heart. The brush of her words tickled the fine hair that covered his skin, making gooseflesh rise on his arms.

"I can pretend that this means nothing to me, Gabriel. That we're just two friends seeking comfort from one another. Can you do the same?" Her hands trailed down his chest, spreading the shirt wide as they sought out his waist.

The overwhelming need to pull her closer won out over his trepidation and his feet joined in the betrayal of his mind, sliding and shifting to make room for hers between them. Her body seemed to melt into his, her arms sneaking under his shirt to wind around his back as he pulled her flush against him with a sigh.

"That sounds like a pretend 'yes' to me," she murmured, snuggling under his chin as he felt her smile tug her cheek above his heart.

Lowering his chin, he felt his way to her temple, his hand tilting her head for access as he said in return, "That was a pretend 'Hell, yes!'" Too emotionally overloaded to chuckle, he pressed his lips to the fine hair that framed her brow.

The humor in his reply wasn't lost on her, however, as her belly shook with soft laughter. He gasped at the feel of the baby moving within her, nestled between them. His reaction was immediate, as he felt himself begin to harden and expand against that living pillow. God, he was a perverted bastard. This was not supposed to go this far; her trust in him was still new and he didn't want to scare her away.

"No," she whispered, her arms tightening around his back as he tried to let her go. "This is just pretend, remember?"

Squeezing his eyelids together even harder, he pressed his hand into the small of her back, making sure there could be no mistake about where this was going. In a hoarse attempt at sanity he said, "Julia, there is nothing pretend about this," rubbing his erection against her belly.

His eyes opened when he felt her head move away. She looked up at him, her cheeks damp with happiness. Sobering, her gaze dropped to his lips, then back up, the burn of desire firmly planted in those sky blue eyes. "Then we'll just have to let some things be real."

Speech was impossible for him. Seeing the familiar determination in her beloved gaze, he could only nod, the words of love trapped just below the surface, but there for her to witness just the same, his face warm and open.

She stood on her toes, her lips brushing the corner of his mouth. "I missed you, Gabriel." Mirroring the caress, she dotted the other corner with a kiss before settling back on her heels, her face pink with heat. "I'm sorry I stayed away so long. Can you forgive me?"

Gabriel let his gaze roam over her beautiful face, his mouth itching to return the favor. Finally, his throat relaxed enough to let him croak, "That depends." His hand wiped away the drying tears on her cheeks.

"On what?"

"Is that a pretend 'missed you', or a real one?"

Her throat worked as she swallowed, and suddenly her voice was a shadow of its former self as she smiled. "Oh, that was definitely a real one."

"Then I forgive you."

After a moment of silence, Julia asked, "That's it?", her face clouding over.

"What else do you want?" He knew damn well what she wanted, but decided to let her wade forth.

"A kiss would be nice."

Now that their intimacy seemed to be posing no danger to her, he threw the remnants of his fear to the wind, giving her a brilliant, but cocky smile. "A pretend kiss, or a real one?"

"Shut up, Gabriel," she muttered, on tiptoe again as she pressed her mouth to his.

 


Chapter Fourteen

The Rocky Mountains September 23, 2001
6:18 p.m.

It was all he could do to remain unmoved by her kiss. Despite the free and easy forward movement of the last few minutes, the touch of her lips to his re-awakened the tense worry that laid just beneath his skin. What if this didn't work? What if just beyond that first kiss was a disastrous breach of her mind?

The round tips of her nails skimmed his back and she pulled away, though not far. "Gabriel, I'm fine." The words tickled his lips and she ran her tongue over the underside of his mouth, tasting his chin. The scrape of it against the stubble reverberated through him and he moaned. She picked up on his failing resistance instantly and said with a smiling breath, "We're just pretending, remember?"

Yeah, right. Just pretending. All is fine.

The thought pushed him over the edge with her and he curled his fingers around her cheek to bring her lips up to his, his worry taking a back seat to his desire. It didn't take much effort to open her mouth with his tongue and he drank deeply of her sweetness, her head falling back against his left arm as he moved in.

Jesus, she tasted just as he remembered - the soft, smoky flavor of warmth and the tart bite of reason. Pretense? This wasn't pretense. It was remembrance... and his tongue took full advantage, sliding over hers to rediscover all the small, tight places between her teeth and cheek. Ravenous with renewed hunger, he took from her mouth the taste of her smiles and the husky timber of her voice.

Until he felt her stiffen. He pulled away, his breath stolen by the anxiety that pierced him. Searching her flushed face, he rasped, "Are you okay?"

Chest heaving, she laid in the crook of his arm, her eyes closed. The weight of her limp body dragged on his arm, but he was too frightened by her stillness to register the pain. A second before he lost all control to panic, her tongue darted out to lick her lips and her eyes cracked open. "Wow. Way to pretend, Slick." Her eyebrows did the Groucho Marx kick as she grinned.

"Shit." Furious at her flippancy, he let her go and stalked to the fireplace, rubbing his arm with his good hand. His heart jackhammered in his chest; it was hard to breathe.

"Gabriel, I'm sorry."

The muscles of his stomach clenched with residual anger at her apology, but still he didn't turn around, unsure if he could stay his urge to run from her, screaming with the onset of madness at the almost stumble.

"Gabriel, please say something."

Say something. A thousand rebukes came to mind, but he dismissed them, knowing his anger would likely make this turn into a debacle. And he was so tired of anger and hurtful words. It came out as a mere whisper, the only thing he could think of to say. "I thought I'd hurt you."

"But you didn't. I was happy. I was joking around... pretending." She was right behind him, her voice dripping with guilt. "Gabriel, please... please forgive me."

At the broken, watery plea, he turned, steeling himself at the sight of her crumpled face. Keeping his distance, he left his right arm where it was, more for protection of his shot- to-hell nerves than for the good it was doing with its massage of his left. "Just where the hell are we going with this, Julia?"

She answered without hesitation, sniffing away the last of her tears. "Wherever you want to go."

Time for one truth. "You know where I want to go, don't you?"

A deep breath, then, "Yes."

"You have to be sure."

"I am sure." She was resolute in voice and body, stretching up as if standing in those ridiculous four inch heels she used to wear. It was quite a sight and he knew then that she was not backing down, even if the journey proved perilous for her.

He held out his hand with a deep sigh. "Then come here."

She took the offered hand and he folded her into an embrace, still slightly shivering. "You can pretend all you want, but don't do that to me again."

Her breath was just as ragged as his, her words puffed against his skin. "I won't. I promise."

His desire quickly overtaking him again, his voice lost all traces of anger as his mouth opened over her ear. "And don't call me Slick."

Julia's chuckle was cut short by her sharp intake of breath as he bit on her ear lobe. "I have to call you something. We're pretending, remember?"

God, the name was on the tip of his tongue, the same tongue that meandered down to draw rhythmic patterns on the rapid pulse beneath her ear. "Mmm..." No, he couldn't say it.

"Morris?" she offered, arching her neck to give him better access.

"God, no," he muttered, picturing the chain smoker who'd thrown them out of Nevada years ago. What a memory... he quickly erased the image of that man as he ran his hand up her back.

"Melvin?"

That made him snicker. If Frohike only knew...

"Max, then."

Was she picking these names at random? Couldn't be - most likely, they floated to the surface of her murky mind like driftwood, each trying to break the dam. What mattered was that she was getting dangerously close to remembering a name that would certainly set her off.

"Gabriel is fine, Julia." Ah, yes, there it was. He'd found what he hoped was a nice diversionary tactic.

"I like that, anyway," she said, her hands doing a dance of their own over his heated skin. "Oh!" She tensed suddenly, pulling her lips from his chest.

He paused, the zipper of her dress halfway down her back. "What is it?"

"Nothing. It tickles." Her chin lifted and she gave him a smug look laced with a grin. "That good enough for you? Or do I have to tell you every time I feel something nice that it *is* just something nice?"

He could have leapt on her cocky attitude, but at that moment, he couldn't summon enough ire to rise past his growing arousal. Instead, he drew the zipper down fully and watched with satisfaction as her eyes became dark and heavy- lidded.

"Tell me anything you want, Julia," he purred, his hand coming up to part the edges of her dress. Jesus, she had on some kind of silky thing underneath. But it wasn't nearly as soft as the skin above its lacy edge. "Tell me what you like... what you want me to do."

She stepped away from him, her gaze never leaving his as she let the dress drop to the floor. With small, precise movements, she picked up the wrinkled cotton and laid it over the back of the rocker.

He swallowed hard at the sight of the slip that clung to her curves. It wasn't long, barely reaching mid-thigh. And it wasn't an overdone piece of lingerie, either; just a breadth of off-white silk trimmed with the barest hint of lace that circled the top edge, merging into thin, decorative straps. Her breasts were fuller than he'd ever seen them, the nipples dark through the thin white silk. The fire at his back warmed him, but he knew that wasn't the reason for the sudden sweat that seemed to break out under his shirt.

Julia moved closer and reached for his shirt, sliding it off first one arm, then the other. He sighed at the removal of the scratchy denim, then shook at the way she ran her hands down his naked chest and arms, pausing to bend the elbow of his left arm with a concerned, "Don't move that arm anymore, okay? I can tell it's an effort for you." Laying it against his stomach, she reached for his right hand with her left. "Touch me."

"Where?" he managed to ask, over the furious beating of his heart.

"Here." Those bold, sure eyes fluttered as she placed his hand on her breast.

His hand shook under hers as he felt the hard little point of her nipple under his thumb. His breath shot from him in a surprised chuff as he labored to make his mind believe what was happening. Fingers that hadn't touched such beauty in months flexed, almost grabbing in their greed.

A small hiss made him jerk, but she kept him from pulling away. "Not too hard, okay? It's tender." Her fingers pressed down on the back of his hand, applying the kind of pressure she expected.

"Sorry," he said, feeling the goofy smile on his face. "It's been a while... and I'm nervous."

God, was he nervous. He hadn't been this nervous with a woman since... the first time he'd made love to the woman standing before him. Except she wasn't pregnant then. And he wasn't a gimp with only one good arm. And there wasn't a chance that armed guards could walk in on them at any moment.

Well, maybe the only thing true about that first time was the fact she was a whole lot slimmer then. Flashes came to him... of her sitting astride him the first time they'd made love, the tower's opulence surrounding them, the hidden ears listening in, the way he'd hurt, not just from the beating, but from her desperation... the way she'd made him come in an explosion of lust and urgency.

Just thinking of it made his mouth dry. Tonight, they'd take it slow and easy. He wanted to memorize every touch and every sigh of this second chance at a first time.

"I'm nervous, too," she said, breaking into the thoughts of his that were rapidly escalating out of control. Letting go of his hand, she stepped so close the hem of her short slip brushed his knees. "Gabriel... that feels so good."

He was fascinated by the sight of his dark hand against the pale silk. Soft, breathy moans came from her throat and her hands grabbed at his waist, clenching with every circle of his thumb. She was so sensitive to his touch, more than she'd ever been, and he knew it was because of the pregnancy. Eyes half-shut, face pink and mouth open, she swayed into his touch, already halfway to the finish line. But he wanted this to last, to prolong her pleasure and his, and he lightened his touch, bending a bit to press a kiss to the damp hair at her temple.

"Julia."

It took her a few seconds to answer, and when she did, it was paper thin. "Yes?"

"Help me with my pants, sweetheart."

"Huh?"

"My pants, baby. Take them off. Unless you want me to do it myself." Which would mean removing his hand temporarily, a fact that finally soaked into her brain.

"No, I'll do it." Lowering her chin, she concentrated on undoing the button and zipper while he feathered her hair with light kisses. "And 'sweetheart' is fine, but don't call me 'baby' - *Gabey*."

He winced at the nickname; that was worse than 'Slick'. Pulling away, he plastered a glare on his face, intending to tell her once and for all that nicknames were taboo... but the frown quickly faded into a slack-jawed stare at the feel of her fingers winding into the wiry hair beneath the loosened jeans. The sight of that slim hand sneaking in made his hips surge forward and he abandoned his caress of her breast, his hand grasping her waist to steady himself.

"Easy, Gabriel," she murmured, wrapping her fingers around his cock to give a gentle squeeze before pulling her hand free. He almost cried at the loss of her touch, then her warm, husky voice gave him direction. "The bed. Walk to the bed, okay?"

She was just as breathless as he was as they practically stumbled the few feet toward the mound of mussed blankets and sheets. Shifting and turning him, Julia positioned him at the bedside, placing his hand on her shoulder for support as she stripped the pants down to his ankles, lifting first one foot then the other to free him completely of their restriction.

"Sit," she ordered and he complied, keeping his greedy gaze on her face.

He watched as she slowly let her eyes roam over his body, licking her lips with anticipation. "Gabriel, you're beautiful."

Embarrassment tinged his cheeks and he dropped his gaze. "No, I'm not. Too many scars."

She dropped to her knees before him, insinuating herself between his legs to hug him. "They give you character. Only a man who stood by his beliefs would let himself be hurt by others trying to sway him." Her fingers outlined the thin strips of raised skin on his back, compounding her statement with a sure touch.

The surge of emotion clogged his throat and he let her hold him, her touch erasing the scars in his mind. Her willingness to trust him made him happy, but the innate, staunch belief in him that no implant could ever take away was the icing on the cake. She believed in him still, saw the scars as remnants of a battle fought and won. One that had delivered him back to her side, though she didn't realize it.

But he did. And he had enough memories for them both to last a lifetime.

For long moments, he held her close, watching the firelight illuminate the cabin. They sat on the edge of that light, blending in with the shadows. They needed no other source of heat, no bright glow to lighten their lives. Together, they created brilliance.

Gabriel lifted her face, capturing her lips over and over as he sought to thank her for that revelation. He was a better person when he was with her. And he vowed to keep her with him from now on, to keep her safe.

Small, urgent moans filled the air as the brief respite gave way to passion. Julia's hands drew away from his back, only to settle again on his aching erection. Gulping, he rested his forehead on hers, watching as she gave him a few slow pumps, her other hand reaching down to cup the sac of straining flesh that already was drawing up in anticipation of release.

"Julia," he said, dragging his gaze away from the awesome sight to look at her with feverish eyes. "Stop... stand up."

"Why?" It was obvious she was enjoying her play, but was oblivious to the precipice he was standing on.

"Because this will be over way too fast if you keep that up." He pulled her hands away amidst her sigh of regret. "Now, stand up."

She did as he asked and he said, "Come close. Put your hands on my shoulders."

Moving in, she complied, her face clouded with confusion. "What - ohhh..."

Slipping under the silk, his hand cupped her mons, rubbing the fine hair as he smiled. The fingers that a second ago caressed the square bones of his shoulder now gripped and pulled, leaving little half-moons on the skin like a kitten's claws.

"Gabriel?" Despite her bold advances to this point, she proved how unsure she was with the shaky sigh of his name.

"It's okay," he soothed, watching the play of emotion cross her face. "Just testing the waters."

One finger eased into her passage and he was relieved at the amount of moisture their play had generated. Swallowing hard, he felt his heart speed up at the feel of her hot, slippery warmth. Keeping his eyes on the face before him, he chanced another finger, watching her cheeks tense and her head droop.

"Easy sweetheart," he whispered, feeling her tight walls expand a bit to accommodate the slow intrusion. She was so small, much more so than he remembered. Drawing in and out, he tried to gauge her reaction in the dim light, wondering if penetration would even be possible.

As if she sensed his thoughts, she forced her eyes wider, fastening her gaze on his face. "It's the pregnancy," she said in a rush of explanation. "The increased blood flow to the pelvic area. We just have to be careful, maybe not go too deep, okay?"

Brow creased, he wondered if she remembered more about her life as a physician than she was letting on. With a short, gasping laugh, she provided, "I looked it up on the Internet yesterday." Her hips began to move in time with the rhythm of his hand and she smiled.

So this was planned before she even got to the cabin today. The thought pleased him to no end and he smiled in return, feeling like she'd given him the toy prize. "While you were looking, did you happen to see any other useful information?"

Between the soft pants of breath, she spoke, unaware of his inward preening. "You can be on top, but you can't put your full weight on the baby."

Scratch that. His arm wouldn't support him, anyway. "What else?"

"I - oh, don't stop - I can be on top, but we have to make sure you don't go too deep."

God, the way he felt right now, no way could he concentrate enough to keep himself from bucking up into her as far as he could go. Cross that from the list, too. A frown began to take shape on his face, but she bent down to grace his brow with several small kisses.

"Side to side, either facing one another or back-to-front," she said. "That seems to be the best way."

What a weird education, he thought. Making love with a pregnant woman who had done this with him before, but didn't remember a moment of it. Speaking of sexual positions like they were discussing the logistics of flying under Kersh's radar.

Wait a minute... this was *them*. Perfect in logic and passionate in feeling. Smiling, he gave her one last caress and pulled his hand away amidst her whimper of protest. "The best way it is, then." He gathered the silk in his hand and slowly began to lift it from her body.

"No." She stilled his hand with one of her own. "Can I keep it on?"

His smile faded just a bit. "I want to see you, Julia."

"I know, but not this time, okay? I'm - I'm -"

He shushed her, letting the slip fall down again, seeing just how vulnerable she was in the way she bit her lip with indecision. He could push her - and God knew he wanted to see all of her - but the fact they'd made it this far was enough for him. Take it slow, take your time, give her what she needs, he told himself.

Using his good arm, he scooted up, swinging his legs out from around her to lie in the middle of the bed, his head resting on one of the pillows. "Julia," he beckoned, holding out his hand... holding his breath now that the moment was at hand.

Kneeling, she took his hand, happiness chasing away all of the remaining clouds. She settled on her side facing him, taking his sore arm gently in hers to tuck it under her pillow. As her legs entangled with his, she asked, "Is this okay?"

Gabriel wound the fingers of his other hand through her hair, tugging at the ribbon. The strands came loose, flowing over the pillow like gold. "Yeah," he whispered, showering her face with small, tender kisses. "Okay for you?"

"Mmm..." Her hum was lost as she tilted her chin to fully open her mouth under his.

They kissed for long moments, Gabriel letting her get used to the feel of his skin. Her hands roamed his damp chest, the ridge of his spine, the muscles that flexed toward her warmth as she dipped below his waist to grab his butt. All the while, he inched closer to her, his hand traversing the same wayward path on her skin until it sneaked under the silk to curl into her upper thigh. Bringing her leg over his, he opened her to him, the scent of her arousal making him light-headed.

She opened her eyes when he nudged her with the head of his penis, breaking away from his kiss. He paused, stiffening with concern at her wide- eyed stare. But a second later, her face relaxed and her leg closed the distance, draping over his thigh. "Yes," she breathed, urging him on with a hand on his hips.

It was torture to move so slowly, but he did, rotating his hips, pushing in a bit only to pull out again as she panted into his neck, "It's okay... keep going..."

He wasn't hurting her; at least, he didn't think he was. Keeping a careful eye on her, he kept his movements languid, lubricating his cock with her wetness. She was so tight, it was difficult at first to remain within her for more than a second or two, despite the readiness that flowed from her. But he perservered, finally setting up a pace that allowed him to almost sheathe himself fully within her. In the times before, in those months of loving they'd enjoyed, he'd bury himself so deep that he could feel her cervix, taking pleasure in the attempt to crawl inside her with pounding thrusts.

Now, he was satisfied with minimal penetration, knowing she was going to have to get used to this all over again. They may not have the freedom of uninhibited lovemaking, but they had something better - time and privacy to explore each other. Until they had to leave, he was going to spend every minute he could with her, loving her until they both collapsed with exhaustion.

Her moans and sighs were louder now, and she moved with him in perfect countermotion, her tongue darting out to rasp against his neck. The roundness of her belly presented a definite obstacle, and he slid lower in the bed, using his knee to lift her backside. It made him go deeper and she hitched a breath, causing him to hiss, "Am I hurting you?"

"No." The word was soft and easy, as was the trailing sigh of his name. "Gabriel."

God, she was like a vise around him, the little ripples of pleasure massaging his cock until he knew he wouldn't last much longer. Clamping his teeth over his lower lip, he gripped the pillow under her head, seeking leverage, driving for her completion before he lost control.

Then he felt it come. Her clit, emerging from under the hood of skin to throb against his dick. His name curled from her throat and her head flew back as her orgasm stole her breath. She stiffened in his embrace and he watched, loving the sight of the red flush that painted her face and neck.

The collapse of her walls around him almost pushed him from her, but he used his legs to hold himself inside her as he, too, succumbed to pleasure. His hips jerked a few agonizing, tense times, the rush of semen leaving him in hot, shaky spurts as he dipped his head to groan into the dip of her collarbone. Her hands came up to cradle his head as he trembled, her name bleeding from his lips to vibrate over her skin.

For a while, they laid entwined, caressing each other with hands and words. She was a goddess to behold, with a happy, sated smile, her hair clinging to the pillow with damp abandon. The straps of her slip fell down her arms, exposing one pink-tipped breast; before she noticed it, he dipped his mouth to that perfect mound, taking it between his lips to suckle. It tasted as it always had - sweet with the essence of her skin.

"Gabriel!"

Her surprised gasp made his lips curl over her flesh. *Now* she was all maidenly and pure? Releasing her nipple with one last tug, he lifted his gaze, smiling at the way she quickly brought the strap up. "Just getting a taste of what's to come."

"Mighty sure of yourself all of a sudden, aren't you?"

Sobering, he brushed the wayward strands of hair from her cheek. "With you, Julia, I'm never sure of anything."

The real world crept in and he saw uncertainty bloom in her eyes. He so longed to tell her of what was on the horizon for them; the fact that she'd accepted him this way went a long way toward attaining that goal. But he knew his steps had to be carefully planned from this point on, even if it meant a little heartache for her now.

Julia lowered her gaze and shifted. His moan as he slipped from her wasn't solely for the loss of his flesh leaving hers; he mourned the end of their tryst as if it were the last time he'd get to hold her this way. "Don't go," he pleaded, closing his eyes against what he knew was her retreat.

"I'm not," she said, her gentle reassurance letting him breathe again. She gave him a little push, encouraging him to relax under her touch. "You're not getting rid of me that easily, Gabriel."

Like a wet noodle, he moved under her hands as she turned him to his back, feeling a loopy smile crease his face. She was staying.

"That was nice," she said softly, curling into his side. "Pretending is nice."

Nice? His legs felt like jelly and his arm ached like a sonofabitch, but he curled it around her back to settle her at his side. Dropping a kiss upon her head, he answered, "Nice? Julia, I may never get up out of this bed again."

Chuckling, she scratched her nails over his belly in a light, playful caress. His limp member stirred as she tested her newborn power, coming awfully close with her warm fingers to the wet, satiated muscle. "As long as I can stay here with you."

He grabbed the wandering hand and brought it to his lips, watching the firelight flicker on the ceiling. "Deal."

After several minutes of quiet, he felt his eyelids droop low as sleep threatened to overtake him. The gentle flutter into his side made him start, but she shushed him, saying, "It's just the baby. He gets a little active at night."

Gabriel felt all energy drain from his body into the soft mattress, but he managed to murmur, "He?" He thought the doctor at the Ranch didn't have the latest equipment - how could she know the sex of the baby?

She moved her leg to snuggle between his, her lips pressing a kiss to his chest. "He... she... whatever. As long as it's healthy."

He nodded, giving in to the pull of sleep.

"Gabriel?"

"Mmm... later, Julia." His words were slurred with fatigue. "Haven't slept in two days."

"Okay. But I can't stay all night, you know."

He didn't think she would. If a few hours was all he could get, he'd take it. "Wake me before you leave."

"I will." He felt her sidle up to give him a kiss. "Go to sleep."

He did, resting easy for the first time in days. Simply because he could hear her breathe beside him. The sweetest sound in the world.

 


Chapter Fifteen

The Rocky Mountains September 23, 2001
7:45 p.m.

His head was filled with her essence. On the pillow he rubbed his nose into, on his tongue, especially when he passed it over his lips. Behind the dark cloak of his eyelids, he saw her with the half-awake drifting of dreams... her eyes, cool yet dark with passion, the arch of her neck as she strove for completion. The sound of her simple cries and the feel of her body wrapped around him like an inferno he had no desire to escape.

Yeah, she was right. Pretending was mighty nice. In fact, he felt like pretending again, smiling to himself as he shook off sleep.

He rolled to his side, the feel of the cool sheets and the sound of trickling water making him open his eyes with a start. She was gone; his breath quickened with the onset of panic until he caught sight of her standing before the fire.

She'd moved the rocker out of the way and replaced it with the table she'd used while shaving him. One of the kitchen chairs sat facing the fire, but she wasn't seated; instead, she stood on the towels she'd laid out on the wood floor. A small splash overflowed from the porcelain basin as she dipped her hands low in the water. Her hair was back in the ribbon, pulled away from a face calm with concentration. A small hum reached his ears, but that wasn't what mesmerized him.

It was the uncovered expanse of naked back. The straight spine, the round globes of her backside, and slim, short legs glowed in the light from the fireplace and he felt his body harden under the blanket that draped across his hips. But he made no sound, content to just watch her for a while.

She ran the washcloth over her shoulders slowly, her head dropping back with a shiver as the water ran in rivulets down the curves. Over the swell of her hips, he followed the teardrop with his gaze, watching as it skimmed the outside of her thigh before curling back in to caress her muscular calf. As it disappeared into the terrycloth beneath her heel, he almost groaned with the urge to steal it with his tongue.

It was torture to just lie in the bed and not move, but he waited, sure the full view was just around the corner. And he wasn't disappointed, as she dipped the cloth into the water again before half-turning. Her body was in profile now and he felt his blood warm at the sight of her breasts, still firm but full above the swell of her belly. The baby sat low in her abdomen and, with a slow grin, he remembered the maneuvering he'd had to do to get beneath the jealous little kicker. But the pleasant burn that set up residence in his heart more than made up for the wrung-out feeling of his muscles.

God, she was beautiful, he thought, amazed again at just how much she stirred his blood. Other women, past dalliances - they'd had the same power over him, yes. But none had ever touched his mind as she had. Her beauty was not just of face and form. It was of heart and soul. The absence of memory couldn't diminish the capacity for love and acceptance she held within herself.

Lifting one arm, she ran the cloth down her side. In the warm glow of the flames, he could see the little mole that dotted her skin, and remembered her fingers moving so long ago, the sad words in the tower leading to mutual forgiveness.

<It was the only mark I had left that was me.>

That wasn't true. Even oblivious to her true self, the marks of Scully shone through. In her eyes, in her voice, in the way she loved Gabriel like he was Mulder. He supposed he should be jealous; after all, she'd given her body to someone other than Mulder. Was it even possible to be jealous of yourself? No, he had no reason to let that illogical emotion creep in.

Because she knew. Pretense aside, she knew he was her mate. Embraced it before she even touched him - gave herself to him because, while her mind refused to acknowledge it, her heart and body did.

She turned from him once again to bring the chair over the towels. Sitting, she bent to wash first one leg, then the other, grunting softly as if her back bothered her. But her slight grimace dissolved into a faint smile as she straightened, dropping the washcloth on her thigh to grab the back of the chair with both hands. Thighs spread, a slight *pop* blended in the with crackle of the fire and her mouth dropped with a satisfied sigh.

The urge to walk over to her ate at his gut, but still, he didn't move, knowing the show would end as soon as she knew he was awake. And God, he was glad he found a bit of willpower, because what she did next made his skin quiver under the blanket.

She glanced his way, like a child about to steal a cookie from the kitchen. But he knew she couldn't see his barely-open eyes, as he was sheltered from discovery on the dark side of the bed. A bite of her lower lip with indecision, then she looked back to the fire, sighing as she relaxed.

Releasing the chair, she let her hands move to her belly, falling back until she slouched, her neck fitting perfectly on the top slat of the chair. As if lost in her thoughts, she stared into space, her hands coming up to cup her breasts. With light pressure, she rolled her fingers over the fullness, subconsciously mimicking the way he'd pleasured her. Her sighs became deeper and her eyes slipped shut as her hands slid down the mound of her child; the leg nearest him came up to sit on the bottom rung of the chair, hiding the hands that disappeared low.

He knew the exact moment she touched herself, though he couldn't see it. A small, "Ohhh..." burst from her throat and she shifted lower in the chair.

Slowly, so as not to disturb her, he let his own hand creep under the blanket to grasp his cock. In time with her movements, he slid his hand up and down, wishing he could stand before her to do so. They'd never done this... this solo pleasure before each other that was, in many ways, more intimate and revealing than lovemaking. It seemed she'd discovered that part of herself in the last hours that teemed with sexuality - he always knew it was there, remembered it overflowing those few short weeks in the bunker. He reveled in the realization that she would get to enjoy it once again.

But her mood changed in a few short seconds; he saw it in the way her legs tensed, heard it in the soft moans that hitched with frustration. Orgasm was far away for her and something wasn't clicking.

He whispered her name, though it came out as more of a groan at the sight of her wanton pose.

Julia's head whipped in his direction and she stiffened, turning on the chair with arms crossed over her chest, giving him her back once again. Embarrassment tinged her shaky, "I thought you were asleep."

Sliding across the sheets until he was partially in the soft light, he smiled in an effort to re- assure her, hugging the pillow close as he shifted his legs to hide his arousal from her. "I was, for a while," he answered. "You were right... pretending *is* nice."

She glanced quickly about the cabin, ignoring his admission of feigned sleep. "I would have washed up in the bathroom, but I didn't feel like sitting in the tub. And it was too cold in there." Craning her neck to and fro, she avoided looking at him while searching. The golden glow of her skin darkened to an attractive pink and, if not so pleased by what he'd witnessed, he would feel really bad about spying on her.

He knew what she was looking for, and his hand reached for it at the edge of the bed. Her chin settled over her right shoulder and she spied the slip as he brought it to his chest. "I'm glad you stayed in here," he said softly, forestalling her sure demand for the concealing garment. Together, their eyes shifted to the dress on the rocker, but he knew it was too far away for her to reach for it without having to stand.

And he knew her discomfort wouldn't allow that. He forced a calm he didn't feel into his voice as he asked, "Need any help with your... bath?"

She twisted at the waist and he caught a glimpse of the mole again, peeking out from its hidden place behind her breast. He wanted to slide his thumb over it, to put his lips on it and kiss away her embarrassment. Instead, he lifted his gaze to meet hers, silently transmitting his need to come to her, to take up where she left off.

Blinking once, then twice, she pondered his question, the discomfort in her face slowly giving way to warm invitation. "My... 'pretend' bath?"

It hurt like hell, but he levered himself up on his elbow, feeling his face burn with sincerity as he growled, "Any kind of bath you want, sweetheart."

The corner of her mouth lifted. It was all the encouragement he needed and he flung the blanket away, swinging his legs to the floor, her slip tossed into the sheets as an afterthought. He saw her eyes shift momentarily to the piece of silk, then back up to him, taking in the erection that stood proudly away from his body. Swallowing, she completed the turn in the chair, her arms falling away as she said in a voice that shimmered like white, flowing sand, "I'm hot, Gabriel. I need to cool down."

He walked to stand between her and the fire, reaching for the washcloth to soak it in the tepid water. "Then let me..." His voice dwindled to nothing as he knelt, spreading her legs with trembling hands.

Her thighs shook beneath his fingers as she scooted back in the chair, but he felt no resistance as he watched her face relax. Starting with her shoulders, he passed the wet cloth over her skin slowly, making his way down her body. She watched him through slitted eyes, her hands coming up to grip his upper arms. When he teased the nipple of one breast with the nappy cloth, she hissed, her knees clenching around his waist.

He took the unspoken cue, lowering his head to taste of her. One hand came up to hold his head to her breast, and as he worked the nipple taut between his teeth and tongue, he felt her sigh rumble through his lips.

"Gabriel..."

As he worked his sore arm around her hips to pull her closer, he glided the cloth over the smooth, tight skin of her belly. Discovering how good it felt, how unusual, he let the washcloth drop to the floor, spreading his fingers wide over the skin. The little bumps and ridges seemed to move with him as if reacting to his touch. It was amazing, but he didn't want to stop the nurturing at her breast to look.

"Gabriel... can you..."

He pulled away long enough to look at her face. "Can I what?" Anything. He'd do anything she asked.

She cupped his cheek, running her thumb over his parted lips. "Can you..." Her eyes fluttered closed, then re-opened, giving him a soft, moist look. "The baby... can we pretend it's yours?"

His breath caught; she didn't know it, but already he half-hoped it was his. Or at least, he knew that because she was its mother, he'd love it just the same, no matter how it was conceived. She didn't realize it, but the child growing within her was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. That she was wanted to share it with him made him doubly happy. Closing his eyes against the stinging onslaught of tears, he pressed a kiss to her palm, then lowered his head to open his mouth over her belly. "Yes," he said fervently, running his mouth over the growing miracle.

A soft sob, followed by laughter, reached his ears. "Gabey, junior? Or Little Slick?"

His tongue tickled the outie that used to be an innie and he growled, "Neither. I *hate* nicknames, Julia."

"Spooky," she breathed.

He froze, finally lifting his head after a moment of silence. "What?"

"I said it was spooky. I hate nicknames, too."

If he wanted to, he could have made his brain click into 'hound on the scent' mode and analyzed the workings of her mind, a mind that was definitely sputtering out pieces of the puzzle like a faulty roman candle. But at the moment, he had better things to do, and he set about to his task, crouching on his heels as his mouth descended further.

"Gabriel?" She sensed his intent and stiffened, one hand flying to his head, the other trying to sneak under his face to cover herself.

"*That* I don't object to," he muttered, giving her thumb a playful nip.

She tweaked his hair. "That wasn't what I meant."

"I know." Between small kisses above the wiry red hair, he whispered, "You can't reach, can you?"

Her breath hitched over the, "No - but you don't have to - to -"

"Yes, I do," he stated, nudging her hand away with his nose. "Just relax. This is part of the bath, remember?" Before she could say anything else, he ran the flat of his tongue over her wet folds.

A sharp gasp accompanied the jerk of her legs, but she didn't protest any further. Emboldened by the curl of her fingers into his hair, he used his hands to inch her ass closer to the edge of the chair, his shoulders spreading her legs wider.

The musky scent of her body filled his head and he drew deep of the sharp tang, darting into her with his tongue. This was something she loved before, and her body reacted, overriding the last tiny bit of reserve as her other hand moved away.

For slow, easy minutes he worked her this way, a gentle push into her passage with a rhythm designed to make her want more. After a while, he chanced a look up, and his groan vibrated into her when he saw her free hand busy at her breast. Her eyes were closed and an almost constant stream of soft words bled from her lips.

"Like that... so good... God, Gabriel... harder, yes, harder..."

He doubted she knew what she was saying, given her shyness of just a little while ago. But he wasn't about to stop to make her aware of anything but what she was feeling. In fact, it pained him to have to pause, but his knees were getting tired.

"Wha -?" Dazed, she half-opened her eyes.

"Shh. Just tired of pretending I'm Superman, okay?" With a wink, he stole a finger inside, and her eyes slipped shut again.

Taking the opportunity, he sat, flattening out his legs around the narrow chair. A short insinuation of his body - the fleeting pain was quickly discarded - and he had her legs over his shoulders. Supporting her hips with his arm, he resumed what she liked best, this time, using the friction of his finger in and out to draw her clit toward his waiting mouth. It also gave him the best view of the night.

She was gulping in air now, the mound of her belly squirming above him. Both of her hands circled his head; her nipples stood out in the glow from the fire as hard little points in a ring of coral, supple flesh. He wished he had another hand, so he could reach out and touch the gems, to pay homage to every part of her that spoke of her reaction to his touch.

She was close; already he felt the tightening of her flesh around his finger, the pulsing of her clit on his tongue. "Come on, sweetheart," he murmured into the vee of her legs, inserting another finger to gently pull the tense knot toward his mouth. She let out a hoarse cry, her ass lifting from the chair to grind her pelvis into his face as he nipped at her clit with just a graze of his teeth.

As she slowly melted, he let her slide from the chair, using his arms to lower her legs around him until she sat in his lap. Still shivering, she went limp, nuzzling her face into his neck.

"God, Gabriel," she said, her voice husky with the aftermath.

"Cool now?" he chuckled, running his hands up her back, his kisses soothing the rapid pulse in her neck.

"No - I think I'm hotter than ever," she replied, smiling against his skin.

"In my opinion, you're *definitely* hot."

"So are you," she said, closing the small gap between them, trapping his erection against her abdomen with a small, upward thrust of her hips.

He saw stars - brilliant, white-hot flashes behind his eyelids and he gulped, "Julia, I don't expect you to - Jesus!" His gallantry flew out the window as she rose up, using her hand to guide him in.

"Just not too hard, okay?" she asked, puffing a bit as she began to impale herself on his length.

God, but it was so difficult not to ram her hips down on his, and his hands clenched around her hips as he fought to regain control of his noble intentions. "Julia, payback is not required, you know," he said raggedly, searching her face with concerned eyes for any sign of distress.

"This is not payback. This is pretend, remember?" As she hovered over him, she peppered his face with kisses. "Pretend you've just made me gloriously happy and I want to give you happiness in return. Easy."

He closed his eyes, feeling so awful that he was enjoying this. Remembering her textbook recitation of the semantics of pregnancy sex, he tried one last time to dissuade her. "Julia, you make me happy by just being here. We don't have to do this."

"I want to," she whispered, planting her knees beside his hips and easing down just a bit.

But it wasn't good for her, he could tell in that instant. She could not hide her grimace, nor the small hiss of pain.

"Julia, stop," he commanded, lifting her from him.

She hung her head, her small, "I wanted to do this for you," wrenching at his gut as she sat on his thighs.

"I know, sweetheart," he murmured, caressing her flaming cheek with his lips.

"Sometimes... orgasm creates..." she stumbled, "there's too *much* blood flow. Makes intercourse difficult. I'm sorry, Gabriel."

Ah, he thought. Another tidbit of information she'd learned, but tried to keep from him, wanting his pleasure as well as her own. Like he'd said, payback wasn't required - but he felt as if he would disappoint her should he put a total stop to their lovemaking. She was still not comfortable with the way she looked and she wanted this moment in time to be as normal as possible.

"There's nothing to be sorry about," he stated, bringing her hips closer to his groin. "We have lots of options, Julia."

At that, she raised hopeful eyes to his. "Show me," she whispered.

He needed no other encouragement. Pulling her with him, he laid back on the towels, settling her above him. "This is real 'pretend', okay?" he smiled, using both hands to cup her ass and push her forward.

She caught on in a flash, smiling in return as her belly trapped his erection between them. Her legs stretched outside of his and she grabbed his arms, trapping them at his sides as she moved. "I like this," she said with a wicked grin.

Already he was fast approaching the point of no return, the weight of the baby pressing down on the underside of his cock with delicious, mind- bending pressure. He squeezed his eyes shut, groaning, "Not half as much as I do, Julia."

Lifting her upper body, she balanced herself on his arms, her playful, "I have you where I want you, you know," making him open his eyes. Her face swam before him as little prickles of pleasure grew in his balls. "All I have to do is this and you're my slave." Rubbing up and down, she increased the strength of her movements.

He raised his chin, letting his slitted eyes drink in the sight of their almost coupling. His cock was flat against his belly, the head peeking in and out as she slid up and down his length. In many ways, it was the most erotic thing he'd ever seen. She was right; he felt like he was chained to her, enraptured and hypnotized by the way she was using her body to pleasure his.

With his feet, he kicked at the chair behind them, shoving it with a crash to the floor so he could bring his knees up. Yes, yes... cradled in his thighs, her ass brushed against his sac, drawn up even tighter to his body by her pull on his cock. His head fell back to the floor and his hips joined in, thrusting madly as he fought for release.

Julia lowered herself once again, letting the hard points of her nipples tease his chest as she entwined her finger with his, drawing their clasped hands close to his head. He watched her face with a narrowed, hot gaze, pinpointing her lax lips in a wordless plea. She answered, closing the distance as he did, their lips meeting in a hard, grinding kiss that set off an explosion of feeling in his groin.

He didn't last long; the orgasm that quaked through him was rocket powerful and blessedly short-lived. If he'd come any more, he would have certainly lost all control. As it was, he cried out, throwing his head back as he mimicked her earlier stream of words, not knowing anything but the release that came in a tidal wave, then quickly ebbed as he sagged under her.

Julia sat on his trembling thighs and reached for the long-forgotten washcloth. He hissed at the feel of the damp coolness on his softening penis. She made quick work of their cleanup before tossing the rag aside to lean down and kiss his cheek. Her hands cupped his face and she murmured, "You said it again."

The feel of her cool lips against his hot cheek was like a balm and he opened his eyes, purring under her like a well-satisfied tiger. "Said what?"

"Scully. You said Scully." She pulled away to meet his wide eyes. "Who's Scully? Is she the one?" Her fingers shook as she caressed his face and she smiled, a teary, hopeful thing. "Is she me?"

God, he hadn't. Had he?

"Miss Julia!"

The shout broke through the haze. Dragging his gaze from her face, he saw a far off light through the crack in the alcove curtains. Someone was approaching the cabin.

"Miss Julia!"

Scrambling off his lap, she rushed about the cabin as he struggled to rise. In a second, she'd retrieved her slip and pulled it over her head, picking up the towels and washcloth to bury them in the bed, pulling the blankets over the stained sheets. "That's Edna," she hissed. "One of the maids. Something must be wrong. They never disturb me here." She handed Gabriel his clothes. "Bathroom. Quickly." She righted the chair and carried the basin to the sink.

Gabriel still reeled from his unintentional disclosure, but he knew the situation now was far worse than any worry of his about how much she suspected. Before he could let the evening end, however, he needed to give her some faith that all would be well. Straightening, he held his clothes close to his body and reached for her hand, stilling her nervous search for her dress.

Pulling her to him, he whispered fiercely, "It doesn't matter who you are, or who I am. What matters now is that you're mine, you understand?" He laid her hand over his heart, meeting her liquid gaze with one of his own. "And I'm yours."

She smiled and curled her hand around his nape to bring his mouth to hers. Their kiss was heated and desperate, and he sought to prolong it, moving his mouth over hers with urgency. But it was over all too soon, as she broke away, giving him a push toward the bathroom. "Go. I'll try to come back tomorrow, okay?"

At the thump of boots on the porch steps, he started, releasing her with a nod before escaping to the safety of the bathroom. Julia's greeting reached his ears as he sat on the toilet to pull his jeans over first one foot, then the other. It wasn't easy; in fact, it was slow going, the night's activities and the sudden fright of the almost discovery making him fumble. It didn't help that he had to be as quiet as a mouse, or that he couldn't even turn on the overhead light.

"I told you I'd be back at nine," Julia was saying. "I needed some rest."

The maid's voice was bordering on harsh. "Get dressed. Mr. Spencer is back and he wants to see you."

Gabriel paused at that, his jeans halfway up his thighs. Grandpa was back? He heard Julia's voice move about the room, but she wasn't arguing. "I have to find my shoes."

"Here," Edna barked. "And your cloak. Be quick. There's someone else with Mr. Spencer, someone important."

"I'm going as fast as I can."

The intrusion of cold air under the crack in the bathroom door told Gabriel the maid had opened the cabin door. "Don't worry about the fire. It's almost out anyway. We have to hurry, Julia."

"Why?"

Gabriel heard the voices become muffled and he knew they'd left the cabin. Quickly, he pulled his jeans up and tiptoed through the now dark cabin to the alcove, pushing aside the curtain. With the cabin in almost total darkness, he knew he couldn't be seen, but he was cautious anyway, just opening the curtain enough to let his face peek through.

The two women walked down the porch steps, Julia's small figure a few feet behind the bulk of the maid, who trained her flashlight into the woods beyond the clearing. Julia's voice was overly loud, and he knew she was doing that for his benefit.

"Just who is this *important* person?"

The maid stopped, turning with an exasperated stare. "Your husband, Miss. He says he's your husband." She whirled and stomped off, muttering at the uneven ground that slowed her pace.

Gabriel felt his heart lurch to a stop. In the meager light of the quarter moon, he saw Julia turn as if suspended on a string, her face pale with shock and disbelief under the black hood. He knew she saw the same on his; he reached up to touch the window with his hand, as if he could wipe away her distress through the separation of glass and untruths.

One slim, white hand came up to touch her lips.

It was a farewell.

"Miss Julia, come on!"

Lowering her head, she turned to follow the maid into the forest.

He gulped in air, his face drawing together in a pained denial, his whisper fogging the glass before him.

"No."

Her cloak blended in with the darkness and he watched until he could no longer see the beam of light, his arms and legs numb.

 


Chapter Sixteen

The Rocky Mountains September 23, 2001
9:15 p.m.

When he finally moved from the window, it was a half hour later. He kept expecting her to walk from the forest like some kind of sprite, laughing and assuring him the last minutes of their tryst had been a dream. But he knew better. Didn't mean he ignored the hope; he just squashed the pain with the fantasy until he was ready to deal with it.

Deal with it. That was impossible, at least at the moment. What he wanted to do was run up that trail and take her by force. God damn it, he'd found her. And fuck anyone who tried to take her away from him again.

But the years of haring off on impulse had finally taught him that he couldn't beat his old man with rash action. He'd fallen into one trap after another, ending with the abduction in Washington; the only reason he'd made it out of that one was because of her resourcefulness and unwillingness to give up on him. And he'd almost done it again, with the way he'd stumbled upon the bounty hunter. If it hadn't been for her once again, he'd be dead.

This time, he was going to step carefully. He loved her too much to falter. He turned from the window and sat in the rocker, his mind whirling with questions.

Her husband? What did the old man have up his sleeve now? Maybe he'd sensed her drifting away, moving into Gabriel's sphere. It was possible that Matthew had, in his delirium, spoken of a stranger at the cabin.

No. If Matthew had somehow spilled the beans, the cabin would be surrounded by armed men, and Gabriel would find himself hauled up that mountain for a nice reunion with his father. That much was certain.

It was more likely that Julia had tipped them off, though not intentionally, and certainly not fully. She was the independent sort, even without a life of her own. Strong-willed and defiant, she'd probably approached the old man when some of her memories began to surface, asking about the circumstances of her rescue from the streets of Denver.

He shook off the whys; the first order of business was to make sure she was okay. It was time to do a bit of snooping around the Ranch. No way was he letting her out of his sight again, at least until he'd had a chance to talk to her, to tell her she was *not* anyone's wife.

Rising from the rocker, he still didn't know exactly where he was going, or what he was going to do. All he knew was that renewed anger fueled his blood, dispelling the numbness with swift, sure determination.

There wasn't much to work with in the cabin. He dressed as warmly as he could, donning the clothes she'd brought before wrapping himself in one of the blankets from the bed, a dull gray woolen thing that had seen better days. He let the fire go out totally as he searched the kitchen for a weapon. He dared not turn on the light, just made do with a candle, listening for the approach of anyone in the night outside.

At last, he found a rusty steak knife, knowing its edge was pitifully worn, but not caring. It was enough to give him some protection, as long as he could get close enough to use it. Just *how* he was going to do that, he didn't know.

He paced for another fifteen minutes, half expecting the guards to show up. Julia hadn't said anything, he knew, though it occurred to him that the maid was a snitch possibility. He didn't know how she'd overlooked the subtle scent of sex in the cabin. Unless she'd been too pissed at having to trek through the woods to get Julia to notice anything but her own anger. He hoped this was the case; after a while with no visitors, he figured he was safe for the time being, though he still didn't trust turning on the light.

As he watched the moon set, he knew it was time to leave.

**********

10:10 p.m.

Shivering in the night air, he crouched in the brush at the edge of the tree line, gazing up at the huge two-story house dubbed, 'The Ranch'. The trail had been easy to follow, but darkness and unseen gopher holes had slowed him down, especially since he had to move as quietly as possible to avoid alerting the guards he knew roamed these woods.

Even now, he saw sentries criss-cross the yard, their guns ready. He counted only two on this side of the house, which he assumed was the back of the place. There were a few doors that leaded to a sprawling patio, complete with wicker furniture piled up in one corner as if tucked away for the winter.

Several lights shown in the windows, both upstairs and on the first floor. A pair of glass doors at the far left of the structure revealed a massive room, one where he could see a fireplace and dark country furniture arrayed in a cozy array around the roaring fire. This room, a den of sorts, was well-lit, and he held his breath at the sight of shadows just to the right of the doors. Someone was in there.

The skin on his face tingled; his suspicions were confirmed when Julia passed before the window. Her hair was pulled away from her face in a severe braid, the yellow ribbon wound through it like a talisman. She wasn't dressed the same; this time, a black, long-sleeved dressed covered her from neck to mid-calf. She paced with shoes that reminded him of his third grade teacher - all laced up, even her ankles covered by thick black socks. He couldn't help but grin at the way she'd protected herself. She wasn't giving an inch, not in body language, anyway.

Neither in the spoken word, he could see. He was too far away to hear what she was saying, but whatever it was, it was not without a bite. Her hands joined in the argument, clenched at her sides as she faced her unseen opponent.

His father, he knew. A waft of cigarette smoke drifted over her and she grimaced, stepping back, then turning to face the window.

"Not tonight." He read her lips as she stared out in the darkness beyond the window. "I'm tired."

Her eyes narrowed a bit, and he knew then she was searching for him. She wasn't buying into the husband story, not yet, anyway. She expected him to come after her.

Damn it, he wanted to give her what she wanted, to storm up that hill and take her. But it was too dangerous at the moment; the Ranch was alive with activity. He saw two more men walk around the edge of the house to stand on the dark patio and cursed under his breath. A regular party, he thought with a grimace.

His attention darted back to the den. Julia turned from the window and nodded at whoever she was conversing with before walking away. He heard the faint slam of a door, then watched as the light in the den was turned off. A shadowy figure walked to the fireplace, the glow of the cigarette the only trail of light. His back to Gabriel, the man sat in the wing-backed chair, his hand holding the cigarette over the arm without concern as to ruining the rug below.

He had gray hair and a familiar, hated stance. Gabriel felt the usual tug of loathing at his gut and wished he had a rifle. This farce would end if he only had one good shot.

A light came on in one of the upstairs rooms and he jerked, moving to his right to see better through the brush. He gulped in relief at the sight of her; apparently, her request to be left alone for the night had worked. She moved about the room, killing the overhead light and turning on a bedside lamp before standing at the window.

She looked down, caught sight of the guards, then backed away just a bit, her hands coming up.

<Gabriel.>

He smiled, feeling giddy at the communication. She couldn't see him, but she knew he was there.

<I remembered something else.>

How to use sign language? he chuckled inwardly, though the immense relief at her deliberate use of it to talk to him contributed to his grin more than her awakening memory.

<And no, not how to use sign language.> She smiled and he wanted to laugh out loud. Something was definitely clicking between them, in a most welcome way. It had nothing to do with the physical, though their bodies weren't ashamed to admit the attraction. No, this was the fine tune of their quick minds, remembering how to snap in response to intelligence and the comfort of knowing one person as well as you knew yourself.

Then she turned quickly, as if someone was at the door. She said something to whoever stood on the other side, then moved to answer it. After a few moments where he had trouble stifling his panic, she came back to the window.

<Matthew's asking for me.> She chewed on her lip, then nodded. <Cabin. Two a.m. I'll be there.>

But what had she remembered? He cursed under his breath and started to back away, then paused when her hands moved once more.

<I remember - I think I told you once before - you make me a whole person.> She paused, then added, <If I didn't, then consider it said now.>

With a worried, yet hopeful smile, she touched her hand to her mouth, then moved the kiss to the glass, pressing her fingers in a lingering, light caress that he could almost feel against his lips. Then she pulled the curtains closed; a few minutes later, the lights went out.

Oh, Scully, he thought, his chest tight with emotion. Though you never spoke it, I heard it loud and clear.

Wanting to wait for her to sneak out, but knowing it wouldn't be wise, he began to slowly crawl through the brush. He'd almost made it to the dense cover of trees when a voice made him stop cold.

"She doesn't seem to be too happy about you."

The soft, modulated tones of a man's voice made Gabriel freeze; recognition skirted the edges of his mind, but the exact name to put to the sound eluded him. The two men who stood on the patio had moved to its edge, allowing Gabriel to listen in on their muted conversation.

"But she'll get over it," the familiar voice continued, soft and pleased. Gabriel's mind catalogued the slight accent, putting a more gritty edge to the words as a mental exercise in investigation.

Fuck. He knew that voice. Cover it with a hard-ass, Mississippi twang and it was obvious. A chill ran over him and he swallowed, shifting to one knee before his legs gave out in swift, fear-laced anger.

The other one said something under his breath, something Gabriel didn't catch. He was too surprised at his discovery, his ears trained on the one thing he did recognize.

They were both dressed in black, hunched in dark overcoats against the cold night, their breaths steamy as they spoke. One of them reached into his pocket as he stepped away to give the wind his back. "Yeah, you're a man any woman would want, right?" he chuckled derisively, the flare of his lighter illuminating his face.

Jesse. Smiling and lighting up a cigar as if he had the world in his back pocket. Gone was the good old boy slang and tattered work clothes. His teeth gleamed white as he rolled the cigar around in his teeth.

Gabriel felt like throwing up. Was that what Jesse had been doing with the company? Assigned to stop him should he get too close to Julia? Or worse, lead him straight to the bounty hunter; like a fool, he'd fallen for every lie, every easy smile and friendly gesture.

"Smoke?" Jesse walked back to his companion and Gabriel tensed, watching the other man decline with a shake of his head.

Damn. The face was in shadow and Gabriel squinted against the harsh glow of the outside patio lights, trying his best to find out who was with Jesse. But all he could see was a head covered with a dark knit cap, and a full beard above the black-garbed figure. The man stood rigid, his hands deep in his coat pockets.

"Shit," Jesse growled, reaching for his lighter once again. "Damn cheap cigars." He put the tip of the lighter to it once again, puffing for all he was worth.

Gabriel felt the breath leave his lungs; the other man turned away from the smoke, but not before Gabriel saw something that rocked him back on his heels.

The cross. Gleaming on the black turtleneck, it mocked its wearer. Gabriel wished it would burn a hole through the sweater, right down to the skin of the imposter who wore it. It was only a fleeting glimpse, as the man turned fully to disappear around the edge of the house once again, Jesse scrambling to follow.

God damn Jesse. He flashed back to the accident with the bounty hunter; he hadn't lost total consciousness, he was sure of that fact. But with the stress and pounding his body had taken, it would have been easy for the cross to have fallen off onto the grass. Jesse must have picked it up.

If Jesse had been leading him to his father all along, then it must have been quite a blow to the old man's plans to lose Gabriel when he was so close. Of course, the cross made identification of Julia's *husband* that much easier - made it impossible for her to deny.

Gabriel wanted to scream. He wanted to run to them both and tear them limb from limb with his bare hands. A low growl rumbled from his chest and he started to rise.

"Don't move."

The butt of a gun at his temple made him still. This was wonderful. Just his luck. His whole world falling apart before his eyes.

"You're gonna have to shoot me, 'cause I'm moving," he hissed.

The gun fell away with a surprised chuff of recognition. "For Christ's sake, Mulder, keep still."

Gabriel snorted, hanging his head with a grin. Already? Couldn't be.

"Frohike?"

**********

September 24, 2001
1:15 a.m.

"So, she has no idea who you are?" Frohike fingered the drawings, bringing the latest closer to take a better look. It was the one of Gabriel she'd drawn the afternoon before; he held it up, remarking, "From this, I'd say she has a pretty good idea *what* you are to her."

Gabriel shook his head, leaning forward in the rocker to get some warmth from the small fire they'd started in the fireplace. "She suspects, but she knows the seizures are brought on if she lets herself go too far." He brought his hand up to rub at his brow, the bittersweet memories of their 'pretense' giving him aching pause.

Frohike sat back in the kitchen chair, the dim light casting his camouflage garb with an eerie orange glow. "Sounds like you're up shit creek, Mulder."

"Gabriel."

"Huh?"

"That's one thing that's gonna have to go, *Colonel* - the name's not Mulder, it's Gabriel. Can't take the chance."

The Colonel nodded, falling silent as he sipped the bitter coffee. Gabriel lapsed into silence as well; in the past two hours, he'd told his friend about his stay in the cabin, leaving out certain intimate details, of course. What little pieces of the puzzle he knew spilled from him - Matthew, his 'Grandpa', seeing Jesse tonight at the Ranch, the sudden arrival of Julia's so-called husband. Only one thing he'd left out - her pregnancy.

For some reason, he couldn't bring himself to speak of it. It made everything seem so raw and painful. It was, of course, the reason she was here. But it wasn't of tantamount importance at this point. They all had to make it out of there alive. And Frohike would find out soon enough, he figured.

"Langly and Byers arrived yesterday," Frohike murmured. "I got a room at a hotel, should do nicely as a base of operations. They're setting things up while I come after you."

Gabriel grinned ruefully. "Guess you're all wanted men like me now, huh?" He hated putting his friends lives on the line this way. Just another load of guilt he'd have to live with if any of them were hurt because of this.

Frohike stood. "Actually, no." He moved to the coffeepot and gave Gabriel a smile. "One of the advantages of working in the company's computer section. One little tweak of the mouse, and it's as if we've never even worked for the company. You either, by the way."

A ray of sunshine, which Gabriel embraced with a small smile, standing as well. "Hey, at least we don't have to worry about that, right? Thanks, man."

His friend fingered his beard. "And as soon as this beard disappears, they won't be able to recognize me - any of us, really. We can adopt our usual handsome faces and move about freely. No one's looking for the old Administration anymore, you know. Too busy digging for 'k'. Greedy bastards." He huffed, gulping down the rest of his coffee before asking, "So what now? Who's this husband, anyway?"

"I don't know," Gabriel replied. "But whoever he is, he has the cross." Worry bit at his words. "I don't think she'll buy it, but with that..."

"From what you've told me, she already knows who you are to her. Come on, Mulder - excuse me, *Gabe* - she's still Scully. Sharp as a tack. Surely if the intuition has survived, so has the skepticism?"

Gabriel gave him a short smile. "God damn it, Frohike. You should have come a couple hours earlier. We could have been long gone from here."

Frohike set his cup on the table. "If I had arrived earlier," he said, giving the rumpled bed a pointed look, "I probably would have been very, very embarrassed, am I right?"

Gabriel colored, the memory of her body wrapped around his making him suddenly very warm. "Not as much as *we* would've been," he muttered, lowering his eyes. Suddenly, his world seemed a very unsure place, this cabin a fake shelter, despite the harbor it was hours ago. Raising worried eyes to his friend, he asked softly, "We're gonna get her out of here, aren't we?"

"If I have anything to say about it, yeah."

Frohike's determination made shake off his bad feelings. Hands on hips, he smiled. "Wait'll you see her, man. She's... she's..." He wanted to tell the little man of her pregnancy, and how it made her glow, but the words still stuck in his throat. Inevitable questions would follow, and she was due to arrive shortly. Best not to let her walk in on a discussion of implants and alien clones.

"Yeah, yeah, I know," Frohike waved him off. "Speaking of - I need to beautify myself before the fair Agent Scully comes to call. You wouldn't happen to have a razor around here, would you?"

Gabriel swallowed at yet another flashback, this one filled with the tender scrape of the blade across his chin, her eyes smiling with joy at her fancy work. Clearing his throat, he supplied, "Bathroom. Take your time. Clean up. She won't be here for another half hour."

Frohike turned for the bathroom door, pausing to ask softly, "I know I said she was still Scully, and I believe it, Mulder. But really... she's still the same, isn't she?" He asked as if his whole world hinged on Gabriel's answer, his eyes hopeful.

With a nod, he said what he was sure of in his heart and mind. "Still the same, Frohike. She may not know us, but nothing could change the good person inside."

"Damn." Frohike winked at Gabriel's surprised stare. "And here I was, figuring I might have a shot with her at last. She still has a thing for your sorry ass, doesn't she?"

Gabriel spread his hands and cocked an eyebrow, avoiding the bed with a roll of his eyes. "'Fraid so, buddy."

"Figures. Why some women go for the brooding, morose type when they could have a love god is beyond me." He chuckled, closing the bathroom door behind him.

Gabriel's smile faded, worry setting in again. They hadn't yet discussed just how they were going to leave this place. With a stretch of his muscles, he shook it off. One thing at a time. First he had to set this 'husband' business straight.

The cabin door opened with a blast of cold. "Gabriel?"

Shit, she was early. He hadn't had time to think it through yet. But he couldn't deny the relief that surged in him, and he stepped forward from the shadows by the bathroom.

As soon as she saw him, she launched herself into his embrace. He held her tight, running his hands over her cloak, nuzzling her face with his. "You okay?"

"I'm fine." She burrowed closer, her cold nose seeking warmth. "I can't stay long."

Pulling back her hood, he settled his chin on the top of her head, his hands rubbing up and down her back. "I know. But I'm glad you came back."

She was quiet for a moment or two, then she gave his chin a kiss before pulling away, her eyes downcast. "I've seen him before," she said slowly, bringing her worried gaze up.

Gabriel stilled, his hands grasping her upper arms through the cloak. "Who?" Did she know Jesse from somewhere?

"My hus - the man who says he's my husband." A sudden glimmer of tears filled her eyes. "Oh, Gabriel... he's got the cross."

 


Chapter Seventeen

The Rocky Mountains September 24, 2001
1:50 a.m.

"He's got the cross," Julia said again, this time with more anguish than he'd ever seen before on her face.

"That means nothing," he insisted, in a much louder voice than he wanted. "It's just a piece of jewelry, you hear me?" God, he was getting caught up in her panic. Quickly, he toned it down. "Anyone could have something like that."

"But I know him."

In spite of what she whispered, it was obvious she didn't *want* to know this husband of hers. Hell, he thought - who *did* want to know this usurper? If not for the fact that this was another strategic move on the part of his father, he'd bundle her up this minute and steal away. But he knew they wouldn't make it far; no, when they left, they had to be free of the web of treachery forever. He'd make sure the old man couldn't follow, couldn't call her this time.

As for the cross? It would take more time and effort to explain that than he had to spare. So instead, he offered a stern, "Just because he has a cross, it doesn't mean he's your husband."

"I understand about the cross, Gabriel. Really, I do. But you're not listening to me." Sad tears wound down her cheeks as she looked up at Gabriel. "I *know* him."

The breath left his lungs in an instant. "He's familiar to you?" If he was one of the many 'associates' his father had employed over the years, it would make sense. One face jumped out at him immediately - Jeffrey Spender. He was believed dead, but they'd never found a body. God, he wished he'd gotten a better look at the man on the patio.

"One look and I knew," she answered. "Just the sight of him made me feel things I can't explain. I don't know if it was love or hate... it unsettled me just the same."

The myriad of emotions that clouded her face told him just how much this unexpected development had disrupted her existence. Guilt warred with defiance in the swimming blue eyes; guilt because she'd let herself become intimate with him, defiance because she still embraced their union, despite this revelation.

"You've done nothing to be ashamed of," he said, punctuating the sure statement with a small shake as his fingers clenched around her arms. "*We* did nothing wrong."

"Gabriel, I could never regret that," she replied, her small smile like a beacon, pulling him in with warmth. As quickly as it came, however, it faded. "I'm just sorry I had to draw you into this mess."

His hands moved to cup her face. "Julia, I'm right where I want to be. You believe that, don't you?"

Her lips trembled over her shaky sigh. "I suppose if you weren't, you'd be long gone by now, wouldn't you?"

Smiling, he answered, "Sc - sweetheart, if it weren't for you -" He broke off, biting his lip over the sentiment that threatened to gush from him. He'd have been dead many times over if not for her, and he ached to tell her so. "I'd still be hanging from that tree, probably some bear's feast." He chuckled, trying to lighten the suddenly somber mood, brushing his cool fingers over her cheeks. "A little marinade and I can be as tender as the next guy."

She shuddered, apparently in an attempt to shake off her distress, curling into him once again. "Be serious."

"I am serious. You don't think I'm tender?"

Her arms tightened and her voice lowered, muffled against his shirt. "Sometimes I wish you weren't."

He brought his lips close to her ear, confused by her admission. "What?"

She pulled away, challenging him with her eyes. "You heard me. You treat me like I'm a fragile piece of glass. I won't break, Gabriel."

Hot anger bubbled up in him; yes, she was the most resilient person he'd ever known. He'd never have been able to do all she did in the past year. But circumstances demanded that he take the lead this time, and if it meant keeping her in the dark, forcing her to take it easy, then so be it.

"You're pregnant, God damn it," he growled.

"That doesn't mean I can't take care of myself," she shot back, reacting to his simmering anger with some of her own. "I'm fine."

The dark cabin swirled around him, the walls transforming in his peripheral vision to the bright corridor outside Skinner's office. The stark image, her concerned, sad face, the way she'd hugged him and given him the cross - God, it was too much. The stress of the past months burst into flame at the spark of those hated words and he let her go, distress choking his voice as he took a stumbling step back, hunched over slightly with the pain of remembrance. "I can't risk... losing you again."

She stilled and he held his breath as she looked up, mouth open and eyes wide. "Gabriel?"

Damn. He was such a fool. Quickly, he moved ahead. They needed to tread safer ground. It wasn't exactly the safest, but it was the most urgent. He avoided her searching gaze as he cleared his throat, asking, "Did you speak to him? This 'husband' of yours?"

"No, not yet. But I saw him... when I left my room to see Matthew, he was speaking to Mr. Spencer in the hall. Gabriel -"

"What did he look like?"

She sighed, exasperation in the huff of breath. "Dark. Looked at me like he could see through me." Her hand touched his arm. "Gabriel, talk to me."

"I am talking to you." He spared a glance at her, his arm tensing under her fingers.

"No you're not." Walking away, she stood in the kitchen with arms crossed and her ire up. "You said 'again' - tell me what that means."

"God damn it, Julia," he growled, anger at his stupid mistake making him turn away. "It was just a -"

"A what?" she interrupted. "A slip-up? Like the way you forgot to mention I had a husband?"

Shit. He knew better than this. He knew not to pursue the conversation, especially with her baiting questions sitting between them like a bamboo-covered tiger trap. But no... he put one imaginary paw on the flimsy thing and just had to test it, like always.

"You don't have a husband. There. Are you satisfied?"

From the corner of his eye, he saw her fling her cloak to the kitchen table in a fit of fury. Suddenly, she was standing before him, hands on hips. "How do *you* know I don't have a husband? Tell me. Explain this away."

He remained silent, clenching his jaw at her prodding.

"It's not that you can't," she continued, "it's that you won't. You sit here, content with fucking me -"

"Julia!"

But she didn't stop at his gasp of her name. "Happy because you have me back. Yes, I said *back*. Just like you said *again*. How do you think that makes me feel, Gabriel?"

"Julia, I know you're confused..."

"Confusion? You don't know the meaning of the word," she almost sneered, and he felt like any second he was going to start retreating like a slapped child. "Who's Scully?"

"Julia..."

"Who the *hell* is Scully?"

The trap collapsed beneath his feet. "She's *you*, God damn it!" He sat in the rocker, holding his head in his hands, his shout echoing in the cabin, numb with release.

But he only allowed himself a second of pause; he lifted his eyes to her, searching for any sign of trauma. She stood there, eyes closed, swaying a bit, her face calm. "Julia?" Quickly, he traded places with her, standing to sit her in the rocker, warming her cold hands between his as he knelt before her, anger mixed with worry in his plea. "Julia, are you okay? Answer me, dammit!"

He seethed with frustration; how the hell had they gone from tender relief to this in under a minute? It made sense that she'd eventually demand answers, but he hadn't been prepared to square off with her just yet. Damn it, he wanted to get them all safely off the mountain before dealing with her memories.

A deep breath filled her lungs as she slowly opened her eyes. Bringing a hand up to his cheek, she whispered, "The baby? Is it yours?"

For a brief moment, he let himself bask in the hope shining from her glistening eyes. With all the lies he'd had to live these past few days, one more really shouldn't matter. But he was unable to give it voice, lowering his head to her lap. So simple, actually. Yes or no. How could he choose when even *he* wasn't sure?

Instead, he rubbed his nose into the soft black material that draped her thighs, nudging the crown of his head into the mound of contention, sneaking his hands around her hips. "God, I hope so," he whispered fervently, clutching at her like a drowning man.

He felt her stiffen, reading everything into those few words, the good along with the bad. Under her hands, his back heaved with the onslaught of emotion, and she melted over him, her lips touching his curls. "Shh... it's okay."

He cried because he had her back, when he once thought he'd never see her again. Cried for all the time they'd lost in search of one another, even when they occupied the same office. Cried because things had been done to them both that no human being should ever have to live through. Soft, silent tears that bled from him to her, dampening the linen that covered her lap. For long, relieved seconds, she let him release his fears and nightmares unto her, whispering soothing words as she stroked his hair, her kisses light and undemanding above his ear.

"Don't ask me anything more, Julia," he begged, his voice muffled, his hands clutching at her like she would disappear should he lift his head. "Please don't. I can't... can't take the chance."

"It's okay, I know," she said. Gently, she wrapped her fingers around his face, making him look up at her urging.

Her smile was wondrous but subdued, her eyes shining. With slow, calming movements, she wiped his face. "You've told me everything I need to know. Thank you." Her lips touched his brow and they remained, open and soft, her breath cooling his panic.

Okay. She was okay. No tremors, no shock to her system, no eye-rolling, dead faint. His laugh was shaky, his eyes closed as he said, "Of course you realize you're stuck with me now."

Julia let her lips skim over his temple. "Something tells me I've been stuck with you for quite a while, Gabriel."

This time, his laughter was genuine and light with relief. A memory of her, fresh-faced amidst the mold and dimness of the basement, fielding his smart-ass attitude with snappy logic made him remark, "Let's just say you ticked off the wrong people a long, long time ago."

Her mouth moved closer to his. "And they gave me you?"

All this time, he'd thought of himself on the receiving end of that transaction; she'd been given to him. Slowly, he'd retooled his thinking. From the frustrated edge of her unyielding professionalism, to the truce of swapping theory, to the embrace of minds opposite in reasoning, but similar in the quest for truth... yes, he'd abandoned his resistance to her long ago.

And he knew now that she'd not been given to him. He'd been entrusted in *her* care, unbeknownst to those who'd orchestrated their union.

"Yes," he breathed, lifting his chin to complete the pact, his lips caressing hers. "And if you don't mind the re-gifting, you can have me again. You know, like the fruitcake no one wants at Christmas."

He felt her belly shake with little chuckles. "Gabriel," she murmured, returning his light kisses, "one thing you're *not* is a fruitcake."

"Contrary to popular belief, I'd have to agree - the man's more of a pie... key lime, I think. Definitely an acquired taste."

Shit. Gabriel let Julia go and stood up, blushing like he'd been caught necking behind the school gym. He'd forgotten all about Frohike.

"Um..." He wiped his hands on his jeans, looking from Frohike to Julia, who remained in the rocker in a similar state of embarrassment. "Julia, this is the Colonel." How much had his friend heard? He supposed it didn't really matter, because Frohike already knew all about her memory loss, especially what happened when she went too far.

From the shadows by the almost-dead fire, Julia stood and held out her hand. "Nice to meet you finally," she said with a smile.

As she walked closer, Frohike's smile faltered a bit, his eyes drifting to the swell of her body before rocketing up to meet Gabriel's. He recovered quickly, however, extending his hand. "The pleasure is mine, dear lady," he purred, bringing her hand up.

Gabriel could have laughed at the little man's gallantry, in the way he touched his lips to the back of Julia's hand. But he didn't; in fact, the longer it went, the more uncomfortable he became, finally stepping in when he saw her face begin to melt under Frohike's attentive charm.

"That's enough of that," he stated, taking her hand away from Frohike to tuck it in his. "The Colonel's here to help us get out, Julia."

Frohike stood to his full height, tucking his thumbs into the belt of his fatigues, his smile beaming. "At your service, Miss," he said.

Julia gave Gabriel a look, wriggling her fingers in his tight hold until he lessened his grip. She smiled in return as she addressed their guest. "Colonel? Is there something else I can call you? Something not quite so... formal?"

Before Gabriel could jump in, Frohike piped up, "Melvin. Call me Melvin."

Gabriel gulped, feeling her nails dig into the back of his hand as their playful 'pretend' foreplay of hours ago came to mind. "Melvin," she purred, "you wouldn't happen to know a Max? Or a Morris?"

Frohike's face clouded with simple confusion. Oblivious to the undercurrent present between Julia and Gabriel, he replied, "No... can't say that I do."

"Julia..." Gabriel growled with faint warning, forcing her to look up.

"All right, all right," she capitulated, giving him an innocent smile. Yeah, she was guileless, all right. About as naive as a ten-year veteran of the Bureau - *that* certainly hadn't changed. "I've got to get back, anyway. Before I go, though - what's the plan?"

That made Gabriel's heart skip a beat - and not the question about the plan, either. He'd known she couldn't stay, but just the thought of her going back to that den of thieves was enough to make worry set in. He saw Frohike pick up on his thoughts, and the little man moved forward, instantly launching into what little they'd discussed already.

"The plan? Still in the formative stages, Julia. We're still waiting on my associates to arrive."

"Your associates?"

"Fitzgerald and Samson. Should be here shortly. You just sit tight."

"Sit tight?" She looked up at Gabriel, who'd managed to quell some of his fear at her return to the Ranch.

"Don't let them take you away from the Ranch," he said. "Stay close. You still have access to the computer?"

"Yes - it's in Matthew's room. I can use it while I sit with him."

"If there's any news, we'll post it there. If you need anything, send a message. We may not stay here in the cabin, but we'll be close by." He looked at Frohike, who nodded. They both knew the cabin probably wouldn't remain the safe refuge it was for very much longer. Bringing her hand up, he gave her palm a brush of his lips. "Don't worry. I'm not going anywhere without you."

Frohike appeared out of the corner of Gabriel's eye, cloak in hand. With the utmost gentleness, he draped it over her shoulders, saying, "And I won't let him leave without you, how's that?"

Julia let Gabriel pull her to the door. "You leave without me, and I'll just find you. You both know that, don't you?"

"We don't doubt it," Gabriel chuckled, pulling the hood over her head. "Come on, I'll walk you back."

"No you won't." She was adamant, buttoning up her cloak with a stern stare. "I came here by myself, I can certainly make my own way back."

"Julia -"

"No, Gabriel. I'm pregnant, not blind. And I can take care of myself."

"No kidding," came Frohike's murmur.

Gabriel flashed him a 'you're not helping' look, but Julia headed off his argument, circling his cheek with her hand, forcing his gaze back to her. "I don't want you coming near the Ranch until we're ready to go, you understand me? What you did tonight... getting that close. It was foolhardy. But I knew you'd try it. Just don't do it again, okay? I'm fine." She reached up and gave him a kiss, short but sweet. "See you soon."

Gabriel disregarded Frohike's presence, pulling her into a tight hug. "We're gonna get out of here," he whispered. "I promise."

Her breath against his neck was warm, as was her, "I know. I trust you, Gabriel." She knew his pronouncement was more for his benefit than hers; her strength of will was stronger, and always would be. After allowing him a moment more of their embrace, she let go, turning for the door. Before she left, however, she gave Frohike a sidelong glance, her parting words soft and probing.

"Wouldn't happen to be Max Fitzgerald and Morris Samson, would it?"

Gabriel groaned at Frohike's acting, as his friend snapped his fingers as if just making the connection. "Come to think of it... yeah. Small world, isn't it?"

As she opened the door with a laugh, she walked out, Gabriel close behind. "I told you I was walking back alone."

"I'm just seeing my date to the door," he said, closing it behind him. The wind had picked up, howling through the forest with the brisk forecast of snow. He gathered her to him with a wink. "How about a goodnight kiss?"

Tilting her head up, she murmured, "If I kiss you, I won't leave."

He dropped a kiss on her nose. "Would you believe me if I said that was the plan all along?"

"No. I believe you and the Colonel have no idea how to get us all off this mountain, am I right?"

He wasn't giving her the satisfaction; besides, why say it? They both knew the days ahead were scary enough. And he had faith in his friends' abilities - they'd proven themselves many times over. "We work best under pressure. Trust me."

"I do." Her statement was sure, then she cocked her head to one side, a bare hint of curiosity on her night-shadowed face. "Michael?"

It was his turn to raise an eyebrow. "Huh?"

"Well, there's a Melvin, a Max, and a Morris. A little voice is telling me you're Michael. Am I right?"

If he could just turn off his memories, he'd be fine. But the recollection of their pre-escape couch conversation in the tower slid up from nowhere.

//What would you choose?//

//For you? Michael.//

So much for letting sleeping dogs lie. "Julia," he sighed, "don't ask me -"

"Hey, I can guess, right? It'll give me something to do while I wait." She smothered his protest with her lips. The kiss was painfully brief, but intense. He broke away after a few seconds, the plea for her to stay crawling up his tongue. But she silenced him with her fingers in a farewell caress before turning to carefully take the steps.

"Julia?" he called, stopping her before she reached the tree line.

"Yes?" She turned and faced him again, hands hidden in the folds of her cloak.

"Not Michael," he gave her with a smile, shivering in the night air.

She grinned. "As long as I never slept with Melvin, Max or Morris, okay?"

His smile faded, his hands fisting in his jeans pockets. "Over my dead body."

"Thought so. See ya later, Moe." One second, then two passed before she lifted the corner of her mouth. "Not that either, huh?"

Gabriel shook his head, hiding his astonishment at the names falling like dominoes from her mind with a rueful grin.

"Oh, I'll get it right one day. Trust me." With a sly look, she was gone.

That, he didn't doubt.

He waited until she blended in with the trees before going back inside. As soon as the door closed behind him, he was assaulted by a human tornado, shoved up against the door.

"Pregnant? Damn it, Mulder, why didn't you tell me?" Frohike barked into his face. Gabriel opened his mouth to reply, but Frohike turned away to pace the floor, running a shaky hand over his nearly bald pate. "We're fucked. Big time."

Gabriel sagged into one of the kitchen chairs, scrubbing at his bristly cheeks. "I didn't know how to tell you. Damn it, it shocked me more than it did you, you know."

"This is going to make escape difficult - on foot, anyway."

"I know. But it's not like we'd given our plan any thought yet, is it?" Gabriel offered with a snide look.

His dig went unnoticed. In the now dark cabin, Frohike looked ten feet tall, his boots almost wearing a hole in the floor. Suddenly, he stopped. "Is it yours?"

How many times had he asked himself the same question? Pondered the possibilities over and over, only to come to the same dubious conclusion. He raised his head, solemnly declaring, "I don't know."

Frohike sighed, his offended little rooster act fading as he stooped to throw another log on the fire.

"Not too much, man," Gabriel warned. "Keep it small."

"I know. I just suddenly got very cold."

Gabriel swallowed, knowing the Colonel had immediately drawn the same conclusions he had a week ago. There was no telling whose baby Julia was carrying, or in what manner it had been conceived. He felt like screaming again, tearing the cabin into little pieces in his rage.

"Just so you know." Frohike sat across from him, folding his hands on the table. "I'd do anything for her - even claim that baby."

The chair almost toppled over as Gabriel rose, fury tainting his cheeks. "And I wouldn't? Fuck you, Frohike."

"Mulder -"

He leaned over the table, tamping down his voice to a low, menacing growl. "I don't give a shit who that baby belongs to, understand? It's hers, which will make it mine. Both of them are mine, and I'll kill anyone who tries to take them away from me again, got it?"

His friend slumped in his chair, folding his arms with a grin. "Just checking. You never were the poster boy for stability, you know."

"Asshole." But he couldn't deny that Frohike had a point. And he didn't expect less from the man who loved Scully as much as he did.

"Hmm... may be. But I'm the one who's gonna get your sorry ass out of here, hers too. And this little development - which you neglected to tell me - puts a definite kink in the plan."

"What plan?" Gabriel huffed, hands on hips. "Unless you've got something you neglected to tell *me* about."

"I figured we'd just nab her and haul ass. I was going to suggest it when I came out of the bathroom, until I laid eyes on her. Not gonna be easy now, not in her condition."

Gabriel sighed, resuming his seat at the table. "Any kind of trek down this mountain on foot would be impossible if we stay off the road, you know that - even if she weren't pregnant. Besides, I want to make sure they can't call her again. Even if I have to kill every son-of-a- bitch at that Ranch."

"That's not going to be easy, Mulder. It would make more sense to come at it from another direction." Frohike paused, giving his newly shaven chin a scrape with his fingernails. "You think it's the chip Krycek gave her that's keeping her under their control?"

"What else could it be? It wouldn't be the first time that fucker double-crossed us, you know."

"I don't know, man. He had Scully right there in the bunker. He could have led anyone to her - to all of us, at any time. Could havee had the place incinerated and delivered Scully all nice and neat to whoever wanted her. But he didn't. Explain that."

"I've thought of all that, believe me. I just can't see it any other way. It's got to be the chip." He raised his head, adamant in his certainty, piercing his friend with anguished eyes.

"Unless there's another chip." Frohike straightened in his chair, his grin lighting up his face. "Put in by your father in the tower..."

Damn. Could it be? He leapt ahead, sudden hope brightening his gaze. "Able to call her at any time... capable of erasing her memory..."

"But why wait so long to call her?"

Gabriel's mind raced; he dug deep, profiling his old man, replaying their last dinner together like a slideshow.

//"She can't have children," he'd insisted over his rolling nausea.

And his father's smug, "She can now."//

"Maybe there was no need... at the time." Gabriel's whisper was soft, yet hopeful.

"So it laid dormant until her body began producing human chorionic gonadotrophic hormone..." Frohike continued.

Gabriel's smile was wide. "Signaling a pregnancy."

Frohike nodded, though his voice was still wary. "Thin."

Gabriel's smile faded just a bit. "*Very* thin. It usually takes days for a woman's HCG levels to rise to detectable levels."

"Ah, but we're talking very advanced technology here, Mulder. I've seen these chips. Nothing like them anywhere - who's to say what they can do?"

It made sense, Gabriel had to admit. So much sense that he wondered why he hadn't thought of this possibility earlier. But the problems were still numerous, including the fact that they didn't know where the second chip was. It could be hidden anywhere under her skin, or worse - deep within, where they'd never find it.

Could he live with her *never* remembering what they were to each other?

Frohike noticed his lapse into introspection. "What is it?"

With a smile, he decided he could. God damn it, he could live with *anything* as long as he had her with him. Even this slim hope that the baby was his; hell, he'd known from the moment he saw her again that he would love that child as much as he loved her. But a small, selfish part of him wished it to be true - smashed down the intelligent part telling him it couldn't be his child.

"Frohike, you just made my day." His hand was shaking as he brought it up to wipe at his suddenly moist eyes. "I hope."

"There's no *hoping* about it, if your declaration a little while ago about them being yours is true. Doesn't matter."

"But it would be mighty nice, wouldn't it?"

"Damn right it would." His friend stood and held out his hand. "Congratulations, Mulder. Name the kid after me, okay?"

 


Chapter Eighteen

The Rocky Mountains September 24, 2001
4:15 a.m.

Gabriel looked around the cabin one last time, Frohike waiting by the door with a murmured, "Come on, Mulder. Gotta make it off this property by sunup," as he finished buttoning his coat.

They'd spent the last two hours letting the dust settle, so to speak, on the mountain. Still fearful of running into any of the Ranch's guards, they'd waited, listening to the night grow still and cold. Figuring the arrival of Julia's so-called husband had stirred the guards a bit, possibly even added more men to the mountain's defenses, they'd tried to catch a catnap in the cold, dark cabin. It had been impossible, in Gabriel's case, anyway. He'd kept watch by the alcove while Frohike had taken the bed, doggedly tired after not having slept since he'd stepped off the train early yesterday morning.

Frohike had buried his nose in the pillow. "Smells like her," he'd muttered with a sigh of contentment, then rattled the roof with his snoring.

Gabriel had been more than happy to let Frohike have the bed; he missed her already, and just the smell of her on the linens would have made him howl with her absence like a wolf mourning the loss of his mate. He'd been very uneasy about letting her go back to the Ranch, but he knew it was necessary for now. Didn't make it any easier to leave, however. It felt like he was abandoning the only home he'd known in more than a year.

More so, leaving the battered walls and dusty floors behind felt like he was severing his last tie with her.

"Mulder?"

Frohike's urgent whisper snapped him back to the present, and he gave his friend a, "Just a second," before he walked to the kitchen table. The cabin was now mostly dark, but the dying embers of the fire gave him just enough light to see his way through the small pile of sketches. He found the most recent, the only one with a face - his. With gentleness, he folded it and carefully put it in his shirt pocket, knowing one day he'd return it to her - along with his real name.

He turned and followed Frohike into the waning night.

Denver, Colorado 9:45 a.m.

Fatigue dogged his every step, but he couldn't stop, keeping up with Frohike by the sheer pump of adrenaline through his body. He shook off the ache in his shoulder but there was nothing he could do about the way his head pounded with lack of sleep. The trip down the mountain had sapped his energy and he knew he made a sorry figure, catching the worried looks from Frohike only to pass them back with a warning stare not to comment. All he needed was coffee; he'd be fine once they got into town and had some food and caffeine.

They'd mulled over escape possibilities on their trek to Denver, each suggestion of Frohike's ending with Gabriel's adamant insistence that his father had to go, which meant not just escaping, but making sure they couldn't be followed. Frohike was certain there was a second chip - he figured all they had to do was remove it and Julia would be safe from Spender's magnetic pull. But despite his agreement, Gabriel wanted to rid them of the old man's treachery forever. It wouldn't be easy, and it would require delicacy, since they had no army at their disposal. He walked into Denver with a sluggish, overtaxed mind, contemplating the odds of success with a weary hang of his shoulders.

The sun was rising high over the bustling streets of Denver as they made their way on foot through the mess. The morning was alive with activity; miners and businessmen milled about, handshakes and a few fistfights occupied equal ground in front of the dilapidated buildings. The invasion and the ensuing resistance had pretty much decimated the taller structures. New construction dotted the landscape, but it was more on the order of smaller, two to three story buildings. Once again, Gabriel felt like he'd been transported into the Gold Rush of the old West. Men of every size and shape spoke on the street corners of riches and land; transactions made and prices set dominated the snatches of conversation he could hear as he dodged the bodies.

Most unsettling were the company guards that walked slowly up and down the streets, their firearms strapped to their hips. None of them stopped to pass the time of day, not even with each other. It was as if they were soldiers patrolling an occupied territory; narrowed, watchful eyes and tense, black-garbed forms whose faces were shadowed by equally dark caps. Gabriel didn't think he'd ever seen so many of them in one place before. Memories of his father's Guardsmen not so long ago made him shudder. Combined with his exhaustion, it made him jumpy and he forced himself to relax his strides, giving Frohike a bump to get his attention.

"What is this?" he muttered, lowering his head as they passed the second company man in less than twenty feet of walking. "A convention?"

"Dunno," his friend answered, rubbing at his face as they passed another. "Something's going down, looks like."

Unspoken was the addendum that they'd soon find out. Gabriel had no doubt that the Gunmen were still very adept at worming into sources of information and pulling out the smallest pieces of the puzzle.

"Here," Frohike said, nodding at a fairly new building a few doors down. "Got a room upstairs."

The clapboard sidewalk was dusty brown with dried mud, but underneath, it smelled of fresh pine, as did the lobby. Sparse yet serviceable, the big room had some comforts. Sofas that had seen better days were filled with dozing men, and Frohike caught Gabriel's look.

"Ten dollars an hour," he explained. "Or two hundred a night for a room."

It was highway robbery, Gabriel thought. Of course, there were always men willing to feed off a boom, no matter when and where. He gave the man behind the counter a snide look, then quickly composed his face into a calm mask when he spotted the clerk's suspicious glare.

"Hey - that makes four o'you," the desk clerk threw at Frohike, stopping them both with his brusque words. "Gonna cost you extra."

Frohike glanced at Gabriel and nodded. "Go on up. It's number fifteen. I'll take care of this," he whispered.

As Gabriel backed away, he saw Frohike walk to the counter and heard the rasp of Velcro as he dug under his coat. "How much?"

Gabriel turned his back on the transaction, making a mental note to ask about their finances when they got down to the planning. They would probably stay off the beaten path on their way to Canada, but some money would be needed along the way. He hoped they had enough, because he damn well wasn't the best at taking small game, nor fishing. City boy all the way. Survival in the forest was Scully's forte. And who knew just how much she remembered of that.

He climbed the stairs quickly, head down, bumping into several company men who looked like they'd just awakened. Stopping to let them pass, he caught a few words that pricked his ears.

"What I hear, the boss man ain't stayin' long," the first said.

"Maybe a day or two," another offered. "Train's getting re-fueled and re-stocked today."

The company boss was in Denver? Gabriel let them pass, then started upstairs once more, his mind working. Though no one really knew where exactly the home base of the company was, he wasn't surprised to hear that the boss man was in town. From what he'd learned in his time with the company, the boss took a hands-on approach, not trusting anyone but his top regional managers. 'K' was much too valuable a commodity to believe that your workers wouldn't try to steal from you when they had the chance. The rules of the contract were strict for that very purpose; pay the men well, but frighten them with threats of reprisal should they get caught skipping out or stealing. Gabriel had witnessed the swift sledgehammer of company judgment first-hand, and he wanted no more of it, staying well away from the men as they went by.

At last, he stood before door number fifteen, giving it two sharp raps with his knuckles.

"Who is it?" came the wary murmur from the other side.

He didn't like the idea of broadcasting his presence through the hall, but he figured his alias was safer than his real name as he muttered, "Gabriel. Open the door."

"Gabriel who?"

"Open the God damned door - *Samson*."

It inched open and he slid through, only to be caught in a bear hug as it slammed shut behind him, the lock clicking into place.

"Mulder!" Byers' arms nearly crushed the breath from him, making his still-tender shoulder yelp with pain. "Good to see you."

Gabriel disengaged himself with a slight grimace, giving Byers a smile as he pushed him away. "Good to see you, too. Been working out, eh?" He eyed Byers' broad build with a wink.

"Busting rocks all day will do that to you."

"Yeah. That and eating steaks." A nasally voice came from Gabriel's right and he blinked at Langly, who sneered, "Some of us had to live on beans."

Gabriel rubbed at his tender shoulder. "Didn't treat you too well up north, did they Ringo?"

Langly shrugged. "Not all of us were assigned to the company's better facilities." He jerked his chin at Gabriel. "What's the matter with you?"

He rubbed at his shoulder, his eyes darting from one to the other. "A little run-in with the company. Just a bit sore still." He quickly scanned the mostly bare room, taking note of the small table and chair, his gaze lighting with interest on the laptop that sat upon it. It was folded shut, and next to it was a wicked Bowie knife and a small pistol. He wasn't surprised to see they had weapons, but it dawned on him they may have already had to make use of them on the treacherous journey to Denver. "You guys okay? No problems on the way out here?"

"No problems. We suddenly got transfer orders and a train ride out west," Byers answered with a smile. "Courtesy of Frohike, naturally. Then he conveniently wiped us all out of existence."

He managed to look the same, thought Gabriel, despite being clothed in denim and flannel. Like them all, he sported several days growth of beard, but his hair was long and wavy, falling to his neck. "Maybe we should start calling *you* Samson," he said, as he moved to sit on the cot.

Byers flushed, though he stood straight as he replied, "It kind of grew on me, so I left it." His pun flew right over his head; not so with Langly, who fumed by the door, arms crossed.

"Doofus."

Gabriel turned his attention to the shorn Langly, giving him a nod and a grin. "And what's with the boot camp look?"

Langly's hand came up self-consciously to rub his crewcut. "It won't grow back. Stress, I think. Probably related to malnutrition." His misery evident, he tossed a warning look at Byers, who sheepishly moved to the opposite side of the room.

"Cheer up, Ringo. I hear everything grows in Canada - even hair." If they could only make it there, he added silently. All of them. Suddenly, he was bone weary. But he didn't give in to it yet, especially when there was another knock at the door.

Langly moved defensively, his hand on the knob. "Who is it?"

"It's me."

"Who's me?"

"Open up, ya moron, or I'll shave off the *rest* of your hair - get my drift?"

As Langly opened the door, he muttered, "Too late. That's gone, too."

Gabriel chuckled, then perked up at the serious look on Frohike's face, all humor gone. "What's up?"

Frohike moved to the desk, sitting down to position the laptop. "Heard downstairs that the boss man is in town. Arrived yesterday evening on a private train."

"Yeah - I heard the same thing on the stairs. So?" Gabriel stood, moving in, as did Byers and Langly.

Frohike worked furiously, connecting via the unused cellular uplink they'd hacked into months ago. It took a few moments to gain access to the satellite, and he took the opportunity to ask pointedly, "You said Grandpa came home last night?"

"Shit." Gabriel knew that fatigue was dulling his mind, but he should have made the connection on the stairs. "One and the same?"

"Possibly." Frohike turned, waiting for the connection to complete. "Probably. Who else would have the resources for a spread like that on that mountain?"

"Who the hell is Grandpa?"

Langly's confused question made Gabriel growl, and he ignored it for now, urging Frohike on. "See what you can find. I'm going back to the Ranch." He never should have left the cabin; with the company's might behind him, Spender could march through the streets of Denver with Julia on display for everyone to see, with no fear of reprisal.

"Whoa, Mulder, slow down. We've got to think this through."

"Fuck thinking. I've got to get her out of there." He stumbled as he turned and was kept from hitting the floor only by Byers' quick intervention. "Let go of me -"

"Guys, we got something," Langly interrupted, leaning over the desk.

Gabriel's head snapped back to Frohike, who'd turned to face the laptop once again. "New message on the group," he said. In a second, he had opened it. "From Julia."

"What? What does she say?" Coming up behind Frohike, he trained bleary eyes on the screen, unable to see much.

"She's okay, she says." Frohike scanned the short message. "Mr. Spencer says they're all leaving for Helena tomorrow. Seeking treatment for Matthew. He wants Julia and her husband to accompany them."

"Husband?" This time, it was Byers who interrupted, but his croaking question was also ignored.

"Montana? Tomorrow? As in today, or tomorrow?" Gabriel pressed, anxiety speeding up his heartbeat to a panicked thrum.

"She says they're waiting for the train to be made ready to accommodate Matthew - Mr. Spencer told her to be ready to leave Tuesday morning. Tomorrow."

Gabriel sagged a bit with relief. Maybe twenty- four hours... not much, but at least it was some cushion. "Anything else?"

"'Tell Marty hello.'" The look on Frohike's face was part confusion, part accusation. "Marty? Just what the hell happened up there in that cabin?"

Julia's guessing made Gabriel grin, but it was Frohike's erroneous assumption that made him chuckle as he fell back to the cot. "Nothing I needed *that* alias for, Melvin," he said dryly, not about to elaborate that the hours spent with her put all of his 1-900 fantasies to shame. Any time he made love to Scully was special, but their reunion in the cabin would always shine in his heart, because it meant the trust was still there, still tantamount despite her amnesia. "Look, we've got twenty-four hours. If you guys are gonna think of something, now's the time."

"We've already given it some thought, Mulder. We just need to line things up." Frohike took a long look at Gabriel's drooping face and added, "Get some sleep. Couple hours and we'll be ready."

"But -"

"But nothing. When was the last time you slept?"

He thought back, remembering the snatches of sleep those three days he'd not seen her. When she came to him, it was as if his body would never need sleep again, he was so pumped with joy and relief. "I can sleep later," he insisted, with a dark, hopefully menacing look.

He must not have pulled off the threat, because Frohike stood, his face adamant as he said, "Later? When we're all hauling ass through the forest? Or when the company goons catch up with us?" His voice lowered as he leaned forward. "Or when Julia gets so tired she can hardly walk? Who's gonna carry her, huh?"

The point Frohike was trying to make was lost on him. "We're *hiking* out of here?" The room had begun to spin, drunk as he was with exhaustion.

"She's *not* going anywhere, Mulder. And you need to be rested if you want to be of any use to her."

Though his mind was sluggish, he understood at last, nodding. It only took a nudge of Frohike's finger to fell him like a redwood, and he collapsed on the cot, mumbling, "Tell her..."

One boot came off, then another. "Tell her what?" a voice asked, though it sounded like it was coming from the bottom of a well.

"Not Marty." He was asleep as soon as his head hit the sorry excuse for a pillow.

September 24, 2001
5:18 p.m.

"Mulder."

His name came to him through layers of cottony sleep and he shifted, trying to make his way up from dreamless slumber. Must have been another all-nighter at the Gunmen's, he thought. He was getting way too old to spend the night scarfing down cheesesteaks and browsing the conspiracy newsgroups. Of course, there was always the inevitable slide into the latest in free porn, courtesy of Frohike.

"Mulder." Stronger now, more insistent, accompanied by a squeeze of his knee.

Eyes still closed, he murmured through dry lips, "Mmm... a little higher." He cracked open one eye just in time to see Frohike snatch his hand away as if burned. Yeah, he loved tormenting the homophobic little weasel.

Frohike cleared his throat before turning away. "Wake up. Time to get busy."

His eyes were gritty and it took a couple of seconds to focus on the bare walls of the room. When he realized where he was, he jack-knifed into a sitting position. "What time is it?" he asked, rubbing the sleep from his face.

"A little after five," Frohike answered over his shoulder, now sitting at the desk.

"Damn it, Frohike," Gabriel muttered, "why the hell did you let me sleep so long? And where's Langly and Byers?" He and Frohike were alone; no wonder he'd slept so soundly.

"Because you needed it." Frohike's tone brooked no argument. "And they're scouting out the train station, doing a bit of reconnaissance."

"Train station?" God, he needed something to drink. "Got any water around here?"

"Canteen's in my backpack under the bed." As Gabriel availed himself of the blessedly cool water, Frohike continued, "From the railroad maps I've pulled up, the train's route should take it up to Cheyenne, then it skirts the mountains into Montana. We figure the best plan of action is to just hijack the train." He fell silent and Gabriel sensed there was a qualifier.

"But?"

"But to do so in the middle of Denver is risky. Big time risky. Too many company guards hanging around. We could plan to meet them out in the middle of nowhere. Between Cheyenne and Helena; we can cut across central Wyoming to make up time. Easy to stop the train - lots of wilderness up that way. We'll cut up a few trees, make it look like there's been some damage to the track from a storm."

"That reminds me, Frohike - you have enough cash to finance this operation?"

"Sure. Krycek had thousands tucked away, in several locations." He smiled. "The other two used to make fun of me hanging around old stumpy all day, but I got some pretty useful information from him. Got a truck ready in an abandoned farmhouse outside town. All we need is a few tools, and we're set."

"And the guards?"

"There can't be too many guards traveling with the train. From what I understand, it's just a few cars. A few canisters of teargas, some automatic weapons - also courtesy of our well- prepared, now deceased mercenary friend - and we have ourselves a train."

"On its way to Helena." It occurred to him that he hadn't questioned its destination earlier, and he did so now, wanting input from Frohike's more alert mind. "Treatment for Matthew aside - which I don't buy for a second - what the hell is in Helena?"

"Far as I know, nothing. Except for another massive company digging site."

Gabriel sighed, letting go of the reason behind the trip for now. "All that matters is that Scully will be on that train, and so will my father. That's all I need. To nab her, to kill him. End of pursuit." He stood, splashing a bit of the water on his face. "So, what are we still doing here? C'mon. We've got work to do."

At the sharp rap on the door, he stilled, his eyes darting to Frohike. His friend held up a quieting hand and moved to the door, where he barked, "Who is it?"

"Samson and Fitzgerald," came the reply. In moments, they were ushered in by Frohike, and stood shivering in the middle of the room. Langly's lips were slightly blue, and he muttered, "It's snowing."

Byers' face was pale. "Unexpected development, gentlemen." His statement had nothing to do with snow, that much was evident.

"What?" Gabriel didn't like the sound of that, nor the way Byers looked as if he wasn't sure what type of reaction his news would bring.

"We can't be sure, but it looks as if the train will be departing sooner rather than later."

"But Julia said tomorrow morning," Frohike said, cutting off Gabriel's expletive.

"Before we left the depot - which was about twenty minutes ago - it looked as though they were gearing up to leave."

Moving closer, Gabriel asked softly, "Any passengers arrive yet?" He narrowed his gaze on the frozen men, feeling a lump of apprehension bulge up his throat.

"Not as of twenty minutes ago. But the work crews left and company guards moved in. Every light, every bell and whistle - all on. Even the engine was fired up."

"Shit." Gabriel swore, turning to don his boots. He had to do something; they weren't prepared yet, and they needed at least a couple hours head start.

"Where the hell are you going?"

Gabriel didn't spare Frohike a glance, picking up the bag to rummage through its contents. "You boys get out of town and up to Cheyenne." He paused, lifting steely eyes to his friend before donning the heavy black coat he found draped over the end of the cot.

"Hey - that's mine," Frohike protested, then seeing Gabriel's ignorance of his whine, added angrily, "And just how the hell are you going to get up to Canada? *If* you even manage to disable the train without getting caught?"

"You got the knife in here?" He knew he'd seen one earlier, but he had an awful feeling Frohike had hidden the damn thing, knowing Gabriel's propensity for rushing headlong into trouble. Damn it, he shouldn't have left the cabin at all. But then, he wouldn't have known about the upcoming trip to Montana, either. Too late for second-guessing. "Give me the God damned knife," he snarled, fisting the bag in his hand as he pierced Frohike with a furious stare.

As he returned Gabriel's impatient look with one of his own, he reached into his boot. Handle first, he handed the knife to Gabriel. "You know she's going to kill us if you're not there when we meet the train."

Gabriel slipped the knife into his belt and paused, his anger fading. "But I *will* be there," he said evenly, the idea that had been taking shape in the back of his mind the last few moments now fully realized. He dropped the bag, daring them with his eyes to try and stop him.

Frohike's eyes widened and he stepped forward, muscling his way past the other two, who'd timidly backed off at the sight of Gabriel's ire. "You can't do it, man. Don't do this."

Quiet resolution colored his voice as he grabbed the doorknob. "When that train leaves, I'm already gonna be on it." He never should have left her on the mountain. It was time to rectify that mistake.

A firm hand stopped his flight. "She wouldn't want you to do this, Mulder."

"I can't let her get on that train alone, Frohike. If things... go badly," he faltered, "then we won't make it out. And I'm not going to spend another day without her."

"All we have to do is stop the train. We can do this, Mulder," Frohike persisted.

"You don't have enough time to get ahead of them, especially with this snow. Unless I do something to slow them down." Exactly how he was going to accomplish that, he didn't know. But he damned well wasn't letting her go without him; if the Gunmen never showed, he'd think of something. Or die in the attempt. She would no longer live under his father's thumb, he'd see to it. Take care of the problem at its source, that was the way to go.

And if she had to make it from here on alone, then so be it.

"Mulder -"

"No, Frohike." His adamant statement put an end to his friend's protest as he turned the doorknob. "The ultimate goal is to get her out alive, you understand? I'll take care of that son-of-a-bitch." Even if it means my death, he added silently.

It was heard by all, however, and they hung their heads, a cloak of doom settling over the room.

"Just do me a favor, okay?"

Frohike lifted sad eyes. "Anything."

"If she insists on naming the kid after me, make sure it's Gabriel, not Fox." With that, he was gone.

6:05 p.m.

By the time he'd made it to the train station, the snow flurries had multiplied to an almost blinding shower. Soft, plump, wet flakes that thankfully didn't sting his cheeks. But his gloveless hands were definitely feeling the bite of the cold; Frohike's coat, while offering more warmth than he had before, was woefully inadequate in the sleeves. His hands and wrists stuck out. He ignored their numbness and stuffed them into the coat pockets, slinking along the outside wall of the station in the approaching darkness of the night. The clouds were heavy and the wind bit at this cheeks. It wasn't pleasant by any means, but he was thankful for the inclement weather. Visibility was poor and the clouds helped usher in the night, concealing his stealthy approach.

He hadn't encountered any goons with guns along the now mostly deserted streets, though he didn't really expect to. If the boss was a smart man - and he had to give it to him, 'smart' didn't begin to explain how he was still alive - he'd have gathered his forces close. As he approached the train, he could see the glow of lights, more numerous than ever, eerily bouncing light off the snow that was beginning to come down harder. Yes, the train was preparing for the trip, all lit up like a Christmas tree. The ominous hum of the locomotive filled his ears; as he peeked around the corner of the building, he saw the moist fog of engine exhaust billow onto the platform.

Like the night before, he crouched low, carefully moving the knife into the ankle of his boot, then hiding it with the cuff of his jeans. He pulled the collar of the coat up around his stubbled cheeks and waited, watching the two guards who patrolled the platform make their rounds. He figured there were others on the opposite side, and at least one inside each of the four passenger cars. Now was the time to sneak on, before the passengers arrived. Picking his way around the crates stacked on the platform, he edged closer.

Only to be stopped cold at the sound of several vehicles approaching. He swore under his breath, knowing there was no way he was getting on the train now. Not before it started moving, anyway.

He peered down the tracks; even with the blowing snow, he could see an overpass about two hundred yards away. Hell, he'd done it before, he could do it again. Backing up, he slowly made his way to the side of the depot once again, where he paused to watch the passengers get out of the trucks.

Guards. Lots of guards, hovering around the few civilians with guns and wary, defensive postures. Gabriel picked out Jesse instantly; he was a head taller than anyone else, and still, he puffed on a cigar like he owned everything around him. Grinning, he muscled his way through the protection with a snort and boarded the car directly behind the locomotive. The lights within shined through the fall of snow and Gabriel could easily see through its curtained windows. It was lavishly decorated, with cushioned couches and a bar at one end, which Jesse made for immediately.

Jesse didn't hold his interest for very long. Another Humvee came to a halt behind Jesse's and Gabriel held his breath at the sight of a small figure that emerged from its black depths. She blended in with the night most effectively, her cloak swirling in the wind as she tried to hold it closer. In profile, her hood hid her face, but he could see the agitated puffs of steam from her warm breath float up into the sky. She kept her chin lowered as she paused.

Her husband. Gabriel clenched his teeth as he watched a man get out of the vehicle to stand behind her, bundled up as she was against the cold. She stiffened when he placed his right hand on her back; he didn't push her, however, just let it fall away as she moved toward the train. Her escort guided her to the last car and watched her climb in, then he moved to join Jesse in the club car. Corridor lights lit her movement through the hallway on the side of the car. She disappeared into the last door, the one closest to the tail end of the train.

Good, he thought. Take care of the guards, unhitch the car. Besides giving them some privacy for a while, it would take some time to back the train up and fix that broken coupling. And it *would* be broken, he'd see to it.

As the last vehicle pulled up, he decided it was time to leave. Before inching away, he saw the back of the newly arrived truck open; several men offloaded a stretcher. Matthew. He felt sorry for the kid, really. He was a likeable boy and didn't deserve to be raised by that bastard. But Gabriel didn't let sympathy cloud his judgment... Julia was uppermost in his mind. He felt no real attachment to the boy, however sick he might be.

The train had two more cars between the club car and Julia's. Gabriel figured that's where Grandpa and Matthew would be making the trip. He was proven right when he saw the entourage make for the second-to-last car, carefully carrying the stretcher amidst muffled commands from a bundled-up, bespeckled man. The doctor, obviously, though any defining features were lost in the fall of snow. No sign of Grandpa yet, but Gabriel saw the lights of another vehicle approach and he knew it was time to go. He didn't need to see Grandpa to know who he was up against.

Not wanting to waste another moment, he left the station, making his way down the street to the overpass. Hopefully, he figured the train wouldn't have picked up too much speed in so little time. He didn't have long to wait; maybe five minutes passed as he shivered on the road above the tracks until he heard the train's whistle signal its departure.

Before long, it lumbered below him, slowly making its way out of Denver. As the roof of the last car approached, he took a deep breath and jumped.

 


Chapter Nineteen

En route to Helena
September 24, 2001
6:25 p.m.

He hit the roof of the car with a dull thud and immediately began sliding around on its snowy surface as the train picked up speed. Muttering a muffled, "Shit!" he flailed, his numb fingers searching for purchase as he spread-eagled his body. The train's forward motion worked against him and he began to move backward on the roof of the car, moments away from falling off the end. At last, he felt something sticking up from the metal and he grabbed hold, wincing at the pull on his shoulder. It took some effort, but he brought his other hand up, reinforcing the clamp on what he now knew was an antenna. Dropping his head against the biting wind, he said a quick, silent thanks for the skinny piece of modern technology, hoping it continued to hold out against his dragging weight.

By the time his heart rate had settled down and he was able to squint against the blowing snow, he saw the train had left the outskirts of the city. Not that he could see anything, really. Other than the black walls of trees to either side of the tracks. But it was what he couldn't see that told the tale - lights. No more city lights. He estimated they were now moving at about forty miles per hour; not as fast as these trains normally moved, but prudent, given the weather.

Squirming, he swung his legs around and faced the back end of the car, still hanging on for dear life. Relief made his frozen face crack into a pseudo-grin when he saw he was only a few feet from the back edge. Easy to drop onto the platform below.

Except for one thing. As he peered over the edge, he saw the unmistakable glow of a cigarette. Damn. He should have known they'd post a guard at the back of the train. Though the man looked like he'd much rather be inside, dancing from one foot to the other as he stood huddled in the wind, his rifle slung over his back.

Gabriel's hands were almost frozen to the antenna and he knew they weren't going to be much good, but he also knew he couldn't stay where he was, either. Taking the man out was risky; besides the chance of discovery should his battered body fail him in the attempt, there was bound to be someone checking on the guard now and then. He didn't want to arouse suspicion by tossing the man over the side. They wouldn't stop the train for such an insignificant menial, anyway. But they would conduct a thorough search for possible foul play involved and he needed time to pass before he made his presence known.

It seemed the gods were smiling upon him... the guard took a quick look inside, then reached in his coat. He stumbled back, bringing a flask to his lips. It suddenly occurred to Gabriel that the guard's swaying wasn't due to the train's movement, nor was it an attempt to stay warm. The man appeared to be well on his way to drunkenness, slumping on the stool by the railing as he downed the rest of the liquor. He threw the flask over the side and crossed his arms, settling in for the ride. It took only a few minutes before his head lolled to and fro; he was lost to sleep.

His chance upon him, he hoped he had enough feeling left in his frozen body to ease down to the platform. Taking a deep, bracing breath, he scissored his legs and let himself slide over the edge, not knowing where he was going to land. He hung like a rag doll in the wind for a second or two, constantly looking at the guard for any sign of discovery. But there was none; even above the roar of the train he could hear a heavy snore flooding from the man's open mouth.

As Gabriel's boots finally touched the platform, he grimaced, biting back a bellow of pain. Hundreds of tiny needles shot up his legs and he swayed, grabbing onto the railing as the tracks below wavered under his queasy gaze. Quickly glancing at the passed-out guard, he held his breath as the man stirred, but didn't open his eyes. Hurry, he told himself. No time to waste in getting inside.

Fighting the cold and his lethargic limbs, he turned, taking the door handle with numb fingers. It slid easily and he crept in, narrowing his eyes against the bright lights of the corridor. Blessed warmth hit him in the face and he forced his legs to carry him the few steps to Julia's door. Glancing down the hall with panic, he heard the flush of a toilet coming from the front of the car. But her door was locked; quickly but softly, he knocked, praying she'd open the door in time.

"Who is it?"

Unbidden, it rose from his lips. "Mu -" But he stopped just short, instead offering with a shivering murmur, "Gabriel. Or Moe. Or Marty, or whoever -" Please open up, Scully, he begged silently.

His words died a swift death as he found himself pulled into the room. The lock clicked behind him and a human ball of scented warmth surrounded him, squeezing tight.

"Gabriel - oh, Gabriel." Her voice was choked with tears. "The guard outside..."

He fell back against the door and gently enfolded her into his embrace, rubbing his cheek over the crown of ribboned hair. "Shh... it's okay. He didn't see me."

Her arms clutched at him with desperate relief. "When they came and told me we were leaving tonight," she hiccuped, burying her nose into his chest, "God, I never thought I'd see you again."

Her fright was palpable in the shaky words. Shivering like he was, though not from cold, she held on for dear life, as if she thought he'd disappear. "It's okay, Julia." He pulled away, dropping a kiss on her brow. "You aren't going anywhere without me."

Lifting her damp face to his, confusion clouded her eyes. "But how did you know?"

He smiled, brushing away the last of her tears with his reddened hand. "The Colonel has his ways."

She nodded, complete trust shining in her gaze. "I should have known. Is he responsible for this too?" Her fingers pulled at the pitifully short sleeves. Bringing one hand up, she lightly touched his cheek. "Your beard is growing back," she said absently, then worry creased her forehead. "And you're cold. Come, sit over here by the heater."

As she pulled off his coat, Gabriel surveyed the room. It was bigger than the normal passenger drawing room, twice the size or more. With a small bed at one end, a couch and low table at the other, it was made for comfortable travel and isolation. A door to the left of the bed most likely led to a tiny bathroom. The whole compartment was decorated with tapestry rugs and soft, indirect lighting, and a built-in, small electric heater glowed in the wall by the couch. It looked as though Grandpa had spared no expense on his personal mode of transport.

The rush of adrenaline had not faded, and he found he couldn't sit, instead standing before the heater in an effort to warm up as she sat on the couch. "You okay?" he asked, watching her lay his coat tenderly beside her.

"Now I am," she said softly, giving him a look that helped warm him more than the orange glow that crept up his back.

For a few moments, he let his gaze wander over her. The cloak had hidden her garb from him at the depot, and he was gratified to see she'd dressed sensibly for the trip. Covered in a bulky, deep green sweater and matching knit pants, her small black boots laced up tight, she looked like a Colorado native on her way up the mountain for a ski trip. He was glad she wasn't in one of those thin dresses; her clothes would definitely help keep her warm once they left the train behind for good. Even more exhilarating was the cross that laid upon the shiny velour, nestled above her breasts in familiar, happy repose.

Noticing his pleased gaze, she let her fingers come up to touch it. "I told him I wanted it back, that it was mine." Standing, she crossed over to him, unfastening it. "But it isn't - it's yours."

"Julia, no." He tried to stop her; it wasn't his, not really. He'd been gifted with it long ago, but it had always been hers, would always be. He longed to tell her that its rightful place was with her, but that would involve an explanation he wasn't prepared to give.

His body reacted to her proximity, stiffening in spite of the thaw of skin and bone. She didn't relent, her hands coming up around his neck with the chain. "It looks better on you, anyway."

And it felt wonderful; he nodded, unable to give voice to just how much it meant to them both. How much he loved her, needed her. But she knew, mirroring his bright gaze with one of her own, a small smile gracing her lips. A sudden lurch of the train threw her into him, and her hands fisted in his denim shirt as his grabbed her waist. Her eyes darkened, but her voice was calm as she gave him the means to move past his emotional pause. "What's the plan?"

"Huh?" What the hell was she talking about? God, he thought, she felt good. All round and covered with warm green that felt like silk under his calloused hands.

"The plan, Modell."

"Modell?" Jesus, even the name had the power to scare the shit out of him. Still, though it had been years since their encounter with that smooth monster.

Apparently, she felt his heart speed up under her fingertips and she said, "Relax, Gabriel. Just fishing."

It still amazed him that the little tidbits continued to make their way out of her subconscious mind and he chuckled, "Definitely not Modell. What the hell kind of name is that, anyway?" He knew damn well it wasn't a name *he'd* ever consider taking for himself, but he didn't want her to see the memory of that case in his face.

"A last name." Her probing gaze was steady. "After all, Scully is a last name, isn't it? It occurred to me today that last names could have been the norm, don't you agree?" She dropped her eyes to his mouth and licked her lips.

Great. Inch by inch, she was getting closer to the truth about him and he was powerless to stop it. A diversion was needed, and fast.

"The Colonel and his men are going to hijack the train."

It was her turn to say, "Huh?"

"The plan, remember?"

"Oh yeah, right." Clearing her throat, she stepped away and he inwardly bemoaned the loss of her in his hands. "Hijack the train? Where?"

"Somewhere between Cheyenne and Helena." He smiled, knowing she was just as affected by him as he was by her. "We can take it up into Canada. Into friendly territory." Lots of time to explain later about the safe harbor Skinner had hewn out in British Columbia.

When she reached the bed she turned, worry etched upon her face. "But what about Matthew?"

"What about him?" He knew where she was going, but he couldn't let sympathy for the boy get in the way of their escape.

"We're going to Helena because Mr. Spencer has found a doctor there who says he can cure him. Gabriel, we can't let him die."

Damn it, he knew she wouldn't want to leave the boy behind to die. "Julia, I feel sorry for Matthew, really." He followed her retreat, his feet bringing him to stand before her as he let his hands settle on her shoulders. "But this is our chance to escape."

"Escape? You make it sound like I'm being held prisoner, Gabriel. I can leave any time I want."

"Can you?" he pressed, knowing the path he was taking was dangerous, but necessary. "Julia, did you tell Mr. Spencer you wanted to stay at the Ranch, to not go on this trip?"

"Yes, but he insisted Matthew needed me. He said Matthew was scared and needed a friend for the journey."

"Julia, Matthew is an innocent, caught in the middle of this. But Mr. Spencer is not the benevolent soul he's made himself out to be."

It was inevitable, her, "How do you know this?"

"A husband?" he pointed out with a subtle sneer. "Julia, I know damn well you don't have a husband."

"That doesn't mean Mr. Spencer had anything to do with his arrival. *He* gives me the creeps, not Mr. Spencer."

"Julia, you know I can't explain all this right now. You just have to trust me on it, okay?" He drew her close; thankfully, her resistance to his plan did not extend itself to his bodily invasion, as she let herself sink into his embrace. "I'm sorry about Matthew, really. But if we let this train make it undisturbed to Helena, there will be too many of Spencer's guards around for us to get away easily." A little white lie followed, one he knew she'd not question. "The company is still looking for me. We have to get away as fast as we can. You understand, don't you?"

She plucked at the back of his shirt, regret coloring her muffled voice. "Yes. Doesn't mean I have to like the results of our plan, as far as Matthew's concerned."

"We'll have a truck nearby. Won't get them there as fast as the train, but it'll get them there, okay?" Sans the old man, he added silently. No way was he letting that bastard get off this time.

She sighed. "I guess that'll have to do."

There was one thing he needed to do, something he dreaded telling her. Fact was, he wasn't going to tell her. Not everything, anyway. But he had to slow the train down, and it was sure to get him captured in the end. She wasn't going to like it, but he had to rely on Frohike to get them both out when the time came.

Not yet, though. They were still too close to Denver. Another hour or two and they would be a good hundred miles down the track. Well enough away from reinforcements.

He dropped his mouth to her ear, giving it a playful nip. "Got anything to eat in here?"

Her mood lightened instantly, as she shook in his arms, laughter warming his chest. "Besides my ear lobe?"

"Mmm... on second thought..." He caught the tender flesh between his teeth. "This might do."

Julia shoved him away and flashed him a chastising look as she moved to the door. "I told them I wasn't feeling well enough to dine with them, but I can get something sent back here." Her thumb hovered over the intercom button. "You're staying, aren't you?" The look in her eyes was hopeful and warm, tinged with a subtle hint of desire.

God, he knew he had to kill some time, but would he be able to resist the invitation he knew would come? It was foolish to succumb to the siren call of her body, especially in the middle of enemy territory, so to speak. But he couldn't deny he wanted it, just as she did. Hot food, the rolling lull of the train, the slumberous pull of her mouth and eyes... it was impossible to deny himself.

"Will they leave you alone?" His question was husky and hopeful as he swallowed hard in the face of her beauty. She knew as well as he did that there was a good chance this plan may never come to fruition. That he'd get caught on this train and imprisoned like a criminal; they'd be separated forever. And God help him, he wanted to spend time with her before all hell broke loose. He hadn't come here for this, but damned if he was going to deny himself - and her - the possible last chance for intimacy.

"I'll tell the servant I'm turning in for the night. As long as I show up for breakfast, they won't disturb me."

He felt like he'd been handed an unexpected gift. With a pleased lift of his lips, he walked to the bathroom door, throwing over his shoulder, "Then tell them to make sure it's hot, whatever it is. Soup would be nice... I think my toes are frozen."

As he sought his hiding place, he heard her murmur, "Not for long... Michaud."

Pausing, he stuck his face through the crack of the bathroom door and met her inquisitive eyes with a regretful shake of his head.

"Too French?" At his nod, she sighed and turned back to the intercom, pushing the buzzer with frustration. "I should know better - you can't possibly be French."

"I can when I want to be," he whispered with a leer, closing the door on her blush as the intercom burst to life.

"Miss, can I get something for you? Miss? Hello?"

**********

7:45 p.m.

The last of his dinner was swallowed down with the remains of his finally cooled tea. With a grimace, he set his cup down on the coffee table pulled the knife from his boot, placing it beside the cup. Ignoring her raised brow at the sight of the weapon, he kicked off his boots and leaned back on the couch, propping his feet. Toes wriggling in his socks, he looked up to meet her somnolent gaze. "Next time, make it iced tea, okay?" he poked playfully, admiring the way she lounged crossways the bed on the other side of the semi-dark room. Julia had doused the overhead lights, leaving a single lamp burning by the bed. The night passed through the windows, peppered with white snowflakes, the only sound the hum of the train's wheels beneath them.

Head propped in one hand, she'd watched him eat, refusing to share in the repast when it had been delivered, saying, "I don't think my stomach can take the food. This movement is not setting well with junior here." When he'd approached her with concern, she'd waved him off. "He's just a bit excited, that's all. I fear the chili would explode above his bouncing - and I don't feel like being sick. I'd rather wait for dessert." She'd kicked off her boots and winked, climbing onto the bed like Cleopatra on her barge, lazily drifting down the Nile amidst luxury.

Now, as one hand pulled at her braided hair, she murmured, "I like my tea hot... I like a lot of things hot. At least I think I do."

Admittedly, she looked very much at home in their opulent surroundings, her pale skin and loosened hair reminiscent of a pre-Raphaelite femme fatale. Yes, his thoughts were definitely beginning to wander into 'French' territory.

She shook her hair free, then tied it loosely at the neck with the ribbon before grabbing a pillow from behind her. She laid her cheek upon it with a purr of contentment. "Gabriel?"

He slid into a slump, his hands coming together atop his pleasantly full belly. "Yeah?"

Her face mostly hidden in the shadows of the back-lighting, he couldn't tell if she was tiring. Though her voice was soft as she asked, "You knew me before, didn't you?"

He'd already said so, with his agonized confession that she was Scully back at the cabin. But he knew what she was asking was different; she wanted confirmation that they had been more than just friends. The baby was hopeful proof in her mind, as well as their stolen hours just last night. What else did she need? "Julia." It was a warning, albeit a very weak one.

"Just say yes or no."

He looked down at his clasped hands, away from the pull of her voice. "Yes."

Long moments passed as he waited for the obvious question to come next. Should he tell her his name? Would it be the trigger that would set off another seizure? Resolute, he clamped his jaw over the name. No way was he taking that chance.

"Give me something."

The tender plea brought his head up with surprise; it wasn't what he'd expected. "What do you mean?"

"Give me a memory. It doesn't have to be detailed - I know you're wary of my reaction. Just give me something of *us.*" She paused in the face of his hesitation, then began to pursue with innocent questions. "When we first met... tell me. Please?"

Squirming just a bit, he considered lying, then thought better of it, deciding instead to be vague. At least she hadn't asked about the first time they'd made love. What a disaster that had been, for her, anyway. "You had on this horrible plaid jacket and I had on glasses." That he had to remove so he could get a better look at the little spy invading his lair. So young, so... pretty, even in that awful suit. So dedicated and honest.

From where he was seated, he almost missed the way her mouth dropped open. "We were geeks?"

Julia... Scully. Whoever she was now, whoever she finally evolved into, he liked this side of her. For years, her smiles had been fleeting; around him, anyway. She'd been compassionate and dedicated, willing to play now and then, but never fully receptive - she always kept a part of herself in check. Had she ever been this open, this easy in word and manner? He had a sinking feeling that she had been, before she'd been assigned to him. He'd seen flashes of it their first few months together, but they'd quickly faded as she'd built a wall of protection around herself. Against the horrors of the job, the manipulations of the men behind the scenes... even against him, and what she wrote off as harmless flirtation.

He liked this Scully. Of course, he liked the old Scully, too. And he wanted her back. But he dearly hoped she'd retain some of Julia's happiness and carefree, loving nature.

"Gabriel, please tell me we weren't geeks." She was appalled, and he couldn't help the chuckle that rumbled from him.

"No... well, yeah, I guess you could say that." By today's standards, they'd been the most horrid dressers - he still cringed when he thought of that sportscoat he'd worn to Oregon. Even the well-worn denim attire he walked around in these days was more attractive than that reject from J.C. Penney. "But the room was dark, so it didn't matter."

Her lips curled into a flirting smile. "Two strangers whose eyes met across a dim, smoke- filled room?"

Considering the hand his father had most probably played in their partnership, he nodded, knowing even then the basement had been tainted with imaginary cigarette smoke. "You introduced yourself, I shook your hand."

"Then you bought me a drink...?"

He moved in for the kill, now enjoying their play. "Actually, we bypassed the obligatory drink and I showed you my etchings."

"What?!" She rose to one elbow, aghast at his implication. "You're kidding me."

"Nope. Very provocative pictures, really." Arms crossed, he brought to mind the first of many slideshows, titillating her mind and peaking her curiosity. He congratulated himself on the right approach back then; she stayed because she was just as interested in the unexplainable, though for different reasons. His wicked grin slashed above his stubbled jaw. "You threw yourself at my head, Julia. Dropped your clothes before me like you'd known me forever." In a hotel room in Oregon, afraid the bites on her back were more than just hungry mosquitoes in search of a sweet snack.

"You're not serious." Her denial was a thready whisper and she sat up, looking away. "No wonder I've forgotten my life. I was a slut... God, is that why I'm pregnant? Did I ever use birth control?"

Playing was one thing, but her mind was racing out of control. He stood, running into the coffee table in his haste to get to her. Cursing under his breath, he gasped, "Julia, no."

"If I slept with you on our first date..." Her conclusions escalated rapidly, as did the tone of her voice, the words choking from her lips. "You say I have no husband." Frightened eyes lifted at his approach. "What if I do? What if I'm just a whore who decided she wanted someone new? This baby could belong to *anyone*."

Finally, he reached the bed, dropping to one knee on the coverlet as he loomed over her, putting a stilling hand on her cheek. "Julia, you are *not* a whore. You have no husband, and that baby is mine. Damn it, we knew each other for eight fucking years before I even kissed you!"

Astonishment blossomed on her face, now inches from his own. "Eight years? I mean - look at you. Look at *me*. Was I blind? Were *you* blind?"

For a woman with no memory, she sometimes made perfect retro-sense. "No, just very professional." He ran his thumb over her flaming cheek and smiled.

Sighing, she pursed her lips. "Then I wasn't a whore."

"Right."

"I was a prostitute. And you were the cop on the beat who felt sorry for me."

"No! Damn it, Julia -" He broke off, noticing the mirth she could no longer hide. Despite his waning anger, he decided he liked her very much, indeed. "Witch."

Bringing a hand around his neck, she pressed her mouth to his chin. "You're a bad liar, you know that?" Her lips wandered down his neck as he planted his hands on the bed to either side of her, stretching above her like a satisfied tiger under her petting. "Etchings? I'm the artist, remember? And eight years? Who would ever believe we kept our hands off of each other for eight years? Gimme a break, Slick."

Groaning, he was careful not to put his full weight on her as he followed her fall to the bed. This time, it was her slender throat that enjoyed the nip of his kisses. "That part is true, you know," he muttered against her skin. "Eight long, frustrating, years where I took a lot of cold showers and gave my right hand lots of exercise."

"Amazing," she breathed, her hands moving to the buttons on his shirt. "Maleeni?"

Stilling, his mind insisted he ask, "Julia, are you *sure* you can't remember anything but the vaguest details?"

Giving his ear a shiver-inducing swipe with her tongue, she whispered, "Are you sure you're not French?"

Snickering silently, he pulled away, arching his brow with a leer. "Little girl," he purred, affecting his best French accent, "want to see me pull a lapin out of my chapeau?"

"Your French is horrible, Bullwinkle."

"How do *you* know, Rocky? Besides, that's not my best French. This is." He lowered his lips to hers.

Her squirrely whine tickled his lips. "Again?" As his tongue darted out to wet her soft, dry lips, her voice became low, throaty, and demanding. "Again."

 


Chapter Twenty

En route to Helena
September 24, 2001
8:13 p.m.

"Gabriel, make love to me."

Her pleading whisper and the brush of her tongue over his lips made him shiver. This was not what he intended when he started this game of 'Remember When'.

"Julia, it's not a good idea." It almost hurt to say it. He began to pull away, but she held fast, her fingers clutching his half-open shirt like talons.

"A locked train car, a snowy night, a nice trip through the forest." Seductive eyes of blue flame challenged him, drew him in with a magnetism he'd not seen in months. He used to be the tempter, enticing her with the lure of mystery, giving her tidbits of information designed to pull her onto a case despite her skeptical misgivings. Now, she unknowingly ricocheted his words to him, though with decidedly more amorous intentions. "We won't get caught, I promise."

Wrong, *wrong* - but he found himself saying it anyway, opening the door just a crack. "Are you sure?"

"Everyone's either sleeping or eating. I told the servant when he delivered my dinner that I didn't want to be disturbed for the rest of the evening. Satisfied?"

They shouldn't be doing this, his rational mind screamed. The plan... the plan should take precedence over the pleasures of the flesh. But his skin, his hands, his heart - they all ganged up on his brain and tamped down his fleeting reason with one sure fact: they weren't far enough away from Denver yet. And she was in his arms, moaning encouragement in his ear, speaking to him with her hands and lips of her love and desire.

Time. Yes, he had hours to kill. And while not the safest course, he couldn't deny that spending them in the soft haven of her body was a boon impossible to refuse. Combined with the thrill of stolen sex beneath the very nose of the man he'd vowed to destroy, it made their tryst doubly meaningful, as if loving her on this train signified a new phase of their journey to freedom.

This time, when he pulled away, it was with a burning, devouring gaze. She saw it instantly, and let him stand, following him to sway slightly by the bed. Her hands trailed down his chest to loose the remaining buttons. "Our first date?"

Coquettish eyes and sly, soft words accompanied the opening of his shirt. His hands were busy too, lifting the sweater. "First date, huh? Let's see..." She raised her arms to help him out, a small, enigmatic smile disappearing under the green fabric. "I offered to buy you a drink, you refused." Of course, it *was* mid- afternoon and unbeknownst to him, the first of several shadowy informants awaited him in the men's restroom.

"I did?" She blew the wispy tendrils of hair from her eyes as her sweater fell to the floor. Her camisole clung to her breasts like a second skin and he sucked in a shaky breath at the hint of a dusky nipple through the white satin. "I was a smart girl."

His eyes flew up at her statement, crinkling at the corners as he caught her self-assured smirk. "Einstein had *nothing* on you, Julia."

"Hmm... I knew it." Reaching for the belt of his pants, she quickly freed him from the restricting denim amidst his hiss, her hand teasing inside. "I must have been pretty smart to stay with you, right?"

His mood darkened just a bit; for years, she'd assured him she was her own person, able to walk away if she chose. Time and again, she'd stayed, against the protests of family and the machinations of men with too much power and so little human compassion. Even he himself tied this wonderful woman to him with enticements of intelligent conversation and occasional peeks into his depth of feeling for her.

Clearing his throat, he forced light back into the dark regrets that threatened to overtake his mind. No more. From this moment on, they would embrace each other as they'd embraced the work - fully, with an eye toward their future. "Nah. You stayed with me because I stole your car keys." Which was true, at least on one lonely Christmas Eve.

"Hmm... I see. You make a habit of theft, do you?"

"Only when it's something worth stealing. Like your time."

The soft laughter that bubbled from her lips was smothered by his mouth. Enough talk. Pretty soon he'd be wallowing in his share of guilt over her stolen memories and he wanted no more of it. He hurried with the rest of her clothes in between soft, enveloping kisses and clinging, greedy fingers, throwing back the coverlet and sheet to burrow into the softness of the bed and the heat of her body. Despite the locked door, he didn't feel secure enough to abandon himself to total nudity. It was best he keep his clothes *and* his wits about him. Sensing his leftover worry she said nothing, just laid back and pulled his jeans low on his hips, freeing his erection. It was enough and his arms shook with anticipation as he lowered his torso, his shirt tenting around her trembling form.

As he slid his naked skin over hers, he hissed at the burst of triumph that took his breath away. In the next instant, he forced himself to slow down. Good intentions aside, as he trailed wet kisses over her stomach, dim thoughts of failure crossed his mind. What if the plan didn't work? If she was forever lost to him... it made him savor the taste of her in what could be their last time together.

He wished he could cover her body completely, could push into her as he watched her slide into oblivion beneath his touch. But for now, it was not to be, and he pushed up on his hands and knees, the command issued in a rasping voice.

"Turn over."

Without a word, she did as he asked, and he shifted, watching as she slowly gave him the strong, supple line of her back, her feet curling around the backs of his knees like two serpents. He brought nervous hands to the smooth perfection of her ass, rewarded with a soft hitch of breath that accompanied the way her hips rocked into his touch. A gentle squeeze of his fingers over the white smoothness, then he stretched his body over her, sliding his hands up her back and down her arms to coax her from her grip of the pillows.

Chin resting on her shoulder, he closed his eyes, fighting the pure jolt of animalistic greed that tempted him into burying himself in her immediately. Rubbing his chest over her back, he took a deep breath, smelling his sweat and her clean scent mix in the heat of the room. It was almost his undoing, but he relaxed over her, bringing his lips to her ear. "Let go, sweetheart," he said, insinuating his fingers between hers.

Once again she complied, and he guided her hands to the headboard. In a second, she'd seen his purpose, clamping onto the wood, her knuckles white from expectation. "Now," she whispered, the only word from her lips since they'd fallen to the bed.

Spreading her legs a bit further apart with his knees, he straightened his back. Reaching for his aching member with one hand, he placed the other on the small of her back, trying to still the squirming of her hips. He didn't want to hurt her, but if her eager search for their joining went unchecked, he was bound to cause her some discomfort.

"Julia... keep still. I don't want to hurt -"

"Gabriel," she whimpered, her head thrown back, her hair trailing down her shoulder blades in a fiery beacon that made him want to consume her. "Give me more. Give me my name."

A wave of love pierced him and he bit down on his lip, afraid of the consequences should he give in to her demand. Her name. Such a simple request, one easily given. It wasn't as if she hadn't heard it from his lips recently - like a weak fool, he'd lost control only last night. Still, he hesitated.

"Please, Gabriel."

In answer, he slowly pushed into her, giving her some part of what they used to be to one another. A distraction, to be sure - one that made her thighs surge against his as she countered his move. He sank deep within, spreading his fingers over the slender width of her hips as he sighed with the overwhelming sensation of fulfillment. A guttural moan from her throat reverberated through their joined bodies... he felt it in his bones, strained toward it with his first slow, heavy stroke.

The rhythmic rocking of the train spurred him to faster pumping, but it was with some effort that he tamped down the urge to rut. Instead he set up a steady slide in and out, his hips culminating each stroke with a frictioned grinding of his flesh into hers. He opened his eyes, staring at the wall before them with the glazed absence of one who concentrated on feeling, not seeing.

It wasn't what she asked for, but it was truth mixed with fantasy, the words that spilled from him. Words designed to make her soul sing, her mind believe.

"Our first dance," he said. "I held out my hand and held my breath. I thought you'd say no." Slowly he thrust into her depths, the memory of swaying with her, the way the world had narrowed to just the two of them, walking in Memphis...

"I didn't... I wouldn't," she breathed, perfect in her counterthrusts, urging him on with little twists of her own. "More."

God, it was getting difficult to sustain his rhythm; he was beginning to feel the burn of overused muscles, especially since his not-so- nice introduction to the roof of this car. But she was nowhere near orgasm. He'd been with her enough to know, could feel it not happening. And while he wished for nothing more than an endless hour of lovemaking, it wasn't wise to linger. His arms went around her and he sat back, not breaking their union as he pulled her away from the headboard to sit upon his lap.

"Oh!" Her gasp blended with his as he literally impaled her now, gravity forcing him further into her slick, hot depths.

His penetration was deeper than it had been the night before, and he worried it was too much, growling, "Okay?" as he prepared to pull out should she protest.

Head lolling against his chest, she let her hands caress his thighs, her nails scratching the denim that laid atop the gooseflesh beneath. "God, yes. Go on," she purred. From his vantage point at her cheek, he saw her lick her lips, mouth lax. "First kiss."

His lips brushed the pulse that thrummed in her neck. "New Year's. 2000." As he pushed up, the weight of her made his strokes short but forceful, and she caught her breath.

"E-eight years?"

He didn't waste time by laughing. "Yep." One hand plucked at the pebble of a nipple as the other drifted over their child, seeking the heat of their joining.

"Did you..." At the touch of his fingers, she arched, her vagina tight around his cock.

"Did I what?" he groaned, working her clit now as he quickened the seesaw of his pelvis.

"Did you love me then?"

Releasing her breast, he cupped her jaw, turning her head to look into her bright eyes. "Yes, Scully," he choked out, leaning in to give her one kiss after another, his lips branding the truth on hers with hot, greedy claim and words of forever. "I loved you... then and now."

Her hand cupped his face as she shattered around him, tears mingling with the wet slide of tongue against tongue. Salty sweet, he consumed her, his free hand spreading over her folds to hold her still as he felt his completion near. And it came moments later, his orgasm shooting from him in powerful, draining spurts. He didn't break from the kiss as he stiffened under her, though his mouth only hovered now, his chest laboring as he drew cool air in from the minute space between their lips.

"God, Scully... I love you." The last tremors faded as he gave her what he never had before - sober, honest, commitment. Hands drifted over every part of her he could reach in an effort to reinforce his declaration. Over the child he prayed was his... over the fragile skin that covered an unchanged, brave heart, wrapping his arms around her until his fingers burrowed into the soft flesh under her arms....

He stilled, his mushy brain firing as his thumb glided over a rough patch, a sudden, swift connection searing him. She felt his body tense, noticed his open-mouthed stare. "Gabriel?" Gently, she lifted herself from him. Even the last arc of pleasure that knifed up his gut at the pull of his flesh from hers made no impact, only a small ripple in a mind alive with possibility. Settling on her knees before him, she cupped his face with her hands, searching his glassy eyes. "Gabriel, what is it?"

It was there. There all along. Hidden beneath a natural beauty mark... invading her mind with insidious purpose. Unseen, but not impervious to touch. Especially by one who had explored every inch of her body, learned its most minute differences in skin and texture.

Happiness at his discovery rocked him. He knew he was a mess; he could feel his face dissolve into a thousand riotous cracks of emotion. Heavy, silent sobs racked him as he found he could no longer look her in the eye, his chin dropping as his hands fell away from her.

"Shh... it's okay."

He sat back on his heels, dimly aware she'd moved her hands. His heart mourned the loss of contact, only to rejoice as she straddled his lap, her arms going around him.

In a flash, his did the same, viselike as they grasped her to him, his face falling into the curve of her neck as his hands wound into her hair. "Scu - Scully." It was all he could say, all his mind could fashion as he struggled to regain a modicum of control. But his body, needy as ever, tried to chain her to him - and his heart, that which lived these months with an aching, hollow existence, pounded with an anxious plea for her to stay where she was.

He had her back. For good... as soon as he plucked that chip from under her arm.

"It's okay. I'm still here." Her hands caressed the back of his neck, soothing the tight tendons slowly. "Gabriel, please tell me what's going on."

Where to start? One word rose above the thousands clamoring for release and he wanted to chance it, so badly he could taste it on his tongue. He tried to tell her, but his throat, hampered by the raw slide of unshed tears, choked off the name. "Mu - Mul -"

"It's a good thing I'm not the jealous type."

Soft, snide words came from over his shoulder, startling them both. Gabriel turned, hiding her behind his back as he fought off the blinding tears and darkness by the door. Couldn't be. No....

His knife, where was his knife? From the corner of his eye, Gabriel spied its shiny metal edge on the coffee table and he cursed himself for letting down his guard as he fought the strangling linen around his feet.

Silhouetted in the back-lighting from the hall, the intruder stood in black relief, his right hand pocketing the keys that jingled around his fingers. "Come to bid my wife a good night and this is the thanks I get?"

He froze as his feet touched the floor. He knew that voice. Scrambling to pull up his jeans, he squinted against the bright corridor lights, disbelief edging his whisper. "Krycek?"

"Oh my God." Behind him, Julia keened with distress, reaching for the sheet. "Gabriel -"

"Gabriel?" Krycek's snort was typically cynical. "You think you're some kind of angel, Mulder?"

At the name, Julia's fidgeting ceased. "Mulder?"

Gabriel turned, fright and an impending sense of doom making him slow. "Julia..."

But it was too late. She swayed, the sheet clutched to her breast in claw-like fingers. "Mulder," she said again, as the blood drained from her face and her eyes rolled back in her head.

"No!" Gabriel's anguished cry was lost in the eerie whine of the train whistle, his hands inches from her as he crumpled under the blow to his head.

 


Chapter Twenty-One

En route to Helena
September 24, 2001
9:02 p.m.

Swimming up through the red-black waves of unconsciousness, he first noticed the awful taste of chili peppers in the back of his throat. The hum in his ears and the side-to- side swaying of his body worked his fragile equilibrium. Eyes closed, he jerked his head up, swallowing hard - he hated to be sick. Throwing up only seemed to make him feel worse. The smell, the immediate rush of sweat to his pores, the weakness in his limbs... God he hated it all, though Scully always told him it would make him feel better if he just gave into the nausea.

Scully. Scully!

This time, he cried out at the piercing white light that seemed to sear his aching head as his eyes flew open. Instantly, he squeezed them shut, his yell making his head feel like it was split open with an axe. But he didn't care, letting it loose with lightning fury.

"Krycek! You motherfucker!"

He twisted against the ropes that tied him to the chair, trying in vain to crack open his eyes again. Something sticky clung to his lashes and the warm iron smell was his undoing as his stomach heaved. The cold bite of metal cupped his chin as his dinner came up in horrid, acid- laced bursts.

"You always were a pussy, Mulder."

Close enough. Estimated forty-five degree swing of his head to the left and...

"Shit!"

Gabriel opened his eyes in time to see Krycek spring back, dots of tomato-red bile sprinkling his pants. He shoved the pail behind him, his hiss dripping with venom. "I ought to throw this shit back in your face."

Gabriel's satisfied grin was cut short at the approach of a huge shadow. He jerked, preparing to be the recipient of another blow, but this hulk wasn't bent on getting any closer. It simply took the pail from Krycek's hand, grimacing at the smell. With a snarl, Gabriel narrowed his eyes, uncaring if he *did* provoke more violence. Krycek wasn't the only lying bastard in the room. "You want some o'this too, Jesse?"

"You're a total dick, you know that Gabe?" Jesse rolled his cigar between his grin, an almost admiring glint in his eyes.

"Better than being Krycek's fuck buddy, don'tcha think?"

Jesse's grin faded as he stepped forward. "You little prick -"

"Enough!" Krycek's command stopped Jesse cold. "Take that away and get me a towel. Now!"

One more menacing look, then Jesse disappeared into the bathroom. Silence reigned for a few seconds as Krycek hovered, his mouth drawn into a disgusted line as he brushed at his pants. Gabriel forced his wavy vision to focus; this room was very much like Julia's. Could she be right next door? He sighed, his will to fight gone for a moment as concern for her returned in a flash.

"Scully?" he whispered, hanging his head. "Is she okay?"

The sound of a flushing toilet and running water almost drowned out Krycek's soft reply. "I don't know. The doctor's in with her now." He sounded apologetic and Gabriel almost spit at him; it was Krycek's fault she'd had another seizure. Then again, he'd almost made the same fatal mistake. Another second and he would have blurted out 'Mulder' just as Krycek had.

Lifting solemn eyes to the man he hated, he said, "I want to see her."

A brittle laugh escaped Krycek and his teeth gleamed white as his bearded face cracked into a nasty smile. "You're joking, right?" Jesse came back into the room, wet towel in hand. Krycek took it from him and wiped off the specks of vomit, his eyebrow raised in a leer. "I'd say you've seen enough of her for one night, Mulder."

"You -" He strained against his bonds amidst Krycek's laughter.

"Or maybe we should just stick to Gabriel. Seems better for Julia that way. In fact, I could guarantee that your *total* cooperation would benefit her. Immensely."

*Could* guarantee. It was obvious Gabriel wasn't speaking to the man-in-charge, despite Krycek's threat. Changing tactics, he homed in on the reason for this whole mess. "Where's your boss?"

"My boss? I'm my own man, Mulder. Don't you know that by now?"

"You sell yourself to the highest bidder, Krycek. A whore of the worst kind." He realized now there was blood on his forehead; he blinked away the warm trickle and grimaced.

"Every one is a whore, Mulder. To money, to sex, to love... to the truth." He paused at Gabriel's sudden silence. "Even you. You think you're some kind of hero. Jumping this train in an effort to save her... face it, you don't care about her. You never did."

Gabriel's head snapped up, his bloody face burning. "That's a lie. I came here only for her."

"You came here because she was stolen from you, like some valued toy. Because she is part of that always elusive 'truth' - something you've wanted, but can never have."

Once upon a time, that may have been true. He'd always cared for Scully, but never let himself give in to it. The work was more important. All the times he'd pushed her to remember the details of her abduction, prodded her to join him on one false lead after another... he had been selfish. Until the day the aliens came for him and the bees came for her... and proved to them both that all they had was each other. The truth didn't matter anymore; the world had gone to hell around them. Sure, they'd made it out of the tower alive, and she'd not given up on the vaccine. But though he let her fight for the truth once again, his heart hadn't been in it. For once in his life, he was truly happy in that bunker. Simply because they were together.

He wanted that back. Chin dropping, he didn't even dignify Krycek's very old rhetoric with a reply. The truth had ceased to exist for him long ago - it lived now in her, and only her.

Krycek threw the towel at Jesse and moved closer, his fake arm swinging in his jacket pocket as he bent to add, "You don't even know what you've stumbled into here, do you?"

Though he knew it was useless to ask, he did anyway, the bite of Krycek's assumptions eating at his gut. "Then tell me." Not that he really cared; he still vowed to stop this train, to meet up with the Gunmen. Now that he knew where the chip was, its removal would guarantee their safety from that moment on. How he would accomplish the delay, he didn't know yet. It was best to play along until then.

"All in good time," Krycek murmured, removing a pistol from his pocket. The barrel of the gun trained on Gabriel, he nodded at Jesse. "Cut him loose."

"What?" Jesse eyed Krycek with an incredulous stare.

"You heard me. Do it." To Gabriel, he added, "You're gonna be a good boy, aren't you? I'd hate for my wife to suffer because of your undying need to play Superman."

As Jesse sliced through the ropes at his hands and feet, Gabriel hissed, "She's not your wife."

"Who says? You? Her? She's missing several weeks of her life... who knows what she was up to then?"

Krycek's baiting was nothing but lies, Gabriel was sure of it. But he didn't even nibble at the lure, the rush of blood to his hands and feet a welcome signal that he'd gained one thing in the past few minutes - the ability to move. The first step toward ultimate freedom.

Jesse backed away, folding his knife as Gabriel stood. His wrists were red, but the skin wasn't broken. Rubbing at the itchy skin, he asked, "What now? After-dinner drinks and cigars? Maybe a game of poker?"

Krycek jerked his head at Jesse, silently moving the man to the door of the bathroom. "You'd lose, Mulder. You never could quite master the art of bluffing."

That's what *you* think, Gabriel's mind growled.

With a snap of the gun, Krycek waved him over. "Clean up, Mulder. You're a fucking mess. There are clothes for you in the bathroom."

Grabbing at his sagging shirt, Gabriel lifted sneering eyes. "What for? You want me dressed for my funeral before you kill me?"

"I'm not going to kill you. Though a bullet in the leg would seriously hamper your escape efforts, now wouldn't it?"

Krycek wasn't a fool. Gabriel knew his old nemesis figured he'd still try something, he just didn't know when and where. "Escape? But why? I have all the comforts of home on this train, Krycek."

"Cut the bullshit, Mulder. Just get in there. We have an appointment to keep."

"An appointment?" Maybe he'd get to see his father after all. Wrestle the gun from Krycek, make quick work of them all... his mind whirled with new possibilities. He walked to the bathroom gingerly, his legs stiff as he spied the clock by the bed. 9:30. Still time to do what he needed to do - maybe even more than he'd thought possible when he got on this train. "Don't tell me - an impromptu barbecue in the club car, right?"

Krycek snickered mirthlessly. "Yeah, your balls on a silver platter if you don't get moving. Go ahead, close the door. Take a shower if you want. There's nothing in there for you to use. Not even a razor. Be my guest." His voice lowered. "If you're not out in ten minutes, you'll attend that barbecue with Jesse's knife up your ass. Got it?"

"Mmm... shish kabob. Yummy." Grinning snidely, he shut the door behind him.

Immediately, he scanned the small room. One drawer under the sink - empty. A small shower cubicle and toilet. Even the innards of the tank were made of plastic, of no use at all as a possible weapon. Stilling, he saw the stack of clothes folded in the corner. Nothing there, either, just a pair of black jeans and a heavy black sweater. At least he'd be warm.

"How nice," he muttered to the airless room. "Even socks and underwear." He didn't remember the last time he'd worn either.

Finally, he decided to take advantage of the shower. Shedding his worn, dirty clothes, he glanced in the mirror over the sink. Krycek had dealt him a good blow; a purplish bruise was already forming beneath the inch-long gash. It had stopped bleeding, but it was very tender to his touch. He was lucky they hadn't cracked his skull wide open.

Quickly, he washed himself under the spray of warm water. Despite the unlucky turn of events, he couldn't deny the water sluicing over his skin felt good. He rinsed out the taste of vomit from his mouth, scrubbing at his teeth and tongue with the washcloth as his mind worked.

So, it looked like he *was* going to meet the boss man after all. Funny how the meeting took a back seat to his pressing concern for Scully. There wasn't much he could do now, but sudden resolution made him rush to complete his cleanup. He wasn't going anywhere without at least seeing if she was okay first. Krycek could fuck off.

Shutting the water off, he listened for a moment through the shower door, but heard nothing other than the low din of the two men outside. He couldn't hear what they were saying, but it wasn't of any great importance. As soon as he could, he was going to stop this train. All he had to do was get the gun. They'd do anything he wanted if he held the old man at gunpoint.

Leaning in the opposite direction, he pressed his hand to the shower wall. She was just on the other side, he felt it. Hang on Scully, he silently pleaded, lowering his aching forehead to the wet tile. I'm going to get us out.

A sharp knock made him jump upright. "Two minutes."

Gabriel wondered at their accommodation. What did they need him for? Krycek could easily have just thrown his sorry ass off the train. Something else was definitely afoot, and despite his vow moments ago that he didn't care what revelations awaited him in the meeting, he felt a prick of curiosity. Still, the fact that they wanted him alive gave him the upper hand, no matter how much Krycek threatened him. For now, anyway. And he damn well was going to exercise a bit of control over the situation.

He dressed quickly, almost forgetting the sketch in his haste to exit the bathroom. Picking up his tattered shirt from the floor, he gently transferred it to the pocket of his jeans, the familiar feel of it reminding him of her. She was close by and she needed him. Nothing else mattered at the moment.

With grim determination, he flung open the door. "I'm not going anywhere until I see her." Muscling his way past Jesse, he sat in the chair once again and reached for his boot laces, tying them quickly. "You're gonna have to shoot me, Krycek... because I'm walking out that door and into hers." He stood, hands fisted at his sides as he held his breath.

For a few tense moments, Krycek stared him down, Jesse fidgeting by his side. Then, with a chuckle, he cocked the gun. "Who am I to stand between lovers, eh? I'm just the poor, cuckolded husband."

"As you so eloquently put it - cut the bullshit, Krycek. And get the hell out of my way."

Jesse stepped in the tense space between Gabriel and Krycek, fists raised.

"Stop." Krycek's command halted the near confrontation, but Jesse didn't back off. Gabriel stood firm as well, his jaw clenched in the face of Jesse's human wall. Krycek relented with a snort. "Guess it couldn't hurt. A few minutes, got it? Nothing funny, either... *Mulder*."

Krycek's bold use of his name told Gabriel he wouldn't hesitate to use it against Julia again. Sidestepping an angry Jesse, he nodded.

His earlier assumption proved correct, as the trip down the hall, sandwiched between Jesse's bulk and Krycek's ready weapon, was a short one. They were still in the last car, Julia's door a mere ten feet from Krycek's. Nausea threatened again, this time at the realization that it was very possible Krycek had heard, if not their conversation, then the rhythmic rocking of the bed against the wall.

"Yeah, that's right," the whisper in his ear confirmed as they stopped before Julia's door. "Who knew there was free porn on this trip?"

Ignoring Krycek, Gabriel pushed open the door. The room was still in semi-darkness, but his gaze immediately picked up her small form swathed in the sheets of the bed. The sound of running water from behind the bathroom door told him the doctor was probably just finishing up. Good. He could speak to the man before he left, find out about these seizures of hers firsthand.

But before anything else, he had to touch her. Jesse grabbed his arm, but at Krycek's nod, released him to approach the bed. Julia laid unmoving in the middle of the pillows and Gabriel sat beside her, leaning over to touch her face. "Julia?"

God, she was pale, her face bloodless against the white pillowcase, her limp hair damp from the overexertion of her seizing body. The only sign of color was the plum red of her lips; they looked as though they were slightly swollen. Had the doctor found it necessary to pry open her mouth? Surely they didn't do that anymore for epileptics, did they?

Not caring that he had an audience, he swallowed down the sadness at her exhausted appearance and brought one trembling hand to her face. His mouth brushed the smooth expanse of her forehead in a gentle kiss. "Julia, wake up. Please," he whispered. She smelled of panic and fear, and his chest tightened with misery.

"Back off, Gabe." Jesse's warning drifted over his shoulder.

Gabriel's lips lost all heat as he touched them to her clammy skin. He sat up, reaching for the blanket. "She's cold. And I'm staying until she wakes up." Tucking the blanket under her chin, he took her hand in both of his, rubbing it against his shower-warmed, stubbled cheek.

Krycek's voice broke into Jesse's soft curses. "No way -"

Another, more breathy voice cut him off. "You gents planning on keeping vigil? Because she's out for an hour, at least."

Gabriel turned, amazement dropping his jaw. This train was full of surprises. Giving Julia's hand one last kiss, he tucked it under the blanket and stood. "Kurtzweil?"

The doctor's face slashed into a grin and he discarded the towel he was using to dry his hands, stepping forward with an outstretched hand. "I've been informed that the name of the day is Gabriel," he said softly, raising a brow at the sleeping woman behind them.

Gabriel took the proffered hand, a dozen questions fighting for freedom from his lips. "But... how? I thought you were dead," seemed like a good place to start.

Kurtzweil shook his hand heartily, his cheek crinkling with the curl of his mouth. "Not dead, more like... semi-retired into private practice. *Very* private."

"Enough. We have to get going. He's waiting." Krycek put an end to the reunion with his statement.

Kurtzweil half-turned, noticing the gun. "Is that really necessary?"

"For now." Krycek signaled to Jesse, who came to stand at Gabriel's side.

"Just a minute," Gabriel rushed out, piercing Kurtzweil with a fevered stare. "Is she okay? The baby?"

The doctor's face darkened and he sighed. "I had to mildly sedate her this time. I haven't seen an episode this bad since she came to be with us."

Gabriel hung his head, biting his lip against the scream that rushed up his throat.

"But I think she'll be all right," Kurtzweil added softly. "She probably won't remember what set it off. The mind has an amazing capability to heal sometimes."

Jesse grabbed Gabriel's arm and shoved him to the door. He resisted, turning his head to beg the doctor, "You'll stay with her, won't you?" He didn't like the way she looked, as if her whole life had been drained from her.

"Until it's time to check on Matthew, yes. Don't worry, Gabriel. She'll be fine." His nod spoke of certainty, of reassurance. "So will the baby."

He had to trust the man. He had no choice, considering he was caught between a gun and a hard place named Jesse. "I'm gonna be back," he promised, giving Julia one last, longing look. "If - *when* she wakes up, tell her I'm coming back."

Maybe not until all hell broke loose, but he'd be back for her. All the guns in the world wouldn't stop him.

As he was ushered into the hall, the door closed on Kurtzweil's slow nod.

 


Chapter Twenty-Two

En route to Helena
September 24, 2001
9:45 p.m.

They walked quickly past the snowy, frozen windows, from one car to another, Gabriel taking note of each with an eye toward future plans. Once past the sticking door of the last car, they entered another just like it. A harsh- faced woman peeked from the rear door, giving them a glare of caution. He assumed that was Matthew's room; the warmth that bled through the cracked door was medicine-laced, tweaking his nose with unwelcome memories of hospitals and disinfectant. He couldn't get a good look inside, but no matter. The only use he had for Matthew was as a possible bargaining tool. If he couldn't get to the old man like he wanted, he'd use the boy somehow.

He paused for a moment outside the next room, fully expecting to go inside. It had to be Grandpa's. But no, they didn't stop, the nose of Krycek's gun prodding him to continue. Once inside the next car, they stopped before a solitary door about halfway down the corridor.

Krycek let Jesse have the lead with a firm nod, and Jesse knocked twice. "Sir?"

"Yes?"

Gabriel looked up from his scrutiny of the dim hall at the mild reply. Was that his father? If so, he must have been worse off than he'd ever seen him. His voice was not his own, more distant and hollow than he remembered. He hoped the old bastard was well on his way to death this time. If not, he'd take care of him soon enough. But any suffering his father had endured would be most welcome in Gabriel's eyes.

"He's here, sir." Jesse was timid in his approach, a most unusual side of him emerging in the face of the boss. Gabriel could sympathize; he'd seen men of all sizes and arrogance cower before that cold gaze and trickle of smoke.

"Come."

Gabriel straightened as Jesse pushed the door open, his face hardening in preparation to see the man who continued to make his life hell. Krycek shoved him in, but Gabriel didn't give his father the satisfaction of a loving embrace hello, stopping just inside the door as Krycek and Jesse flanked him.

This car was luxurious - what little he could see of it, anyway. It was so dark, with just a smidgen of light that bled from the cracked bathroom door to light the floor in front of him. But he could tell it was different from Julia's, much more spacious, certainly. No dividing walls, just one massive room, with a huge bed at the far end and a couch and chairs arranged around a round, squatting table at the other end. The smell of smoke curled through the air and Gabriel lifted his chin, narrowing his eyes as he tried to pinpoint its source.

"Leave us," the rasping whisper commanded.

Bingo. Gabriel's spine stiffened as his hackles rose; the voice came from a low, deep chair nestled in the far corner by the bed.

"I don't think that's wise," Krycek protested, moving closer to Gabriel, his gun poking him in the side.

Gabriel shrugged away impatiently, giving Krycek an exasperated glance before focusing again on the man in the corner.

"I said leave."

The tone brooked no argument and Gabriel's two guard dogs dispersed, though he had no doubt they waited just outside the door, listening for any sign of distress from the boss. When the door clicked into place behind them, Gabriel stepped forward, stopping in the meager light, hands in his pockets in an attempt at nonchalance.

"Nice digs," he commented. "Amazing what the blood and sweat of desperate miners will buy these days." No reply, just the clinking of glass against glass. In the shadows, he saw his host take a drink, then heard him clear his throat before speaking.

"If you're implying that I run a slave trade, Mr. Mulder..." The voice lost its paper-thin quality, becoming cultured and refined. He took a last drag on his cigarette before snuffing it in the ashtray on the bedside table. "I assure you the company was formed many, many years ago. Using my own finances. If anyone's blood was sacrificed in its prosperity, it was mine."

What was this? That wasn't the voice of the man he'd never wanted as father, the man he despised more than anyone on the planet. Gabriel drew his hands from his pockets, wanting to get a better look at this man by taking another step forward. "Who are you?" he asked, stopping when the figure slowly rose from the chair.

"My name is Spencer. Always has been, always will be. Though you've not known that until now." A cane materialized from the shadows by the chair, clutched in one gnarled hand.

Gabriel's breath left him in a whoosh as the man came into the light. God, he'd been so stupid, certain his father was the one who held Julia at the Ranch. He didn't know what to make of this development, eyeing the English gentleman with wide eyes as he staggered back a step. Though this one-time crony of his father's didn't look quite the same as when he'd seen him last in the plush confines of a limousine on the DC streets. He'd aged, his once stately physique drooping as he shuffled forward.

"You survived," Gabriel breathed, putting the pieces together one by one. "But how - I saw the explosion." At Spencer's pointed silence, he breathed with realization, "Jeremiah... or one of them, anyway. It was *you* who kept him safe, you who had him infiltrate the tower, who financed his operations."

A pleased nod accompanied Spencer's reply. "I was badly burned. He healed me... as best as he could. My body may look the same, but believe me, it isn't. There's only so much a healer can do when one's feeble body has been practically torn apart." He paused, leaning on the cane. "Though his work in the tower for me was all for naught - much to my dismay - you and the hundreds saved from the trains should thank him. If he ever shows his face again."

"And Kurtzweil?"

"I told you then he'd come and gone, Mr. Mulder. Or should I say Gabriel?" Spencer gestured toward the couch. "Please, have a seat. I fear we have lots to discuss and I tire very easily." He moved past Gabriel with the slow gait of one handicapped by dysfunctional bone and muscle, collapsing onto the chair across from the couch with a sigh.

As he did on that summer night so long ago, he warily circled the man, finally perching on the end of the couch farthest away, his first questions bit out through lips very tired of asking for answers. "What do you want with her? Why take her from me? Do you work for my father? Is that it?"

"Work for your father?" A sneer lifted the paper-thin cheek. "Why in heaven's name would I want to associate myself with that piece of filth?"

"You have before."

"Not by choice, I assure you."

Gabriel wasn't about to be drawn into a discussion of conspiracy semantics. "Just answer the question... why take her from me?"

Spencer reached inside his jacket, then stilled as Gabriel sat up straighter with the tense onslaught of anxiety. "Easy, Gabriel." He pulled a small radio from the inside pocket. "I'm in the mood for brandy. Care to join me?"

Relaxing just a bit, Gabriel stood, pacing the room as he worked out the kinks of his confinement. "No thanks." Spying the light switch, he flipped it on, ignoring Spencer's grimace. It was obvious Spencer had a long, involved tale to tell and he was going to take his own sweet time about it. Reminding himself of his vow not to stumble into mishap, he decided not to prod the old man, instead willing his whirling mind to slow down, to process each revelation with careful consideration.

Gabriel took the opportunity to look around, one ear trained to Spencer's terse conversation with Jesse. Really nice, though not quite as luxurious as he'd first thought. The furnishings were expensive but not overtly so. Spencer was dressed in serviceable denim clothes, his jacket made from fur-lined deerskin. A single photo sat on the table beside the bed, the smoke from Spencer's dying cigarette marring the features of a smiling boy.

Matthew. Very much younger, without a hint of fear or hesitation, sitting upon a horse with noble elegance. As he heard Spencer kill the radio, he turned, nodding at the boy's picture. "Matthew. He's your grandson, isn't he?"

Spencer nodded. "My only living relative. His parents, his sister Muriel... all lost to the bees. Even Matthew was lost to me, for a long time."

Gabriel moved to sit again, this time not quite as uneasy as before. "Lost? What do you mean?"

"Your father, Mr. Mulder. Stole Matthew from a hospital in London the day before I saw you last. Held him over my head in return for your demise. I knew that evil bastard would never keep up his end of the deal. The explosion presented an opportunity to disappear, to seek out my grandson in one of the many experiments I knew the Project had scattered throughout the world. It was only when Alex managed to break into the New York offices shortly before the invasion began that I discovered where he was being held... and what had been done to him."

The soft tap on the door interrupted their conversation, but only momentarily. Gabriel caught a glimpse of Krycek's stare as Jesse quickly deposited the tray on the table beside Spencer, then poured two snifters half full before exiting again with a warning glance at Gabriel. "Have some?" Spencer asked, raising the glass to his lips with a shaky hand. Gabriel declined with a purse of his lips, urging the old man to continue by his silence. He did, balancing the glass on one knee. "Delta Glen, Wisconsin. Do you recall that little hellhole in the midst of cattle country, Mr. Mulder?"

The name was familiar, and he had a flash of wiping barbecue sauce from the corner of Scully's mouth, the taste of the best ribs he'd ever eaten still alive in sensory memory. "Experiments on kids. With Purity Control - alien DNA injections resulting in rampaging hormones and sudden growth spurts."

"Exactly. One of the earliest versions of the vaccine, actually. Very potent, with high concentrations of alien DNA, but regretfully ineffective at fighting the virus."

So that's why Matthew had the body of a young man, when he should just now be approaching the lanky height of a sixteen-year-old. "They gave Matthew the same injections." At the old man's sad nod, he added, "And without them, his immune system becomes seriously compromised."

The kids in Wisconsin had all developed influenza within days of the cessation of weekly alien-tainted treatment. He hadn't done a follow-up, but he'd bet his bottom dollar those children had developed more serious diseases. He wondered if they lived out the year. "But - Jeremiah?" Surely the hybrid was able to help the boy.

"Could only do so much. Which was very little, actually. He could not rid Matthew of the alien DNA that lives within him now. Kurtzweil keeps him alive with daily doses of antibiotics and anti-virals in an effort to keep his immune system functioning."

Just like the bounty hunter could not heal his father, Gabriel realized, Jeremiah could not heal Matthew.

"Julia told me you were going to seek treatment in Helena. What kind of treatment?" Spencer had never answered his first question about Julia, but Gabriel hadn't forgotten; the explanation would come, he was sure of it.

"It didn't take long to discover that Kurtzweil's treatment of Matthew is only palliative. I needed to find a cure." He set his jaw, dipping his chin to level Gabriel with steely blue eyes.

Piece by piece, it was all falling into place. "My father."

Spencer nodded. "You realize he survived the collapse of the tower?"

"I suspected as much. Krycek?" It was the only possible avenue of escape for his father.

"For God's sake, no," Spencer sneered, breaking off into a fit of coughing.

Gabriel hesitated, then walked to the pitcher of water by the bed; his charity in bringing the old man a glass of water was only to keep him talking. He waited until Spencer had downed a few sips, then took the glass away, setting it on the table with a splash. "Go on," he stated through thin lips, barely holding on to his temper as he faced Spencer, hands on hips. "If Krycek didn't get him out, who did?"

"Your father has more lives than a cat - how the hell should I know?" Spencer glared at Gabriel, then relaxed a bit as he added, "Alex was under orders to find the cure. He was to kidnap your father, to bring him to me." A deep sigh, then, "Alas, your father had disappeared by the time Alex made it upstairs. When we intercepted the data downloaded to West Virginia, we didn't find anything of any use to us. You and your friends, Mr. Mulder, were no longer of any interest to me."

"And my father? Where is he?"

"We kept an eye on the bunker. When he made his move to take Miss Scully, we followed."

But didn't move in to help, the bastards. And Spencer, Krycek, Kurtzweil - they all knew she would someday become pregnant and lead them to Spender. Gabriel tamped down his fury at their own selfish motives and jumped on the opening instead. "He called her, didn't he? Because she was pregnant."

Spencer set his empty snifter down on the table next to him before leveling Gabriel with a truthful stare. "It is my understanding that the second chip sensed the moment her hormone levels began to rise. You'd have to speak to Kurtzweil for the particulars. Congratulations, Mr. Mulder. You're going to be a father."

Dropping onto the couch, Gabriel scrubbed at his warm cheeks, fighting off the relieved rush of tears. Frohike had been right. Raising his chin once again, he set his shaking hands on his knees, searching for control as he whispered, "But something went wrong. She never made it there."

"Alex and his men tracked the helicopter out west; it made several stops along the way, but only for a few hours at a time. It went down just inside the Colorado border - a mechanical malfunction, possibly. There was a trading of gunfire as Alex tried to get to her. By the time the last of your father's men were killed, she was nowhere to be found." A small smile curled his lips. "Her resilience is amazing. Somehow, she made it to Denver, with no memory of who she was or why she was there."

"But why didn't she follow the call of the chip?"

"She may have been. We still have no precise location of your father's home base. She was pretty banged up when Alex found her; half- starving after several days alone, covered with bruises and scratches. Dr. Kurtzweil's theory is that, though the chip still functions as a memory blocker, it was damaged somehow in the crash and no longer has the ability to summon her."

"She hasn't been called again?"

"No, though you've witnessed first-hand the results of taxing her memory." Spencer paused at Gabriel's regretful silence, then he added, his voice laced with fatigue, "I suggest you speak to Dr. Kurtzweil about all this, Mr. Mulder. There's so much more he can tell you and I really don't have the energy -"

Gabriel stood, looming over the table with a furious face as he bit out, "I don't give a shit what you have the energy for," keeping his voice softly controlled so as not to alert the watchdogs outside the doors. "You used her from the beginning. Krycek was nothing but your errand boy - offering her the means to get to me, only to have her body violated once again."

Spencer's eyes narrowed, his hands clasping over the handle of his cane. "Miss Scully and those computer-hacking friends of yours presented a most convenient opportunity to find and bait your father, Mr. Mulder. Would they have done all they did if I'd come forward and begged for the life of my grandson?"

He had a point, albeit a moot one. What's done was done, but Gabriel wasn't finished, the anguish of the past year seeking to find a scapegoat. And this feeble leftover from a cadre of power-hungry men, while not the ultimate source of his and Scully's pain and suffering, would do nicely in a pinch.

"Men like you never ask, you just take." The new scar around his neck was more than enough proof of that; Spencer may not have been the one to call Julia from the bunker, but he had his hands in just as much spilled blood. "Just like the bounty hunter you set up to nab me. And I'm fucking tired of it."

"That, I'm truly sorry for," Spencer mused. "But that was not my doing; none of us had any idea the shapeshifter was in Denver."

Taken aback, Gabriel asked, "Then who -"

"Another one of your father's tricks, I presume. My guess is he suspected Julia was in the area; he knew you'd come sniffing around. And the Ranch was too well-guarded for any penetration, even by the alien. I believe he planned to use you to draw Julia out."

There were so many unanswered questions, but Gabriel grew weary of all the games. He turned for the door, intent upon fighting his way off this train, Julia in tow. Now that he knew about the chip, she could never be used again. "And you - in your extreme benevolence - sat back and let that green-blooded fucker take me. Proves my point. Now, if you'll excuse me... I have better things to do with my time than listen to your justifications."

"Such a paragon of non-culpability. It was not I who set the chain of your father's greed into motion, it was you."

Gabriel could have walked out the door and into a fracas with Jesse, but he stilled, facing Spencer with a stony expression. "Just what the hell does *that* mean?"

"Krycek told me your father was well on his way to dying, Mr. Mulder. Until you stepped right into the path of that UFO in Oregon, handing him the means to survive... and the initiative to begin colonization." A sneer coiled Spencer's face into a grotesque mask. "Once the aliens delivered you, there was no one left to foil their plans. You fool... always chasing that which you could not possibly capture. Including Julia."

"You saw to that. The bounty hunter wasn't successful in stopping me, but Jesse would have been, wouldn't he?"

"I admit that Jesse works for me, yes. And he was assigned to keep you from the Ranch, initially."

"Initially?"

"You know that Julia has seizures." Off Gabriel's silence, he continued, "They were frequent in the beginning, but mild."

A chill ran down Gabriel's spine. "In the beginning? She told me they were going away."

"They're not as regular, that's true. But when they did happen - when they *do* happen, as they still do - they're more powerful, longer lasting. Kurtzweil warned us about the possible harm to the baby; he noticed her restlessness, her intent to regain her memory. She needed stabilization." Spencer sighed. "Jesse knew you were Mulder - the 'one' Julia so eloquently muttered about in her sleep. Unbeknownst to him, I'd decided to send for you the very day you disappeared. We thought you were dead, you know. He apologized profusely."

"I'm sure he did," Gabriel muttered, sarcasm knifing through his words as he began to pace the room. This protracted conversation was making him antsy; the time to make his move was fast approaching.

"We never had any intention of harming you, Mulder - you or Julia."

"Forgive me if I find that hard to believe." He touched the tender gash on his temple, then resumed his pacing. "So you drafted Krycek in the role of dutiful husband."

A small grin accompanied Spencer's dry, "A part that doesn't sit well with Alex, though I'm sure he's taken great pleasure in throwing their supposedly blissful marital status in your face at every opportunity."

He ignored Spencer's attempt at catching him off-guard, instead replying, "Still doesn't mean you're doing all this for her safety."

"I don't mean Julia any harm, or her baby. Though you must know by now I can't let you just take her away from me. Not until I'm finished with her."

It didn't surprise him that Spencer had ulterior motives. This was no friendly disclosure leading to their possible release. But what could he possibly want with Julia? His mind raced, the inescapable conclusion he reached causing frightful nausea to build in his throat once again. "You son-of-a-bitch."

"I see your intuitive reasoning has finally kicked in," Spencer purred. "We're on our way to meet with your father now. With Julia and her baby, I can bargain for Matthew's cure."

Don't do it, his mind screamed. You're so close. Just walk away and tackle Krycek. You can take him, take his gun and lock yourself inside the locomotive. The train would be yours to command at will.

But the half-hour of holding his temper had come to an end. More than a year of physical and mental torture, of manipulations of him *and* her... the anger welled up in him, threatening to overflow into a frenzy that would tear the old man apart as it drove his bare hands to murder.

"Over my dead body," Gabriel said softly, moving like a madman as he knocked over the table beside Spencer, his hands wrapping around the clammy, wrinkled neck. "Better yet, yours."

It was so easy; a matter of moments and the fragile bones beneath would crack under the strength of his grip. The old man gasped, his eyes going wide as he fought to speak. "Stop -" he wheezed out, his cane hitting Gabriel in the knee as he squirmed.

So what if he got caught? Slowly, he applied more pressure, the feral flush of triumph making his face burn. No way were they going back to his father. He'd see everyone on this train dead before that happened. Including himself and Julia. Enough was enough.

The beefy hands grabbed him from behind, wrenching him away from the old man, who doubled over with asthmatic gulps of air. Gabriel struggled against Jesse's hold, but was effectively pinned like a butterfly under glass, especially when the manhandling tugged on his sore shoulder. His knees buckled at the scream of his muscles and Jesse let him slide to the floor.

"I ought to kill you right now."

Gabriel looked up into the barrel of Krycek's gun. Grimacing, he rubbed at his shoulder and lowered his head, ignoring Krycek's fury as he listened to Jesse tend to Spencer.

"You're a stupid motherfucker, Mulder. You always were." The hammer clicked back, echoing in Gabriel's ears like a death knell.

The swift blossom of defeat rose in Gabriel's chest. Once again, he'd let his heart rule his head; any second, his brain would ruin the fine carpet of the boss man's suite. And Julia would continue on to Helena. He was such a fool.

"Alex." Spencer's sandpaper voice was almost lost in the hum of the wheels beneath the floor.

Gabriel held his breath, counting the seconds until oblivion. Then he heard the leather of Krycek's jacket shift and crackle; when he raised his head, the gun was averted, Krycek's face tight with disappointment. "Get up," was all he said, his eyes glittering with warning.

There was no doubt in Gabriel's mind that one false move on his part would put a bullet in him faster than he could blink. Slowly, he got to his feet, cradling his sore arm in one hand. A chuckle bubbled forth, the little smart-ass imp who lived within him not quite cooperative. "And you always were a coward, Alex."

The gun flew up in a flash, Krycek's jaw so tight it looked as though his teeth could crack diamonds.

"Enough." Spencer breathed easier now, waving a hovering Jesse away. However, he didn't send the two men from the room as he'd done earlier. Looking at Gabriel with wary, red-rimmed eyes, he said, "You hothead. Nothing like your father."

"I take that as a compliment, sir." He grinned, which infuriated Spencer, who slapped at Jesse with his cane.

"Sit him down," he ordered. Jesse complied, none too gently, forcing Gabriel to the couch opposite Spencer, who rubbed at his neck as he addressed Gabriel. "If it were just you involved in this, I'd have you thrown from this train. But Julia knows you're here now. Still, why I'm bothering to explain myself to you is a mystery."

"A conscience? Forgive me if -"

Spencer cut him off, leaning forward to say softly, "But it's not only my grandson who needs your father's assistance... Agent Scully's life also depends on the success of this trip. You'd be wise to hear me out, Mr. Mulder."

*******

10:29 p.m.

They didn't hold him back as he rushed from Spencer's car. Stumbling, really, fighting the sway of the train, his heart pounding in his chest with every murmur of disbelief.

"No, no." Over and over, his litany of denial forced his weak legs forward, Spencer's words of a few moments past reverberating in his brain.

<It was gone when we found her.>

His fingers slapped against the icy glass that lined one side of the corridor over and over, seeking purchase to help him remain upright.

<It's only a matter of time.>

God, he'd never make it to her room. Once again, the nosy nurse gave him a glare as he passed Matthew's room. This time, he smelled not only hospitals, but death. It turned his stomach, but he kept moving.

<She'll be lucky if she survives the birth.>

He had to see her, to believe this wasn't true. A doubting Thomas, his fingers itched to touch the unmarred expanse of her skin - in this case, hoping to find no scars. To find the little bump under the skin she'd had the Underground doctors make perfect; to smile at its security, at the beauty and the complex, valuable life it held in its grip.

At last, he made it to her door, flinging it open amidst Kurtzweil's quieting shush. His gaze flew to the bed; Julia was sleeping. More peacefully than when he'd seen her last, curled on her side in a normal, relaxed clutch of her pillow. He saw the lace edge of a white nightgown peek above the blankets. She looked warm. She looked safe.

"She woke up a few minutes ago," Kurtzweil whispered. "I think she didn't want to say much in an effort to protect you. But I asked her if she remembered what happened and she told me no, so be careful what you say."

Gabriel slowly brushed past him, unable to take his eyes off the smooth face that had regained some color. Slightly pink now in the glow from the lamp, her skin looked healthy, her lips open as she took in slow, deep breaths of warm air. It couldn't be, it just couldn't.

"Is it true?" His question hung in the room.

Kurtzweil sighed behind him. "I'm afraid so."

Squeezing his eyes shut, Gabriel grated out, "Are you sure? Did you actually look?" Though Spencer had told him so already, he wanted to hear it from Kurtzweil's lips.

"I did. Went deep, as Alex instructed, knowing she'd buried it when she went Underground for the plastic surgery." Behind him, he heard Kurtzweil move to the door. "I'm going to check on Matthew, then I'll be in the club car. I'll tell you anything you need to know, Mulder." Light sliced across the floor at Gabriel's feet. "I'm sorry." With that, he shut the door behind him.

Like a thief, he stole to the other side of the bed, gently settling behind her. The warmth of her crept through his sweater and he inhaled deeply, his breath hitching with a strangled sob as he laid his head on her pillow. Sudden fright at what he'd find gave him pause; not yet - he wanted to be certain there was a toomorrow.

In the lamplight, his knuckles were dusky with the onset of bruising, his fingers stiff from clinging to the roof of the car. They slid over her covered arm, coming to rest over the child as he sighed, his eyes closing with the reprieve. It still moved. She still lived.

Julia stirred with a sough of breath, her legs stiffening before she relaxed, a contented smile curling her lips. "You're here. Dr. Kurtzweil must have left."

Gabriel pushed the cobwebs down with a swallow. "Yeah."

"I didn't say anything." Her sluggish words betrayed her; she obviously didn't know she'd had another seizure. "The doctor came to see me... is that why you disappeared?"

This time, his, "Yeah," was whisper soft as his throat ached around the word. He curled around her, giving her cheek a kiss as his hand entwined with hers. The memory of the calm before the storm in Oregon so long ago made him long to turn back time, to stop the chain of events that led them both to this sorrowful day. But it was not to be, no matter how hard he wished it so. "You okay?"

"Mmm... I'm tired." Her eyes remained closed as she scooted her backside into the cradle of his hips. "What happened?"

Careful not to give too much away, he replied, "Too much me." Nuzzling her hair with his nose, he added, "I've never had a woman faint on me before while having sex, Julia. I don't know whether to be flattered or dismayed."

Ignoring his attempt to make light of the situation, she asked solemnly, "I had another seizure, didn't I?" Her tone implied that he'd better not try to lie to her.

So he didn't. Although he did prevent her from turning to face him when she made to move, saying, "You did. Scared the shit out of me."

She tensed in his hold. "The doctor - did he see you?"

There was no way to get around the question. Now was not the time to explain all that had happened in the past hour. But she knew enough to suspect he'd been discovered - in her mind, by the doctor alone. He hated lying to her again, but it must be done. Until he had a chance to figure out what course he'd take next. "I buzzed his room, yes."

"Oh, Gabriel..." Her voice trailed off in a watery sigh.

"It's okay. Believe me, Julia - it is. I made myself scarce until he left." It was a lame explanation and he knew it, hoping she wouldn't ask for details. He forestalled her weak argument by squeezing her hand; she was about to drift off to sleep again and soon, her protests would fade away. Bringing her palm up, he laid a kiss in its soft depths before he said, "The most important thing is that you're okay... you're fine."

She tilted her chin, sighing as she said, "I told you, Gabriel - they're nothing to worry about. It just exhausts me, that's all."

<It misfires. As a backup, it will soon cease to function.>

He crammed Spencer's ominous words into the dim recesses where the slim dregs of hope clamored for release. Maybe they were wrong. Maybe it was still there and undetectable by touch. He hadn't felt it in his inspection of her in the tower. Maybe they were all lying to him still - they'd hadn't even looked for it.

<We've looked for it. Nothing.>

But he knew better. She wasn't fine. The seizures, her fragile posture, despite the round weight of his child. His lips trembled as he nodded, words escaping him.

A broad yawn preceded, "The plan is still on, isn't it?"

This time, he couldn't stop the hot drop that bled from his eye to trail down his nose. It was with a husky voice that he answered, "Yeah. You just rest, okay?"

"Stay a while longer? Just 'til I fall asleep again?" Her words were slurred, the grip on his hand easing as she gave in to the pull of fatigue. "An' wake me before the Colonel... takes me time... get dressed..." She trailed off.

"Okay." Giving her cheek another kiss, he whispered, "I love you, Julia."

"Love you," she echoed, though in the next few seconds she was gone from him, lost in a deep sleep.

Proof was necessary, but it was with dread he decided to look. All his life, he'd believed with just snatches of debatable evidence. But this was different - as long as it wasn't seen, it wasn't to be believed. He took a breath, then two, summoning the strength to continue.

Slowly, he pulled his arm from around her, drawing back just a bit to sweep the hair from her neck, uncovering her skin. The scar was slightly longer than before, pink with new growth, her skin not unblemished as it was in the tower. The pad of his thumb brushed over it, pressing down over... nothing. He even pinched the skin between his fingers. Still nothing.

<Without that chip, she *will* die.>

As he cried, he pressed his mouth to the emptiness. And he believed.

 


Chapter Twenty-Three

En route to Helena
September 24, 2001
11:34 p.m.

An hour's worth of precious time. It was all he would allow grief to cloud his mind. He'd never let himself cry with concern for her in her presence except for another bedside breakdown as she laid oblivious to his sorrow. Thank goodness she'd never had to witness either instance.

With a last kiss to her cheek, he rose from the bed. Still asleep, she turned with some difficulty, rolling over with an unconscious grunt as her belly presented an obstacle. He waited, watching her maneuver the pillows even as her eyes stayed closed. One was shoved between her knees, another two pushed against her back as she landed on the opposite side, burrowing into the warmth he left behind. With a deep inhale of his leftover scent, she drifted again. Problem solved.

A short, watery chuckle burst from him and a grin blossomed on his tear-stained face. There was nothing - *nothing* she couldn't overcome, not even in her sleep. Somewhere in that suppressed memory, the physics of her solution was scribbled, the white chalk letters whispering in hushed tones to her sleeping mind. Like always, she prevailed.

He would do the same. For her. For his baby. It wouldn't be easy, and would require an aplomb once better left to her graceful social and tactical skills... be he could do it. He had to.

A quick wash of his face and he left her room, this time walking with long, purposeful strides to the club car. He would no longer be detoured, no longer be harassed. There was no need; they had his cooperation and they knew it. But there was no way he was letting those two ancient, greedy kings dictate their strategy from here on out... he had a few aces up his sleeve, too. First order of business - position those aces around the 'man with the axe' in Helena. The 'suicide king', taking them all to hell with them on this train, probably wouldn't want his help, but he damn well was going to get it.

As he entered the club car, three sets of eyes looked up from a table by the windows, the liquor in their half-full glasses rippling along with the steady momentum of the train.

"I need a computer," Gabriel announced. "And I need it now."

Krycek leaned back in his chair with a snort. "I don't see that you're in a position to demand anything, Mulder."

Krycek may have thought he cornered the market on menace, but Gabriel had been hiding in the guise of hard-assed miner for months now. In fact, he'd gotten very adept at intimidation - you had to, when every man around you would slit your throat in your sleep for your socks. He lowered his voice and steeled his face. "I suggest you give me access, Krycek - or this trip is going to come to an abrupt end in a few hours."

"What the fuck are you talking about?" Despite his bravado, Krycek's face had a definite tic of anxiety, somewhere below his left eye.

"Just what I said. If you don't allow me to put a stop to it, we won't make it to Helena." That the roadblock involved a few geeks with chainsaws made no difference; Gabriel spoke as if an army awaited the train just around the next bend. But instead of pressing the issue with rash anger, he softened his voice to a lazy, yet commanding purr. "Look, I've got just as much at stake here as Spencer. And no way will I give you any more trouble. But you've got to let me send out a message. Even an hour's delay might mean an interruption my father will not sit still for."

"I could just *make* you stop whatever it is you've planned, you know. Then kill you where you stand."

"And have Julia wake up to find me gone? Do you really want to risk a seizure that could kill her?" Just the words made his throat catch, and he cleared his throat, adding, "So close. It would be a pity to have that cure so close with nothing to bargain with. And my father's not known for his freebies."

It worked; he could see the way the men before him reacted to his name-dropping. Kurtzweil shifted in his chair, suddenly interested in a speck of lint on his sleeve. Jesse stared at Krycek with a silent, lock-jawed plea to listen to the deal. Krycek downed his drink in one gulp, standing to say, "You fuck with this, Mulder and I'll skin you alive, got it?"

Gabriel nodded, giving in to the relief that broke out under his sweater. He had to stop Frohike. But that didn't mean he was totally diverting the Gunmen; a little seed of inspiration germinated in his mind and he pursued it, going for broke. "You realize my father is going to double-cross you?"

Krycek walked around the table, telling Jesse softly, "Get the laptop from Matthew's room." As Jesse quickly left to do his bidding, he approached Gabriel, almost standing toe-to-toe as he murmured, "That's why you never could beat me, Mulder. I'm always one step ahead of you. If you'd bothered to be a bit more polite...."

Polite? Gabriel sneered, the no-so-gentle reminder of Krycek's greeting back in Julia's room a second away. But Krycek didn't miss a beat, finishing with, "You'd have found out that we had no intention of handing her over. This is more than a search for a cure. It's a means to take care of the thorn in our collective sides once and for all." Chuckling at Gabriel's surprise, he left the club car.

Could it be Spencer really wanted no more of his father's business? Yes, the old man wanted his grandson's cure. But Gabriel knew that the men of his ilk cared nothing for no one else - at least, that's the way things used to work. Was it possible that he'd finally grown weary of the selfishness of his ways? Spencer was obviously not well. Maybe he wanted to leave his grandson a legacy not of greed, but of old world nobility.

And what of Krycek? What was his interest in all of this? His involvement made no sense at all; he was just a mercenary. Despite Spencer's easy flow of money, Krycek could have thrown in with the Appointing Authority and lived at the top of the world forever.

"He's telling the truth, you know." Kurtzweil's statement pulled Gabriel from his incredulous thoughts.

"Krycek?" Gabriel huffed. "You're telling me they won't trade Julia for the cure? I don't believe it."

"Sit, Agent Mulder." At the use of Gabriel's former title, Kurtzweil dipped his chin. "Though I suppose I can't very well address you that way anymore, can I?"

Gabriel hesitated, then, with a sag of his shoulders, realized Kurtzweil was offering to tell a different side of the tale. One that he'd very much like to hear, considering that which was once black and white had turned a confusing shade of gray. "Gabriel will do."

Kurtzweil lifted his glass. "Care for a drink? Something to eat? Jesse's not the best cook, but he'll do in a pinch." He gestured at a door at the opposite end of the car; apparently a small kitchen. Gabriel could smell the faint, spicy scent of chili and he declined with a shake of his head, his stomach still not on the best terms with the knot on his head.

"I'd rather have some answers."

"I'm just a small cog in the machinery, Gabriel. I don't know how much I can tell you."

"Let's start with Spencer's sudden Santa Claus act."

Kurtzweil sighed, leaning back in his chair. "He's told you Matthew was taken from him." Off Gabriel's nod, he continued, "He saved me, you know. Spirited me away to the Ranch to await his grandson's retrieval."

"Why you? Matthew, unless thousands of years of evolution have suddenly taken a hike, isn't likely to ever give birth."

"I once worked for the Project. With your father -" He broke off with an apologetic tilt of his head before clarifying, "With Bill Mulder, but I told you that already. Although not in direct contact with Dr. Bonita Charne- Sayre, I studied her work. Spencer knew of my familiarity with her research - I was one of the only ones left he could trust. Besides, a dead man can't exactly consult a specialist openly."

Gabriel commiserated with a nod, remembering the way he'd slunk around the Pentagon in search of Scully's cure so long ago. Being dead may have been freeing in that regard, but it made it hell when he rushed to the hospital and had to fight off Skinner to see her. And it didn't exactly endear him to her mother and Bill Scully when he'd pleaded his case the next day.

"Do you believe my father has a cure for Matthew?"

"If anyone does, it's him. What really matters is - he's willing to part with it in exchange for Julia." There was no doubt about that, in either of their minds. Gabriel's old man was nothing if not a master strategist; especially when his life was on the line. "We are under no illusions, Gabriel. He knows we've got Julia, and that we've been stalling, hoping to make Matthew well on our own. The last thing Mr. Spencer wants is to give your father the means to survive. My guess is, he's going to make the trade, then send Alex after her again. This time, to take care of your old man for good."

"And Krycek? Spencer I can maybe cut some slack, but Krycek? Scully told me he'd pushed my father down a flight of stairs - tried to kill him. Why the hell would he do that if he was trying to get his hands on Matthew's cure?"

"From what I understand, a fit of frustrated temper. Alex may appear to be made of stone, but believe me, he's not. Quite possibly the Russian in him."

Gabriel ignored Kurtzweil's small smile and snorted, "Still, there's no way in hell he doesn't have an angle in this."

Kurtzweil pondered the question for a moment, avoiding Gabriel's gaze as he fingered his glass on the table. "That's not for me to divulge."

"Then you know?"

"Yes." As Gabriel began to huff, he added quickly, "But it's not what you think. Believe me, you have nothing to fear from these men."

They were interrupted by the flustered arrival of Jesse, laptop in hand. "Couldn't figure out how to get the damned thing unhooked," he muttered, placing it on the table in front of Gabriel. He hovered as Gabriel powered it up. "Listen man, I was just doing my job -" he began. Gabriel wondered how long it was going to take before Jesse tried to apologize.

"Don't worry about it," he answered sharply, more intent on getting where he needed to be than to give Jesse a smiling, sweeping forgiveness. He waited as he connected to the satellite uplink, and from the corner of his eye, he saw Jesse sag into the chair at his right.

"That ain't good enough," he pressed. "I can see how much that woman in there means to you. And if I could make it up to you, I would."

"Save it," was Gabriel's terse reply.

"C'mon, Gabe. I know you think we're all like your old man, but it just ain't true. Mr. Spencer, he started the company years ago, waiting for the chance to keep your father from getting his hands on every piece of 'k' he could."

Gabriel snorted, not looking up as he accessed the newsgroup. He hoped Frohike had the sense to keep his laptop up and running on their journey north. "And making millions had nothing whatsoever to do with Spencer's motives?"

It was Jesse's turn to huff. "He don't *need* the money, man. Every bit of 'k' he digs up is destroyed. I've seen it done."

At that, Gabriel looked up from the message he was composing. "Destroyed? How?"

"If Jesse will let me, I think I can best answer that," Kurtzweil interjected. Jesse and Gabriel both fell silent, looking to him as he said, "The 'k', as it's so erroneously named, is highly unstable in the presence of iron. It can be absorbed by the purest form of the element, which is itself highly reactive. What Jesse saw was a melding process, carried out at one of several facilities throughout the country."

"But why? From what I've seen it do, it's an amazing discovery. Could revolutionize the way we live."

"It can also destroy what little we have left in this world, Gabriel - if it falls into the wrong hands."

His father's hands, in other words. He went back to his message, shaking his head with a slight chuckle. "I still find it hard to believe Spencer isn't stashing some away somewhere. It would be very difficult not to give in to the temptation to hold the world at your mercy." Realizing he needed a bit of information, he changed the subject, addressing Kurtzweil. "What time are we due to arrive in Helena?"

"Around six tomorrow evening - why?"

Gabriel ignored the question and asked another. "And the exchange? When and where is it taking place?"

Kurtzweil backed off with a wave of his hand. "That I don't know. Sometime tomorrow night, I think. You'll have to consult Alex for the details."

Oh joy, Gabriel thought. Just what he needed. Another run-in with his best buddy. Quickly, he finished his message, instructing Frohike to meet him at the Helena station at 6 p.m. But he didn't send it, not yet. With narrowed eyes, he leaned back in his chair, giving Jesse a soft, "Jesse knows, don't you, Jesse?"

"Whoa, wait a minute." Jesse sat back, fear lacing his voice. "I ain't supposed to tell anyone, Gabe."

"You said it yourself - you owe me."

"But I ain't crossin' Krycek. Besides, we got plans of our own. Mr. Spencer is gonna have company guards around every corner. We ain't gonna let Julia get away from us, Gabe."

"Let's just say I'll be there as backup." He lowered his voice, leaning forward with a pleading look. "Please, Jesse. I need to be there. You understand? I can't take the chance." On losing her again, he added silently.

Jesse clenched his jaw with frustration, swinging his head to look at Kurtzweil, who sat nearby with an amused, knowing grin. Don't look at me for help, his eyes told Jesse. After a moment of Jesse's consternation he said, "You're dealing with a man who chased this woman all the way to Antarctica, Jesse. Do you really think he's going to let Alex and his men stand in his way?"

Jesse turned again, bemused surprise on his face. "Antarctica? Are you nuts?"

Gabriel showed him just how 'nuts' he could be by growling, "If you don't tell me, Jesse, I won't call off the dogs. I'll take Julia off this train in the blink of an eye. Or we'll both die trying... along with anyone who stands in our way. Spencer can go fuck himself."

The cursor hovered over the 'cancel message' button as Jesse's eyes riveted to his hand. Finally, after several tense moments, Jesse backed down, rising from his chair to mutter, "Okay, okay. Canyon Ferry Dam, nine o'clock. But I'm tellin' you right now, Gabe - don't get in the way. Mr. Spencer don't wanna kill you, but he will if you mess this up, got it?" With that, he turned and left.

After Jesse made his exit, Gabriel quickly typed in the location of the exchange and instructed Frohike to scout out the location before sending off the message. Several moments later, he began pacing the club car as Kurtzweil retreated to the kitchen. One thing was certain - he wasn't known for his patience. He wanted nothing more than to get back to Julia, but stopping Frohike was number one on his 'to do' list at the moment. Surely the guys would monitor the group for any abort messages? Damn. He should have taken the time to set up a cancel code with Frohike. But he couldn't have foreseen the way things had evolved. It was a mess he still didn't totally understand - one that he'd just have to live with for now.

"Coffee?" Kurtzweil returned from the small kitchen, mugs in hand, to sit once again at the table. "Looks like you're gonna need it."

Gabriel scratched at his beard, giving the doctor an incredulous, "You really think Spencer is legit?" before sitting to reach for the cup of the strong brew.

Kurtzweil sipped at the steaming liquid. "None of us is without sin, Gabriel. Or blameless."

His soft words echoed Spencer's of hours ago. Hanging his head, he said, "She is."

"True. The one person in this twisted web of lies and betrayal who can hold her head up with honor. But the rest of us are getting there."

He looked up into Kurtzweil's calm face. "Do you believe a man can change? Leave behind all the wrongs he's done and do something simply because it's the right thing to do?" He applied the same reasoning to himself; back in the bunker, he'd tried to rid himself of the horror he'd helped perpetuate - the thousands of innocents he'd been unable to save. No. It was wrong to think of it that way. He'd sent those people to their deaths, with the stroke of a cowardly pen. It still haunted him, when he let himself think of it. Something he didn't let happen often. But he knew one day it would grab hold... and he prayed for the strength to live on. And only Scully could help him do that.

"I've seen it happen. I've done it myself. Spencer's done it - so did your father."

"My father?" Gabriel snorted. "Spencer's laundry may be spotless these days, but my father will always -"

"I'm speaking of Bill Mulder. This man we're going to deal with... biologically, he sired you. But he's not your father, Gabriel."

"I know that." Gabriel faltered, his jaw working. "Doesn't mean a thing. Bill Mulder was just as self-serving and cold."

"And he was also man who thumbed his nose at the Project after they took your sister. He was powerless to stop them, yes. But he refused to help them any longer. Spencer took another route."

Once again, he found himself pondering the unbelievable - that a man like Spencer could change his ways. "Spencer once told me that my father chose hope over selfishness. You're telling me now he has finally chosen hope as well?"

Kurtzweil shook his head, lowering his cup of coffee to the table with a serious gaze. "I'm telling you that he finally chose to fight back. In the only way he knows how - by using strategy learned from the most evil men who ever walked the earth. You can't ask a man who's lived his life in the sewer to suddenly be squeaky clean. He's doing the best he can."

Gabriel fell silent, refreshing the screen on the laptop. He started at the new message, then heaved a sigh of relief. Frohike didn't waste time asking for an explanation why the hijacking was aborted; he simply confirmed receipt and said they'd arrive in Helena a few hours before the train. The trip by truck was slow, but they were making good time so far. Major roads were still in good shape.

Not so with the train; it seemed they'd slowed down a bit. As Gabriel looked out the window, the snow seemed to be falling harder than ever. Turning back to Kurtzweil he asked, "Will we make it on time?"

"We should. Spencer probably allowed a cushion of several hours. Did you contact your men?"

"Yes. They'll meet us in Helena. I'd appreciate it if you'd keep that under your hat for a while."

"No problem. May I make a suggestion?" He watched Gabriel power down the laptop.

Standing, Gabriel shook his head with a chuckle. "I think I've had more than enough advice given to me this evening, thanks." He was anxious to leave, to catch a few hours sleep. Preferably with his arms around Julia. "I have to get back to her."

Kurtzweil stood as well, halting his exit with a soft warning. "Don't reveal too much to Julia when she wakes up. She probably won't remember anything but vague images of me tending to her. I'm guessing you told her I hadn't seen you?"

A flush of guilt suffused him; he hated lying to her again. "She's going to know our plans have changed when the train isn't stopped."

"Make something up - tell her anything."

Through clenched teeth, he replied, "I can't keep lying to her. She's not stupid, you know."

Kurtzweil was insistent, waving off Gabriel's protest with an impatient hand. "Listen to me. Do you really want to answer her inevitable questions? Her body is still reeling from tonight's episode, still very much vulnerable to another. And her baby can't possibly stand the stress, neither can she."

Gabriel knew the doctor was right, but all the lies didn't sit well with him. He longed for the day he could tell her everything. "Then what the hell do I tell her?"

"Tell her everything's going to be fine. That you're going to save her." At the roll of Gabriel's eyes, he added, "The desolate ice fields of Antarctica didn't stop you... why should the mountains of Montana?"

Easier said than done, he thought, as he walked from the club car. This time, her salvation wasn't mile-high security of a syringe - it was the vastly smaller, much more fragile chip no bigger than her pinky fingernail. And this one didn't lie in wait in the catacombs of the Pentagon - it laid in the palm of his father's treacherous hand.

 


Chapter Twenty-Four

En route to Helena
September 25, 2001
6:45 a.m.

It was pure bliss, the way she snuggled into him, all sleep-warmed and sighing as she drifted up from her dreams. "Mmm... what time is it?"

She hadn't woken when he'd crawled back into bed with her after his midnight cup of coffee with Kurtzweil. It was a small blessing, one he'd embraced as he did her, shedding his top clothes to burrow under the covers, bringing her body into close, relieved contact. Though the caffeine had temporarily jolted his nerves awake, it hadn't been long before he'd slept, the familiar feel of her more relaxing to him than any sleeping pill.

Lifting drowsy eyelids, he eyed the clock on her night stand. Pulling her close, he watched her eyes flutter as he tucked her sleep-tousled hair behind her ear to expose a cheek that begged to be kissed. "Almost seven. Hungry?" He brushed his lips across that soft slope, careful not to abrade the skin with his beard.

"Yeah." Suddenly, she stiffened in his arms and her eyes flew open as the last cobwebs cleared. She drew back, almost panicked as the alert blue orbs searched his face. "Gabriel! The doctor - I remember hearing him last night - God, did he see you?"

So much for Kurtzweil's assurance of a convenient memory lapse. "No," he murmured, reassuring her with the caress of her cheek. The lie didn't come easily, but he forced it through his lips anyway. "I buzzed for him then high-tailed it to the room next door."

"My husb- his?" Her worry increased tenfold, her brow wrinkling with distress. "Oh, Gabriel, please tell me you didn't -"

"Nothing happened, Julia." Firmer now, his voice pressed her into relaxing. It was with regret that he added, "No one did anything." Including himself. He was beginning to think that 'ineffectual' should be his new middle name.

Shaky fingers came up to touch his battered forehead. "What's this?"

"A little run-in with your door. Nothing."

"Gabriel, don't lie to me. Something happened, didn't it?"

"No, I promise."

"Gabriel -"

Only one thing to do, he thought sadly. But it wasn't taxing - no, not at all. Infinitely satisfying was more like it. She hummed under his mouth for just a second, her anger still simmering beneath his touch. He felt the moment she capitulated, her lips opening like the petals of a flower, her hands sliding down his chest to curl around his waist.

With a sigh, she pulled away. "That's not fair, you know." Sprinkling kisses down his chest, she turned him easily to his back. "I had a good head of steam going."

"I know you did." His eyes closed as he allowed her to mold his body to her will, falling back like a lazy cat under her scratching. "Believe me, Julia. Everything's fine."

Except it wasn't. As he laid under her caresses, last night's sorrow returned and he bit his lip to keep from crying out at the injustice of it all. Oblivious to his pain, she happily hummed against his skin, her hands drifting down.

No, he thought. They couldn't do this. He couldn't make love to her - let her make love to him - with so many lies between them. But it was so dangerous to tell her the truth. And it was so selfish of him to want to use her body - her dying body - in an effort to ease his sadness. He willed his betraying flesh to settle down as he gently shrugged her off, swinging his legs to the floor.

"Breakfast?" Hunched over, he steeled himself against the inevitable touch of her fingers. When it came, he stiffened, moving slightly away. He didn't want to arouse her suspicion by totally shutting her out, but neither did he want a repeat of last night's episode.

Behind him, he heard her sit up. "Gabriel?" Calm and soft of voice, she slid her hand up to his shoulder and gave it a squeeze. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing, I told you. Nothing." Slipping out from under her touch, he stood and reached for his jeans, carefully avoiding her searching gaze. It had been so easy as she slept to imagine himself saving the day. Riding up to his father on a white horse and demanding what was stolen from her; presenting it to her as some sort of Holy Grail, with himself as deliverer. But in the cold light of day, his frustration and impotence came back to cloak him. Binding his arms and chest with oppressive ropes that bit into his skin with every move he tried to make.

"I know something's wrong, Gabriel. I can tell." From the corner of his eye, he saw her leave the bed. He turned to the windows, fastening his jeans as she continued, "These clothes. Where did you get them?"

Half-turning, he saw her walk forward, sweater in hand, her question tightening her brow. "Kr- Arntzen. Found them in his room." Please don't ask me anymore, he begged silently.

Her steps brought her around to face him. After bringing the sweater to her nose, she flung it at him, her eyes flashing. "And you took time to bathe?"

He fisted the black material, his explanation faltering. "Julia..."

"Don't even bother, Gabriel." Arms crossed, she was all fire and fury, determination steeling her jaw. "They know you're here, don't they? Arntzen, the doctor, Mr. Spencer?" At his silence she demanded, "Don't they?"

He caved under her accusing stare. "Yes." With anger at his failed resolve not to upset her, he turned, pulling the sweater over his head. "I'm going to ask you not to pursue this, Julia. Please. I can't say anymore."

A soft sigh blew across his back and warm, slender arms sneaked around his middle. "The Colonel's not meeting us, is he?"

Gabriel closed his hands over her wrists, hanging his head. "No. We're heading to Helena. We have to get there by six... lives depend on it." It was way too much to have let slip out, but it was too late. He just hoped she'd understand and let it go.

"I know," she said softly, her cheek rubbing against his back. "Much as I want to leave with you, I'm glad you decided to let Matthew reach Helena without delay."

She thought he'd had a change of heart about the boy; his use of the plural had escaped her for the moment. Matthew and his grandfather meant nothing to Gabriel. The only lives he cared about were the ones trying to melt into his back. Mother and child, both dependent on the chip no bigger than the head of an hat pin. Swallowing back the aching in his throat, he turned to fully embrace her, his hands pulling her as close as he could.

"Mad at me?" he whispered, settling his chin over her mussed, bright hair.

"Me?" Disbelief made her chuckle as she returned his hug. "Nah. But all you had to do was tell me the truth. That's all I ever ask, Gabriel. I'm so tired of people tiptoeing around me."

"And risk hurting you?" he countered. "I don't think so."

"This little tidbit of information didn't even make a wave in the pool," she huffed. "What I don't understand is why Mr. Spencer felt he had to procure a husband for me."

Gabriel leaned back to look her in the face, his words solemn. "Because he was worried about you. As we all are." It wasn't entirely the reason for Spencer's drafting of Krycek, but it did contain some truth. "Now, let's see about some breakfast."

Julia smiled, one eyebrow raised. "In here?"

The offer was tempting, but unwise. He never thought he'd see the day he'd turn down intimacy with her. But he was still wary of her reaction and there were other advantages to seeking out the other passengers on the train. Besides the opportunity to dig a little deeper, there was the most compelling reason to seek out an audience - they couldn't very well throw him off the train in her presence, now could they? She'd guarantee that he'd make it to Helena.

Shaking his head, he released her and sat on the bed, reaching for his boots. "In the club car. I hear the view is spectacular from there."

As he dropped his head to tie his boot laces, he felt a hand stroke his hair. "You're going to have to touch me again one day, you know," came the soft warning.

Stilling, he realized she could see right through him. One thing that had never changed, never would. Without looking up, he wrapped his arms around her, dropping his cheek to her round, firm belly. "I'm touching you now," he whispered, squeezing his eyes shut.

Her other hand came up to tweak his ear. "That's not what I meant and you know it."

For long moments, he held her tight, fighting the return of his tears. Unable to answer her, he simply nodded, basking in the warmth of her body and the caress of her fingers. Spencer implied last night that he was after a cure for Matthew *and* Julia. But what if things didn't go as planned? He'd have to make a decision soon. God, he felt so alone, despite having her with him. She was part Scully, part Julia... and he'd give anything now to have the Scully part of her step up and present him with the solution to their problems. What would you do Scully? he wanted to ask.

He knew what he wanted. That chip back in her neck and their baby born healthy. Easy. But what if the chip Spencer got from his father was just like the one she now had? One thing he had control over was his father's presence. It didn't matter if she could be called then, because there wouldn't be anyone left to call her, he'd see to it personally. But could he live with her never remembering who she was? Who he was?

Damn straight he could, he thought, nuzzling the thin cotton with his nose.

"Julia?"

"Yes?"

"If this was all we had..." He tread lightly, picking his words carefully. "Just Julia and Gabriel..."

"And our child," she pointed out with a chuckle, her belly moving beneath his cheek, her fingers tugging at his hair.

"Yeah," he agreed with a hitching breath, his lips cracking into a grin. "Sorry, I'm still getting used to it."

"It's okay," she murmured, "so am I. And the answer is yes."

Lifting his head, he looked into her soft, smiling gaze. "Are you sure? What if you can never -?"

"Never what? Remember what my life was like without you in it? Remember the time before I met you?" She dropped a quick kiss on his forehead, then straightened to declare, "There is nothing else I need to know, Gabriel."

But there was, his mind insisted. The Scully he knew would want to know everything about herself, about the world she'd lived in. Her family, her work, the way she'd been used by his father... the way her life hung in balance because of it. "But -"

His words were smothered by her fingers. "But nothing. Gabriel, I've lived these past months wondering who I was, where I'd come from... if there was anyone out there looking for me." A sheen of tears accompanied her smile. "I don't need to look anymore. I don't need to ask, to try to fill the blanks in my mind. You did that when you found me. You filled all the gaps. When you found me, I found myself."

He smiled as well, choking back the onslaught of emotion. "Are you sure, Julia? 'Cause I'm one step up from a bum right now. Not much of a catch, I'm afraid."

She gave him another all-too-brief kiss, this time on the lips, before moving away to the closet. "Well, I'm a homeless, pregnant, married-then-not amnesiac. I'd say that makes us about even, doesn't it?" Winking, she drew her robe from the closet. "I'll even let you use my toothbrush before I hog the bathroom. If that's not true love, what is?"

*******

7:15 a.m.

He left her in the shower, groaning with regret at her invitation to share the hot water with him. At the look on his face, she'd relented, but not before teasing him by parading around the room stark naked. Even now, as he made his way to the club car, he brought a hand to the front of his jeans, grumbling at his dick to settle down. She'd assured him she would no longer press the issue of her former life, telling him it didn't matter. But, like someone burned, he wanted to back off from the fire for a bit. Besides, there were other matters to tend to before she made an appearance at breakfast.

Thankfully, Jesse and Kurtzweil were the only two partaking of eggs and ham in the club car. Kurtzweil looked up with surprise, immediately launching into a warning. "I thought I told you not to tell her anything. What the hell are you doing in here?"

Ignoring the doctor's stern look, Gabriel sat at the table, facing Jesse with a level stare. "Has anything changed? It's still on for Canyon Ferry Dam?"

With a mouthful of eggs, Jesse looked up from his plate. "Shit, Gabe. Can't a man eat in peace?"

Gabriel wrapped his hand around Jesse's wrist, stopping his fork in mid-air. "Don't fuck with me, Jesse. Tell me."

The arm under his fingers tightened a bit, then relented, slowly lowering. "Weather's bad, but right now we're runnin' about an hour ahead of schedule. Passed Cheyenne a couple of hours ago. No change in plans, not that I know of." He shrugged away from Gabriel's grasp with a snide grin. "Satisfied?"

Canyon Ferry Dam. Gabriel sat back, unease settling over him. He wasn't familiar with the landmark, but if it was typical of similar structures in the area, it was isolated and very open. Impossible to hide any force of men because of its stark construction and little or no adjacent buildings.

"He told Mr. Spencer to come alone," Jesse said, speaking of Gabriel's father. "Naturally, Julia will go, too. Along with me and Alex. We're gonna have some men hidden there, Gabe. You know we ain't taking no chances."

Still wasn't good enough, Gabriel decided. Not that he planned on letting Spencer know that. He hoped Frohike had an idea, because he sure as hell was tapped out at the moment.

Kurtzweil took his silence as an opportunity to butt in, grabbing Gabriel's arm. "What did you tell her?"

Shrugging off the hand, he flashed Kurtzweil an annoyed look. "As little as possible. She knows Krycek was just a bid to keep her quiet; she accepts me as - " As what? Her mate? It sounded so trite and he found he couldn't give it voice. Instead, he swallowed it down, continuing, "She thinks we're still going to Helena to help Matthew. And after that, she and I will strike out on our own."

"And you? Does she remember you?"

"No." Thank goodness Kurtzweil was partially right about her blocking out last night's events. "I don't think she remembers my real name."

"Good." Kurtzweil finished his coffee. "Let's keep it that way."

Gabriel turned to him, mirroring his grasp of a few moments past, shaking his arm. "Did Spencer tell my father the chip under her arm is failing? Is he bringing it with him?"

"I believe so - that's part of the deal. Spencer's not handing Julia over until your father shows him the chip. And Matthew's cure. Proof that your father has what they both need."

"And this chip - can you insert it and remove the other one?"

"Of course." Kurtzweil gave him an affronted stare. "Do you think I'm incapable?"

Gabriel released him, hanging his head to say, "No. I'm just..."

"Overwhelmed, I know." Soft and assuring, he added, "Mr. Spencer has been good to me, Gabriel. To all of us. And he's had a soft spot for Agent Scully since the beginning. He admires her, more than he does you, I think."

"Don't I know it," Gabriel snorted. "She's my better half."

"Don't worry, okay? Everything will work out - I'll have a small surgery set up in Matthew's quarters. Fifteen minutes, that's all I need." Kurtzweil stood, cup in hand. "You can tell her everything after this is all over." He gave Gabriel a nod before retreating to the kitchen.

Yeah, but would she understand? Would she even want to know all that she'd been through, all that had been taken from her? If he could, he'd wrap her in cotton and spirit her away to a place untouched by human hands. That farm they spoke of back in the bunker; just the two of them and baby makes three. Happily ever after.

"How do I get some breakfast around here?"

Julia's light tones disturbed the heaviness that surrounded the men. She'd arrived early; dressed in a suit of clothes similar to last night's, this time a deep gold velour. Gabriel and Jesse both stood, and Kurtzweil poked his head out from the kitchen.

"Julia, how are you feeling?" He gave her a smile, stirring his coffee with slow nonchalance.

"Fine, sir," she answered, moving away from the door to approach the table. "Though I can't really remember all that much about what brought it on. I thought the seizures were going away."

Gabriel held out his chair for her, meeting Kurtzweil's swift glance over her head. She didn't even remember speaking to him last night in bed. It must have really done a number on her, he thought. Worse than the one back in the cabin. Back then, she recovered fairly quickly.

"Good morning, Jesse." She looked up at the big man with wary eyes, smoothing her sweater over her belly.

"Miss Julia," he answered softly, downing the rest of his coffee in one gulp as he pushed his chair back in. "I - uh - I gotta go see if Mr. Spencer wants some breakfast." He made a hasty exit and Julia raised a brow at Gabriel, who hovered to her right.

"Something I said?"

Gabriel smiled and leaned closer, taking her hand. "He thinks pregnancy is contagious."

Laughing, she squeezed his hand. "If it is, it's news to me - though I wouldn't mind palming off some of its less desirable symptoms."

At that, his smile faded as he dropped to a crouch beside her. "What? You feeling okay?" Short words from a tongue suddenly stumbling with fear. She looked healthy and, in the midst of his concern about the chip, he realized he'd lost sight of the obvious stress a woman's body gains with pregnancy. Not to mention any number of complications she could encounter along the way.

"I'm fine, Gabriel," she murmured, easing her hand from under his grip to give his cheek a swipe of her thumb. Closing the distance between them, she whispered with a playful look from beneath lazy lashes, "That's the second time I've seen that face, you know. I'd assumed it was panic." One eyebrow rose with such familiarity it took his breath away. "Or could it be sudden intestinal distress?"

His stiff neck gave way at last as he dropped his chin with a chuckle. "I guess last night's chili didn't sit well with me." Lifting his gaze, he forced his stomach to settle; his worry for her had gotten to the point where it showed in every move he made, every look he gave her. And one thing she didn't need was to take his anxiety upon herself.

Thankfully, she laughed along with him, though it was short as her reply was laced with mild concern. "Think you can handle breakfast? Because I'm starved and I'd like some company."

A plate of eggs and toast materialized between them and they drew apart to face Kurtzweil's smile. "Eat, Julia. You need to give that baby his breakfast."

"His?" Gabriel asked, his eyes darting from the doctor to Julia with curiosity.

Julia picked up the fork and ignored his question, looking at Kurtzweil. "Can we get something for Gabriel, Doctor?"

"An answer to my question?" He stared at Kurtzweil, who shook his head.

"Eggs I can manage, Gabriel." He moved back to the kitchen, adding, "I think you'll have to wait another few months for the other."

At the amused curl of Julia's lips, he stood, giving her bright hair a light kiss before turning to follow Kurtzweil into the kitchen. "Hey - I can ask, right?"

The swift press of fingers on his ass made him jerk and turn with a drop of his mouth. Did she just -?

She sat, bringing her glass of juice to her lips as she murmured, "I *like* that face. What do you call it?"

He swallowed, feeling the heat of her caress him as he bent low, one hand on the back of her chair, the other reaching for a bite of her toast. "Christmas morning." Popping the bread into his mouth, he straightened, giving her a grin.

"I can't be sure, you know. We may have to actually research this in December."

Turning, he felt the certainty of success return in the face of her vitality. His waking doubts fled in an instant, and he knew at that moment that all would be well. Lots of Decembers loomed on the horizon for them; he'd make sure of it.

"It's a date," he said, giving her a sure smile.

 


Chapter Twenty-Five

En route to Helena
September 25, 2001
2:18 p.m.

He left her sleeping, the pregnancy demanding an afternoon nap, she'd explained. All morning long, he'd itched to see Spencer one last time, to warn the old man not to pull a fast one. Despite Spencer's assurances and Kurtzweil's faith in his motives, Gabriel couldn't rest easy. Julia had been a pawn in the Project's games too long for trust in anyone to take hold.

They'd watched the snow-covered plateaus of Montana give way to rolling hills as the train lumbered ever closer to their destination. Julia spoke of the future, drawing from him the admission that their days ahead would most likely be spent in Canada with the Colonel and his friends. She'd smiled at that and her cheeks had bloomed with color as she'd remarked, "This may sound crazy... but I think the Colonel has a little thing for me."

Rolling his eyes, he'd refrained from saying that Frohike worshiped the ground she walked on, instead remarking playfully, "You always had a thing for military men and he knows it." One day, she'd be able to embrace the memory of her father without reservation. Just another reason she needed to be Scully; their child deserved the untainted ancestry she could provide.

With a pucker of her lips, her brow raised as she hinted around. "Oh really? Were you ever in the military?"

Chuckling, he replied, "Does being an Indian Guide count?"

Without missing a beat she snapped back, "Did you ever wear a loincloth?"

Shifting beside her on the couch, he answered her with a tentative, "Yes," his mind filled with the image of himself clad in that awful fringed vest, feathers sticking up from his Brylcreemed hair.

"Then I'd say it definitely counts."

Dropping his chin, he gave her a sidelong glance. "I was eight."

"Hmm... well, one of these days we'll have to test my theory."

Dread filled his chest as he slowly asked, "What theory?"

"That besides being attracted to military men, I'm also turned on by men in loincloths. Something tells me there's a correlation. After all, a uniform is a uniform." She dissolved into laughter at his groan.

It had been a blissful, carefree morning, harkening him back to days and nights spent discussing everything from baseball to the nuances of subatomic particles. Cramped quarters, eating day-old doughnuts and drinking stale coffee as they sat in a Bureau sedan, or in the dive across the street from the center of their latest case.

Taking care not to let her delve too deep into their past, he let her explore, only giving her a cautionary glance when she tiptoed into a potential minefield. They spoke of light, airy things... how she never let herself laugh at his lame jokes, though he knew all along she wanted to. How her apartment was her haven, filled with scents and overstuffed furniture; how he considered it more of a home than his own sparse living quarters. Not fully explaining what they did before, he told her they traveled quite a bit on business. Government work, he said with a downplaying grimace, as if they lived with boredom every minute of the day. At that, she'd not pursued it any further, buying into the old 'deadhead grunt' scenario with ease, though her eyes had told him she knew he wasn't being completely truthful. He knew she'd get around to digging more eventually - she wasn't one to let an issue slide, not even as Julia. It hadn't taken him long to find that out, as he recalled the first day in the cabin.

Time had flown that morning; before long they'd found themselves eyeing each other over a light lunch of chicken soup and crackers. All that was safe to say had been said, at least in his mind. Seeing her drooping eyelids and suppressed yawn, he'd made her climb into bed, gently extricating himself from her efforts to entice him into the soft cocoon. With a promise to linger while she slept, he gave her a kiss and watched her breathing become deep as she gave in to her fatigue.

Now, as he walked the corridor to Spencer's room, he noticed the snow outside had stopped, though the day was still dismal, with no hope of clearing just yet. The sight of Jesse blocking the corridor gave him pause momentarily, but he forged ahead, resolution steeling his jaw.

"I need to speak to him."

Jesse crossed his arms. "He's not in there."

Gabriel felt anger flood him. "Like hell he isn't."

Jesse grabbed his arm, preventing him from barreling through the door. "He's in the boy's room, Gabe," he said softly. "The kid took a turn for the worse last night."

He saw the truth in Jesse's eyes, but felt nothing other than slight sympathy. The days had long gone where he let the innocent alter his goals. Visions of the Lucy Householders, the Marty Glens, the Richie Lupones... he squashed them in an instant, knowing Matthew had the power to sway him. To sway *her* as well. All that mattered was her safety.

Turning from Jesse's solemn stare and stifled curse, he made his way back to Matthew's room. Shrugging off Jesse's grip he entered the shadowy, hot quarters, immediately assaulted by the same smell of sickness he'd sensed last night out in the corridor. The room was lit only by a lamp beside the bed, and Spencer sat by it, his wrinkled hand clasping the boy's limp fingers. A shadow appeared at Gabriel's side and he stiffened at the low warning.

"Raise your voice even a hair and you die right here. I don't care if we have to sedate her the rest of the way, you understand?"

Gabriel shifted slowly, lifting his gaze to Krycek. His long-time adversary stood firm, the shadows under his bloodshot eyes speaking of hours, possibly even days since he last slept. But other than his haggard face, there was nothing about him that betrayed a lack of alertness. The hand that held the gun was steady, his jaw clenching as he bored Gabriel with his strong, daring gaze.

Over the years, he'd seen Krycek present him with many faces, depending on which side of the fence he stood at that particular moment in time. Intimidation courtesy of a handgun, calm deception with purred, cool lies. Hell, he'd even seen squirming fear quite a few times when Krycek was caught straddling that same fence, with nowhere to turn but to his old friends in the FBI.

But this - this quiet, unflinching desperation - this was different. Yes, he was armed. And from his stance, definitely ready to blow a hole in Gabriel's chest in a second, despite their company. It wasn't the threat that surprised Gabriel, it was the motive behind it.

Concern. Gabriel had missed it when he first confronted Krycek last night. But then again, Krycek's face hadn't been hollowed and haunted by lack of rest as it was now. Try as he might with his icy voice, his eyes gave him away. For an instant, the dark pupils darted to the bed as if to check on the grandfather and grandson, then they slammed back to Gabriel as he repeated, "Do you understand?"

With a nod, Gabriel answered, "How's Matthew?", making a silent promise to himself to get to the bottom of the unspoken undercurrents in the room. Then again, maybe he wouldn't. Mentally, he shook off his curiosity, remembering the purpose for this trip - and his own personal goal of getting her out of the web of deceit once and for all.

"Leave us, Alex." Spencer didn't even turn around, didn't hesitate in his vigil by the bed. If possible, he looked older this morning than he did last night. Hunched over the boy like an ancient stone statue, the only sign of life the slow arch of his back as he drew in breath.

Krycek was just as stunned as Gabriel, maybe even more so, as he stepped forward. "I don't think -"

Spencer cut him off with a brusque, "Do as I say, boy. Go get some rest. You're no good to me if you can't see straight."

Stiffening, Krycek pulled up short, pocketing the gun with a short sigh. As he turned, he gave Gabriel one last glance, his eyes narrowing with silent threat. Hands in pockets, Gabriel gave him a defiant stare in return, though he took a step back in an effort to show he wasn't after a confrontation. Not yet, anyway. That depended upon Spencer's believability in the next few minutes.

After Krycek left the room, Gabriel let things quiet down for a few moments. The only sound besides the roll of the wheels beneath them was the rhythmic beep of Matthew's heart monitor. The kid was either asleep or unconscious; Gabriel figured it was the latter. He laid still as death in the bed, his face pale and almost yellowish with ill humor. A twinge of sympathy for the boy rose in Gabriel and he asked again, "How is he?"

Though he didn't face Spencer fully, he could feel the man's lips purse with annoyance. "I don't see how you could possibly care, but he's not doing well. Not well at all."

Old, familiar guilt clouded Gabriel's face. The hard edge he'd honed over the last year had devoured any semblance of compassion left in him and he didn't like it at all. It seemed as though Mulder had truly died when he melted into the Oregon forest and a new, selfish man was born. Though still wary, he decided to let a smattering of concern surface, if for nothing more than to pander to the old man's temporary hold over them.

"Julia's worried about him," he said, which was true. She'd wanted to visit Matthew, but Kurtzweil deemed it unwise, given the boy's compromised immune system. Gabriel had agreed earlier this morning, telling her he'd check on the boy. He neglected to mention he had another agenda; she didn't need to know everything.

Spencer finally turned, releasing Matthew's hand to raise disgusted eyes to Gabriel. "And you are obviously not. It's not the first time you've used a child for personal gain and it probably won't be the last, will it?"

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"Gibson Praise. Ring a bell, Mulder?"

Gabriel felt himself pale just a bit but he stood firm. "I wasn't the one who sliced his head open like a watermelon."

"No, but you knew what he could do. How he could communicate with them, just as we - just as my former associates did. Though no longer a part of their evil agenda, I was kept informed."

"By Krycek." Of course, it made sense. If Spencer's tale was to be believed. He still didn't trust the man not to lie to him.

Spencer nodded slowly. "Alex told me how Agent Scully had a soft spot for the boy. And how you wanted nothing from him but your proof. So spare me your feigned concern - it's insulting." He let the words hang in the air a moment then added with a sigh, "What do you want, Mr. Mulder? I know you're not here to check on my grandson."

True. And, as much as he longed to deny his single-minded treatment of Gibson, he knew he couldn't. If not for Scully's intervention at the motel, he would have dragged the boy back to the nuclear facility with him. But it ended badly, anyway. It was no use rehashing the past. He took a step forward, face hardening. "We have unfinished business."

"What? Afraid I'll hand Julia over and not look back?"

"Forgive me if I still don't quite believe you'll let us go."

"This from a man who once believed in everything but God." Spencer's face sagged. "There is a God, Mr. Mulder, believe me. He's taking great pleasure in making me pay for the sins of my past."

Impatience flared, dispelling Gabriel's lingering sympathy. "I don't think God cares enough about you to make you suffer." A philosophical discussion wasn't something he was prepared to enter into, especially with a man he held just as responsible for the world's demise as his father. "It's beside the point. You're just like the others... just like my father. Just like Krycek. God gave up on you long ago."

"You're right. I am just like your father. In more ways than one." Narrowed eyes stabbed at Gabriel with swift surety.

Spencer's soft words grabbed him in a fearful grip. "I knew it," he breathed, slowly approaching the bed. "You don't mean to give me Julia."

"You'll get your Julia, Gabriel. As soon as we get what we want."

"We?" It was the first time Spencer had spoken in the collective, and it set off instant alarms. "What do you mean - *we*?"

"I told you I was like your father, didn't I? In many ways." He stood, teetering on his cane as he added, "You take great pleasure in questioning the motives of everyone you deal with, Mulder. But you never get past your hatred long enough to see that we're all human. Me, Matthew... Alex. Just like you." The emphasis on the last statement was deliberate.

What the hell did Krycek have to do with any of this? It was a question he'd asked Julia long ago, and she had no answers either. Yet he kept turning up like a bad penny. Insinuating himself into their lives, helping one second, creating havoc the next. Always disappearing and surfacing with convenient ease. But why?

The Consortium had been a tight-knit group - a family, almost. Men who prided themselves on their unity. Men who were willing to protect Nazis to ensure their children survived the coming holocaust. A runt like Alex Krycek had no place in the fold... or did he?

"Think, Mulder." Spencer cut into his confused thoughts. "Why would Alex go to the lengths he's gone to help me? Money? What use is money these days?"

Sudden clarity chased away the clouds of confusion. "Julia told me back in the bunker that Krycek said he wanted to find himself. And he has... he's yours. But you told me Matthew was your only living relative."

"Alex prefers to keep his distance from me." Spencer dropped his chin and Gabriel marveled at the small display of regret. "We share blood, but not much else."

"Like me and my father." Mouth falling open with surprise, he added, ""Born of the Project, just as I was."

Nodding, Spencer sighed. "In his case, he was not raised in the safe confines of stoic New England, protected from that which created him. No - Alex is the result of a joint Russian- American effort to produce a child of superior ability. Much like yourself."

Gabriel snorted, picturing a young Alex Krycek pampered by this man. Taught to sip tea while he practiced kill shots. "What went wrong?" he asked, his snide implication making the old man bristle.

"What went wrong - as you so nastily put it - is that he was never mine. Bartered away by your father in a futile effort to appease a hostile government. Raised by Russian parents who fled their country when they realized they couldn't protect him." Anger flushed Spencer's cheeks. "I had no idea where he was until your father produced him for indoctrination into the Project. Even then, I didn't know *who* he was. It wasn't until I ran into Kurtzweil again that we put the pieces together. Sadly, it was too late for Alex."

Disbelief edged Gabriel's, "Yeah, right. Raised by you he would have been a Nobel Prize winner."

Spencer's jaw tightened, but he kept his fury to a simmer. "And you're the Messiah, is that it?"

Gabriel's snide grin faded. He always thought himself better than Krycek, better than the men who played with the world like tinker toys. Before, when his existence revolved around finding the truth. Now, with millions dead and no redemption in sight other than her love and trust, he wondered if he'd ever feel clean. Spencer was right. He wasn't without blame. Nor would he ever be.

"No one is who they were... *Gabriel*. They will never be so again." Spencer turned, leaning on his cane as he looked sadly at his grandson. "The innocent pay for our transgressions. And we atone in any way we can. Alex knows this. Like me, like you... he's trying."

Silence settled over them as Gabriel took the words in. Could it be they really were tired of the machinations and manipulations? Possibly, though Spencer had admitted to keeping him away from Julia until they had no choice but to bring him close. That still rankled; it smacked of conspiracy, despite Spencer's golden words of remorse and restitution.

"Look, this little family reunion means nothing to me," he stated, searching out Spencer's gaze with flinty eyes. "I'm here to tell you not to cross me. Once this is over, Julia leaves with me, understand?"

"I have no desire to *cross* you, Mulder. Though you're really in no position to make demands, you realize."

"I think you underestimate my resources." A bluff, to be sure. But delivered with a low growl that made Spencer stiffen; Gabriel saw the memory of his attack on the old man last night bloom in his eyes. He moved in, one final demand issued in a deadly voice. "I want to be there when the trade goes down."

"No, you can't -"

"I can. Canyon Ferry Dam. One way or another, I'm going to be there."

Spencer wilted. "Stupid Jesse."

Gabriel ignored the angry words. "I'm no fool - I know better than to show my face to my father. But don't stand in my way if - *when* - things sour. Don't ask me to stand by and do nothing."

"Fair enough." His host straightened with a warning of his own. "All I want is Matthew's cure. You screw that up, Mulder, and you'll not walk away with Julia. You won't walk away at all."

He had no doubt they both were willing to kill to get what they wanted. Two warriors needing the one thing that made their lives worthwhile, they would fight to the bitter end. Nodding, he turned for the door. "Then we understand each other." Reaching for the door knob, he gave Spencer a parting shot.

"I'd like to say it's been a pleasure doing business with you. But my good manners will extend only so far. My father taught me well."

*******

Near Helena, Montana September 25, 2001
5:24 p.m.

"I get off before we get to the depot." He shrugged into the coat Kurtzweil had given him earlier in the afternoon; he could pass for one of Spencer's guards now, but he didn't want to take the chance one of his father's spies would recognize him at the Helena station. And he knew damn well the spies would be out in force.

"How? By jumping off?" Julia asked, with incredulous eyes.

"How do you think I got on the train?" At her sudden white-faced surprise, he chuckled, "I'd have given myself a ten, but the belly-flop kind of ruined my graceful form."

She closed her mouth with a gulp. "Jesus, Gabriel," she whispered, moving to the window.

Wrong time to be flippant, he realized. "I have to meet the Colonel, Julia. Make a few arrangements for our eventual departure. And you know I can't take the chance one of the company guards will spot me."

The train was slowing with every second that passed. Though it had long since stopped snowing, the overcast skies hastened nightfall and the scenery outside the windows before them faded fast. Julia stood with crossed arms, her face pinched with anxiety as she watched them crawl ever closer to Helena. She wasn't pleased that he was leaving her on the train; she knew he'd been discovered by Spencer, and didn't understand why they couldn't just leave together once they reached their destination. But she still believed he was a wanted man, not knowing Spencer *was* the company. It was best that she continue thinking him in danger; it made his early exit from the train imperative without any further explanation.

"Take me with you. I can walk, you know. I'm fully rested and ready."

She'd slept almost four hours, waking with a start a half-hour ago, her frantic gaze settling down when she spied him on the couch. Noticing the time, she'd immediately gotten up and dressed, mild censure in her voice as she chastised him for not giving her more time to prepare. God, how he'd hated to tell her she wasn't coming with him. Not yet, anyway.

Placing his hands on her shoulders, he felt the tense ridges of fragile bone beneath and sighed, softly kneading her anger away. Her fragrant hair beckoned and he dropped a kiss into its silky mass, murmuring, "I won't be long, I promise. I'll come back for you." The lie of omission pained him and he squeezed his eyes shut, railing inwardly at the tantalizing picture her words created. It would be so easy to just step off the train, the two of them. Disappear into the wilderness and never look back.

Then a month from now, maybe two, he'd watch her die in his arms. No. It had to be done this way, even if it meant steeling himself against her pleas.

"You're not coming back, are you?"

Soft, sad words that pierced him, forcing his arms to encircle her. She knew something was afoot, intuitively sensing his inner fear and anguish with the situation. He should have known she'd catch on just like she did this morning - her quick mind demanded answers. With a small shake of her he insisted, "I am." His hands spread over hers and together they cradled the child. "I came this far for you, Julia. No one is going to stop me from leaving with you."

"Then why not take me with you now?"

"I already told you -"

"No, Gabriel." She moved from his embrace to stand before the next window, bringing her hand up to the glass. The meager lights of Helena shone in the near distance and she spread her fingers, resting her cheek against her outstretched arm. "You're not telling me everything. I know you said you couldn't, which I understand. But this separation... I don't like it. Something tells me we shouldn't be apart anymore."

If what she was feeling was anything like the dread gnawing at his stomach, then he understood perfectly. There was *nothing* he liked about this plan of Spencer's. But there wasn't a God damned thing he could do about it. Except be there and hope for the best - while prepared for the worst.

Stepping around her, he gently took her icy hand from the window and warmed it between his, giving her a small smile as he brought it to his lips. From under lowered lashes, he gave her what he hoped was a light-hearted, reassuring look. "Can't stand to do without my charm for even a little while, eh?"

Julia didn't bite, instead pulling her hand away to flash him an angry look, hands on hips. "I'm in no condition to hare off after you. Not this time. Especially not if you end up in Alaska again."

Even with the slow hum of the train, Gabriel knew they could have heard a pin drop onto the carpet. Wide-eyed and slack-jawed, they stared at one another for a few seconds, until Julia began to sputter.

"Gabriel - Alaska... I followed you to -"

"So you did," he said slowly, feeling his smile light up the dim room. He took her flushed cheeks in his hands and bent down to give her a lingering kiss, directing the conversation onto an easier path. After several moments, he reluctantly left her mouth, drawing her close to breath into her neck, "We have followed one another to the ends of the earth, Julia. One last little detour won't make any difference, believe me."

Her arms wrapped around him as she tucked her head under his chin. "It better not. This..." Spreading her fingers across his back she pulled him close, the human basketball between them pushing into his stomach with subtle emphasis. "This is the best reason to come back for me."

His breath hitched as he replied huskily, "Only because it runs a close second to its mother."

The blare of the train whistle startled them both. "No," she whispered, her embrace almost frantic. "Don't go just yet."

Gabriel's chest ached with sorrow at the truth he couldn't yet tell her. She knew, could *feel* that though the train ride was at an end, the journey wasn't yet over. He never was good at hiding his feelings from her. Only his love had remained hidden for years, cloaked in the idealistic give and take of true friendship. And now, it seemed it was all he could show, though he felt like letting a wail of anguish loose as he slowly pulled himself from her grasping hands.

Head lowered, he quickly kissed the fretful crease of her brow, then her damp cheek. "Don't cry," he murmured, his forehead meeting hers as he silently transmitted a plea for control. *His* as well as hers. "I can't stand to see you cry."

Sniffling, she pulled herself together. "I'm not crying," she said, her voice a wavering thing that touched his lips. "I'm smiling, see?" But her lips refused to cooperate, and she bit down on her lower lip as she turned back to the window, wiping at her face. "Go on. I know you're anxious to meet with the Colonel."

And she knew as well as he did that it was best he didn't exit the train with the others in her party. Though she believed it was because he was still wanted by the company. He didn't dare tell her it was because it was very likely his father had spies at the depot.

One last time, he moved closer, his hands hovering above her shoulders with the need to touch her. But he resisted, knowing it would make his leaving almost impossible should he upset her again.

"I'll come back for you, Julia."

She didn't say a word, just stood straight as she gazed at the snow-lined trees beyond the window. Without another word, he turned up the collar on the coat Kurtzweil had produced for him earlier in the afternoon, and quickly left her room.

Thinking it best not to disturb the guard at the end of the train, he walked through the cars until he reached the junction of her car and Matthew's. The biting wind hit him in the face and he leaned over, seeing the bustle of the depot several hundred yards ahead. The train had slowed considerably and with a deep breath, he jumped to the snowbank below, rolling to a stop.

On his knees, he looked up just in time to see Julia's face float by. Smiling through her tears, her hands came up.

<Nine point nine.>

Palm against the glass, her smile faded as she disappeared from his sight.

Shrugging off his sudden emptiness, he stood and began to walk. Maybe a hundred yards of trudging in knee-deep drifts, and he came upon the depot, telling himself she'd be okay. She had to be; he wouldn't allow his disquiet to take hold. A clear head was his best ally at the moment, and he shoved the vision of her worried face into a corner of his brain, fully settling into stealth mode as he crept up.

He watched the train pull in the station from a shadowed outside corner of the building. The platform was built much like the one in Denver; the company had wasted no time rebuilding the necessary facilities. Many of the wooden structures in the cities had been looted and eventually torn down by the survivors, mostly for firewood during the last harsh winter after colonization. But the stations between company sites had sprung up almost immediately out of the rubble last spring; even under the snowdrifts he could smell fresh-cut pine.

And standing on that pine were maybe a dozen men. Milling about, some obviously station workers, their hand signals bringing the train to a slow stop. Others walking about in rags, their haunted, hollow cheeks speaking of near starvation. Still others, dressed warmly in work gear, puffing on cigarettes as they laughed with each other. It was those men who grabbed Gabriel's attention. He'd bet his last dollar one or two of them worked for his father.

As soon as the train came to a halt, he saw Krycek and Jesse step down from the club car, their eyes shifting about the platform quickly. Gabriel heard the muffled thud of a door slamming, and noticed the huge truck at the far end, flanked by two dark SUV's. A man approached Krycek, signaling to the vehicles. As he greeted Krycek, a stream of company guards surrounded the train on both sides, their guns poised and ready.

He couldn't hear what was being said, but he breathed a sigh of relief when Krycek and Jesse took the captain aboard with them. It looked like Spencer was not taking any chances. He knew the best place to wait until the exchange was the train. It was secure and a vehicle virtually unstoppable by anything but a derailment. And Gabriel knew his father wanted Julia badly enough not to storm the depot and risk harming her baby.

A few hours more and they'd be free. All he had to do was find Frohike...

"Don't move."

Gabriel froze at the feel of the gun in his back; he knew that voice, but it had been so long he thought he was imagining it.

"Now, if you're who I think you are, you'll be able to tell me something I'm itching to know."

A grin accompanied Gabriel's, "And what's that?"

"That red little mouth - tell me it's good for something else besides arguing."

In an instant, Gabriel whirled, knocking the gun away as his fist connected with what felt like Mount Rushmore. Wincing at his sore knuckles, he eyed the man sprawled on his back in the snow, his fury melting as he caught sight of the lopsided smile cupped in nursing fingers.

A frosty chuckle accompanied the man's, "I knew it was you, Mulder."

"You perverted son-of-a-bitch." Gabriel held out one hand to help the laughing man to his feet. "You're one man I never would have pegged as having a dirty mind. Hanging around Frohike a bit too much, eh?"

His erstwhile attacker took the offered assistance, reaching for his gun as he stood, shaking the snow from his jacket. "Please," he drawled. "All those years... don't tell me you never wondered the same thing."

Falling into step beside his greeting committee of one, Gabriel replied, "Guilty. What surprises me is that *you* were thinking the same thing."

"What surprises me is that *you* never took the time to find out... until recently, from what I've been told." Snorting, the hulking, bundled-up man directed him to an alley across the street. "I always thought you were brilliant, Mulder. Now I realize just how fucking stupid you really were."

Yeah, Gabriel thought. I was stupid then and I'm crazy now. He flashed a smile, happy to have this man by his side. He could use all the help he could get.

"Nice to see you too, Walter."

 


Chapter Twenty-Six

Helena, Montana September 25, 2001
6:15 p.m.

"You gotta be fucking kidding me."

Gabriel shook his head at Skinner's incredulous statement. Time was of the essence and he'd quickly told them all of what he'd learned on the train after he'd followed Skinner to the small hotel across the street from the depot.

"Amazing," Frohike piped in, his eyes wide at the revelations. "You mean - Krycek isn't the spawn of Satan after all?"

With a snort, Gabriel stood, scrubbing at his beard as he pushed away from the small table. "That remains to be seen." After all, every time he looked in a mirror these days, he wondered if one day, his father's genes would overcome any sense of human compassion he still possessed. "Look, Spencer's little Peyton Place means nothing to me. Scully -" He bit his lip and cleared his throat, giving them all a sweeping glance. "Scully needs that chip or she'll die. End of story."

"Damn right," Frohike said, standing as well. He reached for the paper that laid on the single cot, spreading it over the table. "Canyon Ferry Dam." His gloved finger made a beeline on the map as Gabriel and Skinner flanked him. "About 12 miles northeast of Helena. Near as I can tell, there's only one road in - Highway 284. Past the dam, it circles around the lake. Pretty isolated."

"Is the power plant still operational?" Skinner asked.

"The friendlys in town tell me yeah. But there's only one guy left from the crew that manned it before the Invasion; he lives in a shack close by. We didn't want to poke around too much, you know. Langly and Byers left shortly after we arrived late this afternoon to take a look." Opening up his laptop, he powered it up. "They should be back any minute now."

It wouldn't be easy, Gabriel knew right away, even without seeing the structure. Spencer would arrive from the southwest, his father from the northeast. Facing each other like gunfighters on a deserted street. A handful of men ready with weapons and itchy trigger fingers waiting behind them. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. A disaster in the making - with Julia caught right in the middle.

"I don't like it." Skinner clenched his jaw and moved away, hands on hips, echoing Gabriel's thoughts. "Too open. Where the hell are we supposed to hide?"

As Gabriel pondered the answer to that question, Frohike interrupted, "Have a look." Swinging the laptop around, he continued, "Got this off of an old Montana tourism site. Not much to work with. I did find out that it was undergoing some patchwork at the time of the Invasion."

The picture showed a very panoramic scene, the dam majestic amidst green rivers of trees. A huge reservoir sat behind it and it emptied through the turbines from the middle in four white plumes of water. Slick concrete hundreds of feet high with no way to scale the walls to the road above, its construction presented an almost insurmountable problem, as far as he could tell. A large utility building sat at the bottom left, but it was too far away from the middle span to be of any use. He wished for more of a close-up photograph; from the distance the picture was taken, details were impossible to ascertain.

"Helena is which way?" Gabriel asked.

"Probably this way," Frohike said, pointing to the left of the photo. "Simply because of the massive power lines running out in that direction from the dam. In other words, I'm guessing."

"Good guess, but inaccurate. The powerhouse is on the other side of the dam from Helena."

Byers' statement startled them all, and Gabriel swung around to face the door. "Jesus. Knock next time, okay?"

The two arrivals moved into the room, Langly sneering, "What for? This is a friggin' ghost town."

Gabriel turned back to Frohike, his memory triggering a faint alarm in the back of his brain. "I thought you said there was a massive digging site up here?"

"There was," his friend said. "When we got here, we found out the company had pulled up stakes a couple of days ago. Left lock, stock and barrel. Guess they abandoned it."

Something didn't sit right with Gabriel; nor with Skinner, as he could see when he glanced at the man. Jaw tight, Skinner said, "Spencer moved all his men out - why?"

"Could be he didn't find anything," Langly mused with a shrug.

"Or it could be he found something," Frohike breathed. "The company's been looking mighty hard for 'k', so far with some success."

"Jesse told me the 'k' was destroyed," Gabriel said. "Kurtzweil confirmed it. What would make this find special?"

Frohike nodded, leveling Gabriel with an amazed stare, like a light bulb had gone off above his head. "Unless... it wasn't Spencer digging in these parts at all."

"Fuck." Gabriel's anger threatened to burst forth, but he held it in check, his hand coming up to rub his tense neck as he paced. "My father. Looking for the same God damned thing Spencer's looking for. And you can bet he's not melting down the shit."

"The dam?" Skinner asked.

Gabriel looked up, coming to a halt as he growled, "One big hydroelectric plant. With millions of volts of electricity just waiting to be tapped into. We thought the transformation of the tower was massive - it will be nothing compared to the energy generated if just one piece of 'k' manages to get into those circuits." He was right all along. Double- cross? He'd sadly underestimated his father once again. This was nothing like an ambush of armed men, which was what he'd expected.

It was mass annihilation.

"Bye-bye Montana," Frohike gulped, putting Gabriel's worst fears into words.

"If we're lucky," Byers murmured, just as shakily. "But your father will be there in the middle of it - surely he's not that brave."

"He's not," Gabriel stated. "He'll have a fast means of escape, you can count on it."

"Nothing will be fast enough to get him away, not with the chain reaction this will cause," Frohike said. "Not even a helicopter will do the job."

Sudden realization made Gabriel grin. There may be hope yet. "Unless he triggers the reaction after he's gone. Look, he can't tap into the main generators directly - too hazardous, too hard to control. In the tower, Julia inserted the chip in a computer line. Took hours for the reaction to reach the point where the tower began to collapse. What if he finds a connection somewhere close - say, a computer in the powerhouse."

"No chance," Langly piped in. "Main computer is still up and running, but every terminal is smashed. We checked every floor; the powerhouse was looted long ago."

"Then a circuit breaker - *anything* he can switch on to make the connection." Gabriel looked at the faces around him, seeing their train of thoughts collide with his. "The powerhouse still has electrical power?"

"Yeah," Langly said, "in spots. Some lights work, some don't."

Gabriel leveled Frohike with frantic eyes, knowing there was a good chance his father had hidden the 'k' in one of those small, innocuous circuit boxes that was a part of every dwelling. It would make it almost impossible to find, but vastly easier to remove. "Then we have work to do." He donned his coat and began to gather their equipment, sliding the gun Skinner had given him into his belt. He was gratified to see Skinner and Frohike join in, their movements quick.

"But - but why don't we just take Julia from the train and get the hell out of here?" Langly was panicky and pale.

As Gabriel shoved his way to the door, he threw over his shoulder at Frohike, "You tell him - in the truck. Let's go, there's not much time."

*******

Canyon Ferry Dam 6:45 p.m.

Trees, trees and more trees. After basically living in the wilderness for months now, Gabriel was sick of trees. He'd once told Scully he would prefer to settle down in a small town and watch life pass him by. But there was a great deal of difference between the tick-free, mowed lawns of a place like Home, Pennsylvania and the claustrophobic, dense blackness of an overgrown Montana road. He sure hoped Skinner had brought some civilization to the encampment in Canada; he was damned tired of sleeping in tents and taking ice-cold showers.

Shaking his head at his selfishness, he amended his thoughts. He could live anywhere, put up with any discomfort, as long as she was with him.

"The old man said there were men scoping out the powerhouse yesterday. He stayed out of sight for the most part, hiding in the trees. Couldn't say what they were doing, but he told us his power's been out since they left." Byers momentarily abandoned his stare out the back window to meet Gabriel's knowing gaze. The pieces were falling together, creating an ominous picture of impending doom.

He'd once bragged to Scully that he was right most of the time; what he conveniently forgot to say was that his accuracy rarely gave him any satisfaction. And this was one time he wished he was wrong - but he knew damn well he wasn't.

"There it is." Langly pointed above the dashboard, turning to give the three men in the back seat a jerk of his head.

Skinner and Byers sandwiched Gabriel in the back seat of the ancient, shit-brown Bronco. When he'd seen the vehicle outside the hotel, he'd faced Frohike with a warning lift of his brow - where the hell would they put Julia? With a forestalling wave of his hand, Frohike told him not to worry. A small band of Skinner's men awaited them north of Helena; after rendezvous, they'd all travel by land, taking as much time as they needed to see to her needs. Just one little thing to take care of before they left for good - and Kurtzweil was ready back on the train.

The eventual trek to Canada was the least of his worries now. Peering through the windshield, he saw the lights of the dam in the distance. A lump of fear blossomed in his throat, just like always. But he swallowed it down - again, like always. Maybe another mile and they'd be there - at that massive structure his father iintended to use as the comeback even Elvis couldn't top.

The truck lumbered along the pothole-laced road and Gabriel began to squirm in his seat, grumbling when they suddenly came to a halt some distance away from the dam.

Skinner flung open his door. "Cool it, Mulder. We can't get too close. Walking it from here on out." The other passengers scrambled out and Frohike slowly drove the Bronco into the trees.

As they watched it melt into the undergrowth, Gabriel turned to Langly. "The dam? How far?"

"About a quarter-mile up the road."

"And the shack?"

"A hundred yards or so downstream from the powerhouse. Guy's name is Bill."

Bill? Just his luck, it was Scully's brother. One more obstacle to hurdle.

"Gotta warn you, though. He's one mean old bastard. Nearly filled me and Byers with buckshot."

Who could blame him? Gabriel thought. Scavengers of all sorts moved throughout the country; it was best to stay in the rebuilding cities. Or shoot anyone who got too close, if you chose to remain isolated.

"Is he about six-two, with red hair and no lips?" He had to ask; if by any slim chance it *was* Bill Scully, Gabriel wanted Kevlar.

"Nah. If he's over five feet tall, it's not much. Stinks the high heaven, too. Maybe he's the troll of the dam."

Frohike joined them, giving his watch a quick glance as he slung his backpack over his shoulder. Cocking his pistol, he steeled his jaw and nodded. "Gentlemen... let's boogie." Turning on his heel, he walked away, picking up speed until his boots kicked up gravel as he jogged around the bend in the road.

His two compadres fell into step beside Frohike, their guns seeming out of place in their hands. But they carried them with the ease of familiarity, and Gabriel gave Skinner a 'whaddya know' shrug before following.

His old boss trotted at his left, mumbling, "Never thought I'd see the day those three would go Rambo. Kind of unsettling."

Giving Skinner a taut grin, Gabriel said, "Hope you brought your boogie shoes."

*******

6:45 p.m.

The powerhouse loomed below them as they reached the other side of the dam. Gabriel paused, looking at the cobweb of electrical lines that branched out like tree limbs from its generators. Coils of circuitry seemed intact and he sighed. The tool of his father's victory could be anywhere.

"Hold it right there." A stern warning, issued with the click of a gun.

Before Gabriel could pick out the source of the threat in the black shadows, Byers said, "Bill?" He stepped toward the sound slowly, dropping his gun at his side. "Bill - it's John. Remember us?"

A small, grizzled man came forward around the safety railing at the end of the bridge, squinting against the light beyond them all. "Oh, it's you again. You here to fix my power?"

At the snarled question, Gabriel flashed an impatient look at Byers. They didn't have time for placating the old man; as he jerked his chin toward Skinner with a silent 'let's go', Byers took over the conversation with the obstacle in their path.

"Not yet, Bill," he said softly. "These men are going to give it a try, okay?"

"Friends o'yours?" Bill's words faded behind them as Gabriel motioned for the others to follow.

"Yes. We're just here to have a look around, okay?"

Dimly, Gabriel hoped Byers told the man to make himself scarce when the deal went down. Though, from the looks of the dirty little fellow, he'd have no trouble blending in with the overgrown trees and brush. As they began the trek down the incline, he let all thoughts of anyone's safety fly from his mind. There was work to do.

8:45 p.m.

"Anything?"

After a scratchy pause, Frohike's tinny voice came back. "Nada. This place is clean, Mulder."

They'd each taken one of the four floors of the powerhouse building while Skinner patrolled outside. The guys had been right; not much left to the place except for the roar beneath his feet of the turbines. The lights still worked and he'd checked every closet, every corner for breaker switches. He'd found two, one at each end of the floor, but they were all still intact. No sign of tampering or abuse.

"Damn it," he muttered, wiping at his brow. He knew he was right; Spencer's spectacular demise at the dam would signal his father's comeback. Gabriel could just picture the television spot now, his father smiling through the cigarette smoke as he assured the people that his control of the company would mean a disaster like the one in Montana would never happen again.

Pressing the call button again he asked, "Are you sure, Frohike?"

"Even checked the hand dryer in the john. Nothing."

Gritting his teeth with frustration, Gabriel made a quick decision. He wasn't letting Spencer go through with the deal. The old man would have to listen to reason, or see all that he'd worked for go up in smoke. It would mean that Julia wouldn't get the chip, of course.

All the years he worked to prevent his father's triumph, only to succumb to a selfish need to keep her with him. If he'd only not been so single-minded, he'd have seen this coming. Could have stalled the meeting until they were better prepared. But once again, he thought that he could prevail, thought that he could have all his greedy heart wished for. His father's death. A life without worry or fear.

Julia.

She would die this time.

No, not yet, he told himself. He wouldn't let it happen.

His radio squawked in his hand and Skinner's tense voice came over the line.

"Gentlemen, company's come to call. I hear the trucks in the distance."

For a few moments, all was silent. Gabriel held his breath, knowing there wasn't much else to be done. Whatever was going to happen was inevitable; he had to tell Spencer to call off the transaction. Pick another location, another time - it was the only way to regain control over their fates. Turn the tables on his old man and make him squirm. He'd be angry, and quite possibly, he'd attempt to take Julia. But with the Gunmen and Skinner as backup, they could put up a decent fight and back off for a rematch. It was their only choice.

"Mulder?" Skinner was impatient, his voice terse and pressing.

With quick feet, he began the climb up the stairs. "Position yourselves, boys. I'm gonna meet Spencer at the top and ward him off."

"What if he doesn't cooperate?" Frohike was breathless, obviously on the move as well.

As Gabriel exited the powerhouse, he saw headlights break through the dense trees across the dam. "That's what we're here for, Colonel," he said, with an undercurrent of strategic deliberation. "You know what to do."

"Roger that. Good luck, amigo."

It took five of the longest minutes of his life to traverse the flights of concrete stairs up the side of the dam. That they were at the opposite end of Spencer's approach didn't help any; by the time Gabriel made it to the other side, the vehicles were parked, their lights blinding him as he ran forward. Spencer exited the passenger side of the one nearest, flanked by two men Gabriel knew were armed under their heavy coats. At his breathless approach, Spencer waved them away and they melted into the darkness beyond, taking up positions Gabriel knew weren't far behind the trucks.

Stopping before the prune-faced Spencer, Gabriel gulped for breath, his words sharp and to the point. "Call it off." Hunched over slightly, he glared at the man, grabbing his side. "Did you hear me? Call it off!"

Spencer's brows drew together as he huddled in the cold. "Are you insane? I allowed you to be here as an indulgence, but I won't stand for -"

"Call it off, God damn it!" Gabriel lunged forward, only to be stopped short as his arms were grabbed in a tight hold from behind. His weapon clattered to the pavement as he felt the pull on his shoulder. A large boot swiped his leg as it kicked the weapon away. Gabriel watched the gun slide down the embankment with a frustrated growl.

"Cool it, man," Jesse snarled, his hands taking advantage of Gabriel's weakness to entrap him in an immovable vise. "You said you wouldn't give us no trouble."

Struggling against Jesse's hold, Gabriel pleaded with Spencer, "You've got to listen to me - it's a trap. The place is rigged with 'k'. None of us will make it out once the exchange is made."

Spencer leaned on his cane, one eyebrow risen as he asked, "And you've come to this conclusion... how?"

"I don't have time to explain." At Spencer's nod, Jesse let him go. He wasted no time stepping up to face down the old man, his pleas stronger. "Trust me. My father has set a trap. When he gets what he wants, he'll set it in motion."

"And just how will he escape, my dear boy? I've seen what this alien material can do; he wouldn't dare put himself in danger like that."

"Helicopter. He'll arrive by helicopter."

"No. It was agreed we both arrive by land... equal in men and means of transport. No one will have the upper hand."

Gabriel snorted. "You really believe he'll stick to any agreement? You said yourself he's double-crossed you before. Since when has he ever stood by what he says?"

"Since he's dying, he'll do anything I ask." They both turned at the approach of yet another vehicle. Spencer squinted at the lights. "Julia," he said softly.

Gabriel started for the truck, growling, "I'm not going to let you -" But his words were cut short as he fell, dazed by Jesse's tackle. The concrete under his cheek was frigid and he fought against the confining weight as Jesse began to drag him away, his shoulder screaming with overexertion.

"You can have her after we're done, Mr. Mulder." Spencer's voice faded as Gabriel found himself neatly hauled off, his hands bound.

"Jesse," he muttered as he was thrown into the back of the nearby Humvee, "don't let him do this. I'm right, I know I am."

Jesse shook his head, wrapping Gabriel's kicking legs at the ankle with rope. "You don't shut up, man, I'm gonna gag you."

"God damn it, Jesse -" His protest faded, his ears pricking at the thump underlying the roar of the dam. "Listen."

Jesse straightened, a rueful smile accompanying his, "That ain't gonna fly, Gabe."

"No, listen!" Gabriel hissed, leaning forward in the seat, trying to muscle his way out the open back end. As he met Jesse's stonewall, a distant light appeared above the treeline. "Look."

The big man finally turned, though he held fast to Gabriel. His mouth dropped as Gabriel's prophecy came true. "Holy shit," he breathed.

The ground began to shake at the approach of the twin helicopters. Circling wide, the machines made one pass then hovered at the far end of the dam, huge vultures moving in for the kill.

"I told you," Gabriel said, shoving at Jesse's hold. "Let me go."

As if mesmerized, Jesse watched the descent. "Mr. Spencer's gonna shit a brick."

"Fuck Spencer." Gabriel had enough of the whole business. Chip or not, he was taking Julia away. They'd find a way to keep her alive... but not if they all were incinerated out in this wilderness. "Jesse, please. Let me go."

His one-time friend met his frantic gaze. "I can't do that, Gabe." Regret darkened his face. "Not until we get what we want."

Amidst Gabriel's rumbles of anger, his radio burst to life, Frohike's voice practically squealing from the handset at his belt. "Mulder!"

Damn it, this wasn't supposed to happen, he thought. He'd promised her they'd get away, that they'd find safety and happiness. Frohike's warning came too little, too late. Yeah, I know, he wanted to scream at the Colonel. We're all gonna die out here and there's not a damn thing we can do about it.

"Mulder! Come back! We think we've found it!"

Gabriel sucked in a ragged breath, hope burgeoning in his chest. "Jesse, answer him. At least do that for me." He ceased his attempts to free himself, facing Jesse with pleading eyes. "Please, Jesse. Answer him."

The moments dragged by as Jesse contemplated Gabriel's request.

"You know I'm right," he continued hoarsely. "The helicopters. The power outage. We can *do* something about this, Jesse. Pick up the radio."

"Mulder!" Frohike was getting impatient.

With a clench of his jaw, Jesse grabbed the radio and brought it to Gabriel's face, his thumb depressing the orange call button. Gabriel nodded his thanks before saying, "I'm here."

"Where the fuck have you been? We think we found it, man. Transformer by Bill's place has been disconnected. Can't see much, but it looks like there's some kind of small explosive device rigged to it. We're sending Langly up now."

Briefly, he closed his eyes with relief, then opened them to challenge Jesse as he answered, "Good. I'm going out on the dam. Meet at the rendezvous point later."

"Roger that. Keep in touch."

As the transmission ceased, Gabriel nodded, transfixing Jesse with a determined stare. "So... you gonna cut me loose or do I have to roll over there?" His defensive posture told Jesse he was prepared to do just that, should need be.

Gabriel jerked back at the flash of the switchblade and gulped. Despite his bravado, he was still wary of the huge man. Was he going to let him go? Or slice his throat? From the stony silence, Gabriel wasn't sure of either. Jesse's eyes darted from him to the movement beyond the truck, indecision making him hesitate.

"Jesse," Gabriel croaked, trying one last time with a low plea, "please. We're all going to die out here unless you help me."

"And if I let you go, Mr. Spencer's gonna have my hide." His lips slowly curled into a smile as the knife crept closer. "I seen you do a lot of stupid things since I met you, man. You're one crazy fucker, you know that Gabe?" Gabriel held his breath as the knife disappeared around his back. "But I guess that makes me insane too, 'cause I believe you."

"Thank you Jesus," Gabriel muttered, quickly divesting himself of the rope to reach for his ankles.

"The name's Jesse. Only the women call me Jesus." Jesse's smile widened as he sliced the rope around Gabriel's ankles. "You go get your woman, Gabe. I got ya back."

Breathless, Gabriel scrambled out of the vehicle, hearing the helicopter come closer and closer. A diesel-laced blast of warmer air down the side of the dam blew over his face and he knew his father had landed. Gulping back the sudden rush of fear at seeing that monster again, he eyed the last few feet between him and Julia, reaching for his radio.

"Frohike?"

A squawk, then, "Just rigging Langly up now. Five minutes more, Mulder. Tops."

"Five minutes?" Gabriel stumbled, grimacing at the pierce of the rocks into his palm as he barely saved himself from a nasty slide into the ravine below. At the nudge of an elbow, he found Jesse's knife shoved his way. Pocketing the blade, he nodded at Jesse, barking into the radio, "We may not have five minutes."

"Doing the best we can, Mul - shit!" Frohike's reply was cut off by the loud pops over the speaker. Gabriel met Jesse's startled look, both men realizing that staccato rap they just heard could be only one thing.

"Frohike!" Over the roar of the dam and the helicopter, Gabriel couldn't actually hear the rapid-fire report of automatic weapons from the other side of the dam. Pausing, he turned to squint in the darkness at the pops of light that looked more like fireflies in the dense swathe of trees far away. "Frohike, answer me!"

Torn between wanting to make the meeting and running to the obvious battle raging in the forest opposite, he felt a clammy sweat break out under his coat. "Damn it, Frohike! What the hell is going on?"

Hoarse but there, Frohike's voice came back in a shadowy, frantic whisper. "We're under attack... *shit*..." Muffled, heavy breathing bled over the transmission. "Byers! Get down! The shack! Go for the shack!" More crackling and panting, then, "Mulder, we're getting some heavy fire here."

"Frohike, get out of there," Gabriel insisted, despite the fact that their retreat would signal the end for them all. The personal sacrifice his friends had endured for his sake had finally reached an end. If they left now, they may have time to get safely away, though he doubted it. But he had to make them try - he could buy time by creating a diversion of his own to stall his father's leaving. He was sure the reaction wouldn't be set into motion until the selfish old bastard was a safe distance from the scene. "Get back to the truck and haul ass!"

"No can do, buddy." A few shots rang out, followed by a gritty moan. After a second or two, Frohike said, "Byers is down."

"Shit." There was nothing else he could do; he had to lend assistance to the guys or none of them would make it out. As he turned to brave the battle in the forest, a large hand settled on his shoulder.

"Go on," Jesse stated with a nod. Pulling a pistol from his jacket, he backed away. "I'll take care of 'em."

"You'll never make it across the dam," Gabriel pointed out, jerking his head at the helicopters.

Jesse walked to the embankment, giving him a chuckle. "Catwalk right above the plumes, man. Thought you'd looked around this thing?" With a flash of a smile, he melted into the night.

Gabriel shook his head, wondering how Frohike and the guys had missed that vital piece of information. They'd said the dam had been undergoing patchwork right before the Invasion, but it never occurred to any of them just how the workmen would have had to scale the massive walls of concrete. He tucked it away, hoping his father had missed it as well. As a means of possible escape, it was shaky, but there. Setting his jaw, he wrapped his fingers around the knife in his pocket and took off.

It didn't take long to reach the conclave, though he hung back, recognizing Krycek's black figure, one arm hanging useless at his side, the machine gun held in the other as if it was part of his flesh. His old nemesis slowly circled behind Spencer, his head smoothly turning to survey the immediate area. Gabriel knew after his outburst not long ago that they'd never let him near, even though Spencer had agreed he could be there. He had to think of another tactic, and quickly.

The helicopters wound down slowly as Spencer walked out to the middle of the dam. Leaning heavily on his cane, he attempted an imposing glare, not quite pulling off the intimidation. Gabriel crept around the back of the nearest truck, keeping his eyes peeled for Julia. But she was nowhere to be found, and he assumed she still sat in the truck parked further up the roadway. To try to get to her now would be fruitless; he'd seen Spencer's men take up positions along the dam's outer edges. One step into the light and he'd be picked off like a duck in a pond.

Instead, he waited, gauging the distance between him and his father. After the exchange, he'd have an easy shot - if he could get his hands on another gun. *And* provided Frohike and the boys prevailed. He had no doubt his old man would send them all to hell with him should he be mortally wounded. Clenching his jaw against the impatient rise of anticipation, he brought the radio up, his whisper hopeful.

"Frohike? I'm in position."

Scratching hisses greeted his ears. From where he stood on the dam, he could no longer see flashes of gunfire in the distance. Biting his lip, he tried again, dismay weighing him down. "C'mon man... talk to me."

Nothing. They were all dead, had to be. Outnumbered as he was sure they were, they couldn't last long. Not even Jesse's help would come in time. His stomach churned at the thought of how useless he was; how far he'd come only to falter at the last minute.

No. He wasn't going to give up. He owed it to them... to *her*. Backing up, he turned to follow Jesse. He'd do a Spiderman if he had to.

 


Chapter Twenty-Seven

Canyon Ferry Dam September 25, 2001
8:58 p.m.

It wasn't as hollow and dark as he'd expected, though there was barely enough room on the suspended bridge for one man to navigate. The electricity hadn't been knocked out in that part of the dam and a single lamp burned on the railing every twenty feet or so, lighting his way. He didn't see Jesse, which gave him some relief; at least the man had made it across. Or had he? Gabriel stopped for a second, looking at the rush of water below. If his father's men had discovered the catwalk, then they'd surely take care of any intruders.

As he approached the middle span, he was almost deafened by the plumes of water just under his feet. He debated whether or not to pull out his flashlight, then decided to chance it, seeing a rope snaking down from above. A satisfied grin slashed across his face... scaffolding, right above him. Pocketing his flashlight, he grabbed the rope and began to climb.

He tried to be quick about it, but the weight his body put on his shoulder was tremendous and he gritted his teeth against the dull needles of pain. Under his fingers, the rope felt like paper. Sun-dried and smelling faintly of mold, it swung him about like a rag-doll. He knew it had been rotting in this wilderness for a year or more, but there was no other choice. He had to get up that wall.

As he left the water behind, he began to hear voices above. Soft, but there. On the next pull up, his hand rammed into something solid. Saying a quick 'thank you' to the heavens, he scrambled over the edge of the scaffolding, his chest heaving as he struggled for strength. For a second or two, he just laid there, gathering his wits and his breath.

Until he heard an ominous crack under his back. With a sudden rush of fear, he got to his hands and knees, spreadeagled on the rotting wood. It seemed to be splitting in the middle of the floor and he gently drew himself up by the pipes that served as railings, keeping his feet firmly on the edges for support. When he'd made it up he waited, gulping as the whole thing swayed in the wind stirred up from below. There wasn't anything to hold on to but the pipes and his hands were white-knuckled as he waited for the unsteady platform to settle down.

As soon as it slowed, he chanced a look up. The top of the dam awaited him about ten yards above and he could make out bright light trickling over its edge. The exchange was in progress and he knew there was no more time to waste. Sliding his feet to the opposite end of the scaffolding, he grabbed the rope dangling from the pulley and began to haul himself up, hoping the shaky thing that stood between him and certain death would last for a few more minutes.

"I'm coming, Scully," he muttered, the rope getting slick from his sweaty palms. "Hang on."

It seemed like forever, those few feet of distance narrowing as the scaffolding creaked up on the rusty mechanism. In his slow haste to reach the top, he'd forgotten about the radio, until a voice blared, making him jump.

"Mulder! Come back! We got it!"

Couldn't be... no, they couldn't be that fortunate. He was hearing the echo of his shattered hopes, his mind giving him what he wanted most desperately. He kept moving, sure what he'd heard was a figment of his overwrought imagination.

"Mulder!" Again, it sought to stop him. It could have been Frohike, but he wasn't sure, the noise of the water distorting the voice. What if his father's men had caught on to where he was? Were they trying to make him give his location up? "Mulder! Damn it, answer me!"

Biting his lip over his fruitless hope, he hung on to the rope with one hand as he reached for his radio with the other. He had to find out if it really was Frohike, but he searched his mind for the appropriate response. His father knew all about his former friends - hell, he probably had shapeshifters in his back pocket, pulling them out like puppets on a string when he needed them.

Taking a deep breath, he depressed the orange button. "Who saved your ass?" he barked into the speaker.

"What? Come back, ya moron and quit fucking around."

"I said, who saved your ass?" Please let it be them, he prayed. I need some good news right about now.

The transmission went dead for a moment, then a low chuckle rumbled over the line. "Jesus at your service, Gabe."

Jesse. Closing his eyes with a gulp of relief, he brought the radio up. "Jesse, put Frohike back on."

More silence, then, "We got it, dude. Thanks to your... whatever the hell this behemoth is."

Gabriel allowed himself a small smile then responded, "Get back to the dam. Don't let anyone leave."

"But where the hell are you?"

Good question, Gabriel thought. He didn't want to take the time to explain. Instead, he signed off with, "Rock climbing... good for the arms. Now get going." This time, he turned the radio off before slipping it back into his coat. He wanted no more interruptions and certainly didn't want to tip off the men above as he got closer.

It was up to him now. Grab Julia once the exchange was complete, then make sure his father never saw another sunrise. With renewed purpose, he began to rise again, his hands working faster. A half-minute later, he was perched just below the top; he secured the rope and reached up, his eyes peering over the edge.

They were all there. Spencer, leaning on his cane as he stood, his free hand fisted at this side. Krycek, standing close behind Spencer, his eyes black with hatred as he stared down the man approaching from the far end. "You were supposed to arrive by truck," Spencer snarled, his voice clipped with anger, his face drawn into a frozen mask of realization.

*Now* you believe me don't you? Gabriel wanted to scream. If he could, he'd jump over the edge and slap the old fart silly. But his nose sidetracked his thoughts, twitching as the constant breeze brought to him a new sensation. An old distaste.

The cigarette smoke advanced into the circle of light first, winding its way with insidious announcement of the recent arrival. "My failing health wouldn't allow a long ride in a vehicle. Surely you understand?"

Gabriel felt the familiar loathing for his father rise up in his throat. Even before he laid eyes on him, he wanted to kill him. He watched as Spender moved forward, taken aback at just how wretched he looked. He still was able to walk, though he was a mirror of Spencer with his cane. His hair was steel-gray and thin, the lines on his face more pronounced than ever. He brought the cigarette up as his smile faded, taking a pronounced drag before asking, "Do you have what I want?"

Several men with guns backed up each combatant in the showdown. Gabriel was jittery at all the firepower - it would be so easy for someone to get hurt. So easy for *her* to be injured. He caught his breath as Spencer turned to give Krycek a nod. Krycek backed away as Spencer faced his opponent once again. "Do you have what *I* want?"

Spender nodded with closed lips, gesturing for the man nearest him to step forward. In the light, the vial the menial held up glowed amber, shining like a jewel. It looked exactly like the substance Gabriel had held in his own hand so long ago... the vaccine. He wouldn't be a bit surprised if Matthew's ailments could be cured by the same concoction that had driven the virus from his partner in Antarctica. If - *when* they made it back to the train, he'd broach the subject with Kurtzweil. Surely the doctor would not use it all and any left over would mean a great deal to eradicating the lingering alien threat worldwide.

"More than enough, wouldn't you say?" his father purred, his eyes silently transmitting something more. When Spencer straightened, his mouth dropping open slightly, Gabriel knew he was right. He could see it written on the gnarled faces of the two adversaries; they both knew what was in the vial, and just how little it took to drive away the alien demons from the human body.

"And the chip?" Spencer bit out.

"She gets it when we leave." Spencer's smile faded, his eyes hardening to chips of ice. "Now... where is she?"

Damn it. Gabriel seethed, moments away from vaulting over the wall to strangle the old man. He should have known his father would thwart them in every way possible.

But Spencer, to his credit and Gabriel's relief, was not threatened. His voice was firm, demanding, "Show it to me... or she stays."

Taking a last drag from his cigarette, Spender dropped it to the pavement. "Well, it seems we are at an impasse."

"Only because you refuse to make a move," Spencer replied, his words becoming hard and brittle in the night air. "Produce the chip - or you die."

"If I die, so does your grandson." Spender faltered just a bit; Gabriel could see the stand-off wearing him down. "Such valor from a man who's ordered the deaths of so many. What is she to you?"

As his father sagged, Gabriel noted the opposite in Spencer. He seemed to grow taller, more imposing as he gained the upper hand in the war of wills. "She is my grandson's savior. A better person than you or I will ever be." Taking a step forward, he added, "The chip, if you please... or this conversation is ended."

The seconds ticked away as the two stood facing each other. One sinking deeper into evil, his whole body exuding the stink of desperation. It traveled to Gabriel's nose on the back of the cigarette smoke as his father lit up yet again, his every move designed to stall.

Spencer, however, was an immovable statue, the only sign of emotion the glittering promise of his foe's death should their meeting cease without a resolution. Gabriel knew his father sensed something amiss in Spencer's approach; and why not? If his father had a backup plan for ultimate success, then surely he had to figure that Spencer would have one as well. He had to have known Spencer would try to save Julia just as he was trying to save his grandson. It was inevitable. Gabriel waited with bated breath for all hell to break loose, certain that gunfire was just on the horizon.

But it didn't come. In the bat of an eye, his father relented, flicking his ashes at the man beside him as he said softly, "Let him see it." Lifting his cane, he poked its head in the air, his eyes never leaving Spencer.

The guard slung his weapon over his shoulder and reached for Spender's cane. A twist of the serpent head and the cane opened; another glass vial, this one smaller than the one for Matthew, popped up from the depths of the tube. With shaky fingers, the guard screwed the cane back together, then held up the valuable bone of contention for all to see.

Gabriel narrowed his gaze, trying like hell to pick out the chip in the glass. Though it was very small, he figured he should be able to see it catch the light. And with a twist of the guards fingers, it did just that, sliding along the side of the vial as Gabriel sucked in a ragged breath. Victory was at hand. He could feel the tide turning.

Spender settled once again upon his cane, taking the chip in one bony hand. "Now. Bring her out."

Two birds with one stone, Gabriel thought. Reaching for the knife, he prepared to vault over the wall, no longer content to wait for Matthew's cure to make its way across the divide. He wanted that chip. He wanted Julia. A moment of hesitation at the possibility that Matthew would end up on the short end of the stick brought some sadness, but he knew Spencer's men would move in once he made his move. But as he lifted his head a bit higher, he stilled, fear stopping his advance.

A slight figure moved forward from the darkness beyond the outer circle of light. One slim hand peeked out from the folds of the cape to wrap around the artificial limb.

Julia. She was pale in the glaring light, though her face was haughty, framed in the black hood as she stood tall. It was obvious she didn't relish being so close to Krycek. Gabriel wondered what they'd told her to get her to come with them. She knew they'd come for Matthew's cure, but once she realized she was the bargaining tool, she was bound to kick up a fuss.

"Julia," Spender greeted her, "so nice to see you again, my dear."

Shit, he groaned inwardly. He'd hoped to leave her out of the melee to come. Now it was looking more like she'd be caught in the middle.

Taken aback, Julia paused, her brow knitting. "Do I know you?"

"Of course you do, Julia," Spender murmured. "I'm an old friend of yours... and Alex's." At the blatant lie, Krycek's face became stony, but he said nothing. "You're going to be my guest for a while, my dear. Come along."

"But I don't remember you." She looked up at Krycek, then Spencer, seeking confirmation. At their silence, she faced Spender again. "I respectfully decline, sir. I'm in good hands at the Ranch."

Spender leaned over to whisper something to the guard. The man walked forward slowly, keeping his gun lowered. When he reached Krycek, he handed over Matthew's cure, taking hold of Julia.

Immediately, she protested. "But I don't want to go! Mr. Spencer!" The guard pulled her with him as Krycek retreated to Spencer's side. More black-garbed men approached from the helicopters, six by Gabriel's count. They took up positions behind his father, slowly moving in.

"Go on, Julia," Spencer said softly. "It'll be all right. You won't be gone long." The last was said with pointed deliberation.

But her resistance became almost frantic and Gabriel wanted to cry out to her to keep still, all would be well. "No!" she cried, squirming in the guard's hold. "No!" Her eyes widened and she took a different path, one that slammed into Gabriel with a force that took his breath. "Gabriel! Leave me! Don't come any closer!"

She knew he was there. Though she'd not been told he was going to be in attendance, she knew him well enough to know he wouldn't abandon her. If he hadn't been so worried about the recent developments, he'd have smiled at her misguided worry for him. As it was, he saw an opening. All her cries faded as he forced himself to ignore them for the moment - his father's men had bypassed him. Catlike, he threw his legs over the wall, straightened his jacket, and stepped up behind them, blending in with their dark forms.

"Gabriel?" Spender asked, surprise at her shouts making him tense. "Who is this Gabriel?"

"None of your concern," Spencer said, waving at the darkness beyond. A dozen men emerged from the shadows to flank him, their guns drawn and ready. Spender's men did the same and Gabriel knew they were a moment away from a gun battle of catastrophic proportions. "You're outnumbered. Give the girl back to me. Along with the chip."

Gabriel's father smiled, an evil, distorted show of teeth. "I don't think so." He began to back away, his men closing in as Julia was put into his hands. Gabriel flinched at the way his father manhandled Julia, but he steeled himself, spying an opening in the circle of men.

In an instant, he moved up, grabbing Julia from his father's grasp. But the old man, despite his surprise and failing health, held on and she was pulled between the two of them. Stumbling, she fell into Gabriel's arms with a huff of breath and suddenly, the dam was no more. They tumbled over the side and he flailed, feeling them hit the scaffolding below. Eyes slamming shut at the pain in his shoulder he held on to her wrist, feeling their temporary haven give way with a snap.

"Gabriel!" he heard her cry. She didn't scream or make any other sound of distress and he felt a rope slide between the fingers of his free hand. The knife was gone; he was glad he'd dropped it, otherwise he wouldn't be able to grasp the lifeline that held them above the water.

A small, hoarse chuckle broke through his panic. "Don't let go, son," came the breathy plea.

Gabriel looked up, grimacing at the weight that threatened to bring them to a swift, deadly end. Above him, he heard the sharp echo of gunfire - the battle had begun. Too little, too late. Spencer and his men were too busy fighting off the others to see to him and Julia.

"No!" Julia's frantic cry pricked his ears and he jerked his chin down.

"Fuck," he muttered under his breath, trying in vain to wrap the frail rope around his wrist. He felt his grip slipping on one end as he tightened the hand around her on the other. The scaffolding dangled from two ropes, the rotting boards now parallel to the wall of the dam. Julia swung with them below him; he opened his mouth to tell her to keep still when he saw what she fought against.

God damn his father. The old man smiled as he held on to Julia, his hand wrapped around her ankle. Would they ever be rid of him? Gabriel ignored the bastard's hysterical laughter and spoke to Julia. "Hang on," he croaked, "it's all right. We're gonna make it." As soon as they got some help, he amended silently. Which didn't look very likely in the near future.

Julia kicked at his father with her free foot, almost sobbing with what Gabriel knew was anger more than fear. "Let go," she snarled over and over.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you, my dear," Spender said, bringing his other hand up.

The chip. Gabriel's eyes widened at the little bit of glass his father still had. They could get it from him; there was still hope. "Give it to her!" he demanded, hoping against hope there was still one shred of decency left in that hollow carcass of a man.

"Now why -" Spender twisted, the hand holding the vial slapping at the wood, seeking purchase. "Why would I do that, Fox?"

The name made Julia jerk, her fingers clenching around his arm. God, no... would that set off another seizure? Not now. "Don't call me that!" he shouted, hoping his father heard him.

Thankfully, Spender didn't pursue the name business. Of course, Gabriel figured they were all pretty busy just trying to hang on. "Julia, you okay?"

"I'm fine," she muttered. "Just peachy."

He had to hand it to her - this tumble hadn't made her hysterical. But she had always been cool under fire. Nothing like him... he might have put on a good show for Skinner years ago, but his mouth was so dry now he couldn't even summon up a bad 'Hangman' joke.

"Don't let go, boy."

Gabriel huffed at the command. His father was in no position to be demanding anything, despite his hold on Julia. From the movement he felt below, she was doing her best to shake him off. That's it, Scully, he thought. Kick him into hell.

Above Gabriel, the rope twisted and he gulped as he heard the snap of hemp. They were fast running out of time. "You know you can't win!" he cried out, just as he felt his shoulder give way. The gritty moan that came from his lips wasn't missed by Julia, and her head snapped up.

"Gabriel."

Eyes glazed over with pain, he tried to focus on her face. Her hood had fallen back and tears streaked her white cheeks, but she was calm, her lips parted in a sad smile.

"Let go of me."

Hot fury laced through him. "What? No! I'm not letting you go, Julia." Almost choking with pain, he gritted his teeth, wrapping his fingers tighter around her wrist. "No. Hang on."

"There's no way we can get out of this," she said brokenly, bringing her other hand up to grab at his. "Save yourself. Let me go."

Spencer's other hand, the one with the vial, finally found a home around Julia's free ankle. Gabriel felt the tug as he latched on, knowing he couldn't hold on to them both much longer. Ignoring Julia's whispered pleas for him to release her, he met his father's eyes.

"Don't do this," he begged. "I can save her if you let go. Please don't do this to us."

"Without the chip?" His father wheezed below Julia, his features seeming to collapse as his body fought for breath. "That's the only thing that will save her, Fox."

"No! *You* can help me save her." Swallowing back the distaste at what he had to do he said quietly, "Father." Spender's head jerked up and Gabriel continued, "Please."

One last time, his father smiled. "You never had the heart for it, son. All the power in the world could have been yours. Instead, I give you... her."

He let go, disappearing in a heartbeat into the white water below. Gabriel's lungs filled with harsh, cold air at the realization that his father had sacrificed himself to save Julia. It was amazing, it was unbelievable. But he allowed only a moment of disbelief to cloud his mind before he grated out, "Julia... climb up... grab on to me."

Without a word, she moved her hand to his belt. It was slow going and her shoes could find no foothold on the slick boards. He held his breath as she released his wrist to quickly snake her arm around his waist. She mewled softly as she worked, as if holding in her fright.

"That's it. You're almost there." He continued to urge her on with small talk, words of encouragement tumbling from his lips.

Gasping, she paused, her cheek pressing into his sweater at his hip. "Gabriel?"

"Yeah? What is it? What's the matter?" The trauma to her body can't have been good for the baby, he knew. Combined with the continued melee they both could hear above, they were both bound to be in shock. Beneath his sweater, his skin felt clammy and nausea rolled in his stomach. His body was losing strength fast.

"That man was your father?"

What to say? To hell with lying, he thought. They were moments away from sure death and he threw caution to the wind. "Yeah. Sort of." Biting his lip, he tried to pick up his useless arm to help her climb, but it was no use. "We weren't close."

Julia snorted into his body and its warmth tickled his ribs. "I think I can safely assume Father's Day wasn't big with you two." She stopped inching up to ask, "What did he want with me?"

*That* was a biggie. Gabriel began to shiver under his coat; they were both soaked from the spray whipping up below them. "He..." Teeth chattering, he tried again. "He wanted our baby."

"God," she whispered, shaking herself. "I'm glad he's gone."

"Me too, sweetheart," he replied, finally feeling the mound of her belly settle against his abdomen as she wrapped her fingers around his neck. His legs wrapped around her and he smiled at the feel of her face in the curve of his neck. "Me too."

Before they had a chance to take a breather, the rope that had been threatening to break did just that, with a loud pop. Julia's hands clawed at his neck as they swung free, now held only by the rope still attached to the scaffolding. The release of one of the tethers made them swing like a pendulum and it was at the last second that Gabriel pivoted, using his knee to absorb the impact of their slam into the concrete wall.

"Shit," he muttered at the new pain, sure he'd cracked his kneecap. "Hold on, Julia." Lightly, they bounced and swayed until their swinging petered out. He gripped the one rope even tighter, feeling warmth begin to bleed from his fingers.

"Gabriel, we aren't going to make it, are we?" she asked, raising her head to look into his eyes with sadness.

"We are," he said, pressing a kiss to her forehead. "I want you to do something for me, Julia."

She said nothing, just tilted her head, the question in her eyes.

"Start climbing."

"No!"

"Yes," he insisted. "It's not far to the top. You can use me for leverage."

Her eyes filled with tears. "No. I'm not leaving you. We go together."

"I'll be right behind you." It was a lie and she knew it. His arm was useless and there was no way he could climb that rope with only one good arm. "Please, Julia. I can't hold on much longer. When you get to the top, find someone to pull me up."

It was very likely she'd not find anyone left alive once she scaled that wall. But still, she'd live. Their child would live.

Softly, she began to cry. "Gabriel, don't lie to me... not anymore." Burying her face in his neck, she pressed a frantic kiss to his racing pulse, as if by her touch he could be saved.

Knowing the truth would probably deter her from leaving him - but unable to deny her this last request - he rubbed his scratched cheek against her hair. "All right. There won't be anyone left up there to help, Julia." It occurred to him that he no longer heard the guns above. In fact, it was eerily silent, save for the sound of the water below. His voice grew louder, his anger at the hopelessness of his situation getting the better of him. They'd been so close - so fucking close to having it all. Evven if they somehow managed to make it up the rope to safety, his father took the chip to hell with him. Choking back his sorrow, he pursued the path he wanted her to follow. "And you can't lift me. I figure I've got about another minute before this flimsy thing breaks free... and damn it, I won't have you die with me. That truthful enough for you?"

Despite what she'd just heard, she smiled through her tears. He felt her lips curl against his skin. "Yes, thank you. Not what I wanted to hear, but... thank you, Gabriel."

"Julia?"

"Yes?"

"Get going. Now. That's an order."

"Since when do you order me -" Her protest was cut short by the lurch of their tenuous safety net. "Gabriel?"

He waited until they settled into relative calm again before begging, "Julia. Please go." If he said another word, he'd surely begin to cry. He didn't want her to witness any show of weakness, especially since her trek to the top of the dam would probably not be easy in itself.

A pair of cold lips pressed against his; he wanted to return the kiss, but he was crippled with numbness. Everywhere... his arms, legs, even his face felt nothing anymore. He'd come close to dying many times. And though his heart still beat strongly as he hung on this rope, he knew his body was shutting down. Blood flow was hampered to his one good arm - the only thing left between him and death. He was getting sluggish in body and mind. The sleep of the unconscious was fast gaining on him; exposure to the cold and damp, combined with the injuries he'd suffered, worked quickly to bring on a sleep he'd never wake up from.

"Gabe!"

Already he was hallucinating...

"Gabe, can you hear me?"

"Gabriel." Julia tugged at him, her urgency barely making him open his eyes. "Gabriel, open your eyes. They're coming for us."

"Huh?" He tried to rouse himself, but it was difficult. Julia squirmed against him; he could feel her reach up - was she climbing? "Good," he slurred, "go... Julia."

"Gabe, it's Jesse - are you down there?"

Julia's shout hardly penetrated. "Here! We're here!" To Gabriel she said, "Wake up, Gabriel. Jesse's coming to get us."

"Can't hold on anymore." All he wanted was to let go. If he could make his fingers move, he'd do just that.

"You're not letting go... not now." He felt her arm wrap around him, felt her hand cover his on the rope. "Hold on to me." When his legs gave up their hold on her she shouted in his ear, "Gabriel! Damn it, I can't - listen to me. You let go and leave me alone and I'm naming this child Fox, you got it? It's your real name, isn't it? Your father called you Fox."

She wouldn't. God, he hated that name. "No." Had he given the protest voice? Sleep. He wanted sleep.

"All this time I was sure it was an 'M' word... and I liked the name Michael."

"Michael... it's Michael," he muttered. He wasn't cold anymore. He was wrapped in her arms in the tower, bantering about names and the truth and a farm with lots of kids...

"No it isn't," she insisted. "It's Fox. You hate it and I swear I'll use it if you aren't around to stop me, damn it."

"Julia! Give me your hand!"

Who was that? They were close. It was an angel come to get him, he knew.

"Him first!"

His head lolled, then snapped up. He wasn't dead yet. "No!"

"We can't get to him unless you go first, Julia. Now c'mon, give me your hand."

Would she do it? Stubborn as the day was long, that was Scully. "Scully... go on."

Firm, salt-laced lips touched his one last time. "Remember... Fox. I'll do it, mark my words."

Gabriel nodded, closing his eyes as she was lifted away. The absence of her warmth let in a shock of cold air, which hit him like a sledgehammer. A short cry was the last he heard as his fingers slipped from the rope.

 


Chapter Twenty-Eight

Canyon Ferry Dam September 25, 2001
9:25 p.m.

"Mulder."

Yep, he was dead. Cradled in the arms of an angel, being carried to... heaven? Nah. For one thing, he didn't believe. And for another, this angel sure smelled like shit. Sweaty and tinged with the warm scent of blood and anxiety. No matter, Gabriel thought, losing himself in the strong embrace. At least he wouldn't have to worry about hanging on to that damned rope anymore.

"Mulder!"

Leave me alone you fucker, he wanted to scream. But wait a minute - people weren't supposed to talk to angels that way. It was shaking him, though - trying to get his attention. Maybe if he was nice, played along, he'd creep past St. Peter at the pearly gates. Maybe all he had to do was give it a word or two and they'd begin the stairway to heaven.

"Mmm... you smell like shit," he mumbled.

So it wasn't the best choice of words. Hopefully, he didn't piss it off. And if he did? So what. He was so tired. All he wanted was to sleep.

A short chuckle rumbled around him. "I think you need to check your own pants, Mulder."

Cracking one eye open, Gabriel found a big, stubbled chin scraping his nose. "Walter?" It was weak, but it got Skinner's attention.

"Saving your ass once again, Mulder. Why I bother, I don't know. You just told me that I stink."

With some effort, Gabriel managed to open both eyes and promptly closed them at the nothingness below. Gulping, he realized his former boss was wrapped around him and they were both being pulled up the side of the dam. 'Thanks' seemed so inadequate, especially in light of his faux pas a moment ago. Instead, he fell back on an old standby.

"Um... I was drugged."

"Shut up, Mulder." Skinner sounded breathless and Gabriel hoped he had enough strength to get them both to the top. "Sounded feeble then and it sure as hell doesn't wash now."

"Sir..." His voice trickled away. Please don't drop me, he added silently. I'll never make fun of you again, never give you trouble, never want to clip you in the chin for looking at Scully's legs...

"Scully!" Struggling, he tried to look up and found everything swimming in a sea of concrete.

"She's okay, Mulder. Keep still."

"Where is she?" Safe trip be damned. If she wasn't on her way up, he didn't want to go either.

Skinner's arms almost crushed the breath from him. "She's all right, Mulder. Already at the top. Waiting for you." He began to call out to those above, barking instructions like the field commander he'd always been.

The world whirled around Gabriel and he fought to keep his eyes open. It wasn't that he cared, but he had to be certain the threat was over. "Cancerman?"

"Nowhere to be found," Skinner replied, grunting at the tug of the rope. "Did he escape?"

The events of the last half-hour crept back into Gabriel's mind and he sighed, letting his head fall back. "No." His father had fallen into the water below, to sure death. Taking the chip with him.

I give you her, he'd said. Only Gabriel knew the gift was a slap in the face... without that chip, she'd not survive for much longer. Damn his father's soul to hell.

How could he face her knowing he'd failed? Could he stand to watch her die all over again? Kurtzweil had indicated the stress of her pregnancy would compound the rapid return of the cancer. Not even the child was assured of a problem-free birth.

"Almost there, Mulder. I can see her from here."

All the months of searching, the days of frantic chasing and the words of hope he'd given her... all for naught. Despite his hunger for her face, he wasn't sure he could keep from sobbing at his failure, especially when he knew she'd smile and embrace him as the victor in this battle. He wasn't a champion, he'd never been. He hurt all over and felt like he was going to puke at any second. Some champion.

"Gabriel!" Excitement colored her cry of his name and behind his closed eyelids, he could picture her glowing face. It stung the back of his eyes as the clouds of impending doom crept closer.

Buffeted from side to side in Skinner's hold, he barely felt it when they hauled him over the edge. Misery blanketed him and he gave in to it, letting blessed unconsciousness take hold.

*******

Canyon Ferry Dam September 25, 2001
9:45 p.m.

He woke to see that which filled him with happiness as well as sorrow. Her face, beaming above him with a smile so bright it hurt his eyes.

"Hey there," she said. "Welcome back."

Swallowing, he shivered as he laid on the hard concrete. He must have been out for only a moment; Skinner hovered at his left, tugging on the rope that circled his torso, then reaching down to untie the one that held him to Gabriel.

"Jesse is coming with the truck, Mul - Gabe. Just keep still."

Keeping his eyes on her, he licked his lips. "Okay?" he choked out, his voice a thin reflection of its former self.

"I'm fine," she assured him, stroking his frigid cheek. Bending low, her lips touched his briefly. "You're cold." The hand on his face trembled.

"So... are you," he answered, trying to force a smile between icy lips. "Baby?"

Careful not to disturb his injured arm, she reached over, a grimace of sorrow at his battered body flitted over her features. His good hand - if you could call it that - was captured in her own, and he saw her eyes swim with tears as she brought it to her belly. "Kicking up a storm," she chuckled brokenly, fitting it beneath the gap in her cape. "I think a rope swing in the back yard has become a definite necessity."

His child jumped joyfully under his numb fingers and he hitched a breath, his eyes drifting shut with relief. Slow, hot tears began to form and the snowflakes that had begun to drift down mingled with the trail into his temples.

"Shh... it's okay," Julia whispered, her lips tickling his chin. "We're all right. Everything's going to be fine."

He nodded, unable to speak. Anything he said would be a lie and he'd promised himself he'd never lie to her again.

"Miss Julia?" Jesse's low voice intruded. "We gotta move him now."

One last kiss to his cheek, then she moved away. "Okay." To Gabriel she murmured, "Just keep still. We'll be back at the train in no time."

He opened his eyes to see Jesse and Skinner to either side of him. A huff broke from his lips at the appearance of Langly and Frohike, who took up positions at his legs.

"Byers?" he croaked.

Frohike leaned forward. "Already on his way to the train with Spencer and Krycek. He's gonna be okay, Gabe." Gabriel felt four pairs of hands slip beneath him. "Now hold tight, this isn't gonna be pleasant."

No kidding. His shoulder screamed as they lifted him and his knee under Langly's hands felt like it was the size of a grapefruit, threatening to burst in the confinement of his jeans. A low, biting cry shot from his lips.

"It's okay, it's okay." Her voice, coming from close by. "Breathe. We're almost there."

As they hoisted him into the back of the truck, he fought off the pain long enough to ask, "Where are you? Julia?"

Gently, they laid him on the floor. An itchy blanket tickled his chin, making him cough. "Julia?"

"Careful, Miss Julia." Jesse's voice. "You ought not to be walking yourself."

Shit, she was hurt. Whipping his head from side to side, Gabriel scanned the dark truck, everything circling like a carousel. "Julia!"

"Here. I'm here." Suddenly, her face came into focus. Grabbing his hand, she settled beside him. Everyone but Skinner melted away and he heard the truck roar to life.

"Just keep still." Skinner. Gabriel felt Julia's hand tense in his; dimly, he recalled she had no idea who this man was. But his former boss was as quick and smooth as ever as his voice mellowed. "He'll be okay," he said, his assurance directed at her.

She hesitated for a moment, then he felt her relax beside him, gathering his hand closer to her warmth. "Julia Longfellow." Gabriel felt her smile in the darkness. "Do you work for the Colonel?"

A snort, then, "Hardly. You could say we go way back... all of us. My name is -"

Gabriel kicked in the direction of Skinner's voice with his good leg; though Skinner knew of Julia's memory lapse and the consequences of recollection, he had no idea just how inquisitive she was these days. As his boot made contact with the tree trunk of Skinner's leg, he heard the man clear his throat.

"Uh... Melvin. My name is Melvin."

Gabriel's eyes narrowed at the man's shadow; of all names to pick...

"Melvin," Julia said slowly, giving Gabriel an amused glance before turning back to Skinner. "Very popular name, this 'Melvin'."

"Huh?"

"Nothing." Her almost-chuckle dwindled and she held out her other hand to take Skinner's. "Thank you, Melvin."

Before Skinner could reply, the truck took off with a jerk and Julia started with a hiss, settling back beside Gabriel. The lurch forward jarred him as well, but he concentrated on her, quickly accusing, "You're hurt."

"A sprained ankle, that's all," she replied softly, soothing him with her words.

Gabriel barely noticed Skinner turning away discreetly. "Are you sure?"

"Yes, my love." So tender, so... Julia. Destined to be so for what little remained of her life.

The endearment tweaked his already sore emotions and he couldn't help the words that came from him, the relieved conversation of a moment ago fading fast. "I'm sorry. God, I'm so sorry."

"For what?" One hand stilled his beating heart as the other cupped his cheek. Soft confusion colored her smile. "We're alive, Gabriel. We're safe. That's all that matters."

He sobbed quietly as she curled up against him, her heat rising to warm his sore body.

*******

Helena, Montana September 25, 2001
10:15 p.m.

They couldn't keep him still. It took Skinner and the guys to hold him down in Julia's bed as Jesse stripped him. "Not me," he muttered, feeling a fever begin to grip him. "Her." His jumbled thoughts told him that if he was suffering from the effects of exposure, then it was very likely she was, too.

"Gabriel, love... I'm fine. Be still before you hurt yourself."

Her voice sounded so far away, a whisper to his burning ears. "Scully?" Lack of moisture in his mouth made the plea a scratchy moan.

She was there, her cool hands tilting his head. "Drink. Doctor Kurtzweil is on his way."

For what, he wondered, sure he was fast falling prey to the black-robed specter of death. After a sip of water, he fell back to the pillows, coughing. "I'm dying, Scully."

"You are not. Stop that. You're a bit beat up, but you're going to be fine." He saw her lift worried eyes to Frohike, who cleared his throat as he stepped away.

"I'll see what's taking so long."

It was because Kurtzweil knew there was nothing to be done for him. That's why he was in no rush. Naked now, he shook under the blankets they piled upon him. "I'm so tired," he murmured.

"I know. The doctor will give you something soon and you can sleep."

He found he could no longer summon the energy to speak, so he laid quietly, listening to the bustle in the room. A blast of cooler air rushed over his face, then another voice spoke.

"Gabriel. It's me, Kurtzweil. Where do you hurt?"

Through clenched teeth, he gritted out, "Everywhere," though it sounded more like a mumble to his ears.

"Julia, step back so I can examine him, please."

No! She was the only thing keeping him grounded, keeping him awake. Bringing his head up, he cried out in protest as she backed up. But he couldn't go far, as Jesse's hands held him down.

"Damn it Gabe, quit it!"

Now well and truly confined, he could do nothing but watch her with his eyes. Limping. She was limping to the couch. "Take..."

Kurtzweil leaned in to ask, "Yes? What is it?"

"Take care... of *her*."

"The nurse is looking after her, Gabriel. She just has a few scratches, that's all." The blankets lifted from him and cool hands touched his body. A sudden lurch of the bed made him groan. The train. They were back on the train. No, no. They were supposed to be on their way to Canada... surely Kurtzweil had inserted the chip in her neck already, hadn't he?

"Sit still while I take off your shoe, miss." Who was that? The nurse. Yeah. The old hag had better be careful with Julia or he was gonna wring her wrinkled neck.

"Ow!"

"Whassat?" He squirmed under Jesse, his radar picking up her cry immediately.

From across the room he heard her angry voice. "A few pieces of glass in my ankle, Gabriel. It's nothing. The nurse is... digging them out now... ssss... watch it."

A harsher feminine voice cracked in the air. "Miss, you have to keep still."

"You're pulling broken glass from my leg, for God's sake. You expect me to keep still?"

Broken glass. No chip. That's why they were back on the train. Dimly, Gabriel realized the vial must have broken in his father's hand as it clutched at Julia. There was no chance in hell now the contents could have survived. Instead, it only served to add insult to injury, as it had scored her delicate skin.

"Your knee isn't broken, Gabriel. Just badly sprained and bruised." Kurtzweil's face shifted into focus before him. "But the shoulder is dislocated. We'll have to roll it back into place. I'm going to give you something for the pain."

Pain? Who cared about pain? What the hell was going on with her? Why was her return to him taking so long? "Julia," he breathed, calling to her in his almost delirium. He felt a sharp pinpoint on his ass. "Chip."

"I know, and I'm sorry, Gabriel," Kurtzweil said, helping Jesse roll him to his back once again. "I'll help her any way that I can, okay?"

Nothing. Kurtzweil could do nothing and he knew it. Gabriel's eyes picked up the flash of dismay on the man's face instantly. He tried to hide it, however, schooling his mouth into a tight line as he nodded at Jesse. "Ready?"

Jesse took a deep breath beside Gabriel, whose head felt fuzzy.

"Ow! Damn!" The tinkling of glass hitting stainless steel made Gabriel cringe. What the hell was that bitch doing to Julia?

"Miss Julia." The words from the nurse were sharp and furious. "*Please* keep quiet! There's something there I can't quite reach."

"It feels like you're digging with a pick-axe, you know."

Atta girl, Gabriel thought, sleep rapidly approaching. Tell old prune-face to back off.

Another hiss, then, "There! Got it! Glass all around it, but I got it."

Even half-dead with sleep... even above the roar of the accelerating train... even with Jesse murmuring above him... he heard it.

Ping!

Numbed eyes flew open and Gabriel cried, "That's it!"

"Gabe, quiet down!" Jesse hissed.

Above the voices surrounding him, he distinctly heard the nurse move to the bathroom. It rolled in the pan as she walked, sounding like a BB from a toy gun. "Looks like a piece of metal - what do you know?" The light came on in the bathroom, shortly followed by the sound of water.

Shit. She was a second away from flushing Julia's life away.

Slowly, his limbs leaden, he turned to see Frohike stumble away. "Frohike!"

"Already on it!"

"Excuse me?" The nurse bit off a choked cry. "Why, I never -"

"And you never will, sister," Frohike muttered, coming back into the bedroom. "Gabe?"

Gabriel blinked, desperately fighting to stay awake. "Show me..."

A pair of forceps, held within a gloved hand, swayed before his face, its precious cargo dark red with blood. But there, in all its life- saving glory.

Frohike's smile was tremulous. "With my life, man. This baby ain't leaving my sight."

Laughter spilled from him and he heard the men in the room join in after a moment's hesitation, their combined relief echoing in the room with resounding triumph. Skinner said something about breaking out cigars. Jesse's murmured expletive about luck sailed over him, and Kurtzweil sobered, nodding at Gabriel with certainty.

Julia's confused face was the last thing he saw as he succumbed to painless, relieved sleep.

 


Chapter Twenty-Nine

En Route to Denver September 26, 2001
7:34 a.m.

Voices all around him, quietly discussing the weather, pulling him from his dreamless slumber like a gentle pair of firm, calloused hands. He shifted and swallowed, loathe to give up rest just yet.

"Snowing like crazy. This is gonna make it slow going to Canada." That was Frohike, punctuating the observation with a muttered, "Damn."

Eyes closed, Gabriel listened, the rolling of the train beneath him almost lulling him back to sleep. He still felt like he could sleep for a thousand years.

"Look at him." Skinner was chuckling. "Like he's gonna be making a trip over the mountains anytime soon. This time, he'll have no choice but to listen to doctor's orders."

"He's gonna be pissed," Langly whined.

"Tough shit," Skinner said, still laughing. "What's he gonna do? Crawl out of that bed?"

Frohike again. "Maybe Scully can sit on him."

Gabriel let his lips curl; Frohike was right. Scully could probably hold him down with just the pressure of her little finger at this point. Not so years ago... but then again, years ago, he had no option as to just *how* Scully could keep him quiet.

"Probably not," Skinner murmured.

At that, Gabriel regained full awareness, lifting his head with a moan. Why couldn't she keep him in line? Because she was... not there. In a flash, all three came into his line of sight.

"Mulder? You awake?" Frohike waved a hand in front of Gabriel's face, concern lining his cheeks. "How many fingers am I holding up?"

"I dunno, but you've been eating onions. Lay off Jesse's chili. It's a killer." The mention of Scully's name had set him on edge and he tried to sit up, forcing Frohike to back off. "Where is she?"

Damn it, he'd done it again. He was wrapped like a newborn in swaddling, trussed up like a turkey. All on his right side. He didn't hurt anywhere - quickly, he amended that thought. His knee hurt like a son-of-a-bitch. Pain made his words harsh as he growled, "Where the hell is she?"

Skinner moved forward. "Kurtzweil's working on her right now, Mulder. Settle down."

The wintry light bleeding in through the windows told him it was well past sunup. "Why the wait? Why didn't he do it hours ago?" Something was wrong with her, he just knew it. They weren't telling him everything. Anxiety made him struggle against the blankets and Skinner moved forward to help him sit, propping several pillows behind his back. Lingering pain was of no consequence; he wanted answers, and he wanted them now. "Damn it, why the hell are we going back to Denver?"

Skinner put a big, confining hand on his uninjured shoulder. "You're in no shape right now to be making the trip to Canada and you know it. So that's the last I want to hear on that subject." He straightened as Frohike approached, adding, "Just relax, Mulder. She's fine. She wouldn't leave your sorry ass until about an hour ago, when your fever broke."

Swallowing with relief, Gabriel waited as Frohike came forward with a glass of water. "Drink," he ordered, and Gabriel gulped down the coolness through parched lips. "She's okay, dude. It's you we were more worried about."

Leaning his head back against the wall, Gabriel sighed. "I'm okay. I just want to see her."

"Kurtzweil said it would take about an hour - he'd have to give her a mild sedative. We had to practically drag her out of here, you know."

"Did you tell her anything?" She was bound to have questions. About the chip, the exchange on the dam. Why she was a pawn caught in the middle of two old geezers' game of chess... hell, much as he believed any wild story anyone threw at him, he'd have trouble swallowing the events of the last months. Especially if he had no memory to fall back on.

Skinner fisted his hands in his pockets. "Only that she had to let Kurtzweil do the procedure. She understood that to know more could possibly bring on another seizure." He smiled. "Gotta hand it to her - she said she wouldn't trust anyone but you to tell her the whole story, anyway."

It was best it come from him and they all knew it. Would she remember any of her life as Scully? Or, once again complete, would she remember everything she'd done as Julia? The hazards of telling the tale would be numerous, he knew. And he wanted to help her across every pitfall, hold her hand through each possible trap.

He nodded, plucking at the bedcovers with his free hand. If he could move, he'd be out of the bed in a flash, watching every move Kurtzweil made. But circumstances forbade barreling into watchdog mode. For him, anyway. "Why aren't one of you at least keeping an eye on things?" He was seconds away from exploding with anger at their inattention.

"Byers is there," Frohike explained. "He's not much use otherwise, so he was drafted to oversee the surgery."

"Not much use? How badly is he injured?" Some watchdog. If he was that bad off, he was probably on some pretty heavy painkillers.

"Winged in the leg. By the way he acted, you would have thought he was mortally wounded. Just a scratch." Frohike laughed and crossed his arms with a wink. "Once I pointed out that chicks dig battle scars, he puffed up like a rooster and took it like a man."

"Yeah," Langly sneered, "just what he needed. *More* ego-boosting."

Before they could veer off into the usual back- and-forth, Gabriel picked up his hand and put a stop to it. "All I want to know is if he's alert and capable."

"Refused pain medication," Skinner said. "He knows how important this is to you, and to Scully. He's on top of it, and so am I. I was just about to walk to Matthew's room to check on Kurtzweil's progress." With a nod, he made for the door. "Just cool your jets, Mulder. Everything's fine."

As Skinner left, Gabriel realized he hadn't asked about the boy. Or given any thought to his other traveling companions. "Matthew?" he asked Frohike. "Spencer and Krycek?" He remembered Jesse at the dam - in fact, he owed the man a huge thank-you for nabbing Julia from his failing arms.

"Haven't seen 'em since the dam; they were already back on the train when we arrived in Helena, I suppose. Your doctor friend there says the boy received the injection before we even got back to the depot with you. Dunno if it worked; he said its effects weren't immediately apparent."

But it had looked just like the vaccine he'd given Scully in Antarctica. Gabriel knew that didn't mean a thing as far as what kind of concoction it was. Or even if his father had given Spencer what the boy needed. For all they knew, it could have been weak tea in that vial.

"Do me a favor - catch up with Skinner and ask him to find out about the boy." Now that they were all relatively safe, he could allow himself to feel for Spencer's grandchild. Too little, too late, he knew - as far as Spencer would be concerned. But he had to know. His father's treachery somehow extended to him, and he wanted to at least show some sympathy, now that he was able.

"Not necessary, Colonel," Krycek's voice cut in.

They both looked at the door, where the man in black hovered, fatigue making his face pale under the weathered tan. He gave no indication of his frame of mind, his face as stoic and narrow-eyed as ever. Gabriel couldn't see any resemblance between this man and his supposed father - then again, he never thought he resembled his hateful sire, either. What mattered most was the legacy passed on that wasn't visible. Krycek had inherited that in spades. He hoped to never be able to claim the same from his father.

"Nice job out there." Frohike stood a bit straighter and Gabriel cringed at the unconscious display of respect. No matter how much Spencer and Kurtzweil proclaimed that Krycek was a changed man, he would never turn his back on the weasel. And Frohike, it seemed, was prepared to buy into Krycek's 'changed man' routine somewhat, albeit unspoken. But Gabriel remained silent, his comfort level dropping drastically with the arrival of their old nemesis.

"The losses were... minimal." Krycek cleared his throat, obviously there to deliver news. "If you'll give us a moment."

Frohike nodded at Gabriel, telling him silently that he wasn't going to wander far. After he slid out the door, Krycek moved forward a few steps. But he didn't get too close, stopping just beyond the end of the bed. "Matthew's gonna be fine, according to Kurtzweil. It will be a few weeks before his immune system is totally restored, but already, he's awake and his fever is gone."

The news was enough to satisfy Gabriel; he was glad the boy was going to recover. It would ease Julia's mind about leaving. Not that he was prepared to let anything stand in their way, but in the state he was in, he wasn't up to an argument on the subject. It was time to make the break. His father was dead and Julia would soon be Scully again - he hoped. A few thanks that would most probably choke him, especially to this man, then it was goodbye forever.

Shifting slightly, he tamped down his pride and began, "Look, I'd like to tell Spencer that -"

"My -" Krycek interrupted, "Spencer's dead."

At that, Gabriel lifted his chin. "What?"

"You heard me. He wasn't quick enough to get free of the gunfire. I found him mortally wounded after we took control of the situation. He never made it back to the train." For all of the seriousness of the declaration, it was impossible to discern Krycek's feelings on the subject. He looked as he always did, stone- faced. The only sign of emotion over the death of his father the glittering of his dark eyes.

Any sympathy would be untrue and they both knew it. But Gabriel did offer some truth, saying slowly, "I'm sorry... for the boy."

Krycek sighed shortly. "He took it well. But he's just a kid."

Suddenly burdened with the responsibilities of an adult. "You can -"

"No." Krycek was adamant. "No, I can't. My job here is done." He paused, then added with slow deliberation, "And so is yours."

Gabriel snorted, wanting nothing more than to leave the dust of the Ranch behind. Seems Krycek wanted nothing more to do with any of them, either. "Don't worry, Alex. As soon as Julia's able, we're gone for good." It was more for future reference than interest as he asked, "And you? Matthew can't run that company."

Chuckling, Krycek opened the door before turning back for a moment. "You said it yourself, Mulder. I'm just a gun for hire. I have no more business raising that boy than you... let's just say neither of us have any 'fatherly advice' to draw from, am I right?"

All at once, Gabriel felt the weight of impending fatherhood settle upon his shoulders. Krycek had a point; he wasn't exactly prepared by the best to raise a child. But he had one thing Krycek didn't - a partner. A friend, a lover... and one he was certain would be an excellent mother. Shaking off his doubt, he pursued, "You can't let that company fall into the wrong hands, Alex. And that boy has no idea what the outside world is like these days. You know that."

"He won't have to," Krycek answered, his face sobering. "Spencer told me long ago all he was leaving Matthew was the Ranch. The company, he entrusted to me."

"You?" Gabriel didn't know which would be worse - a green boy or this mercenary bastard.. When he prodded Krycek to help the boy, he expected Matthew to have ultimate control. A safety net, so to speak. He never thought Krycek would have to answer to no one. "Was he crazy?"

Ignoring Gabriel's incredulous question, Krycek smiled. "Looks like you're just gonna have to trust me, Mulder." His smile faded as he added, "We've had our differences in the past. But believe me when I say I'm fucking tired of it all. The company will continue with Spencer's work, with his goal of eradicating 'k' from the planet. I'll see to it." He paused in the act of leaving, giving Gabriel a parting, "You just leave me the hell alone, Mulder."

Gabriel's eyes narrowed and he threw out a warning of his own. "Don't give me a reason not to." As much as he wanted to live out his days in peace with his family, he wouldn't hesitate to hunt Krycek down if he caught of whiff of the Project's resurrection.

"Then we understand each other," Krycek nodded. "So long, Mulder. Let's hope we never see each other again, huh?"

"Fine by me." If never saw Alex Krycek again, his life would be complete.

As Krycek disappeared into the corridor, Frohike slid back in, his face guarded. "Jesse just informed me of Spencer's demise."

"Yeah, good news travels fast," Gabriel said, then quickly amended his crass thoughts with, "It's not over, you know."

His friend shuffled forward, hands in pockets. "Guess not. Who knows where the company will end up now."

"In Krycek's capable hands," Gabriel sneered.

"You're kidding."

"Nope. He just inherited the whole problem, so he says."

Frohike sighed. "Look Mulder, I know you don't trust him -"

"And I never will."

"But I have a feeling he'll do okay. Besides, we'll keep constant tabs on the company's progress, you know that."

Gabriel sagged, all tension leaving him with Krycek's departure. "I just don't want to have to deal with it anymore." He once thought he'd hide with her and his child in Canada, blissfully ignoring the rest of the world. Now he knew that wasn't possible; any threat to what was left of civilization from anything alien would be a threat to the ones he loved most. There would be no hiding. No denying the fact that he was somehow destined to jump in with both feet, despite his new responsibilities. *She* certainly wouldn't let him just sit back and do nothing. But damn it, he was so tired.

"You don't have to do this alone, Mulder." Frohike was soft of voice and steadfast in demeanor. "You never had to, you know."

Gabriel lifted burning, hopeful eyes to his friend. "I never did tell you how much you guys -"

"Save it." Frohike was as uncomfortable with sappy thanks as he was; he stood, hands in pockets, shifting from one foot to the other. "Just take care of Scully and that progeny of yours. If we need the master, we'll call, okay?" He straightened, a smirk firmly in place. "Of course, you realize the Colonel's kung fu is the best. I seriously doubt your backup - no matter how righteous - will be required."

"Good point," Gabriel smiled, for once not mocking his friends' abilities. They'd proven themselves capable beyond his wildest dreams, and it was about time he started treating them with respect. "One more favor, though?"

"Name it."

"Find out what the hell is taking Skinner so long." The dancing around thanks and congratulations was all good and fine, but there was a limit to his patience where she was concerned. And Frohike picked up on it at once, turning for the door.

"No problemo, dude. Be right back." Winking, Frohike opened the door and left, only to fling it open seconds later, his smile beaming.

"What?" Gabriel asked, the sudden satisfaction on Frohike's face making his heart trip.

"Special delivery," Frohike said, standing aside as he held the door open.

A pair of sock-covered feet came in first, so small they seemed lost in the folds of the white cotton that draped from her ankles.

Julia. Cradled in Skinner's arms, fast asleep. Skinner tread lightly, swaying a bit with the motion of the train as he side-stepped through the door.

"Careful," Gabriel warned, his voice husky with an overload of emotion. She was okay. Dead to the world, but alive and well.

"Kurtzweil said she'd be out of it for a while longer," Skinner said, approaching the bed. "But it's done, Mulder. Out with the old, in with the new."

"Here," Gabriel commanded, anxiety replacing any thoughts of thanks for the moment. "Beside me." Struggling against the pillows, he grunted at his helplessness.

"Easy, Mulder." Frohike was at his side, but Gabriel paid him no mind.

"I have to see, damn it. Help me up." He wouldn't be satisfied until he'd seen it, touched it with his own hand. A doubting Thomas of the most frantic kind.

As Skinner laid Julia on the bed, Gabriel scooted up with assistance from Frohike, his gaze never leaving her face. In her sleep, she curled onto her side, gravitating toward the sound of his voice. Skinner quickly covered her with the blanket and said, "You know, I never realized what a little thing she is. Even pregnant, she's light as a feather."

Gabriel caressed her cheek with his free hand and gave Skinner a tremulous smile. "I wouldn't let her hear you say that, sir." Sobering, he swallowed, adding, "*If* she's Scully again." Fear at the prospect of failure cloaked him. They'd deal with it, whoever she was fated to be.

"No matter the name, Mulder - she's still the same person. Remember that." With a nod at Frohike, the two men left the room.

Still the same. Skinner's parting words echoed in Gabriel's mind as he looked upon her, taking in the face she'd created to find him. It wasn't the same, that was true. Her body wasn't Scully's, heavy as it was with his child. And her mind? Well, that remained to be seen.

But her heart, her soul... they were always Scully. Forever courageous and loving, willing to sacrifice for others. Giving all she had to give to find the truth. His and hers, he knew. His life, his journey, ceased to be solitary from the moment she walked into his office years ago. And no matter what name she walked this earth with, he would be by her side.

With a trembling hand, he brushed away her hair from her neck. He was in an awkward position and his body hurt like hell, but he wasn't letting it deter him from his goal. She sighed deeply, arching her neck as he drew the lacy collar away from her skin.

The small square of gauze revealed by his search covered a small bump, and he lightly pressed down with his thumb, taking care not to cause her any pain. Even through the sterile dressing, he could feel it. The chip was there.

His breath left him in a soft chuff as the first tear fell from his eyes. Life. Beautiful, long life stretched before her. He cried with thanks to the heavens, to his friends, even to Spencer and his father, despite their orchestration of events culminating in this moment.

Sliding down in the bed, he inched his good arm beneath her head and ignored the scream of pain from his knee as he gathered her close. Breathing deep, he willed his tears to subside; he didn't want her waking to find him a wreck. She smelled faintly of betadine, but mostly, she smelled like Scully. Warm and alive, even with the slightly stale breath that puffed from her lips. Leaning down, he sipped of the life that came from her mouth with his lips, careful not to wake her.

She responded by shifting, her head coming to rest under his chin. Against his immobilized arm, he felt her belly move, his child kicking as she slept on. With a deep sigh of relief, he closed his eyes.


Chapter Thirty

En Route to Denver
September 26, 2001
4:26 p.m.

The first thing he noticed was the absence of warmth. The sheets were cold under his bare back - they had been for some time, he deduced. Swiping the space beside him with his arm, he quickly shook off the remnants of sleep as he realized she wasn't there.

With a jerk, he shoved himself up against the pillows, his eyes searching the room with panic. The lamp beside the bed had been doused and late afternoon sunlight filtered in from the windows, peppered with the looming shadows of the trees that whirled by. Where was she?

A soft sigh made his head whip around. "Back in the sling, I see. Will you *ever* be in one piece and healthy again?" Though laced with chagrin, the words held an edge of humor. "You have got to be one of the most accident-prone people I've ever met."

"Sc. -" Her name stopped short of fruition. Tread lightly, he told himself. If she wasn't whole again, he didn't want to hazard too much information. And if she was, she'd let him know, surely? Settling on a safer course, he asked, "Where are you?" It was dark on the other end of the room and his gritty eyes had trouble adjusting with the annoying strobes of light from the outside.

A flip of a switch and soft lamplight arced over the sofa. She sat at one end, her feet curled under her, swathed in a dark blue robe. He could see her nightgown peek out from its hem, and judging from the slant of her eyes, she'd not been awake long, either. Her hair was untamed and her cheeks pink; her face showed nothing of what she was thinking, however. The sculpted lines were neither hard with confusion or soft with remembrance. It was a face he'd seen many times before, despite its new look - enigmatic to the point of inspiring frustration.

This time, though, he swore it wouldn't get to him. Carefully easing himself up the pillows, he ventured forth. "How long have you been up?"

Eyes downcast, she answered, "About an hour. I've had enough of sleep."

Smiling tentatively, he replied, "So have I. You should have woken me." At her shrug, he noticed for the first time the sketchpad that laid in her lap. With a nod, he arched his brow at her work. "Something new?"

Tapping the pen on the paper, she still refused to look up. "No... it's something I've wanted to finish for a while now."

He gritted his teeth against his rising impatience, wanting nothing more than to spit out her name and his in a flood of words meant to reunite. Slowly, slowly... he forced air into his lungs and said, "Yeah?"

"Yeah." She stood with a slight grimace and halted his protest with a wave of her hand as she stretched. "I'm just a bit sore, that's all. Out of the two of us, I'd say you got the raw end of the deal."

"I've been in worse shape, believe me."

Finally she looked up; silhouetted in the back lighting from the lamp, he could see only the glitter of her eyes as she clutched the sketch to her stomach. "I know."

Her firm statement hit him in the gut, exploding the lump of restraint into a thousand pieces. What the hell did those cryptic words mean?

"You know? As in..." He sputtered a bit, trying to hold his anger in check. He failed miserably. "As in, you know. Or *you know*?"

"Don't get all snippy with me." Her brow drew together as she stepped forward.

"Snippy? *Snippy*?" His heart fell to his toes. That wasn't a word he'd ever heard Scully use. "God damn it, Julia -"

"The name," she interrupted, slipping into bed beside him, "is Scully." Placing the sketch on his lap, she added, "*Mulder*."

He held his breath, tearing his gaze from her to glance at the sketch. It was the one she'd drawn in the cabin. He laid on the bench, waiting for her to come back to him, sleeping the sleep of the desperate. It hadn't been changed by her hand except for one small detail at the bottom.

His name. Added in bold, strong letters.

His eyes swept up, taking in the cross that shone as bright as her knowing, happy gaze. "Scully?" His hand grasped hers, giving it a tug to pull her closer.

Her other hand cupped his face, smiling as she ran her thumb over his stubbled cheek. "You know, I rather like Gabriel. It suits you." Sighing, her lips curled into a mock pout. "Guess I'll have to go back to Mulder again, huh? Unless you want to be called Melvin, too. Though I think I would feel rather uncomfortable calling you Melvin when we're -"

Her words were cut short by his kiss. One kiss turned into two, then three, his happiness spilling over as he let himself believe. She was back. She was Scully.

At last, he broke away, chest heaving as he rested his forehead on hers. Similar in breathlessness, she chuckled shortly, "Mulder it is."

He smiled, loving the feel of her, the smell of her... the way her voice had taken on the low, modulated tones of Scully. "You can call me whatever you want." As long as she was with him, she could do, say, *be* anything she desired.

"Fox?"

Well, almost anything. He cringed inwardly at his soon forgotten resolution and steeled himself to accept her request. Pulling away, his smile faded. "Um... yeah, I guess so."

"Just kidding," she laughed, her fingers moving through his hair. "This is nice. I like it when you're in a capitulating mood."

"Don't get used to it," he warned, drawing her into his body as he laid back. She fitted to him perfectly, still playing in his longer curls.

"But the beard has to go," she demanded, all seriousness.

Taking a deep breath, he thanked the stars once again for her return. He'd do anything to keep her with him, demands and all. Well, sort of. He had to keep her on her toes. She always kept him guessing, so it was only right he kept their patented give-and-take alive.

"Only if you'll do the honors."

"Deal. Now, the hair stays."

His breath hitched, the memory of their last night together in the bunker giving him pause. It was so eerily familiar, so heart-wrenching, the way that night could have turned out. If only she hadn't been taken... if only...

"Mulder?"

Shaking off the sadness at last, he kissed her brow. "I'll keep the hair... on one condition."

"What's that?"

The arm around her back crept under her arm to fit her closer still and the baby leapt in response to the confining pressure of their joined bodies. "My son will not be called 'Melvin'. Or 'Little Slick'. Or 'Gabey Junior'. I so much as hear a hint of 'Spooky' and I'm shaving my head, got it?"

Tilting her chin, she began to spread kisses along his jaw, her teeth scraping his throat as she smiled.

"How about John?" Creeping ever closer to his mouth, she continued, "Or Ringo? Or Walter?"

Mulder closed his eyes as her lips touched his lightly, loving the sound of remembered names on her lips. A brief smile curled under her kiss.

"Keep going, G-woman," he murmured, "This time, I promise I'll let you know when you've hit it."

The End


 

A few notes and thanks:

Though this story ends with resolution, there will be one last installment, if I can ever summon the energy to tackle it. <g> Just in case I don't, I hope this ending is satisfactory. Pick your own sex/name for the baby and imagine a 'happily ever after' theme, and you've written it already!

Many thanks to Musea, my sisters in writing (and a few other things). Their encouragement is what made me finish "Julia" and also gave me the incentive to pursue the story through "Gabriel". Love you all very much, ladies.

To mountainphile - Mine is done, cherie. Aren't WIP's great? ;) Thanks, dear. Couldn't have done it without you.

To the Havenites and Stalkers - Too many to name, but you know who you are. Hope you like the finished product. Now put away those implements of poking and go bother someone else. I hear a little encouragement is needed on something called SOS? LOL

Finally, to Sybils - this one's for you, honey. My most faithful advocate, you never let me slack off or falter. Love ya, babe. (Smut next time, I promise.)

Thanks for reading,

Mishy


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