Happy Endings

by Rose Campion

Disclaimer- Alas, the big, bald, beautiful one and all other X-files characters do not belong to me. No money made, yadda yadda, no harm, no foul, etc. Spoilers: Je Souhaite, as well as probably a bit of everything else. Warning: This starts out as more or less canon-based, but sort of gradually loses its head from there. You'll see. Mostly very much an AU. Multiple AUs actually. Summary: Sometimes the happy ending isn't the one you think it is.

How can I ask love to hold the mystery, When just look at me,
It's all push and pull collateral.
I don't want to be the one that gets the next surprise, I'll plan it out this time,
Though I used to think that things were meant to be.

Farewell to the old me,
Farewell to the old me,
My life is working better now,
It all was changing anyhow.

Farewell to the Old Me- Dar Williams

"So, really, how are things going?" asked the woman across the table from him. She looked up puckishly over her gigantic coffee at him.

They were sitting together in a small coffee shop that somehow had managed to weather the predations of the big chain corporate coffee shops. A chalkboard announced the drinks menu in loopy, multi-colored writing, probably done by the requisite teenager with the nose piercing who was standing behind the counter. The sizes of the drinks were small, medium and large, not some faux foreign language. Fittingly, the place was called "Capitol Brew" and the tables had old campaign buttons and stickers decorating them, embedded in a thick layer of resin. Whoever had made the tables was decidedly non-partisan- the rainbow colored buttons were a full cross section of Republican, Democratic, and small third party candidates, for all levels of elected office.

Mulder shrugged, then thought about his answer.

It had started accidentally enough at first, this meeting for coffee with the woman who had once been a jenniyah, who his wish had freed from her geis. He had run into her one morning when he'd stopped to get coffee. She'd been at one of the small tables, drinking some mocha drink piled high with whipped cream. She'd had a little mustache from the cream. She seemed content to watch the world go by. He'd been planning to just grab a cup of plain java and go, but it seemed natural to stop a while, sit with her. Ask her how she was enjoying her freedom. She was. Since then they'd met on an irregular basis- a couple of times a month. For coffee. To talk about life, the universe, everything. She might look like a young woman, but she had the advantage of centuries of experience. She also seemed to be able to tell just by looking at him when he was withholding, not that he would lie to her, the truth being his touchstone.

Today was a Sunday, the one day that Scully had gotten him to promise not to come into work. She insisted that he needed a break. He saw it as twenty-four hours of yawning emptiness that he couldn't fill with his usual business. And you could run only so far in a day. As fit as he was, he didn't think he could sustain a marathon every Sunday.

"It's lonely, you know," he said finally.

She looked at him, a demand that he expand. This genie had turned out to be surprisingly good as a friend, and like all good friends, she demanded and gave in turn, utter honesty. Sometimes she apologized for things she'd said, if she'd pushed too hard. She was out of practice at being anything other than a bound servant. He was her first friend in centuries.

"I love Scully. She loves me. She means the world to me. But sometimes I wonder if maybe it's possible to love someone that much, but not feel as if my heart would be ripped from chest if something were to happen to her. If I could love someone without always having to be the strong one, the one who protects."

He didn't say his every thought. That Scully had once been so strong, and that it was his fault that she'd been beaten down, turned fragile. She depended too much on him. She had given over a portion of her soul for him to watch over, and as time went on, he grew less and less certain of his ability to keep it safe. The recovery people, the self-help crowd had a name for this state that existed between them- co-dependence. He mused over this thought for a while- was there a book for it? "Meditations for Special Agents Who Love Too Much"?

"That's not all that's going with you," she said.

"Work. I've been warned that my department's going to be audited soon. They may be able to shut the X-files down if they don't like what they find," he said. He shook his head. That wasn't the worst of it. It seemed like every time he was on the verge of being able to present proof, to justify with hard facts the continued existence of his life's work, they were ripped from him. He was tired, just so damn tired and frustrated. And with this brain illness, his possible death looming on the horizon. Something had to give. And soon.

"Things will work out for you," she said. "I have a good feeling about this. I've got to get going. I have to be at work in a few."

The genie supposedly had a job, as a clerk in a large public library. She loved books, she'd decided. And she loved people, watching all the people that came in, everyone looking for something- the answers to some question or another.

"Okay, I'll see you again sometime," he said, raising his cup of plain coffee, just a little creamer in it. "Just one last thing, what is that thing you're drinking?"

"Toffee nut latte, extra shot, with whip and extra sprinkles," she said, gathering her cup and going.

Mulder sighed and leaned back in his chair, sipping his coffee slowly, wondering what exactly he would fill up the rest of the day with. He wasn't far from work. He could sneak in to the office, straighten a few files. That wouldn't be really work, would it?

He was pulled from his musings by the sound of the door opening up. He startled to recognize the latest inhabitant of the small coffee shop. Walter Skinner. His boss. Skinner looked like someone who knew how to enjoy a weekend. Or at least he made a good pretense of it. He was dressed in casual clothes. A nice, very nice yellow oxford cloth shirt and a pair of chinos. He took his place in line, ordered and paid for a cappuccino, all without seeming to notice Mulder, despite that the agent was less than fifteen feet from him. While Mulder was contemplating which plan would work better, quickly sneaking out while Skinner's back was still turned, or brazening it out, actually facing and talking to his boss like he was a human being. Assuming of course, he was noticed.

But Skinner turned suddenly, his eye's meeting Mulder's. And, mercy of mercies, wonder of wonders, the big man actually broke into a brief smile at the sight of his subordinate. "Agent Mulder," he said. "Mind if I join you?"

Without waiting for a response from his agent, Skinner collected his cappuccino and settled himself into the chair opposite.

"I hope you don't mind me joining you. I just saw you through the window and I just wanted to touch base with you. See how you're doing."

Skinner was a good man, Mulder thought, not for the first time. And he was a good boss. Mulder had believed in Skinner at times when not even Scully wanted to trust the man. And in return, Skinner had helped them in ways that he shouldn't have. Even now, Mulder's heart softened a little when he thought of how Skinner, with the best of intentions, had sold himself to the smoking man, for a cure for Scully's cancer.

"I'm surprised to see you out of the office," Skinner said. "I know you have that audit coming up. And you weren't in yesterday morning either."

"I had a doctor's appointment," Mulder said. That much was true, but he gave no clue what the appointment was for. Skinner would have been concerned, if he found out. Scully had told him how she'd found Skinner that time. The one where Mulder was in the hospital in a near psychotic state. Skinner was beside himself, Scully had said. Completely wrought. He cared, Mulder decided. He really cared.

Skinner then proceeded to surprise Mulder again. "If you like, I could help you prepare for the audit. I don't think anything we can do will make the man happy with your expenses, but at least I can make sure all your pennies add up and all your ts are crossed."

"I'd appreciate that," Mulder said, thinking of all the expense reports he'd wanted to go over before the pending audit. He, too, didn't think that there was really anything that could be done, and while he thought that his expenses were reasonable, especially considering the things he could have claimed, but didn't, the stuff he ended up paying for himself, he knew that the auditor wasn't likely to see it this way. But if he could avoid even the smallest math error, that might help his case.

"Yes, I'd truly appreciate that, sir," Mulder said, taking a final sip of his coffee.

"Walter," Skinner said. "It's the weekend. And so much has happened. I think we're beyond sir and agent, don't you, Mulder?"

"Fox," Mulder said, thinking of how once, long ago, Skinner had called him Fox and how then, he had all but cringed at it. But things had changed so much between them.

It was late when they finally called it a day. The mid-spring day had slipped by completely unnoticed while the pair of them had been going over accounts and paper work in the basement office. As they walked out into the world again, the evening was still mild and windy, fresh smelling, with something that promised freedom and sweetness to Mulder mockingly.

"Dinner?" Skinner asked. "Did you have plans?"

"No," Mulder said, cautiously. "No, I didn't."

All the same, he wasn't sure if it was safe to go to dinner with his boss. Because being around the big, bald, beautiful man all day had reawakened something that Mulder thought he had put to rest long ago. He had the urge, stronger than ever, to wrap his arms around those wide shoulders, feel that strong heartbeat as he pressed himself against that muscled chest. And yet, as dangerous as it was to want those things, as foolhardy as it was to even continue to talk to the man, it was just so easy for Mulder to say, "Yes, let's go out to dinner. If you're not busy."

Mulder recognized the place that Skinner took them too. He'd been there before. Not as a restaurant, but as a crime scene. Skinner had been shot here for refusing to drop the investigation into Melissa Scully's murder. After it was over, after Mulder had gotten out of the hospital, he'd gone to the scene, out of more than simple curiousity. No, Mulder had felt a burning need to find any bit of evidence, no matter how small, to know that there was nothing more he could have done. Cardinale, the man who had done it was dead by then. Not that Mulder found anything. It had been made to look like a simple hold up gone bad and the evidence technicians had been over the place already with fine toothed combs.

"This is the place," Mulder said, "Where you were shot. I'd have thought you would stay away because of the memories."

"I like the place," Skinner said. "They know me here. And I wasn't about to let them keep me away. They scare me away from my life, they win."

Skinner guided Mulder to their table with a hand placed in the small of his back. Mulder thought immediately of how he'd helped Skinner to stand that once, when he'd come back to work too soon. He thought about how warm and vital the man felt under his hand. He'd never dared touch Skinner again in that gentle, caring kind of way. He'd never again had the excuse. They'd touched since, but it had been Skinner restraining him from violence.

He wanted, Mulder decided, to be able to touch the man. He wanted those rippling muscles under his hands, that warmth stealing into his body. It was only in the middle of eating that Mulder realized that Skinner wanted the same thing. Their hands kept brushing each other's as they passed the salt and pepper. When Skinner spilled a little out of his water glass and Mulder lent him a spare napkin. When they both reached for the cream for their coffee at the same time.

"Come home with me," Mulder said when the bill finally came, shocking himself. This was, undoubtedly, him speaking, making the words, finally giving existence to a desire that had been unspoken for years, that he'd buried so deeply he hadn't quite known it existed. "Spend the night."

Skinner didn't answer for a moment, his normally expressive face a blank. His brown eyes were unreadable, bottomless pools. He wasn't, Mulder decided, shocked. Nor even surprised. There was suddenly the slight trace of a smile on his lips, not as big as the earlier one, but undeniably there.

"Should we go back to the Hoover and pick up my car?" Skinner asked finally. "Or should we just take a cab from here."

"A cab," Mulder said, not wanting to waste a minute, now that he had made his move, and, mercy of mercies, found that it been received well. He wasn't going to let Walter slip away on him.

And yet, even as all of this made sense, that it was so easy to reach out for Walter's hand while they sat in the cab, to know that he'd wanted this for years, that he desired the other man intensely, Mulder felt the strangest sense of, no, not quite deja vu. No, it was sense that he remembered a time where he hadn't felt this about Skinner at all. Where it had been Scully that he desired, physically as well as emotionally, but that he'd never dared make a move for her. It was a strangely distant, but still distinct set of memories. Yes, he could remember not being gay. And yet, at the same time, he knew he was gay, he always had been. Yes, he remembered the day he came out to Scully as clearly as anything, boyfriends, even a few lovers he'd lived with briefly. He'd been discreetly closeted his whole adult life. And yet, he still remembered the women.

The feeling haunted him during the cab ride back to his apartment, and during the elevator ride up to the fourth floor, even while he opened the door. He almost expected to see some of his porn, the ones with women, out where he'd left them last night. When he glanced over at the floor nearby the television, the couple that he'd left out were still there, but the covers weren't blazoned with silicone breasted blondes. Instead, the star of the one on top was Ramrod Stevens, that porn star that looked so much like Alex Krycek. Mulder remembered now jerking off to that one last night, even as he felt hotly guilty about who the star looked like.

Yes, it was the old familiar apartment, no. 42, Hegal Place. In both realities, the couch was just the same, so were the prints over it. Fish swam contentedly in both realities that Mulder was balanced between. The room was just cluttered enough to be comfortable, but still neat. There were a few minor differences that Mulder could see. By the desk, a small print that wasn't there in one reality- genuine Picasso, a gift from Richard. He'd left a glass on the coffee table last night, in one reality. It was still here now, but instead of being a plain, straight sided glass, it was a vintage glass, printed with blobs that vaguely resembled flying saucers. No, the only major differences were internal- who he remembered loving, what he remembered feeling. It all was jarring, nearly overwhelmed him. He wondered if he was going mad as he shut and locked the door behind them.

But as Skinner suddenly grabbed Mulder and started tugging up Mulder's sweatshirt, and resting his hot, heavy hands on the now bare skin at the small of Mulder's back before pressing his lips to Mulder's, reality folded back itself into one seamless continuity again. Mulder remembered only his desire for this man who was ravishing his mouth, now pressing his tongue against Mulder's lips, asking, not demanding entrance. It was so easy, just so easy to open his lips, let this man in. He had loved him so long already. There was no one else he trusted this much, not even Scully.

Eventually, Walter pushed him away to arms length and looked him up and down. "I've been waiting for you for so long. For some clear signal," he said, after drinking his fill of the sight of Mulder.

"I've been waiting for you too," Mulder said pulling Walter back into a tight embrace. Then, after that, all there was to do was to lead Walter into his bedroom. Now that he finally had him, after waiting so damn long, he was never going to let go of the man again. Damn the Bureau. Damn the conspiracy. Damn it all. Nothing else mattered except the sweet taste of Walter on his lips, on the soft comfort that their bodies could give each other, and reassuringly strength that infused ever fiber of the man.

Across the clearing, a small woman watched Mulder walk into the circle of light. Again. The inevitable would happen. She'd seen it before. No matter what she'd tweaked thus far, it had always ended like this- badly.

She'd paid close attention to the past several days of Mulder's life. She had, again and again. It would be close to the truth to say that she might know things about Mulder that he didn't even know about himself. Like where he got that simply atrocious waterbed. Actually, once she'd seen the model Morris Fletcher had originally had in mind, she'd intervened, no, not with a wish, but walking up to him in the store and suggesting that no man would get lucky with her in such a thing.

Her part-time position as a library clerk left her with plenty of time to be a busy body, and though she'd been recently freed from the obligation of the carpet, she'd lost none of her power. Mulder had wished only to set her free. He didn't wish for her to become a normal person with no power. She still had long life and great power, but was freed from the conditions of a Jinniyah's life. No more being at the beck and call of whoever opened that damn rug. No more three wishes. She could grant however many it took to get the job done.

She'd once thought that she forever had been cured of the desire to work her magic on people. In truth, it was a hard habit to break. One could not run away from one's own nature, people worried about what wasn't chronically. For all that she was a genie, she was still a person. And after all, one could only sit and watch the world go by so long before one died of boredom. And unlike the people who'd had the misfortune to open her carpet, she had enough experience to know what to wish for. She knew all the pitfalls, all the classic mistakes. And she knew about scale. Most people- they thought too big. They wished for a million dollars so they could quit their jobs. They never thought, not once, about wishing that Lorraine, in the next cubicle over, who made their work lives such hell, would get a job in another state. No, she didn't make those kind of mistakes.

It all played out the same: the audit, the call from Oregon, the illicit trip out to the coast. Then, Alex Krycek and his damnable information. And finally, Mulder and his boss making the last trip out to Oregon, to Mulder's apparently inevitable date with destiny.

Mon Dieu. There, again, Walter Skinner finally noticing that Mulder was gone from sight. Then, the sight of the alien craft pulling away. This time, the only difference was the pure, unadultered anguish in Walter's voice as he called out, "Fox!" Then, he collapsed to his knees, weeping.

No, no and no. There had to be some way. Some adjustment she could make that would alter the fabric of reality enough without warping the grain out of recognition. But no, nothing kept him away. She had tried five variations thus far and none kept this from happening. She had had Dana Scully invite Fox to her bed and the pair become lovers. Mulder was still taken. One time, the IVF attempt the pair of them had made had been successful. Mulder still ended up leaving his pregnant partner behind and traveling to Oregon with Walter, and meeting up with the aliens. She'd found reasons to send Scully, not Walter, and still, the end result was Mulder gone.

The woman watched over the weeping man from a distance for a while and thought. Satisfied that her choices would work this time, she made a few, small, quick wishes, little, minor changes in the fabric of reality. It had to work this time.

Jenn put her coffee cup down, ran a finger around the rim, smiled and him and asked, "How's Walter?"

They were at their usual place- the Capitol Brew, for their usual Sunday mid-morning coffee. He'd gone running first, up and down the Mall, and he was still slightly sweaty when he'd sat down across from her.

For a minute, the question didn't quite make sense. His mind didn't parse. Walter, the only Walter he knew, was Walter Skinner, his boss, long lusted for, but untouchable by virtue of his position. Then, slowly, like awakening from a long sleep, he remembered, forgetting another branching of reality entirely, the rift healing as if it had never been.

This morning. Waking with Walter in his bed. They'd spent last night together at Hegal Place, as they'd spent half of the nights that Mulder was in town, the other half spent in Crystal City. They hadn't made love last night. Mulder had been too tired, having crawled back into town on the zoo flight. But they had slept together, no pajamas, just for the feel of skin upon skin, and it had seemed the most natural thing in the world upon waking to drift into the act of love. Yes, he remembered how sweet it had been. Walter on his stomach, Mulder on top, feeling at home in Walter's body, deep inside it. Walter's muscles had been taut, like silken cords under his skin, as they moved together. Walter had hidden his face in his folded arms, as if his pleasure was so overwhelming he had to retreat. And though Mulder had been on top, he been enthralled to Walter's voice telling him what to do. Eyes closed, voice soft and rough, Walter had whispered, every now and then, instructions. "Harder now," he'd said. And, "Yes, good. Faster" and, "Please, now. Come for me now." What choice did Mulder have but obey the gentle commands, as sweet as they were? Tenderly, Walter had taken his breath away from him with the bliss of it all. When it was over and Mulder was lying on his back, Walter resting his bald head on Mulder's shoulder, Mulder wrestled hard with the joy, the sheer joy of it, threatening to loose his feet from this earth. He so loved that man, and their lovemaking had only gotten better and better the longer they had been together.

Yes, as he sipped his own coffee, Mulder could only smile and think about how they'd gotten together, last year. After he'd gone out seeking the Queen Anne and gotten nothing more than his lungs full of water. Later, at the hospital, Walter had brought him flowers. Though when the others were there, he'd talked tough and promised to kick Mulder's ass but good, later, Walter had come back alone. It had started out as a circumspect, cautious affair, but after months, they'd grown tired of waiting for the other shoe to drop. They'd reasoned that if the surveillance pictures were going to show up in the Director's office, they would have by then. That was when they started splitting their time between each other's places, not daring to take the final step of moving in together.

"You're grinning," Jenn had pronounced finally, when he didn't answer her. Of course, she had to know what that grin meant. They'd known each other for years, hadn't they? How long ago had they met? He couldn't remember, but they'd been friends for forever, like she'd always been there. He startled to remember that no, it hadn't been that long. Not years, just months since he'd unrolled a carpet to find her there.

"He's wonderful," Mulder said, noticing his smile for the first time. He must look quite the idiot, with such glee plastered on his face. "We've never been better. It's just that..."


"It's just that sometimes, I wish, that we didn't have to sneak around. That we didn't have to hide. That someone besides you and Scully could know," Mulder said. He'd been thinking this a long time, but especially this morning. What was the Bible quote, about hiding a lantern under a bushel basket. Yes, that was what it felt like. For so long, he had been warming himself at Walter's warm brilliant light, and then covering it up zealously at every turn. He could hardly stand it any more, the lies. It chafed, he realized, this restriction, this deception. The touchstone of his life, his faith, his north star, had always been, could only be the truth. And his life, with the way things were, with the endless rounds of doctors and worry and hiding his worry from Walter, needed that truth like he needed oxygen.

"You know, sometimes, just sometimes, I wish I had been a little bit more selfish with those wishes you gave me," Mulder said, rubbing his forehead a little. Like he had almost grown to expect, the pain was suddenly there, the shimmerings of voices that he shouldn't be able to hear starting to sound in the back corners of his mind. An anomalous brain condition his doctors had called it. They couldn't make heads nor tails out of his EEG, nor of any of the MRIs or other tests they had run. "Instead of wasting them on some misguided altruism, I could have stopped this thing going on in my head. Not that I regret spending my third wish on you. I'm thinking of the other two."

"Trust me. Some things are for the best," she said. Actually, there seemed to be nothing she could do for the condition. If she wished it away with one round of wishes, it appeared again in the next. Jenn was beginning to suspect it was somehow ineluctable, one of those rare wishes she just couldn't grant. An unchangeable condition of the universe. She had a sudden idea. Yet another way she might try and keep Mulder away from his seemingly destined abduction.

"Anyway, as far as wishes go, you didn't do too badly. At least you didn't end up dead from them, like some people," Jenn said.

"Has anyone ever not screwed them up?" Mulder asked, thinking of the endless streams of stupidity and venial greed that seemed to flow from humanity. Jenn had told him stories about some of the more egregious mistakes people had made with the wishes she'd granted them.

"A few people. There was a three-year-old girl once a couple of decades ago. She wished for a cookie, to find her lost dolly and a kitten. She got all three, and she was happy. The kitten grew up to be an ornery tomcat who bit anyone but her. She loved him though and he adored her."

"So, in order to be happy, you have to think small?"

"I'm afraid so."

"Sitting back, drinking coffee and watching the world go by?"

"Quite," Jenn said. "There was another man once who used his wishes wisely, so I thought. He wished for enough material possessions that he would be comfortable, but not so many that they would be a burden to him, for a wise but generous spirit, so that he could share his fortune, but not impoverish himself, and for his third wish, he wanted to forget that he had met me and made the wishes."

"So he lived happily ever after? A perfect life. No tragedy, no foolishness. Who was this paragon?"

"No one you'd know. He was a cheesemaker in eighteenth century Amsterdam. And his life wasn't perfect. Just happy. He lost his wife young and he never married again. His dairy burned down one time. But because he'd been so generous to others, his neighbors helped him rebuild. He was never rich, but there was always bread on his table. He didn't let ordinary tragedies break him. Look at the time. I have to go. I'll be late for work."

"I should go too. I'm meeting Walter for lunch," Mulder said, smiling to think of his handsome lover. Jenn flew away in a fluster of twittery energy. She was so different than when he'd first unrolled her from the rug. Her air of bored indifference was gone. She had immersed herself fully into life, Mulder decided.

Mulder walked the dozen or so city blocks to the place where he'd agreed to meet Walter. The spring sun felt good, warming his body even though the breeze still held hints of chill in it. Even though he'd gone running this morning, he still exulted in the stroll. This was what Jenn had meant by taking pleasure in the small things. Yes, he thought. If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn't have bothered with a foolish wish for world peace. I'd just wish for one walk every day that feels as good as this one. The advantage of being a runner was that he was able to put worry aside just by the simple act of movement. For this moment, it held true for the walk as it had for his mornings run.

He found the little pub Walter had specified. It had deep and high booths, the better to remain out of sight. Mulder was loathe to go into the small, dark, sometimes smoky establishment, leaving the sun and the fresh air behind. Only the prospect of finding the source of all good things- Walter, drove him inside.

Walter was in a booth towards the back already, waiting for him. The Sunday Post was spread neatly out on the table. Walter took one section at a time and studied it before putting it neatly on a read pile. Mulder had a tendency to plow through the paper, going from section to section, skimming, then delving deeply when something caught his attention. Walter was studying the sports scores. Time for baseball again, Mulder thought with a smile. If nothing else in his crazy life made sense, at least there was always the cyclical rhythm of the seasons- football, basketball and baseball.

"Hey, gorgeous," Mulder said, claiming the seat across from Walter. He claimed the front page section from the pile and added, "How's the home town team doing?"

Walter, as always, beamed at him, looking slightly bewildered, Mulder thought, as if Walter was never sure that this bluebird of happiness calling itself Mulder had truly alighted into his life.

"How'd coffee with Jenn go?" Walter asked. He knew the whole story. He'd dragged the explanation out of Mulder the evening of the day Mulder had appeared from out of nowhere in his office during a meeting. Genies. Leave it to Mulder to find a real life "I Dream of Jeanie."

"Sounds like she likes her new job. I'm sorry I took part of our morning to go meet her. I just didn't see any other time. I've got to get to the office this afternoon."

"Still worried about the audit?" Walter asked, even though he knew. Mulder had been fretting about this for a long time.

"They could shut us down again," Mulder said, thinking of the X-files office doors locked once again, for the third, and probably final time. It was his life, those files. No, it had been his life. Now, it was an important, vital part of his life. And he didn't think that loving Walter alone would be enough to sustain him should the X-files be taken away from him.

"The auditor can only make the recommendation," Walter said, patiently. "I know Chesty. He thinks he's a big man. He blusters. He'll try and cow you. You have to understand that the Bureau has been in a perpetual budget crisis for years. It's his job to find places to cut. But the decision is the Director's, not his. And I have something to say about it too."

"I know," Mulder said. He was suddenly nervous. It was more imperative these days more than ever that no one find out about them. With the X-files hanging on by such a slender thread, and that thread held with adamantine grip by Walter. But if they were discovered. Mulder didn't like to think about that. Walter seemed to understand the discomfort that Mulder was feeling, must have felt it too, the ghosts of wolves at the door. Walter changed the subject.

"Jenn have anything else interesting to say?"

"She told me about the only persons she knew who were completely happy with their wishes."


"A three year old whose most ambitious wish was for a cookie before dinner. And an 18th century cheesemaker who wished to forget that he'd made any wishes."

"So, I take it you don't count among those who were satisfied with their wishes."

"I'm glad of the third, but I can't help but think that I wasted the other two. Chalk it up to experience, which is always a good thing. But I could have done better. What would you have wished for?"

Walter made a small show of pretending to think for a while. Then he pronounced, in perfect, deadpan seriousness, "A cheeseburger, a Heineken and lunch with you."

Mulder tossed a ball of wadded up napkin at Walter's head. Say nothing else about the man's shiny pate, it made a good target. It was strange how the serious, intense man made him feel more playful than he ever had. "Walter!"

Walter's sly, unexpected smile made an appearance. "Yeah, but my wishes will come true," he said. Then suddenly, his cell phone rang. He muttered a curse under his breath, Mulder didn't quite catch it, and he ground his teeth just slightly. On the second ring he said, "Or maybe not." Then he answered it, barking, "Skinner!" into it. Mulder almost felt sorry for whoever at work had dared interrupt Walter on a Sunday. Walter listened seriously, with full attention, his eyes focused on a place a million miles away. Walter was now at work, not that he ever truly left it. Finally, Walter concluded, "I'm on my way."

"A situation, huh?" Mulder asked as Walter folded the phone and put it back into his jacket pocket.

"A total cock-up you mean. I'll try and be home as soon as damage control is in hand," Walter said, standing and reaching for his jacket. The man moved like, like. Mulder struggled for a comparison that was worthy of the controlled grace and power that Walter's body was capable of. Like some huge predator, perhaps a polar bear- dangerous, fast and with a fluid smoothness that seemed impossible for its ungainly bulk.

"I assume I'll hear about it on the news, or if they elect to call me in," Mulder said.

"The whole point of the exercise is to avoid this getting to the news. It's a hostage situation in Pennsylvania," Walter said. "Later."

It took less than an hour to get out to the scene in Pennsylvania, thanks to light, weekend traffic. Add another half hour to stop first at the Hoover and switch his casual jacket for the one with FBI blazoned on the back and be more fully briefed by his staff. By the time he got to the scene, the news vultures had gotten there all ready, but they were reporting it as just another hostage situation, albeit one that had closed down the expressway. It was true, in it's way. But the big concern wasn't who, but what the man had taken hostage.

The semi had been parked diagonally across the road, blocking all three lanes of traffic with its dull red container. Skinner thought they'd said the thing was full of sodium hydroxide. Skinner had thought it would be some kind of tanker truck. Traffic coming from the other direction had been diverted, routed onto a detour. No, the only cars on the interstate at the moment were state cop cruisers, bucars and other government vehicles. Walter pulled his car up to a likely looking clump of bucars, with a cluster of serious, urgent looking agents standing together nearby, discussing tactics, no doubt. As he parked, Walter picked out the obvious leader of the pack, the one the other agents were looking at as if he had the answers. That one was a tall, intense man with a roadmap of wrinkles in his forehead, his eyes slightly squinted against the bright sunshine. He wore a white dress shirt and red tie under his FBI jacket. He was talking urgently to his cohorts and they were listening intently.

Walter stepped out of the car and walked right up to that one. He had the distinct feeling that if the FBI's protocol were to include saluting, this agent would have given him a crisp, military precise salute. "Agent..." Walter struggled a moment to find and retrieve the man's name from memory. It was not forthcoming.

"Doggett, sir," the man said. "John Doggett."

"You're the agent in charge here?"


"Tell me what's going on. I've heard the briefings, but I want you to draw me a picture."

Doggett nodded. Walter wouldn't have thought it possible, but Doggett stood a little straighter and taller and started to talk, not put off at all by Walter's brusque demands. "Behind the wheel of that semi truck is one James Kennedy Walton. He's got the truck wired with twenty pounds of plastic explosive. We're still not sure where he got them. Inside the container is several thousand gallons of sodium hydroxide, in small totes about a meter by a meter each. They're reinforced with a wire cage, but he's got enough firepower there to have that not make a difference. It blows, we have to evacuate the whole county."

"And just how did he get a hold of a semi truck full of it? I mean, shouldn't something that dangerous be highly controlled and regulated."

"It is. But that's his truck. He makes his living shipping the stuff."

"And how did you get involved?"

"I've been chasing the guy for months. His hobby is bank robbery. He's made twenty hits in the past year. Banks scattered in every state from Louisiana to New Jersey. It took us a while to piece together that our suspect was a truck driver, but once we did it was simple police work to track him down. Should have been a simple bust."

"What does he want?" Walter asked.

"The usual. His fifteen minutes of fame. I don't think we should give it to him. I think he's a nutcase. He's been going on and on about aliens or some nonsense like that," Doggett said, grimacing.

Walter shuddered, the shade of Duane Barry suddenly seeming to walk over his grave. He thought about calling Mulder in, but decided against it for the moment. Mulder didn't need the exposure at the moment. Yes, it'd definitely be a good idea for his monster boy to keep a low profile for the time being. Not unless there proved to be an actual alien connection. "Any accomplices? Does he have anyone he's working with? During his crime spree?"

"I think he's got militia connections but I haven't been able to dig up a clear link. I think this one is worse than that unibomber freak."

"What, exactly, are his demands?"

"He wants national news coverage, to expose this supposed alien menace. He claims the money is to raise an army against them. Hold on," Doggett listened to his ear piece. "Looks like we're getting our break. Guy's not hiding in the back. Sharpshooter's suddenly got a clear shot."

Something wrenched inside of Walter's guts and he wanted to bark out the command, "No!" It wasn't right. It was a bad decision, he could feel it at every level. Doggett seemed to feel the same way. He opened his mouth as if he were going to give the order to hold fire. But before he could, the shot sounded, clear, distinctive. Even at this distance, Walter could see the sudden splash of crimson against the driver's side window of the cab. Then came the explosion. He dove for cover on the ground behind the car, along with the others. It didn't help though. It burned like nothing he'd ever felt before and he knew, with the strong certainty of someone who as already been dead that this was it. He was buying the farm. He found time to wonder if he'd remembered to tell Mulder that he loved him recently.

The shot rang out, like a crystal vase shattering on a concrete floor in a silent room. Crimson splashed onto the truck's window. They waited a minute, then Doggett was barking into his mike, "Team A, go, now!"

A squad of men in tactical armor rushed the truck and then it was all over. Even as Skinner watched them haul a single body from the cab, and the bomb squad started swarming over the truck, he shuddered.

Confused, he remembered quite clearly. the truck had gone up in one of the most magnificent fireballs Skinner could remember. Taking them with it. And yet, plain as daylight, there, the truck stood. Here he stood still, uninjured. He shook his head, wondering if he was going mad.

In a few minutes though, action was demanded of him, someone was wanting him to go up in front of the cameras and give a statement. And so he put on his best inscrutable face and did what needed to be done. In a little while, he was just wondering if maybe his imagination had been over active, that he'd just imagined the truck blowing.

Sometime in the middle of it, Doggett pulled him aside. "We're damn lucky," he said, the crags in between his eyebrows deepening for a minute. "The guy had the whole thing set on a deadman switch. Shoulda blown the instant he was shot. Goddamn lucky for us he's not as good at electronics as he was at bank robbery. It woulda blown, except one of the connections came lose. So say the folks from the bomb squad."

Walter felt suddenly very weak in the knees, though he put on his best iron face and didn't let it show. He thought again, about how earlier, he'd been sure that the bomb had blown. Deciding again that it really just was his imagination, he forced his mind back to the matter at hand. It could have been a fatal mistake. He'd escaped by the skin of his teeth again, like he had so often since taking on the supervision of the X-files. On the positive side, had there been that fatal mistake, neither he, nor Doggett, would still be around to face the negative repercussions on their respective careers. As it was, his career was no more in shards than it had been this morning, before he'd come out here. That was about the best he could ask for, most days. He got on with the business at hand.

Mulder watched Walter leave, cutting through the early afternoon weekend lunch crowd with purpose. When that man was on the move, no one, no, no one got in his way, Mulder thought. It was something about him, like lesser ships moving out of the way of an aircraft carrier. He sighed with a pleasure tinged strongly by regret at the sight of Walter's retreat.

As he was deciding whether to order lunch on his own, or just pay for the drinks they'd ordered and head home, or even to call Scully and ask if she wanted to join him, the lightheadedness came again. The shimmer of voices at the edge of his hearing became stronger. His decision made for him, he dug into his wallet, threw what he thought would be an adequate amount of money onto the table and stood up, meaning to head back to his place immediately. He could get through these bad spells if he could just take them lying down, maybe with the television playing for that veneer of reality to reassure himself that everything would be all right.

He didn't make three steps before big, black spots filled his vision. He couldn't keep his feet and he was falling, his body not his for the moment.

Somewhere, somehow, there was an end to it all. He could return home to DC, the situation defused as well as he could make it. He thought maybe even the Bureau looked good on this one, not just having failed to fuck up totally. In the car on the road back to DC, he finally had a spare minute to answer his cell phone. He'd set it on vibrate only mode before facing the press, and it had gone off several times during his long statement and question session. He'd gotten one voice mail and several text messages. He thumbed through his text messages first. The first one was Scully's cell number and the text, "Please call."

The messages got more urgent as the hours had worn on. He'd left DC at just past noon and it was now full night. From "Please Call," they escalated to "Please Call. Urgent," and then, "Please Call. Emergency." Wondering what the situation was that required such immediate attention, he speed dialed Scully, even as he sped up slightly. There was no answer from Scully and that worried Skinner even more. It occurred to him that one of the places where she wouldn't answer her phone was within the halls of a hospital. She'd know better than to use it near sensitive medical equipment. Getting her voicemail finally, he said, "Agent Scully. This is Walter Skinner. I've gotten your messages. Work took me to Pennsylvania, but I'm on my way home now. Call me as soon as you get this message. I should be home in an hour."

Not five minutes, anxious, extended minutes, later, his phone chirped at him again. He picked it up and had it to his ear before it had a chance to ring a second time. "Skinner!" he barked into it, half sick with worry.

"Sir. Walter," Scully's voice answered him. He recognized the tone. Worried as sick as he was, thinly strung and about ready to snap. She'd used that voice, among other times, when Mulder had gotten himself lost at sea in the Bermuda Triangle. That had been the day that Skinner had realized he loved Mulder. That he was willing to throw everything- his job, his pension, his position, away because he couldn't stomach the thought of a universe without a Mulder in it.

"Agent Scully, what's the emergency?"

"Agent Mulder, sir. He's in the hospital again. Northeast Georgetown. He was in a restaurant not far from the Hoover when he collapsed. He started going into convulsions. No treatment so far has been able to stop them. He came out of it just long enough to ask them to call me, but he slipped back into the convulsions almost immediately. The doctors have been unable to determine the cause, but it appears to be centered in the temporal lobe, but it's spread over his whole brain."

Walter thought immediately of the illness that had nearly claimed Mulder from him so shortly after they'd found each other. Over, done, cured, so the doctors had said. No more signs of irregular temporal lobe activity. Or at least, immediately after it happened. Walter wondered, sometimes, if there wasn't some residual effect. Mulder occasionally had what he claimed to be tension headaches, and he'd shut himself up alone in a room, with the lights off and the television on.

"I'm on my way, Agent Scully," Skinner said, wishing he could increase his speed yet again. He was far from the only one rushing back to DC on this dark, spring evening. Traffic was thickening and slowing as they got closer and closer to the city. To make things worse, though the day had been fine and clear earlier, a storm system was rolling in. One by one, the stars were covered by thick, impenetrable blackness. Then, big drops of rain started splashing onto his windshield. "Traffic's bad. It's starting to rain. That'll slow me down. But I'll be there as quickly as I can. Have they tried the phenytoin?"

"First thing. It didn't do anything more than slow them down slightly, even on increased dosages. They've got him sedated. Enough to take down a tiger, honestly. I don't know what to do, sir," she said. She was obviously on the verge of tears.

Mulder loved Walter, but Scully was still closer to Mulder than just a long term work partner. They were friends. Confidants. Walter remembered one time, not long after he and Mulder had started their affair, she had come up to him. She'd given him one long, hard look up and down. Then she'd said, "I love him like he was one of my brothers, sir. And I mean this with all due respect, but if you harm him in any way, I'll kick your ass."

"I'll be there soon, but I don't know if there's anything I can do either," Walter said. He said his goodbyes to Scully, with another promise to be there as quickly as he could. Then he set the phone down on the passenger seat without taking his eyes off the road. He drove as fast as traffic conditions would let him, with grimly efficient skill, his jaw set. He had to take his hands off the wheel every now and then and stretch them, one by one, for fear that his death grip on it would cause his hands to lock into place.

By the time Skinner finally got to the hospital hours later, having been delayed by a semi accident blocking the road, Scully was asleep in the chair by Mulder's bedside. She never seemed tinier, curled up in that vinyl padded chair. Awake, the woman was a dynamo, her short stature unnoticed by sheer dint of intensity. But asleep, without the full fury of her personality to animate that body, it was like a little doll, her face porcelain, the hint of a blush on her cheeks. She'd kicked off her heels and had been wearing a jacket earlier, which she now used as a makeshift blanket. Her red hair was mussed slightly, curled a bit around the ends. She might have run her fingers through it a few times, in frustration, as she'd waited for him.

Mulder himself was deadly still on the bed. He wasn't in restraints, like Walter had almost expected, like he'd been mentally preparing himself for. No, instead, the rails of the bed had been fully padded with foam rubber so that Mulder couldn't hurt himself as he convulsed. As before, he was attached to monitors. Yes, there was the EEG. As before, the line skittered and danced all over the graph, even as Mulder's body was completely still on the bed, doing a fair imitation of the deepest possible sleep. What was it that had been said about Mulder the last time that this had happened. No, he wasn't dying, Walter thought. No, if anything else, Mulder was more fully alive, more fully awake than he ever had been. Other than the leads for the monitors and the IV, Mulder might have just been sleeping. It was almost as if Walter might be able to just reach over, shake Mulder by the shoulder and say to him, "C'mon, buddy, wake up. I'm taking you home."

Walter reached out and touched Mulder on the cheek, gently, one swift caress sweeping from cheekbone to chin, before waking Scully. She would only do the inevitable, unenviable thing of having to tell him again the exact same thing she had told him in the car, that there seemed to be nothing that they could do, no lead that they could follow. At least the last time there had been leads to follow, things to do, Mulder asking for help. This time, there was no Kritschgau, no mysterious rubbings, no ship in Africa. No, there seemed to be very little reason for this illness to have started now, like it had. What could have triggered it?

Reaching out for Scully, Walter shook her awake and she started the long, arduous task of going through Mulder's chart with him. Most of it made very little sense to Walter. He listened though, carefully, for any little sliver of hope. Any positive prognosis she could offer. She couched it in very gentle, neutral terms, but the meaning was the same. Call it a rose if you like, but shit still stinks. And Mulder was still dying.

In the end, there was nothing to do but wait by Mulder's bedside and hope that the brainstorms would subside before his mind destroyed itself. Scully, of course, was unable to acquiesce to the same fatalism that came to Walter almost naturally, perhaps from some genetic memory from his Russian ancestors. Scully stormed around. Scully raged. Scully tracked down every lead, no matter how flimsy it might be. Walter sat at Mulder's bedside every minute he could spare and, when he thought no one was liable to come in, he held Mulder's hand.

They drugged him deeper and deeper, until only monitor that showed more than a bare minimum of activity was the EEG. That crackled with life, spiking and peaking in irregular bursts.

After three days of useless waiting, Scully came in, looking exhausted. She was followed by the Gunmen, all of whom looked just as tired, just as grim. Skinner had long ago resigned himself to the odd trio as a fixture in their lives, even more prominent in times when Mulder or Scully were in trouble. Like now.

"Anything?" he asked, more pro forma than out of any actual hope.

Scully sighed and then said, "No, we're packing it in for the night. You should go home too. There's nothing more to be done."

He couldn't fault her or the Gunmen for taking some rest. But he wasn't going to leave Mulder's bedside. "I'll sleep in the chair," he said. Just like he had the other three nights, waking just in time to get back to Crystal City and change for work.

She didn't protest. She knew it would do no good. She moved to stand at the other side of Mulder's bed. She brushed a hand over his forehead, touching him softly. Skinner was reminded of a mother touching a feverish child. "We'll find a cure, Mulder. I promise it," she said. She didn't sound convinced though, finally starting to doubt- in herself, in the powers of science...in everything.

Then she left. Only the sight of Mulder prevented Walter from following her, offering her some comfort. One by one, the Gunmen stopped at Mulder's bedside to offer their respects. "Hang in there, guy," Frohike said.

"You'd better get well soon," Langly said. "Talented as we are at these G-man activities, they're really cutting into my gaming time."

Byers, the shy one, didn't say anything, just squeezed Mulder's hand awkwardly, briefly, then turned on his heels and fled. Walter, for some reason, remembered another time he'd been in a hospital room with Mulder and the Gunmen. Mulder had asked for Byers clothes. Byers had started to strip down, no hesitation, at least once it became clear what Mulder wanted with the clothes.

Alone in the room with Mulder, who was both a substantial presence and an absence, Skinner started to settle himself in for another uncomfortable night in the chair. His jacket hung from the back of another chair. He found the blanket that the kind nurses had lent him. He set his PDA to ring an alarm at four thirty, plenty of time for the double commute out of and back into the city. He set that within reach, then waiting patiently for what sleep and what dreams would come.

Walter dreamed, one of the least comfortable dreams he'd had for a while. Not quite a nightmare at first, but it grew worse. He was flat on his back in a stall. A barn. A horse barn. A horse was standing on his chest. Light pressure at first, but it grew and grew, until it seemed that he couldn't breathe, that must be impossible that his heart was beating. The horse was a long-haired stallion with a long, black mane. The horse was laughing at him. Not big, honest laughter either, but derisive snickering. "Oh, Walter, you just don't get it, do you?" the horse said.

After that, the dream grew dark and confused and lasted for a long, long time.

When he finally woke, Walter was in a hospital bed himself, feeling like someone had moved into his chest cavity and started redecorating, beginning with ripping out a few load bearing walls and not shoring up the ceiling where they'd been. He opened his eyes and looked around cautiously. A flash of red caught his sight. Scully. He struggled to sit up at first, but laid back down once he realized that wasn't going to happen without more effort than he had in him at the moment.

When he stopped struggling to sit up, he found the energy to focus his eyes. Scully. Her pretty, pale skin was blotched and her blue eyes were rimmed with bright red. She'd been crying.

"Sir? Relax," she said, reaching out a cool hand to touch his forehead, just like she had Mulder's last night. It had been just last night, Skinner hoped. "You're lucky to be alive, sir. You suffered another attack of the nanos. You nearly died. You coded. Luckily, we were able to revive you."

Somehow, Skinner doubted it was luck at all.

"Mulder..." he said. His voice was so dry and raspy that he doubted it even belonged to him.

"He's..." At this,Scully hesitated, wiped a hand across her face. She was crying again. Then she pulled herself together. He could see definite signs of her having been raised by a military man. Tears would have failed to move her father, and so she would have learned to push them away, to make herself calm when others would break down. "He's missing, sir. When the night nurse came in to check on Mulder, she found him gone, and you were half dead on the floor. Oh, sir. He's gone!"

The words were worse than any pain that had gone before.

Only a dark, spritely woman had been standing unnoticed in the hospital corridor and noticed a man insinuate himself into Mulder's hospital room. Alex Krycek, she recognized immediately. She froze, unable to think or do anything but watch as the man pulled out a small, handheld computer from his jacket pocket. As he manipulated the computer, Walter, who had been sleeping peacefully in the chair moaned in his sleep. Big, angry black veins started appearing on Walter's skin, then, he fell out of the chair, onto the floor, seemingly lifeless. Then Krycek shoved Walter out of the way. Moving the limp body of the big man was a struggle for Krycek, even though he seemed, not quite athletic, but still strong, like he was used to hardscrabble fights and rough times.

Walter pushed away, Krycek leaned over Fox's still body. He drew a small case out of his jacket pocket, the breast pocket opposite the one he'd put the hand held computer back into. The case snapped open revealed a syringe and a couple of vials of some milky fluid. Jenn watched with fascination as Krycek, even hampered by his artificial arm, expertly plunged the hypodermic needle into one of the vials and drew the fluid into the syringe. Modern people didn't know what an age of miracles they lived it, Jenn thought. Had Krycek lost that arm during the years that she had been an ordinary human girl, he would have been lucky to have the village smith fashion him a hook that he would be able to get some use out of the shortened limb. No, the man probably only felt bitterness about how slow and clumsy the response of his artificial limb was, not wonder that it worked at all, that he could control it so precisely as to hold a tiny glass vial in it, without crushing it.

Once the syringe was full, and the bubbles tapped out, then Krycek used his artificial hand to turn Mulder's head and hold it in place. With the other, real hand, he plunged the syringe right into Mulder's temple and depressed the plunger. "C'mon, Mulder, wake up. I'm taking you away from all of this," Krycek said, ironically.

And slowly, amazingly, Mulder's eyes did open. And he was able to speak. His first word, obviously, was hissed. "Krycek!"

"Lucky for me you're still too drugged to beat the crap out of me. What is it with you? Is it some kind of repressed sexual thing? Sublimation?" Krycek said as he packed his equipment away again.

Mulder saved his breath this time and didn't respond.

"Mulder, there's an unprecedented opportunity awaiting you, if only you get out of that hospital bed and follow me."

Mulder caught sight of Walter's body. Jenn could see the agony that was writ plain on Mulder's face. And fury. "I'm not going anywhere with you. You killed him, Krycek."

"Well, just a little. Hold on," Krycek said. He pulled the hand held computer out again and fiddled with it. Walter gasped in a big breath, then started breathing more or less normally after that. "There. All better. Your boyfriend's in the land of the living again. And you don't have any choice. You're coming with me."

Mulder might have been able to talk, but his body was still more or less unresponsive. Krycek pulled casual clothes- jeans, a sweatshirt, tennis shoes out of the bag he'd set down earlier and dressed Mulder like he was a doll. Then he lowered the bedrail and levered Mulder up to a sitting position. "You'll be getting back more control over your body as time goes on, but for now, just do me a favor and don't fight me. And remember, I've got your boyfriend's life in the palm of my hand."

Slowly, Krycek got Mulder to his feet. Even though he was supporting Mulder by main strength, they made it through the door, down the hall and eventually, out of the building. Presumably, once outside, into a car and away from the hospital.

Jenn sighed. Had she, she wondered, seriously underestimated the strength of the Krycek factor? He'd always seemed such a bit player in the whole thing to her. He'd pop up in Mulder's life every now and then to wreck some small mayhem or disburse some tidbit of information, the whereabouts of the downed UFO the latest one, but mostly he was an enigma. How could she neutralize the Krycek factor with the smallest possible change? Something that would make that enmity between them disappear and at the same time, take Krycek out of the power game that was being played. She needed to think. Her brain felt thick, flabby, powerless. Coffee was needed. She would go find a diner, sit, drink coffee and think.

He was still in his hospital bed when they sent the agent to take his statement. It was the same day he'd woken up even. The agent they'd sent was Doggett, of the semi-truck incident. No, it probably wasn't a coincidence. The man had just finished up with his case. And he had plenty of experience with missing person cases, or so Skinner had heard. He was a bright star in the Bureau. On the fast track, so talk from above had it. From what Skinner had seen, the man was good at what he did.

John Doggett was all grim seriousness. Dressed this time in full suit and tie, his perpetual expression was still a near frown.

"Mind if I take a seat, AD Skinner?" he asked. Walter would have shrugged if he could. What good was it sending this agent, as excellent as an agent as he no doubt was, out to search for Mulder. Skinner knew who had Mulder- Alex Krycek. But God alone knew where Krycek had gotten by now. And no doubt he was under the protection of men who were themselves protected, men who could not be pursued. The same men who were always above and beyond the law. He could only hope that this time, as the last time, that whatever element it was among them that had looked out for Mulder would do it again, and deliver him home once their schemes had no more use for him.

When Scully continued to hover as Doggett took his seat, he said, "I was hoping to have a few words alone with the AD, Agent Scully."

Scully shot the agent a look of pure venom as she stalked to the door of the room. "I'll just be outside, sir. Call if you need anything."

Skinner wondered at what seemed like unnecessarily bad blood between the two agents, especially so quickly. Unless they'd had some previous run-in that he hadn't heard about. Scully didn't take too well to being called Mrs. Spooky and was not one to forget a slight easily. Doggett for his part, seemed one the boys, easily fitting in to the boys' club mentality that could dominate the middle levels of the Bureau sometimes.

"So, according to Agent Scully, you were in the hospital room at the same time Agent Mulder is believed to have disappeared," Agent Doggett said. "And that furthermore, you were the victim of some manner of attack yourself."

Ah, perhaps there was the cause of the antinomy. They had talked already. Doggett sounded doubtful that Skinner had been attacked. No doubt the hospital doctors were describing this as some kind of odd cardiac incident. Doggett would think that Scully's story would be the science-fiction it sounded like. Except for the fact that it had happened to him, in all its unbelievable agony, he would have classed it as such. Scully for her part was so vested in her faith of science that once she found proof that passed muster to her, she expected that everyone else would naturally have to believe.

"Yes, I was in the room at the time," Skinner said, cautiously. There was no way he could be a suspect, and yet the paranoia he'd learned over the years made him truly understand the fact that anything he said could and would be used against him. "I was not conscious. I didn't see anything or anyone. I fell asleep. I woke up in this hospital bed."

"Okay, well, what about this line that Agent Scully is trying to feed me about you being the victim of an attack by this Alex Krycek? I did a search on him by the way. Found nothing. No date of birth. No known residence. No convictions. No warrants. Nothing. I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say that the man doesn't exist."

Oh, he exists all right, Skinner thought. He's the stuff my nightmares are made of. He's had me on his puppet strings for longer than a man should have to bear. "That was the name he used at one point," Skinner said. "I doubt it's his real one. I don't even believe he's a citizen of this country."

Doggett's eyes opened slightly wider for a moment as he pondered the possibility that there was a foreign national out there that could just waltz right into a hospital, or apparently anywhere else, without a trace, without bleeping on the radar. "Russian? FSB?"

"Something far more dangerous than that. He speaks fluent Russian, but he may or not actually be Russian."

"Regardless, I'd like to know if you stand behind Agent Scully's assertion that he attacked you in some way."

"Who assigned you to this case, Agent Doggett?" Skinner asked.

Skinner grimaced when he heard Doggett's answer. "AD Kersh, sir."

Kersh. He'd never been able to prove it, of course not, but Skinner had thought for years that Kersh was one of theirs. That he'd been bought. Compromised.

"Why you? Why not Agent Scully?"

"She's a little too close to the case, Sir. Rumor has it, last time her partner went missing, she went looking for him in Africa."

"Let me draw you a picture, Agent Doggett. You don't want to go looking into this case. You don't want to get involved. The men who've taken Agent Mulder walk the halls of the Hoover with impunity."

"Well, how 'bout you put that picture in a frame for me, and tell me who this is then?" Doggett asked. He took a surveillance picture out of a file and passed it to Skinner. Though the picture was grainy and unfocused, there was no denying that it was Alex Krycek, mostly dragging a limp Fox Mulder along with him through what looked like the hospital parking garage.

"That's the man known sometimes as Alex Krycek, who, as you say, doesn't exist."

"Looks like Agent Mulder's going along with him pretty willingly, wouldn't you say? No struggle. No force."

"Did Agent Scully show you Agent Mulder's chart? He was having near constant seizures. The only way to slow them down was to dope him with enough phenobarbituates to take down a bear. I'd say that picture looks like he's being dragged to me."

Agent Doggett asked Skinner yet more useless questions, all the while sounding like he believed that Mulder was the fugitive, not the victim. Skinner answered them as best he could, trying to make it clear again and again that there was no way Mulder could have gotten out of that bed under his own power and that, yes, he was no doubt in the custody of a dangerous man or men. Finally, Doggett called it a day and left. Not a minute later, Scully came in.

"Sir," she said. She looked flustered even though her suit and hair were as neat as always. "I need to go to Oregon. Strange things have been happening in Bellefleur again. Abductions. I think it may be related somehow to what was happening to Mulder. But."

"AD Kersh is filling in for me while I'm in the hospital, and there's no way you could get an 302 signed," Walter said, knowing just exactly what Kersh would do. He could maneuver around Kersh though, even flat on his back. "Go to Kim. Tell her to get out one of the signed requests for personal leave that I have on file for you, and to date it and submit it as if it hit my desk the evening of the last day I was in the office. Then get on the next plane to Oregon."

He would have been on that plane himself, except he hardly felt like walking the few feet to the bathroom was feasible under his own power, much less the trip cross country. He'd go as soon as he was back on his feet though. "If you can't afford the ticket, I'll pay."

"Oh, no, sir. That's fine."

"Get going then," he said, brusquely, as if that could cover up the tears that were threatening at the thought of Mulder being gone. Missing. First the sudden, acute return of the brain malady, then Mulder gone, and God alone knew what was happening to him, if he was worsening without the drugs. If they would let him burn himself out. Mulder in the tender hands of Alex Krycek. Could things get worse?

Doggett returned the next day. "Just a few more brief questions," he promised as he sat down next to Skinner's bedside again. Skinner was almost up to getting out of bed again. He'd been able to sit up earlier. Even though he was getting older, he still seemed to have a vital constitution. Nothing kept him down for very long.

"You seem pretty close to Agent Mulder. I figure, if Agent Mulder has a lover, you'd probably know who, right?"

Skinner startled. That was pretty close to home. A very astute guess on Doggett's part, or the man had gone snooping. They were careful, he and Mulder, to keep knowledge of their relationship hidden to those who would keep close mouthed about it, like Scully, or the Gunmen. "Why do you say that?" he asked, cautiously.

"I figure, you were spending the night in his hospital room. You must be close to family, or something," Doggett said. The tone wasn't accusatory, surprisingly. Just open and guileless.

"Agent Mulder has no other family left," Skinner said. "He needed someone to watch out for him."

"Well, I was over at his place, to see if I could find anything. Any kind of clue. I figure he's got a lover. I thought maybe you might know who. Save me a lot of work digging up who those size eighteen neck shirts hanging in his closet belong to. Mulder's a sixteen and a half. There are other things too. Mulder has two different brands of toothpaste in his medicine cabinet. One squeezed from the bottom, one from the middle. Two different brands of shaving cream. Two razors."

Skinner was quiet a long time, trying to think over every angle. Doggett was definitely trying to get him to admit to being Mulder's lover. That fact was true, and Skinner wasn't exactly ashamed of it, but the fact also remained that it was dangerous for both Mulder and Skinner. If he lost his job at the Bureau, how was he going to go look for Mulder? What resources would he have? He spent a nervous moment regretting that they hadn't been more careful, more circumspect.

Doggett seemed uncomfortable finally at Skinner's silence. He shifted in his plastic hospital chair, trying to find a good position on the molded, orange plastic. "Look," he said. "Been common knowledge for a long time that Mulder's as queer as a three dollar bill. I don't care. Live and let live, I say. I'm just trying to find Mulder and I don't want to waste time tracking down a guy who wears size 18 neck, pinpoint oxford shirts. Not if the guy might be right under my nose. I'm thinking it's probably someone Mulder works with, but I also figure it ain't OPR's business who Mulder sleeps with either. So, you know who this guy is?"

He decided to trust the man. He seemed worthy of it. For so long, Skinner hadn't trusted anyone. But he wanted to trust that this agent truly was on the side of the good, and that furthermore, he'd be good to his word and that he wouldn't be turning Skinner in. He was afraid his instincts for who could be trusted were rusty from disuse, but he decided to do it anyway.

"I'm not admitting to anything," Skinner said, cautiously. "But, yes, I know who those shirts belong to."


"It is someone who works at the Bureau. Someone who has already given a statement and shared everything he knows about Mulder's disappearance."

"Good enough," Doggett said. "I have just one more question for you. I'm just wondering why, at a time like this, Agent Scully might take time off and seem to head off on vacation. Where's she headed?"

"Agent Doggett," Skinner tried, not quite for withering, because he knew he'd never make it, but for impersonally authoritative at least. It was difficult to maintain, flat on his back. Especially flat on his back, feeling like the effort to sit up just wouldn't be worth it at the moment. It was one thing to trust this agent. It was another thing all together to give him information that no doubt would have the whole Seattle field office swarming down on the lead Scully was following. Knowing what he knew, Skinner thought it was the better part of valor to let Scully and the three stooges take care of this one. "What Agent Scully chooses to do with her time is up to her. She did not disclose any of her plans to me and I wouldn't expect her to."

"You're covering for her. She's out following a lead. She might have some idea where this Krycek guy mighta taken Mulder. You know, considerin' all you told me about this guy, I'm thinking it's a pretty damn fool thing for her to do, taking off after him without backup."

Oh, thought Skinner. She has backup. Three surprisingly valiant, intelligent men who've risked their all for her and Mulder many times before.

"I don't know where Scully has gone," Skinner insisted again.

"Right," Doggett said, rising to his feet. "Well, sir, I'll do my best to find him for you, even if you're going treat me like a mushroom."

Skinner puzzled at that one for a bit, until he remembered the rest of the phrase. Keep me in the dark and feed me bullshit.

He felt regretful that he didn't extend the full measure of trust that he felt he might be capable of giving to Doggett. If only he could trust the man not to respond in a way that had SOP, FBI, stamped all over it. Ironically, it was the upright, play by the rules attitude that made Skinner trust the guy, but the same attitude made him refrain from passing on the information.

Mulder was balking again. He and Krycek were hiking through the damp Oregon woods. Krycek had gotten Mulder low top sneakers and as he sank ankle deep in cold mud again and again, he'd stop to curse Krycek roundly. Krycek, of course, the bastard, had a pair of black motorcycle boots on. Not the usual kind of hiking gear, but certainly he fared much better in the mud than Mulder did.

And despite that injection that Krycek had given him, and then repeated several times in the two days since he'd taken Mulder from the hospital, Mulder kept hearing the susurrus of mental noise. Only parts of it seemed immensely cold and alien to him, like listening to a swarm of insects, only more so. It made him shiver even more than mud down his shoes.

"C'mon, Mulder, we've got to get going. We're nearly there."

"Where the hell are we going? You know everytime we head off into one of these ventures of yours, I end up holding the bag, and you end up with the goods."

"Not all the time, Mulder," Krycek said, darkly. Mulder suddenly thought of Tunguska. Mulder hadn't exactly been in the cream after that, but Krycek had come out decidedly on the short end of the stick. "Just get a move on."

"Fuck you," Mulder said, planting his feet firmly as he could in the current patch of mud. He felt as if his legs were going to turn to the consistency of that mud any minute now.

"Press of a button, Mulder," Krycek said. "Your boyfriend's life. In my hands. Of course, if you don't care."

Krycek made as if he were rummaging in the pocket of his leather jacket for the handheld computer.

"You can't. Don't you have to be right there? Otherwise, why would you have come to the hospital?"

"Oh, sure. With the beta version," Krycek said, with a shark-like grin. He pulled out the palm computer. "It's amazing how fast wireless technology has advanced. If I'm in cell phone range, well, poor Walter is putty in my hands."

With an enraged howl, Mulder attempted to launch himself at Krycek. But as weak as Mulder was and tired, he must have telegraphed his every move. Krycek sidestepped with no effort and Mulder plunged face forward into the mud. It was cold. The cold, Mulder decided, was definitely worse than the humiliation. Krycek just tucked the palm computer into his jacket pocket again. Then he leaned over Mulder and pulled him up by the scruff of his neck.

"No more games, Mulder. I'm sick of putting up with your crap. We're almost there. I'm about to give you everything you've ever dreamed about. We'd better get a move on. It's getting dark."

They wandered around the woods for several more hours, as the eerie twilight darkened and deepened. Finally light disappeared all together, leaving them in near perfect darkness. "I'm beginning to think this is some kind of snipe hunt," Mulder complained. The buzzing in his head, the swarm, as he'd started to think of it, had grown stronger and stronger all the time and he felt like he was about to fall down on his face again. He plodded, one foot after the other, following Krycek at this point more because Krycek was something that wasn't woods than fear that Krycek would and could make good on his threat to set off the nanos from this distance.

Then Krycek disappeared. Everything did. He was caught in a column of pure light. The peace he felt was suddenly overwhelming. He walked over to join the others who were waiting. Yes, this was meant to happen.

Ore-fucking-gon. That's where Agent Scully had gone. It'd taken every single one of his built up favors with the secretarial crowd to get the information. Doggett had gone to them as soon as it was clear that Skinner wasn't about to spill the info. Everyone knew, if you really wanted to know what went on in an organization, ask the secretaries. Even the FBI was no exception. Skinner's personal assistant Kim was known to be a woman of much prepossession and discretion. But everyone talks to someone and apparently, she'd let slip where Scully was going to what could only be called an unnamed, but generally reliable source. The gossip vine had thoroughly stripped the source of the info, but it had wended its way right to him.

So, he'd gathered a small team, no more than three other agents, called ahead to the field office and took off for Oregon. He hated fucking Oregon all the other times he'd been there. This time was proving to be no exception. They'd landed in the rain. All the rental car company had available was a Neon, so he and the other agents all had to fold themselves into the compact car and drive off to Bellefluer in that. The roads were slick and they lost time, slowed down by an SUV who thought it could tangle with a logging truck and lost. Messily. There were delays both way, with logs having rolled across the median and onto all but one lane of traffic. The local PD seemed to have it in hand, but these kind of big accidents always took time to clear. Doggett winced when he saw the vehicles. The SUV had flipped and the passenger compartment was completely crushed. A bad omen, he thought, then wondered where the heck that thought came from. No such thing as omens.

At least once he cleared the accident and made it to Bellefleur, he had better luck. He spotted Scully right away.

When he'd found out where Scully was going, he'd first asked for permission to look at these so called X-files that Mr and Mrs Spooky investigated. They'd been to Bellefleur before. It was site for those supposed alien abductions. What a load of crap.

So, he spotted Scully right away, getting into her rental car, walking out of one of the local residences. Dollars to doughnuts the woman wasn't here on vacation or to visit old pals. He kept a low profile, but he followed her as she drove out of town, heading for the woods. When she stopped her car and got out, he parked his rental down the road just a bit. He directed his team to spread out through the woods, he himself would tail Scully. It had gotten dark by then. Not much moon on a night like this and the deeper they went into the trees, the thicker the darkness was. He wished he dared get out his flashlight, but he didn't want to be seen by Scully. She, at least, had hers out, casting a bright beam, that unfortunately seemed to emphasize how pitch black it was, rather than illuminate.

How the heck, he wondered as they tramped through the trees, did he end up with the short end of this stick? Stalking a fellow agent on her personal leave time? Chasing after someone so paranoid that she wouldn't even share her leads with investigation that was supposed to find her partner? And it was bad enough that Mr. and Mrs. Spooky were so paranoid, but he'd been really surprised to find it in AD Skinner. Who, Doggett thought wryly, should be the one called Mrs. Spooky. Keep that one close to my chest. I'd have expected it out of Mulder, but not the AD.

Before long, he heard not one, but two voices cry out simultaneously. "Mulder!" they both called. Then the whole sky lit up with a godawful bright light for a moment. Doggett looked up and saw what his mind could only describe as a UFO- a big, ominous metallic object hanging in the air in exactly the way that objects that big and solid shouldn't. What the hell? He froze, knowing what he was seeing. Knowing that there was no way it could be what his mind was telling him it was. Then the UFO rose precipitously, so amazingly fast. There was no way a craft using current technology could do that. Suddenly, it was gone, flying so fast it was out of sight before he could hardly register that it was moving. Then Scully called out again with such desperation and pain that he forgot himself. He ran to the sound of her voice, his natural instinct to help the damsel in distress taking over.

Jenn sat at her usual table at Capitol Brew. Not one of her usual sweet mocha drinks in front of her, but plain, black Italian roast- thick, strong, brain fuel. Seeming to sense important thinking going on, the usually friendly, chatty server kept a certain distance.

Krycek, it could be said, was a bad seed from the beginning. From the first time he met Mulder and Scully, he'd already been corrupted. No, not even that. He'd been recruited by certain men who thought they'd acquired a tame panther. Krycek had been in it from the very beginning for anything he could get out of it. To use a modern metaphor, he played for Team Krycek, and Team Krycek only. He was a bad boy.

And one thing Jenn had seen over and over again. Women never learned. You couldn't change a bad boy. You couldn't tame him. She'd seen woman after woman waste their wishes on some stupid man. No, you couldn't tame them.

But they could tame themselves. They could want to change. Bad boys could grow up and become good men.

But how?

For a genie, travelling back in time was no more difficult than anywhere else. Perhaps some day, Scully's science would find the reason and truth behind the magic. Something about how the genie influenced the quantum nature of the universe, bending uncertainty principles to the will. Quarks, mesons, all of that, dancing to the genie's wishes. In the meantime, all Jenn knew was all she had to do was wish for something and it was so.

She was back where Alex Krycek had first intersected with her favorite agent. The lonely halls of the Hoover. Lunch time. Most of the agents had gone out to lunch already. Those so dedicated as to skip lunch were tied to their desks, buried deep in whatever they were working on. Yes, at this time, Mulder wasn't on the X-files, Scully was separated from him. They didn't even talk hardly. Mulder said it was too dangerous to Scully, but that wasn't it entirely. He didn't have his basement office any more, but a cubicle up here with all the other agents. He wasn't at his desk at the moment, but someone else was.

Jenn watched as Scully wandered through the offices. She'd been here on official business and been on her way back to the elevators, which would take her down to the street and back on her way to Quantico where she'd been teaching at the moment. Jenn watched. You could almost see Scully wax nostalgic about the basement office as her finger hovered over the elevator call button. Oh, this would take just a little nudge in the right direction, Jenn decided.

Suddenly, Scully's hand moved away from the elevator as an impulse struck her. Not one to go with sudden flights of fancy usually, she decided to go with this one. It couldn't hurt to ask, could it? She made her way back through the maze of innocuous beige dividers and coworkers to where she knew Mulder had his office these days. Scully paused to gather herself against the impending coldness she expected from Mulder, who'd impassively tell her, no doubt, that even a lunch date between two former partners was far too dangerous. The man was paranoid, Scully thought. Even considering what they'd been through.

The person in the cubicle wasn't the one she was expecting. No, instead of her Mulder, she was confronted with that green agent that Mulder had been working with. What was his name? He was in a bad suit and his hair was slicked with some kind of gel that made it look greasy. Scully almost startled.

Oh, this will never do, Jenn thought. Scully was definitely getting the kind of impression that Jenn had wanted to avoid. A bit of working her will on the universe and things were much better. Just the small details. One wink and the suit, while no Brooks Brothers, nothing Agent Mulder would suffer to wear, had always been a better suit. So were all the other's in the man's closet. Say, a five hundred dollar suit, rather than the hundred dollar suit it had been. And that morning, due to Jenn's wishes, Agent Krycek had neglected to slick his hair back with gel. It sort of fell agreeably onto his forehead. Yes, much better. Another bit of wishing and the pair hadn't yet met. Scully had gotten sick, sick as a dog, from an unexpected stomach flu. She hadn't been able to do the autopsy and Mulder had reluctantly found someone else.

The universe smoothed over as if it had never been altered. It was like a big vat of water, in some ways. It flowed back into place, no matter how big the alteration, leaving nothing but a seamless, flawless surface, once the disturbance was over.

Scully startled. Then she got a better look at the agent. Kind of green, but definitely on the good looking side. "Oh, I'm sorry. I was looking for Agent Mulder. I must have stepped into the wrong cube or something."

Now, for the crucial part. Krycek. He was smooth, that one. You couldn't tell that underneath that poker face, he was making calculations again and again, playing and replaying for every advantage. He started to smile, though Jenn was reminded more of sharks, or politicians. She'd been owned by enough politicians over the years, Nixon and Mussolini only the most prominent of them. She hated politicians. Uh-uh, Alex. Time for you to start thinking like a red-blooded, healthy young man. You don't remember that she's Agent Mulder's partner. You don't remember the plans that the Consortium have been talking about for her. None of that. The only thing you know about Miss Dana Scully at this moment is that she's, how did the American's say it? Yes, that she's hot. And you like her. A lot. That you'd like to get to know her better.

Alex's smile seemed to melt into a more genuine one. Scully caught the green eyes drifting southward for a few seconds. She also caught him taking hold of himself and forcing his eyes upwards to meet hers. He had very bright green eyes, she thought. Very unusual. He was kind of handsome, wasn't he?

"Oh, no. This is Agent Mulder's office. I was just dropping this off for him. He's out. I'm not sure when he'll be back," the green agent said. He held out his hand and Scully shook it. The handshake was firm, but not crushing, and definitely he wasn't holding back because she was a woman. She appreciated that. "Alex Krycek. Can I help you with something?"

"No, I was just hoping to see him," she said. "Are you his new partner?"

Krycek snorted wryly, then said, "Hardly. We just worked a case together. He put up with me because I filed the 302 first. Even so, he kept ditching me like a bad date. He'd asked to see a copy of my report." Krycek indicated the sheathe of papers he'd put on Mulder's desk. "Are you his former partner? The infamous Agent Scully, right? Mulder's said a lot of things about you."

Jenn snapped her fingers, and suddenly, Scully's interest in the young man surged from tepid to hot. Cupid has nothing on me, Jenn decided. Scully raised an eyebrow and gave Krycek one more shrewd, discerning look. Definitely better than that last guy she dated. "All good, I hope," Scully said.

"The guy seems to worship the ground you walk on," Krycek said. It seemed to Scully suddenly from the looks this Krycek fellow was giving her, that given the chance, he'd like to be doing some worshipping of his own. She liked the thought of that. Sure, Mulder adored her, trusted her. He probably even loved her in a way. But she was also sure he was gay. Alex here seemed like a heterosexual, beyond a doubt. Go for it, she told herself. Go for him.

"I've changed my mind," Scully said, decisively. "You can help me."

"You name it," Krycek said.

"I came here hoping I could convince Agent Mulder to take me out to lunch."

"And you think I've got any pull with him? Not likely."

Scully smiled and her whole face lit up. Her red tresses bounced a little as she shook her head no. She was really pretty, Jenn thought. Her skin perfectly flawless, her bone structure fine and pointed intelligence danced in those blue eyes. Yes, Jenn thought, look at her Alex. This is the one. Fall for her. Fall hard.

"No, I was hoping you would take me to lunch instead," Scully said.

"I'd be honored," Krycek said.

As they gathered their things and left, neither of them noticed the dark haired woman watching them, following them, not quite able to contain a little bounce in her step. No one saw her unless she wanted to be seen.

He finally laid back against the pillow having spent himself. He was normally careful not to actually come inside of Dana, in addition to wearing a condom, and her being on the pill. Just to make it even less likely that something would happen. But this time, just as he was thinking of pulling out, she did some diabolical, rhythmic internal squeezing and he'd lost it right then. Dana kind of giggled. Who'd have thought, Miss Dana Scully, giggling. She rolled herself off top of him. He grabbed the bottom of the condom carefully so nothing would spill. Then he went to skin it off him.

"Oh, fuck!" he couldn't help but say as he got a good look at it.

Dana had buried herself in the blanket, luxuriating the feeling of being well-loved and well-fucked. "We just did," she said, her voice a near purr. Once one got underneath the cool, collected exterior, one discovered in Dana Scully a wild woman. She excited Alex in a way that no one ever had before. She ruled his every thought, waking, sleeping. He loved her, he thought. And that was a very scary thing indeed for a man in his position, knowing what he knew about what the forces that be wanted to do to her. He'd stop them. Somehow. Still, the responsibility weighed heavily in his stomach, even as the rest of him seemed to take flight around her.

"Dana, um," Krycek began, struck almost speechless for the first time. "The, uh, condom broke."

"That's okay, I'm on the pill," she said, nonchalantly. Some things about her were so much a breezily modern girl. And yet others were still so much like a Catholic school girl. "Oh. Fudge," she said after a minute.


"I'm on those antibiotics. That can affect the effectiveness of the pill," she said, the hint of panic creeping into her voice. She'd gotten a cut on her arm that, despite the precautions she took, had gotten infected. She was nearly through with her course of antibiotics and the cut was healing beautifully.

Then she composed herself. "The chances of conception, even given no protection at all, in an average month are still fairly low. I'm not going to panic. People try for months and months, even years to get pregnant. Our chances of something happening from just this once are very low."

Well, if the doctor said it, and she must know about these things, then he wasn't going to panic either. He disposed of what was left of the condom without comment, then settled back into Dana's bed. She rolled over onto her side and he snuggled into her, relishing how delicate and small she felt against his body. She was a little flower. A delicate little flower armed with a Glock. And not afraid to use it.

She jumped upright after a moment. "Of course!" she said. "I don't know why I didn't think of this sooner."

She hopped out of bed and went into her bathroom. The light went on and Alex could hear the sounds of rummaging. After a while, she came out bearing a couple of boxes that she dropped on the bed. "The last of my stash. I haven't needed them for a while, until you. But I'd say, you're definitely Spongeworthy."

He looked at the boxes and cocked an eyebrow at her, a habit of hers that had been distressingly easy to pick up.

"Just until my next cycle of pills," she said. "Just a little extra peace of mind."

Yes, a little extra peace of mind. Something they could all use. He was walking on an extremely thin line here with her and he knew it. The possible repercussions were the sort of things that made one freeze at one's core, wake up in the middle of the night, cold dark dread filling one's soul. Dread, Krycek had discovered for the first time, was cold and dark and dry, like the Tunisian desert at night in the winter. For the first time, he had something that would strike him to the core, should he lose it. It was a sobering thought. No, more than sobering. This feeling was to sober what being falling down, long past vomiting, piss your pants, on a weeklong bender drunk was to being merely a few over the limit.

If this is what falling in love is, Krycek thought as Scully's deliciously soft hair brushed up against his face while she snuggled deeper into his shoulder, then I'm never going to do it again.

He'd put off his report to Spender as long as he could get away with it. But, as could be expected, the day came where he had to pay the piper. He was summoned in the usual way. Spender just appeared in his car, waiting for him. Krycek was on his way home from the Bureau for the evening. He was going to meet Dana as soon as she through with some autopsy she was doing.

"Why, hello, Alex. So good to see you. At long last," Spender said. Normally Krycek hated the smooth and oily voice. Today, it caused shivers of revulsion to shimmy up and down his spine. If the cause was so good, if they truly were saving America and even the world, then why were the means so reprehensible and those who set those means into motion so repulsive? Why was it people like Spender and that snake Bill Mulder at the helm, and not people like Fox Mulder?

"You've been avoiding me, Alex," Spender said. "The committee isn't happy. It's time for your report."

"It's not ready. There are more factors involved here than you told me about. I need more time to analyze them before I can recommend a course of action."

"You report today. As soon as we get there. Drive."

Alex clenched his jaw, but he started the car. Spender lit another cigarette. Alex nearly choked, as usual, on the sudden, thick smoke that filled the car interior. It wasn't even good, clean, nice smelling smoke, like from a campfire. No, cigarette smoke was stale from the very first exhale. For the first time, he dared to reach over to the control panel and lower all the windows. Spender frown as the wind whipped around the compartment, blowing the smoke away and disturbing Spender's hair.

"I'm allergic," Krycek said, concentrating on driving and wondering idly if he'd be able to reach his gun before Spender reacted, and if they go through a stretch of country isolated enough for him to shoot the bastard and dump him. And how he'd escape his death warrant if he did just that.

No, that didn't happen. Spender directed him to a suburb on the far side of the city. Once there, they parked near an almost anonymous office tower of the type that littered suburbia. Ten stories, glass and concrete, no sign indicating a company, part of it for rent. It could have been anywhere. They went up together, into a generically luxurious office. Krycek was shepherded into a conference room with a big, plate glass window that looked out over miles and miles of office parks, strip malls, parking lots and expressways.

Three men were waiting for him and Spender. Krycek recognized them as Spender's major domos, men under him, not anyone above him or his equal.

"Perhaps you'd care to enlighten us, Alex, as to these further factors that need such careful analysis that you've put off your report for nearly a month."

"Well," Krycek began. He had a bundle of papers in his brief case that were meant to be the start of his report to these men. He'd foundered, struggled again and again, trying to come up with some justification, some reason for them to leave Scully alone. Some way he could convince them that she was toothless enough to be no threat.

"First of all, I'm struggling here because I fail to see that either Mulder or Scully are as dangerous or as much of a problem that you've led me to believe. Not only doesn't Dana Scully not have any idea of what the truth is, she doesn't want to see it. She doesn't want to look. She refuses to believe."

Part of this was true. Part of it was an outright lie.

"Keep her at Quantico. Keep her busy with conventional cases, simple murders, the like, and she will be happy enough to never nose into our business."

"That's your carefully considered opinion?" asked one of Spender's henchmen. This one was a big, dangerous looking black man that put Krycek in mind of nothing so much as a silverback gorilla.

"It is. I've had ample opportunity to observe her. She would be a formidable problem, if only, like Mulder, she wanted to believe."

"And what of Mulder?" asked Spender. "You say he's not as much of a problem as we've led you to believe. Perhaps you can explain your perception."

"He knows nothing. He has a few bits and pieces. Nothing of significance as far as I can tell from his files. He doesn't have enough to even begin to put them together. The problem here is not Mulder. The problem is that Mulder has a source again. There's a leak from our side. I need more time to find who this leak is. Find the leak, plug it, and Mulder is left wandering around in the dark again, a blind man in a dark room, looking for a black cat that isn't there."

"All right, then, Alex," Spender said, blowing out a cumulonimbus of smoke. "Go find your leak. And plug it. Let me know when you have a plumbing bill for me."

And then they all filed out, leaving him alone in the conference room. The big silverback stared at him as they left, but he was soon alone, left to show himself out apparently.

His phone chirped. He startled, so still on his adrenaline high from lying so bald facedly to such deadly men.

"Krycek," he answered, expecting it to be Mulder, who, now that they were more or less partners, expected Alex to be his bitch and run his little errands day and night.

"Alex, where are you?"

It was Scully. Alex might have been a new initiate into the mystery of things female, but he could tell this much, whatever was causing that catch in Scully's voice and that roughness, it wasn't good. Yes, she'd probably been crying already.

"I had an errand to run," he lied. "I'm on my way to meet you now. I'm in, uh, Tyson's Corner."

He had guessed. Wherever he actually was, that was close enough. It was the right direction.

"You have to come home now, Alex," she said, and he could tell that she was crying again.

"I can't talk now, sweetie, it's not a good time. But I'm on my way. I promise," he said. He'd already left the conference room and he was on his way back to the elevator.

"Look, I'm about to get into an elevator," he said. "The phone is probably going to cut off. But I'm on my way. Whatever's wrong, I'll be there soon. We'll make it okay. All right, sweetie?"

He didn't hear her answer. The elevator doors had shut, enclosing him into the steel capsule. He shut his phone down and hurried back to his car. All the way, he was picturing various emergencies. Fox Mulder dead. Fox Mulder in some trouble. Because for all that she seemed to love Alex, Fox Mulder was ever present on her mind.

Alex was not, therefore, prepared to pull up in front of Scully's Georgetown apartment and as soon as he got out of his car, to be confronted with a full-on furious Mulder, something he'd seen but never been on a collision course with before. He hadn't even gone two steps when he was grabbed by the collar and thrown against the hood of his car.

"You goddamn, lousy, son of a bitch," Mulder yelled, drawing back in preparation to take a good swing.

Enough was enough. Whatever he'd done to piss Mulder off so much, Alex wasn't going to take the abuse. He was much quicker than Mulder and he ducked. Mulder presented a perfect opening, his stomach unguarded and vulnerable. One quick punch to the gut and Mulder would be out on the pavement. Usually, he preferred not to fight, but when he did, Alex fought for keeps. Luckily for Mulder though, Scully was right there. She pulled Mulder away from him and started yelling.

"Go home, Mulder!" she yelled. "I told you, this is between him and me. Didn't I tell you to go home?"

Krycek was almost sorry for Mulder. To be on the receiving end of Scully's fury was something that was always ferverishly to be avoided.

She continued. "Last time I checked, Mulder, I am an adult. And this is my conversation to be having with him. If you continue brawling in the street like this, I will call the police."

The pair of them sprang apart and Mulder lifted his hands and stared at them, as if surprised by the violence he'd been intending to commit.

"I'll call you in the morning," Mulder said, then he shook his head as if he still didn't understand something. "And you," he said, pointing to Krycek. "Will do right by her."

With that, Mulder stalked off.

It wasn't that far from Georgetown to a little bar that Mulder knew not too far from the Hoover. Even on foot, it was a fairly quick trip, fueled by righteous indignation and anger.

You know, Mulder, he told himself. If that whole Christian God we pay for our sins thing is true, you're going to have a pretty large balance in your wrath account that you're going to have to pony up in repentance.

Actually, that was the confusing thing. The sudden, unthinking anger he felt towards Krycek, almost as if it were displaced somehow. Scully was right. This was between her and Krycek. And he didn't have any claim on Scully. He couldn't. Not of that kind.

Ah. Yeah. The bar, he thought as he came to its door. It was about a block from the Hoover and blessedly, therefore, free of other fibbies. They all seemed to avoid it for some reason. His theory was that they didn't come because they didn't want to run into people from work. That meant it was all his.

It was the sort of generic yuppie sports bar you saw all over, the walls decorated with a mix of sports pennants and jerseys and antique junk. The bar was polished dark wood and as he settled onto a stool at it, he tried to decided between hard liquor or beer. A quicker drunk or a slower drunk? Both would leave him regretful and hungover in the morning. There was a reason he hardly ever drank, but this evening seemed to call for it.

The barmaid was perky and blond. She looked far too young to be legally serving alcohol. She was new here. "Howdy!" she said with a smile that actually caused dimples to appear in her cheeks. The perky extended not just to her breasts, but to her voice. Another young innocent, not yet beat down by the world. "What can I get for you?"

Suddenly it became a hard liquor kind of night immediately. "Snakebite," Mulder said.

"Okay. But you know what they say, 'One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor,'" she said as she began expertly setting up the shot, getting out the lime and salt. She indicated the four or so bottles of tequila on the top shelf. "Any preference on the tequila?"

He shook his head. That was part of the problem with yuppie bars. They actually expected you to enjoy the getting drunk process, to have an opinion about obscure tastes in something that was mostly a burn down the throat. The taste, as far as Mulder was concerned, was merely incidental to the getting drunk process. "Uh-uh. House brand. Your cheapest."

By his third one, she seemed inclined to ask for his car keys. "I didn't drive here," he promised. At least he hadn't started babbling about his work. He had a vague impression of himself drunk, in a similar bar, spouting off about chasing little green men with a badge and gun, but he couldn't remember whether that was a memory of something he'd done or whether it was just something he feared himself doing some day. His memory seemed muddled, confused. Nothing was quite as it should be.

He was about to call for his fourth, when a large body settled itself on the stool next to his. A large, familiar presence. Fuck. This was exactly the last person in the world Mulder wanted to be caught drunk and maudlin by. Because he knew that he would say something that they both would regret and that would no doubt cost him the job that he was hanging onto by the skin of his teeth anyway.

"Agent Mulder," Skinner said, nodding towards the perky bartender. She tore herself away from some conversation with a group of jerks in ties.

"Well, hello, big, bald and beautiful! What can I get for you?" she said, downright sparkling at the newcomer. Mulder expected Skinner to sit up and take notice, to straighten his spine and posture a little. It was the standard response of a man confronted with a pretty girl sending off interested signals, even if it was a situation like this, where the signals were sent only to encourage bigger tips. When she'd been pouring earlier, Mulder had noticed a dent in her ring finger. Her perkiness was married or at least engaged.

Skinner still remained slouched on his stool, the only time Mulder had seen the big man slouch. "Scotch," he said. "A double." When she seemed inclined to ask which of the single malts on the top shelf he wanted, he added, "J and P, if you have it. Anything else but that single malt crap if you don't."

Miss Perky served Skinner and then retreated to the group of suits, glad to be in the company of those who were happy to flirt. She'd set Mulder up with another shot while she'd been at it and that was good enough for him.

"As usual, I'm way ahead of you, sir," Mulder said after the burn from his tequila had gone away.

"And as usual, Mulder, you'll find it doesn't take me long to catch up," Skinner said, downing his own drink. "And that I'm not as far behind as you think."

They waited in silence until they could capture the attention of their barmaid again. When Mulder had another shot of tequila under his belt, about two more than he could handle gracefully, he said, unable to stop the little demon that seemed to own control of his mouth at the moment. "So, what sorrows are you attempting to drown?"

By way of a response, Skinner dug into the pocket of the suit jacket he'd draped over a nearby bar seat. He held a small something cupped in his hand. He dumped this onto the surface of the bar. A gold band, recognizably only one thing- a wedding ring. A man's wedding ring.

"I don't know how. I don't know why. But tonight I got the courage to do something I should have done years ago," Skinner said. "Something I never had the nerve to do."

Mulder indicated with a nod of his head that he was listening and Skinner continued. "I asked Sharon for a divorce. It was wrong of me to keep her like that. To have married her in the first place."

"I didn't know you were married, sir," Mulder said.

"Didn't know? You should have assumed. It's expected, Mulder. For the climb to the top. Single men don't get promoted. A pretty wife is a symbol of all the right things. The ultimate success accessory."

"So the fact I've never climbed to the top of the career ladder at the Bureau has everything to do with the fact I'm single and nothing to do with me chasing little green men and UFOs."

"You're the exception, Agent Mulder, always the exception," Skinner said, motioning to the barmaid that he wanted another. "There won't be pressure on me for a while, thankfully. I'm at an age where divorce is almost expected. Though I've only got a few more years before they realize I didn't get divorced to trade my wife in for a newer, prettier model. But at least I have some breathing room."

"So why did you ask for the divorce," Mulder said, the generous lashings of alcohol he'd laced himself with had removed most, if not all of his better judgment.

It seemed that Skinner had had a similar removal, because he said almost immediately, without hesitation. "Because I'm gay, Agent Mulder, and I'm sick of using such a lovely, beautiful, caring woman as nothing more than a disguise to hide behind. Because I decided tonight that I loved her and cared enough for her to let her go. She cried. I don't think I've ever seen a woman cry so much. But I think she was relieved, too. I hope."

He seemed inclined to go further, but Mulder's phone chirped. He shrugged apologetically, and Skinner nodded. He understood. Almost nothing in their lives was safe from that particular interruption.

Mulder dug his phone out of his pocket and pulled up the antenna. "Mulder," he said into it, as soberly as he could muster. If it was something important, he was screwed, he thought.

"Hey there, Agent Mulder," said the voice on the phone, that strange combination of New York laid heavily over Southern drawl. Ordinarily, Mulder would have been happy to hear that voice. "I just happened to be in town. I was wondering if maybe you'd want to get together. I'm free tonight."

"John," he said, cautiously. "It's not a good time. I'm sorry. Some other time? I'll probably be up to New York again before too much longer. Next weekend probably."

Alex Krycek's buddy in homicide, the one who'd given him the information on the Coles case, had turned out to be a most interesting...acquaintance for Mulder to have made.

"Oh," John said, sounding disappointed. He was a big boy though. He knew the score. He wasn't about to make a fuss. "All right. Some other time then. You got my number."

Mulder hung up, and turned to Skinner, who was trying very, very hard to look like he wasn't listening. That same demon who couldn't shut up earlier took charge of Mulder's mouth again. "Boyfriend of mine. Sort of. He's married. I'm the other woman."

Score one for me, Mulder thought grimly, wondering if he'd just cost himself his job, despite Skinner's earlier confession. He still had the ability to shock Skinner. The man was looking kind of poleaxed. Probably the liquor wasn't helping.

They had another couple more drinks together, mostly in silence before Skinner ventured. "You're not here drowning your sorrow over him, are you? The man on the phone?"

"No. That relationship is going fairly well, as such things go. I don't expect too much from him and he tends not to let me down," Mulder said, shaking his head, unable to do anything but say the truth by this point, in its full untarnished glory. "It's Scully, sir."

He had to clap a hand over his mouth to stop himself from announcing what had happened to her. She was right. It was her news, not his. Hers to share with the world or not. Hers to discuss with the only other person in the world who had a vote in what would happen next. And that person was not Fox Mulder.

"She's going through a life change. Something significant. And it's not something I can be at her side for. I'm not going through it with her."

Somehow, there was a strange juxtaposition of feeling. Part of him knew that it should be this way, her with a man who loved her as intensely as Krycek loved her. He'd been blind to it for a long time, but tonight, his eyes opened, Mulder had seen the fire that burned in Krycek's eyes when he looked at Scully. It was fitting that she should have someone who loved her like that, when Mulder himself couldn't. But part of Mulder felt otherwise. It was like something in him knew what it was like to love her. Like a straight man loves a woman. Like an echo of memory, he could almost feel what it would be to just look at her and have his cock stiffen. Part of him knew that, impossible as it was, he should be with her. That he appreciated her loveliness on a level more than merely intellectually and aesthetically. That in some way, they were soul mates. Then...then reality asserted itself. Fact was, he was gay. He couldn't get it up for her, much less impregnate her. He thought longingly at how Krycek had that mad passion for Scully. No one would ever look at him that way.

Well, he'd caught John in New York making a similar kind of look, sometimes. But John had also not made a single move to leave his wife and anytime Mulder caught him in a longing stare, John suddenly found an excuse to leave quickly. Mulder liked John immensely and had he not been so cautious, he could have let himself feel far more for the intense, masculine cop. In another life, another set of circumstances, they might have been very happy together.

"It's understandable, Agent Mulder," Skinner said. "You're not in love with her. But you do love her."

"With my life, sir. There's nothing I wouldn't do for her."

"Including letting her go gracefully? To this other man? I'm assuming she's found love with another man," Skinner said with exaggerated gentleness.

"I'm going to have to, aren't I?" Mulder said. "I don't see that life has given me any other choice."

Mulder glanced at his watch, suddenly aware that the hour was getting late and that furthermore, he'd settled into this evening's drinking bout with no ballast in his stomach. He was definitely getting to the point where remaining on the stool was doubtful.

Full of Dutch courage like he was, he reached out to his boss in a way he'd never thought he could. "Do you have a place to go for tonight?" he asked, touching Skinner on the forearm. He hoped he sounded solicitous, caring. More likely it was lubricous and slobbery. Skinner didn't seem to take offense.

"I was thinking of sleeping it off on the office couch," Skinner said, after downing what Mulder decided would be his last scotch for the evening.

"Uh-uh," Mulder said shaking his head. "You're coming home with me."

Then he remembered the flaw in his little plan to offer Skinner shelter and succor for the night. No guest room. Hell, no main bedroom. The apartment's sole bedroom was a storage room, not even a bed in there. He'd slept on the sofa ever since he'd moved in to the apartment, after the end of his disastrous relationship with Richard. He'd always meant to get around to getting a bed.

"I, uh, um. All I can offer you is the couch, but it's probably more comfortable than the couch in your office. And there's no early morning cleaning crew in my apartment."

Well, Mulder wasn't quite sure what he would do for himself, but he thought he might have a sleeping bag around somewhere. Or just a pile of blankets on the floor.

Skinner spent a moment tracing a condensation ring on the smooth, dark wood of the bar with his index finger. Then he looked into Mulder's eyes. He seemed a lot more sober than Mulder felt. Well, not only was Skinner a bigger guy, the way he drank, Mulder guessed that he was a much more frequent drinker than Mulder was. Yeah, he probably held his liquor a lot better than Mulder did. That was probably a good thing, because Mulder was thinking that perhaps the floor wasn't such a bad place to be at the moment. Perhaps he could use a bit of support from the big guy.

Skinner shrugged. "You get us a cab, I'll settle the tab."

Mulder tried to protest, tried to hand Skinner a handful of bills for his portion but they were refused. The big guy was nothing if not stubborn.

Outside, the night was surprisingly mild, and if Alexandria were a little closer or if he were a little bit more sober, he might have started walking that way. The breeze seemed almost playful as it rifled through his hair, reminding him of a lover's hands, of John's hands. No, better not think about that, about something that could only be stunted, hidden in the darkness. Better not to let himself care for John.

Meanwhile, Skinner's phone rang. Skinner barked into it, "Skinner here."

Definitely Skinner was less drunk than Mulder. He listened patiently to the other end of the line. "Sharon," he responded finally. "I'm fine. I'm staying with a friend tonight."

He paused. Mulder tried really hard to not be listening.

"Sharon. No. We'll talk about it tomorrow. We've already both said too much that we'll regret," he said, sounding infinitely patient. "I'm sorry. Beyond words. But it's for the better this way."

Skinner listened for a few moments more, then said. "Tomorrow. At five. Jane's office. Yes. I do love you. Goodnight, Sharon."

Skinner folded his phone shut and stuck it back in the pocket of his suit jacket. "She wants me to come home and spend the night. Says that there isn't any reason for me to move out right away."

"Better to make a clean break of it," Mulder said, then suddenly, their cab was there.

The news, for all its pounding, thudding, heart snatching finality, was nothing that Krycek didn't expect somehow.

And for all that it seemed to rip his heart right out of his chest with breathtaking, world-shaking, earthmoving rapidity, part of him was flying. Yes, the ground had suddenly turned to liquid under his feet, but part of him was more ecstatic than he'd ever been.

She was pregnant.

With his child.

And that was the most amazing, frightening, terrible thing he'd ever heard anyone say to him.

Because he could dream his little dreams of a cottage with white fence and roses, in the Ukrainian countryside where he'd spent some of his childhood. With the children playing in the yard and her waiting there for him to come home. He could dream that all he wanted, but he knew that it could never be for the likes of him. He was in so deep that he could only hope to stay afloat, never hope to get out of the morass.

Even if he could smooth talk his way out of his superiors abducting her, turning her over to their experiments, even if he could stop them from using him against her, even if they would allow him to marry her, Krycek knew that he couldn't stop them from taking the child. Or another one.

How? How could he do right by her? Yet, he knew, not just for the sake of their own souls that he would have to.

Mulder told him he had to. And there was a connection between the two of them that he could neither deny nor ignore, that was not of his choosing. Some common thread of fate bound them together. He could feel it in his very bones.

He was frozen. Unable to speak. Scully was calm, but in the way that seemed to indicate that it was an exquisite act of control, that any minute she might lose. Her lovely ivory face was ice at this moment. Ice that would melt at any moment into a river of tears.

And nothing he could do or say would stop it.

No, no, no, Jenn thought, looking in at the two of them. This was not going right at all. People could be so unpredictable at the worst of times.

She looked in the window at the pair of them. Scully curled up on the couch, looking drained. Jenn definitely recognized a woman who had cried all the tears she had. On the other side of the room, in a chair, slack jawed and thunderstruck, sat Alex Krycek. His mind was obviously spinning at hundreds of miles an hour, but, to use a modern way of putting it, the clutch refused to engage and in the end, he was just spinning his wheels. Soon, though, Jenn thought, the clutch would engage, the wheels would bite dirt and he would flee. No, that wasn't how it was supposed to go.

Right. He needed a little push in the right direction. A little encouragement. A little lubrication to the mouth. A simple snap of the fingers and it was so.

It's okay, Alex, Jenn found herself saying outloud. The truth doesn't hurt as much as you think it will. It won't. I promise. You'll have a happy storybook ending. I can give you that sort of thing.

Not knowing why he was doing it, but as a creature of instinct, he just went with it, he was on his feet and across the room. He knelt at Scully's feet, as if worshipping her like the queen that she was.

"That's the most wonderful thing anyone has ever said to me," he said, the first thing either of them had said in five minutes. She looked at him doubtfully. "But Dana. There's something I have to say to you. Something important. I want you to promise me that you will listen before you do anything. Can you do that?"

Scully nodded.

"I am not who I have said I am. I am not Alex Krycek, son of cold war refugees. My name is Valery Ivanovich Chernokov. I was born in Moscow. I was taken from my parents at five and raised in a variety of foster homes all across the country formerly known as the Soviet Union. I even spent a few years in this country, in various Baltic states and in England. I report not just to Mulder and to the FBI hierarchy, but also to a man you know as the smoking man. I know him as C. B. G. Spender, but I have no more reason to believe that is his real name than my name is Alex Krycek.

"I love you more than I can express with mere words, and I would make you my wife in an instant, stay with you. Raise our child. I'd stay home so that you could keep your job. But I'm also scared beyond words. Because there is a struggle going on that you and Mulder have only scratched the surface of. Because those little green men that you and Mulder have been chasing are real. And their agents walk among us. In the halls of the FBI. Everywhere. There is a conspiracy of power that stretches beyond anything that the most paranoid could confabulate."

He should have known. She came from military stock. She was tougher than he'd have ever imagined she would be. All she said at first was, "Do you have proof of this?"

"Solid, hard, incontrovertible evidence," he promised, knowing where and how he could get it.

The woman in her that came from generations of captain's wives, of women who had sent their men off to battle again and again spoke. "Then we will fight them. However we can. And yes."


"Yes. I will marry you. That was a proposal, wasn't it?"

Yes. Yes, it was. Instead of answering her, he just stood up. He scooped her into his arms, marveling at everything- at her compact, delicate strength, at the incredible loveliness of her, at how his fear had seemed to melt, bubble and change into passion. Suddenly, he just knew it would be all right. If he loved her enough, then he couldn't but help have his happy ending.

Once they were back at Mulder's apartment, Mulder showed Skinner to the couch with a flourish. "I'll just go get some more blankets," he said, stumbling towards his storage room. He opened the door up, and oddly, no boxes fell out at him, tumbling off their piles. He turned the lights on and did a double take. If Skinner hadn't been with him, he would have headed back out into the hall to check and make sure he'd gone into the right apartment. As it was, he looked subtly around. And yes, this was definitely his apartment.

Yes, there was the fish tank. The long familiar couch and its necessary corollary- the television. The small Picasso print that was one of the few things he'd taken when he'd left Richard. The coat rack. All familiar.

What he couldn't place though was where the bedroom set waiting for him in the bedroom had come from. No. No, he did remember.

He'd bought the set at a yard sale not long after he'd left Richard. Though Richard had furnished an apartment lavishly for him, part of their little arrangement, Mulder had left almost all of that behind, taking only what fit into a single suitcase. This apartment at Hegal place had seemed so empty. He'd come across the sale on a morning run, just as it was opening. The waterfall front deco style in walnut veneer had appealed to him for some reason and the price had been right. Even so, he'd rarely slept in the bed, preferring the couch and the television. The room was a bit cluttery. Things he had no immediate use or place for tended to get stacked on the floor around the bed, but there it was, ready for use. Made up. He remembered washing the sheets last week, on general principle. He'd had the sudden thought that they'd probably gotten dusty or something so he'd pulled them off and stuck them in his laundry basket with the rest.

As he was contemplating this so strange, yet so familiar bed, he was suddenly embraced from behind. Mulder jumped, startled. He'd almost forgotten Skinner was here. He nearly jumped again at the feel of lips brushing the back of his neck, moving softly towards his ear. Uh, oh. Because he was suddenly aware very much of just how attractive Skinner was, something he'd always very successfully pushed to the back of his brain.

It was hard to find the coordination to do it, but Mulder wriggled out of Skinner's arms. "Walter," he said, as gentle with the big man now as Walter had been with him earlier. "Tomorrow. When the both of us are sober, we will negotiate when and what. But for the moment, you're still married. I have a boyfriend. And both of us are over the legal limit."

Skinner, thankfully, even drunk, was a gentleman. He nodded. He didn't, thankfully, seem to be ashamed. "I didn't expect anything. Just wanted to let you know how I've felt about you for a long time."

Then he retreated to the couch, leaving Mulder to throw himself onto the strange bed, with the sheets that smelled heavily of his laundry detergent, just thankful that room wasn't spinning and he didn't seem likely to be tossing his cookies any time soon. No, indeed, he felt a curious, groundless elation that buoyed him even as he drifted to sleep.

Mulder woke to the unfamiliar feel of sheets tangled around his legs and a feeling something like a jackhammer going off right between his eyebrows. Oh, yeah. There was a reason he didn't drink. He remembered last night fairly clearly, all things considered, and was both relieved and disappointed to find he occupied the double bed by himself.

Outside the window, it was still dark and he checked the time- not quite six. Even though his body protested, it was close enough time to get going that he just dragged himself out of bed anyway.

Grabbing a t-shirt to put on, he listened at the closed door for any signs of Skinner. There were no unseemly noises, so he ventured forth.

There'd been no noise, but Skinner sat upright on the couch, looking at a wallet sized picture. Mulder didn't think the big guy was crying at the moment, but tracks indicated that at some point in the near past, he had been. Mulder was going to say something blandly soothing as he headed into the small kitchen for a glass of water.

But his phone rang. It took him a minute to scramble for his jacket pocket and pull it out.

"Mulder," he practically whimpered into the phone. No, oh, no, he was not graceful to start with in the morning, much less adding this self inflicted agony.

"Listen very carefully, Mulder," Scully said. She sounded manic with the elation of someone up all night. "I need you to do something for me. I don't have long to tell you what to do. I need you to buy plane tickets for me and Agent Krycek. Separate destinations, but I don't care where. For Krycek, I need you to get Skinner to help you file a false 302 for a bogus case at that destination. For me, I've just applied to use up some of that vacation time that I haven't been able to use since I started working with you."

Time ground to a halt for a short minute, then started running forward at triple, four times it's normal rate. He recognized the standard misdirections, something that sometimes worked confusing their tails.

"Scully?" he asked, hardly believing what was going on. "Are you okay? What's going on? Where are you actually going?"

"I can't tell you, Mulder. At least not my immediate destination. But if you want to see me get married, meet me in Vegas sometime next month. I'll get details to you later. Via your usual sources."

Scully? Married? To Krycek?

"You're marrying him?"

"Mulder, don't mess with me," Scully snapped. "Just tell me you'll do these things for me."

"Okay. I'll do it. Did I even hint I wasn't going to do it?" Mulder said. He worried though. It just wasn't like Scully to act impulsively and now she was going on the run with Alex Krycek. And pregnant no less. Just what did they intend to do about that? Being a fugitive wasn't a realistic plan with an infant on the way.

He'd seen that look in her eyes though, the one that mirrored Krycek's. She'd follow that man to the ends of the earth. He could only conclude that even if she wasn't in her right mind, she was still an adult and she at least thought she knew what she was doing.

"Okay, okay," he said. "I'll take care of it. And I'll see you in Vegas next month. Just promise me you'll get married by an Elvis impersonator. If you're doing the Vegas wedding, you may as well go all the way."

"I'll keep that in mind," Scully said. Then her voice turned soft suddenly, almost sad. He had the feeling that had she been standing next to him, she would have reached up and stroked his hair and then given him a brief, delicate kiss on his forehead. "Goodbye, Mulder. I love you."

Why did he suddenly feel as if it really was goodbye forever? That he wouldn't be seeing her in Vegas next month or ever again. "I love you too, Scully," he said. "You tell that man if he so much as breaks one of your nails, I'm going to kick his ass."

Then she was gone. Just gone.

After he put the phone away, Skinner looked up from his photo.

"Sir, I need a favor from you. Or rather, Agents Scully and Krycek need a favor. I need you to file a 302 sending him to Schenectady," Mulder said, then he started explaining. He wasn't sure that Scully had wanted him to let Skinner in on the whole plan, but Mulder needed to tell someone. Not just of the diversion they wanted, of Scully's pregnancy. Of the way his heart was suddenly bereft. And he had always had an unexplainable, unthinking trust of Skinner. It just seemed natural to open up to him.

Skinner listened thoughtfully as Mulder listed his fears, especially the one that Krycek had been in the conspiracy up to his ears. He had no fear that the man had drawn Scully into it, but rather, she'd drawn him out. Only there would be no safety for them, ever. They would constantly be on the run from men who infiltrated everything and everywhere. No place would be safe for them for long. There would be no haven.

"Well, Agent Mulder, we can only assume they know what they're doing, and offer them whatever help we can from a distance," Skinner concluded. "I know that's cold comfort but it's the best we can do."

Awkwardly, they started to get ready for another day at work, doing their best to stay out of each others way. It wasn't so much uncomfortable to have the big guy around, Mulder decided, as just unfamiliar. Skinner started dressing in the same clothes he'd been wearing last night.

Mulder kept offering different things. "Toothbrush?" He offered first, taking one from his stash underneath the vanity.

And then Mulder dug in his closet and when he found what he was looking for, he offered his prize to Skinner triumphantly. "Clean shirt?" he asked, presenting the object, still in dry cleaning bag. "Not up to your usual standard of shirt, but it should come close to fitting you."

Skinner took the offered shirt. It was just a Lands End oxford, but it was white and clean. And only a half size small. "I'm not going to ask why you have a shirt that's a size and a half too big for you in your closet," he said dryly as he started to put the shirt on.

Mulder shrugged. "It belonged to Dennis. He left it one morning and he dumped me before the afternoon was up. I thought for a while he might come back for it but he never did."

Mulder still didn't understand what he'd done to earn Dennis' sudden enmity, but that had been over a year ago and he'd put it behind him. He'd been real hopeful about Dennis sticking around, and Dennis had seemed to love Mulder as much as Mulder had loved him. His theory, at least the one of his more paranoid moments, was that Dennis had been gotten to by the conspiracy, that they'd scared him away some how. Maybe in retribution for the way Mulder had been sticking his nose into too many things they didn't want him to know.

Once Skinner had the shirt on, Mulder offered a handful of his own ties, the plainest ones he had. He figured that anything too distinctive would stand out in people's memories as belonging to him. A tie that was plain enough could belong to anyone.

Skinner inspected them doubtfully, but in the end took a simple foulard in navy that Mulder kept mainly for wearing to funerals.

"Off to work now, I suppose," Mulder said. With plenty of water and a few aspirin, most of his hangover symptoms had faded. He was almost feeling human again. The hot water from his shower and a fresh set of clothes also helped. Funny how just the motions of getting dressed, getting the momentum going could help one feel like they could face the day.

"Could I buy you breakfast?" Skinner asked. "It'd be a working breakfast. I'd like to get some of those details for that 302 hammered out before we go in."

"Fine," said Mulder as he grabbed his topcoat. "Look, if you need someplace to stay, you're welcome to my couch for as long as you need."

Actually, Skinner never moved out. He came back to the apartment that night, and the night after. It just seemed natural, almost, to have him around. He was a considerate houseguest, quiet, helpful. Decorative, too, Mulder couldn't help but think at times. Yes, it was definitely a sight for aesthetic appreciation to come home and see Skinner changed into a sweatshirt, standing at the sink, washing the few dishes they had dirtied.

On the third night, John called. He wanted to get together with Mulder, who was about to say that it still wasn't a good time.

"Look," John interrupted. From the sound of it, he was on a cell phone in a cab. Exotic skirling music that Mulder recognized as Turkish dance music filtered through the background, heard over the sounds of city traffic. John sounded rushed and stressed, almost angry. "I know you're really busy, but I'm going back to New York in the morning and I just wanted to tell you something personally before I go. It won't take too much of your time."

Mulder relented and half an hour later, he'd left Skinner alone in his apartment and was seating himself across a booth from John at the same yuppie bar that he'd met Skinner in a couple of nights before. The barmaid was still Miss Blonde and Perky. Thankfully, their waitress was a little bit more mousy brown and wallflowerish.

Whenever he was apart from John for a while, he forgot just how handsome the man was with those blue, intense eyes that could drill right into a man. John rarely smiled, but when he did, it just lit his whole face up. And despite a wardrobe that was extremely limited by the salary of a New York City detective who also had to support a family, the man looked good in his clothes. They were well chosen and fit him well, made his shoulders look broader than they were, not that Mulder had any complaint about those shoulders. In a way, it was a real shame that it was a relationship that just couldn't go anywhere.

"Thanks for coming," John said. He didn't reach out to touch Mulder, not even a brush of the hand. He was always ultra careful about anything that might be taken the wrong way by people. Talk about closeted, not that Mulder really had much room to talk. Once they were settled with drinks and the pleasantries were out of the way, John started, "I was just thinking. About things. It's been good, you and me. No doubt about that. More than good. It makes me want more. Makes me want to be able to spend the night with you. Wake up by your side in the morning."

Ah, he should have known from the intensity of the phone call. He was being dumped. It hurt far more than he expected, even considering he'd been contemplating doing exactly the same thing. And, no, this was not the 'I'm angry I didn't get to do it first' kind of hurt either.

"My wife is okay with me looking for a bit on the side, so long as I don't bring anything home. But this just isn't fair to her. Or to you. Or to me.

"I'm sorry. I'm just not ready to leave her. We've got a little boy. But I'd have to leave her to be with you the way I'd want to be. I did some serious thinking. I said 'til death do us part to my wife. I think maybe it's time I was a man and started living up to my promises. I'm sorry, Fox. It's nothing to do with you and everything to do with me. I hope we can. Shit, I know this is trite, but I really do hope we can be friends."

"It's okay. I've been expecting this for a while. No hard feelings on my side. And I could always use an friend in the NYPD," Mulder said, keeping his voice light, even as he was inwardly wincing at how much the words had scraped his soul raw. "Next lifetime, then."

"You really believe in that reincarnation crap?" John asked.

"I told you. I believe in all kinds of things you'd laugh at."

"Right," John said, sipping at his beer, sounding relieved and amused. "Little green men. Global conspiracies. Bugs in Gideon bibles."

"So, have you considered applying for the Bureau like I suggested?" Mulder asked. Regardless of any possible romantic entanglements they'd had, this man, currently one of New York's finest, would make an outstanding federal agent, he was sure. Maybe that was what was making it hard- how much he liked the man, how much he respected him.

"I was here for interviews," John said. "Just got my application in. The prospects look good, though Barb isn't too pleased at the thought of moving."

Mulder nearly winced for a moment, at the thought of the cosy domestic life this man must have had with his wife, the closeness that even arguing brought. No wonder he wouldn't give it up and Mulder wouldn't have asked him to. John was a good man and he deserved happiness, wherever it was he decided that was. It occurred to Mulder that there was currently no one who would give a damn if he moved to another state. No one who this move would impact beyond himself. That was a lonely feel. He was envious, for a moment, of the man and his wife and their little boy. And of Scully and Krycek and the child they'd conceived. He was so alone.

Mulder excused himself as soon as he could politely do so, wondering if he'd ever see John again.

Skinner had made himself at home, more or less, spreading out files on the sofa, working intensely on one of them, reading it closely, making notes on a legal pad as he went. He looked up inquiringly at Mulder's entrance. Skinner, Mulder noted, had actually taking to using the wiggly coat rack he'd bought mostly because it appealed to him sculpturally. He'd never wanted to cover up its form with coats. He liked seeing Skinner's there though. It was cosy. Domestic. Like the sight of the man spreading his paperwork out over the living room.

Mulder shrugged his greeting and headed to the kitchen for a soda or something. When Skinner raised an eyebrow, Mulder finally broke down and admitted, "I was just dumped. Easy come, easy go. He's a good man. He decided he wasn't going to cheat on his wife anymore. It's probably for the best."

Maybe Mulder was mistaken, but he thought he saw a fleeting look of satisfaction cross Skinner's face, which was just as rapidly replaced with bland concern. "I'm sorry, Mulder," he said. "Have you had dinner yet? I'm no cook, but calling for delivery is well within my skill set."

Mulder was relieved to be reminded that there was someone in the room who was probably hurting more than he was. Skinner was suffering the break up of a marriage that had lasted nearly two decades, compared with a fling that had lasted just over a month. Yeah, his pain was probably nothing compared to Skinner's. He should cowboy up and do a little caretaking. "You probably depended on your wife to do all the cooking," he said softly. "Time for you to learn then. I'm not much of a cook, but I can handle the basics."

As they worked in the kitchen, assembling sliced cheese and bread into grilled cheese, and heating up soup, Skinner said hesitantly. "I was just realizing earlier. There was so much of me that I never let Sharon know, that I kept hidden to myself. And I was just thinking that in turn, there was so much of her that I couldn't know. I was thinking, how much of what she defined herself by must have been taking care of me, being the perfect wife of a man set on getting to the top of the FBI. I have no idea who she is beyond that."

"To conceal oneself so that others don't see is to risk not seeing those others," Mulder said. "To refuse to open oneself for fear of being hurt, is to risk being alone forever. I know. I..."

He couldn't admit it, that he himself was so closed off that he had isolated himself effectively. Scully, and in a lesser fashion, John had just begun peering into secret windows and cracks in the wall around his heart. But now they were both gone.

As if he were a mind reader, Skinner said, "I know, Mulder. I know."

He abandoned the soup he'd been stirring and came around behind Mulder. He wrapped his arms around Mulder's shoulders. It was strange, to be in the arms of a man so strong, so much bigger than him again. None of his temporary boyfriends since Dennis had come close to that feeling. Even John was just about his same size. It was a good feeling, one he'd like to enjoy on a regular basis.

"Maybe it wouldn't be so bad for the two of us to be alone together," Skinner said.

No, not so bad at all, Mulder thought, settling back against Skinner's comfortable, firm chest. Skinner placed a quick, awkward kiss on his cheek.

A month came and went with no word from Scully about the wedding, but suddenly, one day, a file was shoved underneath his apartment door. At work, Mulder was still on wiretap detail, and only Skinner's constant encouragement kept him on it, kept him from resigning. Every morning before they went their separate ways, Skinner said, "Don't let the bastards grind you down. Prove to them you have more perseverance than that."

This was the first sign that he was still on the conspiracy's list of concerns. In the file was a copy of a newspaper article, from San Diego. The offices of a company named Roush Consulting had just burned down to the ground. Some signs of arson had been found by investigators. Twelve bodies were recovered.

Mulder stood at the door, reading the article. Walter came up and stood behind him. Walter kissed Mulder on the back of the head. They'd been living together for over a month now, though Walter still took the couch at nights. They were living together and sharing small, regular signs of affection, but not sleeping together. Mulder didn't want to start anything until Walter was truly free of his attachment to Sharon. He wasn't sure why it hadn't mattered to him that John was sleeping around on his wife, but it was important that Skinner be free. Perhaps because it was a sense he had that Skinner was playing for keeps. That Walter had a huge reserve of passion that he had never let out of its walls before but that once he did, the river would cover the whole flood plain in one huge wash of emotion, breaking through dams and rearranging the whole topography of their lives.

"Can you think of any reason why I might be interested in the arson of a San Diego consulting firm?"

"No, I can't," Walter said, taking the article that Mulder offered him. "Am I right in guessing that I'd better sign a 302 to send you to San Diego, because you're going anyway."

"I'd say you're right about that much," Mulder said. Well, say what you like about the big guy's long silences, he certainly had started to get to know Mulder well.

And so he'd gone to San Diego and poked around. Incendiaries, he'd been told by the fire department. The place had to have been fire bombed. There were signs of concentrations of heat that could have only been obtained using jet fuel as an accelerant. He'd tried to inquire as to what Roush's business was. He didn't get far. All the employees were gone, or missing without any clues. Defense work, someone in the police department had told him, unable or unwilling to say more. Frustrated, with no more leads, he returned home.

The very next night, another article was slipped under his door. An oil rig in the California desert, just outside of Barstow, had blown sky high. It was still on fire with specialized fire fighters from as far away as Saudi Arabia being called in to help fight it. Before Mulder even got his 302 together to head out to California again, there was another article, this one showing up taped to the top of a pizza box. The pizza was exactly what he and Skinner always ordered, one half everything, one half green peppers and sausage, but neither of them had called for the delivery. This article was about the destruction of what the article called a "small USDA research facility" in Texas.

"Once is coincidence, twice is happenstance," Mulder began.

"The third time is enemy action," Walter finished the quote. "But whose enemy? Do you think we dare eat the pizza? Whoever it is, they're moving fast."

They ended up throwing the pizza out, just to be on the safe side.

Well, this wasn't how I'd expected things would turn out, thought Jenn, as she watched the scene of destruction from the vantage point of on top of a freight car at a rail yard just outside of DC. Scully darted among flaming corpses and the faceless men with their seamed lips and eyes, carrying a cargo of files and computer disks. Alex Krycek watched her back and wielded another one of the fire wands, torching anyone who came near.

When she'd pushed Scully and Krycek together, the last thing she'd expected was that Scully would go on the lam with Krycek, rather than that he would remain in the Bureau with her. But, humans being the contrary lot that they were, Scully and Alex had gone on a spree of destruction. And Jenn knew that for Mulder's sake, Scully had damn well better remain safe. That meant that she had to stay lucky. That all of the chances they took had to work out, that all the risks they took didn't turn into real danger. So, they'd run into "by chance" the alien freedom fighters. And Jenn watched as they rooted the conspiracy out, member by member, facility by facility.

Mulder came back from Texas with a small vial of dead honeybees in his bag and not much else. By the time he'd gotten there, the site had been swept almost clean by faceless government agents with a badge that Mulder didn't recognize. They hadn't let him in even with his credentials, but that hadn't stopped him either. Under the cover of darkness, he'd infiltrated. He found burnt stalks from what looked like corn. The remains of an irrigation system. He'd wondered who in their right mind would be attempting to grow corn in the middle of tumbleweed country, Texas. At last he found something of interest. Bees. Little dead bee bodies scattered all over the place. Something told him that this was what he'd come looking for, so he scooped some up and got out before he attracted attention.

Back in D.C. late on a Tuesday, he went straight home, rather than his usual habit of stopping by the Hoover first to work on his report. The only person he cared to report his findings to was probably at home already. Or at least, he'd better be home by nine in the evening on a Tuesday.

When he opened his door, he heard the reassuring signs of life- the tv going for background noise, the sound of water running in the kitchen sink. The fish were swimming around happily in their tank, and if he wasn't mistaken, someone had just scrubbed the algae from the walls of the tank, maybe even done a water change for him. Walter came out of the kitchen at the sound, still wiping a pan off with a dishtowel. Walt still was a bit iffy in even basic cooking skills, but once started, he took to basic cleaning like a pro.

"Hey, big guy," Mulder said, happy to see the man. He realized that for the first time, he had someone who cared if he was home on time, or if he even came home at all.

"How was Texas?" Skinner asked, finishing up with the pan and draping the towel over his shoulder.

"Clean as a whistle, pretty much. Cleaning crew was just finishing up and I didn't really find a damn thing," Mulder said, dropping his bag. He pulled out the vial of bees. "Except for this. Honeybees. They were all over the place. I'm going to try and find an entomologist to take a look at them, see if there's anything strange about them. Anything else arrive for me while I was gone?"

"Just this box," Skinner said, indicating the box in question.

Mulder set the bees on the hall side table carefully and knelt to examine the package. Plain brown cardboard, about twenty four inches by eighteen by eighteen. The return address was from "Open Mind Enterprises," which was the sort of company name that Mulder recognized from his days of ordering pornography. But he didn't remember ordering anything recently, and anyway, the packages from those kinds of companies were usually much smaller. He opened it cautiously, using a penknife to cut along the tape. Inside, among copious amounts of packing peanuts, was a lamp. It could have been any lamp taken from any house decorated a handful of decades ago, but Mulder recognized it immediately.

"What the hell is somebody doing, sending me a lamp from my parent's summer house?" Mulder asked, standing up with the lamp. He was headed straight for the phone, to call his dad and ask if anyone had broken into the summer house that he knew about. Mulder wasn't normally a clumsy person, which made his tripping over what was apparently nothing all the more strange. He flew face forward onto the floor. The lamp flew out of his hands and crashed with great violence against the wall. It shattered into half a hundred pieces. Mulder crawled to his feet, dazed, wondering how the hell he'd managed to trip over his own feet. As Walter rushed back into the living room to see what had happened, Mulder started picking up the broken remains of the lamp. Amongst the ceramic shards was an unusual object. It was a silvery cylinder, just bigger than a pen. Mulder picked it up and examined it. He touched a spot on it and with a whoosh not quite like anything Mulder had ever heard before, a long, murderous looking point snapped out of the base.

"Whoa!" Mulder said, more than a little surprised. Walter had breathed heavily in surprise as well. Then Mulder rocked back on his heels to get the thing in a bit better light. It was a weapon. That much was obvious, but a weapon like nothing else he'd ever seen before. He thought rapidly. He was obviously meant to find this. Someone had gone to the trouble of breaking into his parent's summer house in Rhode Island to steal the lamp and send it to him. A weapon? Against them? Against the aliens?

"What is it?" Walter asked.

"No idea. A weapon of some kind," Mulder said.

Eventually, Walter drifted back to what he'd been doing in the kitchen. Mulder stared at it a long time, wondering, until his feet started to go numb from his kneeling position and he was forced to get up. Still wondering that the exact purpose of this thing, and why he'd been given it, he put it on the table and went to go keep Walter company in the kitchen. He had the sneaking suspicion that the man might have gone and started cooking dinner without him, and inviting indigestion like that was the last thing he needed on top of a long and puzzling day.

Not long after, Mulder was confronted outside his building by a sandy looking man whose only distinguishing features were his navy uniform and his peevish expression which seemed chronic if not downright terminal.

"Are you Fox Mulder?" the man asked, as if this itself was an accusation.

"Yes," Mulder said, cautiously. Very cautiously. He'd ticked off enough military people in his time. He didn't want to do it again, at least not unnecessarily.

"Then I was wondering if you could tell me what the hell happened to my sister."

Well, Mulder thought, I might be able to if I knew who your sister was. Then he caught a flash of the man's nametag. Scully. So, this was Scully's big brother, one she'd mentioned a few times, but that he'd never met.

"You mean Dana Scully, correct?"

"Yes. Dana Scully. Up until two months ago, she was working with you. Your partner. Then one day, she was just gone. My mother gets brief calls every now and then from her, but she won't say where she is, where she's going. What the hell she thinks she's doing."

"Then I'd have to say you've heard more from her than I have," Mulder said, feeling the sharp pain of separation again. "The way I understand it, she faxed in her resignation letter to the Bureau after a vacation in Hawaii. She didn't say goodbye to me."

Bill Scully didn't come out and say that he didn't believe Mulder, but the look in his eyes certainly said it. He glowered at Mulder. "The instant you hear anything, anything at all, you get in contact with my family."

What could Mulder say to that? That he didn't know for sure, but that he suspected that Scully had gone on a protracted rampage with a man who was probably a former double agent in a conspiracy so well mired in the US government that its very members walked the governments halls of power? That she'd turned into a terrorist? Because what is a terrorist after all but a member of an army of the few using whatever means they had to fight against an army of many.

"Of course," Mulder said. "The instant I hear anything."

He knew he could promise this because, he was sure he'd never hear from Dana Scully again.

He'd put the switchblade ice pick away in a locked drawer. Though he thought about asking his source about it, the mysterious dark man known to him only as X, he didn't ask. Only Walter knew, and Walter kept his counsel. Sometimes, Mulder got it out, looked at it, wondered about its origin, but as always just ended up putting it back in the drawer. He wondered, maybe should he hide it again? Put it back in a lamp? In a lamp, like a genie, the thought crossed his mind.

Suddenly, life was very interesting. The articles still arrived, of course. And when he tried to track them down, always he came up to another dead end. Another razed site. More dead, burned bodies. But always the tantalizing hint of more clues on the horizon.

Then suddenly, he was chasing after identical abortion doctors. They were being offed, in similar ways. Fires, as always, to hide the evidence. But not by militant right to lifers, Mulder was sure. He was in the middle of the trail, when he was called up to Skinner's office.

Strange, how at work, in his mind, it was always Skinner. But then at home, where they were still little more than roommates, it easily, effortlessly slipped back to Walter. Skinner called him up to the office. And by the lock on the man's face, Mulder knew instantly, it wasn't Skinner he was facing, but Walter.

"What's the matter, sir?" Mulder asked.

"You got a call from home. From your father. There's a family emergency. He wants you to call as soon as possible."

Walter sometimes checked their personal message machine from work, just in case there were any new meetings with his attorney, or his soon to be ex wife's attorney that he might have to make. The man was getting downright desparate to get his divorce done and over with.

Mulder hardly waited. He could do little more than nod knowingly at Walter and accept the soft look in the other man's eyes as a kind of comfort. Then he ran off as fast as he could, to go place the call, his imagination racing with thoughts of the worst possible news. His mother dead was his immediate suspicion, the mere thought of that sending his stomach to the top of his throat, leaving a big emptiness behind it.

The call was hurried pounding fingers punching the numbers, panic surging higher by the moment. "Dad?" Mulder asked before anyone could answer. "What's wrong? What happened? Is it mom?"

"No, Fox. But you need to come home. It's your sister."

He agreed to come immediately, once he understood the situation. How could he not? She was back, something that he had hoped for fervently. The miracle he had waited for everyday. And yet, something didn't seem quite right. Mulder looked around him, at the cubicle that he still occupied, the basement still denied to him. He was accountable to none of the agents in the immediate vicinity. Some deft political maneuvering on Walter's part had gotten Mulder not under his jurisdiction again, but under AD Sandra Jackson's control, and she was a good buddy of Walter's and pretty much gave Mulder free reign. And also allowed him a privilege accorded to few, if any field agents- working alone, no partner. Mulder looked up quickly at where he imagined Scully would be if she were there. She wasn't. He was alone in this as he had been alone in so many things for so long.

Mulder grabbed only what was necessary and took off. It'd be a quick drive to Massachusetts. He'd deal with the powers that be and let Walt know what was up from his phone in the car on the way up.

Finally, he was there. The woman who was supposed to be his sister was just that. A woman. Of course, he didn't know why he'd thought she'd still be a girl, but that was the image of her he always carried in his mind, her just as she had been before she was taken from him. Still, that shouldn't account for the churning anxiety he felt, rather than the grateful satisfaction he'd always thought he'd feel at this moment. She talked, and talked, and he was less and less convinced that she really was his sister, even though her cleft chin and strong jaw were so like his own. Something was not right.

And then in the early morning, when his father and mother had finally given in to exhaustion, he had his answer. She came to him as he sat out on the porch, in the cool morning air, watching the sun rise, unable to even contemplate sleep.

"I'm not your sister, Fox," she said.

Even though he was prepared, even though he had been anticipating this moment, it was still a punch in the gut, a walk out into the abyss to suddenly find that the edge of the cliff had crumbled underneath him.

Then the odd crumb of hope she held out to him, that he couldn't help devouring, no matter how parsimonious the portion of truth. "But it might be accurate to say that you are my uncle, in a manner. Your sister is our progenitor. Our..." and Mulder could tell that the next word came unfamiliar and perhaps unbidden to her. "Our mother. We need your help."

The explanation came rapidly, and again, as if it were unbidden. That she was telling him far more of the truth than she ever intended, some outside agency drawing it from her almost. And yet, it was the largest portion of truth he had ever been fed. And like he had known earlier that she was not the genuine object, now he knew this was the truth.

She pushed a stray curl off her forehead, and she finally said, "You have a weapon. Against these hunters that are killing us. There is a way to kill them. A stab to the back of the neck."

He suddenly remembered the odd weapon found in the lamp, tucked away carefully in the desk drawer still.

"You know I have that?" he asked.

"It was sent to you, by certain mutual acquaintances. They are of some help to us, but not at the moment. Not in this thing."

What happened next was so fast, he could hardly credit it's reality. Leaving from his parents with her, going to the clinic where the last of her...sisters could be the only word, were hiding.

During the early evening, he called home, to let Walter know what was up, to let him know that maybe he might want to guard the switchblade ice pick thing in the desk drawer a little more carefully.

As usual, Walter didn't pick up, but the let the machine get it, screening the calls he took at Mulder's place carefully. "Walter? Are you there? Pick up, Walter," Mulder said and was gratified to hear Walter's deep voice rumble, "Fox."

"Things are kind of crazy on this end, Walter," he said. "The woman who claimed to be me my sister. Oh, never mind. It's too complicated."

He heard a poorly concealed gasp from Walter on the other end of the line. "Walter? What is it?"

Then Walter spoke clearly, but not to Mulder. "Hello, Mulder. I didn't expect to see you home so early."

And Mulder said, quietly, but seriously. "That is not me. It is a being that is extremely dangerous and it will not hesitate to kill you. And it can. Walter, there is one defense against it. In the locked desk drawer, the ice pick. One blow with that to exactly the center of the neck. Do you understand me?"

"Clearly. I'll see you tomorrow then, Jane."

Then Walter hung up on him, leaving Mulder to hang, picturing the worst. He hung up his phone and turned to face the woman who might have been his sister, and the five others just like her, all dressed differently, but all the same woman. He had been paying close attention to how they all moved, as if of one mind. How they spoke as if there was one mind divided between them.

"Well, your troubles will either be over soon, or just beginning. He's in my apartment, the man that's killing you," Mulder said. With the man who he very much wanted to take as his lover, who he would regret forever that he never had, should he not get the chance.

"I'm going," Mulder said, not waiting for the opinion of the multiple Samanthas. The original followed him, but the rest remained behind in the cold, lifeless halls of the clinic they called home.

The drive back to DC was heart-rending, turning his mouth dry and sending his heart to beat a tarantella against his rib cage. Yes, he wasn't really alone, was he? This was a sudden, sharp revelation, one that cut him to his core. It mattered very much if Walter wasn't there, alive in his apartment, when he got back. More than any quest for his sister had ever meant.

Before he'd hit the end of Pennsylvania, his phone rang. It was Walter, sounding very shaky, rattled and relieved. Assuming it really was Walter. If this man, this thing, could assume the physical form of a person, then surely he could assume the voice well enough to fool someone for a brief phone call.

"Are you okay, Walter?" Mulder asked.

"Fine. But let's just say that you're going to need a new rug for in front of your sofa," he said. Mulder could imagine Walter shaking his head and clenching his jaw just so. It had to be Walter.

"Screw the rug!" Mulder said. He couldn't even remember it. Like too much of his things, it was just a place holder, something to fill the space, to keep his bare feet from the cold, wood floor, but he couldn't even remember the color. "Are you okay, Walter?"

"That...what happened. I can hardly credit my eyes. I've never seen anything like it in my life," Walter said. Then he gathered himself together, stern Marines discipline making up for what he was currently lacking in confidence. "You shouldn't be talking and driving like that. I'll see you soon. I'll wait up."

No, there was no use trying to talk Walter out of that. He hung up and still drove as fast as he could. Now, he was convinced as if it were bone deep truth that Walter had survived his encounter with the bounty hunter. And Mulder needed to hold the other man in his arms, to make some kind of confession. To admit the panic he had felt at the thought that Walter might not have survived the encounter. The Samantha doppelganger was not convinced.

"I need to see for myself," she said.

Once inside his long familiar building, Mulder started to race for his apartment. At the door, the Samantha clone put a cautionary hand on his. "You don't know for sure. We could be walking into a trap."

"We'll find out soon enough," Mulder said. He dug in his pockets for the keys and before he could get them out, the door opened. Walter was on the other side.

Before either of them could say anything, the Samantha clone reached out and clawed Walter's hand with her fingernails. She made a great big gash on Walter's hand, one deep enough to cause blood to well instantly from the gouge.

At that instant, Mulder was convinced of two things. That Walter was utterly human, and that the clone utterly was not.

Mulder couldn't tell the color of blood that dripped from Walter's hand. He damned his colorblindness for that. But it only dripped. He prepared for the blindness, the clawing pain like the one time he had been exposed to the virus in the aliens' blood. Nothing happened, except that Walter put his hand to his mouth, cursing muffled by it. And the Samantha clone slipped back into the hallway, down to the elevator, and out of his life as if she had never been.

"I'm sorry, Walter," Mulder said, gathering the big man into his arms and hustling him into the apartment proper, then shutting the door behind them. "I'm sorry."

"Who was that woman? Was that your sister? What did she do that for?"

"No, that was not my sister," Mulder said. He found it in him somewhere, perhaps just the strength he drew from being in Walter's very presence, to make a crack. "No, that was just a reasonable facsimile. It was a test. She had to make sure you were human."

What Mulder didn't say yet, but that he would need time to understand fully, was that the clone had been prepared to sacrifice him. That he would have died from the viral exposure most likely, had Walter not been human. Now that her ends had been met, that she was safe, she had no more use for him.

"That I wasn't...something else. Like that thing I killed?" Walter asked.

"Exactly like that," Mulder said. He looked around his place, trying to catalog the exact amount of damage. There wasn't as much as he thought, or Walt had cleaned it up already. The rug was a forgettable brown, and it looked burned, a huge hole in the middle of it. Something was missing. "My coffee table."

"Sorry, it was smashed. I cleared what was left away. I didn't do the rug yet. I thought you needed to see that, though there doesn't seem to be much of anything left on it," Walter said, poking at it with his toe.

Suddenly, Mulder didn't care about the coffee table, or the rug, or whatever other small thing might have been broken. There was one thing and one thing only in this apartment that mattered, something that couldn't be replace had it been harmed. He looked Walter up and down. The man seemed undamaged, other than the gouge from the Samantha clone's nails. He was holding a clean dishrag on that now. But he was wearing an unfamiliar pair of glasses, similar to the pair he usually wore, but not quite the same. It was then that Mulder noticed the bruise, mostly hidden by those glasses, high up on Walter's cheekbone. Mulder lifted his hand up to Walter's face gently and touched the skin near the bruise. "Walter? Were you hurt?"

"I'm fine, Mulder," he said, letting Mulder's hand remain where it was. "My glasses got broken. I had to let that thing get real close before I could..."

Then suddenly Walter was shaking, unable to speak any more. Without thinking much more about it, Mulder took the strange glasses off Walter's face and pressed his lips to Walter's. Walter stumbled backwards, as if burnt. But only for a minute. He took a deep breath, gathering courage, then stepped forward again. The dam burst.

That was the only way to explain it. Suddenly Mulder had arms full of strong, muscular man and demanding lips on his. There was, for the moment, nothing else in his world, other than the overwhelming passion of Walter Skinner. The man's kisses were hard. But lovely. Mulder thought he would remember this moment forever. The moment that the chaste affection they'd been sharing had turned to intense, soul deep lust, in an apartment that had just seen a life and death struggle. The smell, not quite describable, of acrid, burned rug and alien whatever, would etch itself into his memory. So would the feeling as the aching, churning anxiety of the ride here, transformed into desire just as churning. That moan, low and needy, was his own, wasn't it? He was still, stupidly, holding on to Walter's glasses. He set them onto the nearest stable horizontal surface, scrabbling blindly, hoping they'd be safe. They sank to the floor, on their knees, then just as quickly, Walter on top of him, crushing him deliciously to the floor.

Their first orgasm together was a quick, fumbly affair, their pants just barely pushed out of the way, coming just from the friction of dick rubbing against dick. That wasn't as important as the way that Walter held him afterwards, crushed to that broad chest, pushing him away every now and then to look into his eyes. And Mulder knew from the possessiveness he saw in those warm, chocolate brown eyes that no longer were they alone together. That Walter would keep him close forever, never let him go, never let him slip away. After this night, everything would be different and Mulder knew, in ways that shook him to the bottom of his soles, that Walter would follow him to the ends of the earth. Anytime Mulder's eyes were not looking directly at Walter, he could still feel Walter's eyes on him, like fire. Like a brand. After they'd caught their breath, Walter sat up and said, "Bedroom. Now. Do you have..."

"Condoms? Lube? All of that," Mulder said, taking Skinner by the hand and leading him into the bedroom, an action that he had been contemplating for months, wishing for for far longer. They did what Mulder devoutly wished for, hoped for- they made love again and again.

Mulder was, for the first time he could remember, happy. Deliriously, devoutly, astonishingly happy. Aside from Scully's continued absence and some...professional frustrations, everything in his life was going so well it was almost eerie. Walter had turned into a sweet lover who somehow managed to balance attentiveness with being non-possessive. Work somehow never seemed to intersect with their personal life. Nobody at work ever got around to asking why Walter was living with Mulder, if they even knew. Or cared. True, Walter wasn't Mulder's direct supervisor, but it still might have been bad for both their careers, should questions be asked. Mulder learned to just accept gratefully that they weren't. All in all, everything was running as smooth as silk.

Until one night, nine months to the day that Scully ran away with Alex Krycek, he got a call from Frohike.

"Mulder, you'd better get over here now," Frohike said.

Mulder was disinclined to do so. It was early on a late Spring evening, the air warm, sweet smelling even in the city. It was Friday. He'd just gotten back from a field assignment. Walter was going to be home soon. Mulder's plans were along the lines of making a simple dinner, eating it with the windows thrown open for air, a nice romantic walk afterwards. Then sex. No, whatever information the Gunmen had for him, it just couldn't compete with his plans.

"Can it wait 'til tomorrow?" Mulder asked, throwing open the window.

"No. Your ass. Over here, ASAP," Frohike said. Mulder heard in the background something that sounded disturbingly like a baby crying, then the incongruous sounds of the other two Gunmen attempting to make soothing noises. They sounded like clowns, but it sort of worked. The baby's cries reduced in pitch and fury, but they didn't end completely.

"What's with the baby, Frohike?"

"That's what we were hoping you could tell us," Frohike said. He paused, as if for dramatic effect. "According to the documentation we found in her car seat, she's yours."

Okay. Talk about an X-file, but that was just plain ridiculous. "You know, I thought you'd be a little old for me to have to give you the talk on how the birds and bees work. She can't be mine. I've never once had sex with a woman."

"Not once?" Frohike asked, as if Mulder had said that he had just grown a second head.

"Not once," Mulder said. C'mon, it wasn't that unusual. Not everyone felt that they had to experiement with the real thing in order to figure out their orientation. Nope, Mulder had known plenty well, just from looking, that he was gay.

"Never?" Frohike asked.

"Never," Mulder affirmed. The closest he'd come was the night Phoebe Green had nearly gotten her clutches into him. He'd been rescued by Quentin, a friend of Phoebe who'd been nearly, but not quite as cruel and heartless as Phoebe turned out to be.

"You don't know what you're missing, my man," Frohike said. "Anyway, you're not purported to be the natural father of this red headed babe, just that you apparently adopted her, a few days back in North Dakota."

"North Dakota?" Mulder asked, knowing he'd never even been to North Dakota. "What's in North Dakota?"

"Besides missle silos and apparently cheap judges, not much."

"I'm on my way over. Wait, did you say red hair?" Mulder had a sudden suspicion. He'd never seen it himself, of course, but people went on and on about Scully's red hair.

"Frohike..." he said warningly. It couldn't be. And yet, where else could the baby have come from? But if it was true, what kind of drugs had Scully been on to think that the safest choice of places for her and Krycek's baby would be with him?

"We've got surveillance pictures of the person who dropped this sweet little bundle on our doorstop. You'll have to see them for yourself. Mulder, I suggest you get here quickly, before Langly decides he's not giving her up."

"Look who's talking, Doohickey!" Mulder heard someone snap from the background.

"Okay, I'm on my way," he said.

"Good. Oh, and Mulder, stop at the store and get the girl some huggies. Smallest size I think. She's tiny."

He hurriedly scrambled to shut the window and call Walter's cell phone. Walt wasn't picking up, so Mulder left a voicemail message. "Look, Walter, I'm sorry. I'm not going to make it to dinner tonight. I've got to head over to the Casa del Stooges. There appears to be a big new wrinkle in the Krycek disappearance case. I'll tell you more as soon as I know more."

Scully had officially resigned from the Bureau, but Krycek, officially speaking, had just disappeared while on his last case in Schenectady. He was listed as a missing person, and there'd been some effort at first to look for him, but the trail had been cold, mostly because Krycek had never been to Schenectady. Theoretically, should the pair of them emerge someday, both Scully and Krycek could be eligible for reinstatement in the Bureau.

Mulder hurried to Maryland, stopping at the first grocery store he saw to buy diapers. He stared dazedly at the choices before him, the dozens of combinations of size, ones for boys or girls. Anti-leak sides. Reusable tabs. Finally, a kind looking woman picking out her own bundle of diapers took pity on him.

"You a first time daddy?" she asked.

"No, not at all. A friends just asked me if I would stop for some. I didn't realize it would be an ordeal."

"How big is the child?" she asked, kindly. Her own children, three in evidence, were hanging from the side of the cart, and there was a tiny one in a car seat on her cart.

"Newborn. Girl," Mulder said. "Less than a week old, I think."

"There," she said, grabbing a pack off the shelves and handing it to him. "That wasn't so bad, was it?"

"Guess not," Mulder said, grabbing his package and all but running for the checkout. He liked kids. He always had. He'd wondered briefly now and then if there was some way he could manage to have some. Of course, his life and lifestyle hardly seemed to make that a possibility. An FBI agent with a partner who worked equally long hours was hardly the candidate for being a family man. Yet, it seemed, that choice might have been made for him. Because if this baby truly was Scully's, what choice did he have but to honor her choice of him.

Then it occurred to him, for the first time, because he wasn't used yet, to thinking of Walter and himself as a true pair- this would affect Walter as well. It wasn't truly his choice alone, yet what else could he do? Still, the instant he realized this, he was on the phone again, even before he pulled out of the store parking lot.

He dialed the numbers quickly. This time, Walter picked up. "Fox? What's happened?" he asked.

"I just have a quick question for you, Walter. How do you feel about children?"

"In what context?"

"As in, having one of our own."

"If this is where you tell me that due to alien technology, I've somehow managed to knock you up, I'm hanging up on you now, Fox," Walter said, clearly not amused. Mulder suspected it was a tough day at work that was the culprit, rather than anything he'd said thus far.

"No, nothing like that. Do you remember how to get to the Gunmen's place?"


"Then I want you to meet me there. As soon as you can get there."

"Mulder..." Walter said warningly. Mulder was used only when Mulder was about to go over the edge, otherwise it was Agent Mulder at work, or Fox at home. Mulder could picture Walter, settled down on the sofa that was used only for sitting these days, TV on probably, small glass of whiskey maybe, settled in for the night. He should have known better with my message, Mulder thought.

"Walter, trust me. I can't make the decision that I'm going to have to make next without you there. So, anyway, you never did tell me how you feel about children."

Actually, Mulder had an idea of how the man felt. Or at least a working theory. Walter never forgot a birthday of one of his multiple nieces and nephews, always sending at least a card, usually a well picked gift. The fact that a man as busy as Walter took the time to do this himself, rather than asking his personal assistant to take care of it, spoke of affection more than a sense of duty.

"Mulder, in this one thing, do not tease me or yank my chain," Walter said.

"Why do you think I would do that? I asked a serious question."

"Fox, one of the reasons I married Sharon was a hope for children. We didn't conceive....and she refused to go through with fertility treatments. I resigned myself to the inevitable, but I'm warning you, do not dangle this hope in front of my nose then snatch it away," Walter said. Mulder had never before, not even in the fevered hours after their first coupling when they desperately proclaimed their love for each other, heard such low, intense passion from Walter. This was a hunger greater any that he'd let be known before.

"Then you'll want to get over to the Gunmen, as soon as you can," Mulder said.

"I'm already on my way," Walter said, and that was true. As they'd talked, Mulder had heard the background noises of Walter leaving the apartment, heading to the street. Now he heard the slam of a car door. "I'll see you soon."

So, Mulder drove, cautiously and not by the most direct route, wanting the time to muse over his thoughts. When he finally pulled into the industrial area where the Gunmen kept their headquarters. Walter pulled in just afterwards.

Mulder got out of his car and went to Walter, offering his arms and an explanation. "Early this evening, a foundling was delivered to the Gunmen's door. A newborn. There are papers with the newborn claiming that I adopted her last week in North Dakota."

"Agent Scully and Krycek's baby," Walter concluded.

"Possibly. I think their life must be frighteningly dangerous if they think that I would provide a more stable environment for their child, but I feel like its hardly my place to argue with her choice, even if I do think that one of her siblings, Melissa or Bill, would have been a saner choice."


"Yes, Walter."

"Shut up," Walter said as they stepped up to the Gunmen's door. After the requisite amount of pounding, they started to hear the series of locks start to open, deadbolts sliding back with a final sounding click. Frohike let them in. With him in the lead, they walked into the main workshop of the paper. Byers was holding the baby, walking around the room with her, jiggling her lightly to comfort her. He seemed an experienced hand at this. Langly was answering the phone. After putting on the distorter, he said, "Lone Gunmen."

Langly listened, screwing up his face, then holding the receiver away from his ear. "Byers," he said, after a moment. "It's your wife. I think she's mad. She managed to call me an asshole four times in less than thirty seconds."

"Tell her I'm on my way home now," Byers said, holding out the baby to Mulder. As Mulder took the baby as cautiously as he would a bomb, Byers added, "Congratulations, Dad."

Then Byers scurried, grabbing his coat even before Langly finished absorbing the latest round of abuse from this putative wife. Byers had a wife? Mulder had been by the warehouse all hours of the day and night and had never not seen the three of them together, working hard on the paper. That any of them should have a personal life beyond the work seemed unlikely at best. Langly held the phone out to Byers who sighed and took it, wandering to the furthest corner of the room that the cord would allow.

"When did Byers get married?" Mulder asked, mystified, even as he was getting used to the small bundle that had been placed in his arms. She felt like china, like crystal. Like something infinitely fragile. And he decided the best tack to take would be to try and ignore the burden, letting his body do what came naturally. Walter seemed torn between hovering and showing his usual natural reserve around the three stooges.

"Three years ago, Mulder," Frohike said. "You were sent an invitation. You didn't go because you were off in Oregon, chasing a serial killer. Don't you remember?"

For a minute, Mulder felt a strange sense of deja vu. No, that wasn't right. He'd never gotten an invitation. The sensation was a curious kind of vertigo, as if he'd stepped onto hard rock, only to discover a moment later that there was nothing underneath him but the void. Then, in another whiplash sensation, the ground was back under his feet and he remembered the invitation. The bride's name. The gift he'd sent them, a crystal vase that had been on their registry. And he remembered that the reason Byers was such an experienced baby wrangler was that he had a daughter at home, a two year old. No wonder Jeanette was mad.

His world gelling around him again, Mulder took a look at his putative adoptive daughter. He pulled back the receiving blanket. Her hair, such as it was, could probably be described as red, though it seemed mostly a muddy brown to him. Maybe auburn? He'd ask Walter for a better description. Whatever the color, it curled slightly at the ends and flew up every which way. She was drifting into sleep, placid and sweet seeming, slightly fussing, and rubbing her cheeks a little with her tiny fists. He put one of his much larger fingers into one of her hands and her tiny fingers clamped down on it and held it. "Do you want to hold her, Walter?"

Walter's eyes shot a warning to Mulder, who knew that unless he intended that Walter never, truly put the child down again, that he shouldn't offer her to him in the first place. That shouldn't be an issue. Didn't Walter see that it was no longer possible that she be anything but theirs? "Meet your daughter, Walter. What's her name, Frohike?"

"Olivia Margaret Mulder, according to these," Frohike had pulled a sheaf of papers off the table next to a bucket style car seat and handed them to Mulder after Mulder had transferred their girl to Walter.

"I remember Scully mentioning an aunt named Olivia once," Mulder said. "It's kind of an old fashioned name, isn't it? She's probably going to hate it."

"I had a great-aunt named Olivia," Frohike said, the first hint that Mulder ever had that Frohike hadn't sprouted full-sized from the forest floor like a gnome among the mushrooms. "We all called her Lovey."

"Lovey. I like that," Mulder decided. He looked to Walter for approval, but Walter was lost, staring at the little bundle of blanket and baby as if it were a miracle. He was almost jealous, except he knew the feeling.

Then Frohike was shoving some pictures at him. "That's the person who dropped your little bundle off at our doorstep."

The person was covered in black clothes, complete with black stocking cap. It'd been dark and the resolution of the photo was poor. But one view had captured a slice of fair face looking straight up at the camera. There could be no doubt who the slender, small figure was. "Scully," Mulder pronounced, his overall glow diminished by the gnawing disappointment that she'd been this close but elected not to see him, rather to make her choice known in this way. He'd wished she'd put the baby into his hands with her own hands. That she had told him with her soft, confident voice that she truly wished this. That she would have trusted him enough to not have refused this, that he didn't have to have his hand forced like she had, abandoning the child.

Mulder spent a little while perusing the paper work she'd been left with. He was no lawyer, but he knew his way around legal speak. "Okay," he pronounced finally. "As far as I can tell, unless Scully decides to fight for custody with genetic evidence, these papers are solid enough. No one can take her from me. So, boss, how do we go about putting Lovey here on my insurance."

At that, Walter woke up slightly from his spell, not questioning that there was no question about them taking the little bundle home. Mulder thought the only problem in that regard would be getting her away from the Gunmen. They'd become attached to the little lady in the short time she'd been there. That was good. They'd be as good as uncles to her. Byers seemed to have hung up and slipped out to go back to his own family, but Langly was sitting in front of one of the computers, concentrating in a way that could only be hiding his feelings. Frohike looked with open longing. Sometimes Mulder wondered about the history of the threesome. There were so many things he didn't know about them, and yet he depended on them so much, he realized. Had Frohike ever been married? Did he have children. Mulder didn't know and made up his mind to change that.

"No problem. Just inform personnel. And you'll qualify for a month of family leave too, for the adoption."

Luckily for them, Byers hadn't gone yet. Otherwise, they would have been lost when it came to getting the car seat buckled into the back seat of Mulder's car. Byers expertly wrapped the seatbelt around the thing for them, with his usual quiet competence, then left to go to his own car. As the man walked away, Mulder had to stifle a laugh.

"What?" Walter asked, touching their new daughter again, on the pretext of checking to see if the car seat was holding her firmly.

"I just wondered if he had any buddies with kids. I was picturing a children of paranoiacs playgroup or something. You know, there's going to have to be some big changes," Mulder said. Their apartment for one thing. It was just about bursting at the seams with the two of them. Add a baby and the whole place would explode from the pressure. "We should probably look into buying a house."

"And we'll need to hire a nanny."

"You know, we need to get some things tonight. The kid doesn't have anything besides a box of diapers, the clothes on her back and a car seat."

The shopping trip they made on the way home was just the first of the big expenses. The other big shock was the pricetag on a full time nanny. Mulder was going over some more brochures from various agencies. He wanted not just someone who could be trusted, but someone who understood that there might be dangers to Lovey just because she was his daughter and who could react to them. He was thinking of the kind of nanny that a diplomat or a Congressperson's family might hire, not just any nanny. He hadn't liked any of the candidates that had been sent over for him to approve so far. Most of them seemed either entirely too serious and stuffy or alternatively, too flighty. Mulder rocked Lovey's baby bucket with his toe as he read. His family leave time was nearly up and he needed someone to start soon. He was hopeful though. He had a couple of candidates coming around this afternoon to meet with them.

"It's lucky that this job is far from my only income source," Mulder groused to Walter. "Otherwise it'd make more sense for me to stay home full time. Some of these nannies make as much as I do."

The job was important though. He couldn't leave it. Hell, he'd pay to stay with it. One lucky thing about Lovey, him now having a child meant he had more control over his inheritance according to the terms of his grandfather's trust. So he could afford the expensive nanny, and the house, but it was the first time in a while he'd seriously had to dip into family money. He hated to do it. He wasn't quite sure the family money was entirely clean.

The doorbell rang. "That must be one of women from the agency," Walter said, and got up from his paperwork. He tucked most of it away, but he left some of the less sensitive papers out on his desk as a kind of test, to see if the candidate would be able to control her curiosity. Then he went to buzz her into the building.

Finally, Walter opened the door and let a small, sprite like young woman into the baby thing strewn apartment. She had a black pageboy cut and a slight, enigmatic smile, sort of Mona Lisaesque, cheerful yet not overly perky to the point of maniac like some of the candidates had been. She dressed in black pants and a paisley print blouse that seemed the practical thing you'd wear to take care of children yet spoke of a bright and lively imagination. She carried a Starbucks cup with her. "Hi- I'm Mary Poppins," she said. "No, really. My name is Jenn. I understand you need a nanny."

"So, you're not practically perfect in everyway?" Mulder couldn't help asking. He liked this one. She was everything that the rest hadn't been.

"No, but I try harder," she said.

It was kismet. Walter, of course, would have more questions. He seemed brimming with them. That didn't matter though. Mulder knew that this was the one. Mulder reached down to Lovey and picked her up out of the baby bucket. Luckily, once asleep, she slept the sleep of the just. Supporting her little melon head carefully, he held her so that Jenn could take a close look. "Jenn, why don't you meet Olivia. Lovey, we call her."

It was Jenn's night off. They were alone in the Georgetown townhouse they'd settled on. Walter was woken at about two by the sounds of Lovey's cries. She was sleeping in the portable crib in their room tonight, because the narrow townhouse had the master suite on a different floor than the other two bedrooms, and they didn't want to put Lovey in the nursery if Jenn wasn't going to be there to hear her. Walter pulled himself to wakefulness, then tried to nudge Fox, to inform him it was his turn. Except there was no Fox in bed.

Walter was worried already. Fox had been even more obsessed than usual about his current case, a serial killer he'd been called in by Patterson to consult on. AD Sandra Jackson, Fox's superior, hadn't wanted to lend him, and she'd even called Walter to ask him if she should, and he'd concurred that she should find some excuse not to send him. But the pressure from Patterson had been high and the golden boy of the BSU got what he wanted.

Sighing, Walter pulled himself out of bed, despite the gravity that it mysteriously gathered during the middle of the night. He gathered Lovey out of her little crib and started the usual evaluation. She didn't quiet simply because he picked her up, therefore, something wasn't quite right in her world. Diaper, dry, non-stinky. Check. No sign of fever or other discomfort. Check. She avidly sucked at the finger he offered her, for a while at least, then spat it out. Ah, in need of a refill then.

The previous owner of the house had combined most of the second story into a luxurious master suite, including a bathroom that was sybaritic and big beyond the point of excess, including a tub that could have comfortably fit four grown men. Fox liked it, though it seemed excessive to Walter. It even had its own little fridge and microwave set up. They used this to keep some bottles for Lovey up here, so Walter headed into the bathroom, to make her up a bottle of formula. As he did, he talked to her, "Now, where do you suppose your Daddy Fox has gotten himself too? I'm hoping it's just his study. You have no idea of the capacity for trouble your daddy has, not that most of it's his fault. There, just a shake and we're all done."

For a minute, Walter felt envious of women. Feeding a baby for them could be just as simple as lifting a shirt. Still, he was happy to lean against the marble tiled wall of the bathroom and offer Lovey her midnight snack finally. The marble was cold, kind of like his stomach at the thought of what Fox might be getting up to.

After she'd settled into sucking, he carried her with him downstairs to the study that Fox used. Walter had refused one. "I'm there long enough that the last thing I want to do anymore is look at more work once I finally get home. Not when I have you and this sweet babe to come home to."

The master suite not withstanding, the rest of the house was small, homey and comfy, even if the decor was a little outdated. The living room walls were covered in aqua grasscloth that they meant to do something about someday, but for now, they'd just moved Fox's furniture in, from the leather couch and the dining room table down to the Royal typewriter poster and the squiggly coat rack. The place was accessorized with baby gear, especially the toys seemed to over run their box and the nursery. Fox had a real weak spot for buying toys for Lovey, never mind that the mite was still young enough that her idea of a really great time was to stick her fist in her mouth and chew on it. But this sometimes messy little place they shared truly was home to Walter in a way that the huge house exquisitely decorated by his ex-wife never had been. But what if it were to disappear? Vanish on him? Because Fox just might be out doing something stupidly dangerous, like stalking a serial killer on his own.

Walter hesitated at the door to Fox's study. He knocked softly, hoping to get an answer from the man. Instead, the door hadn't been latched and it swung open at Walter's touch. Inside, the walls were covered. With drawings. Photographs. Every available surface. The gargoyles that the killer had drawn. More of them. Photocopies from books. Pictures from the crime scene. Walter drew in a sharp breath at the sheer obsessive coverage. No sign that Fox was in evidence.

He'd been withdrawn lately, worked hours on the case, had come home late tonight, just barely ate, refused Walter's touch and hadn't wanted to come to bed. But Walter had no idea of the extent of his identification with the case. This had gone right over the border to pathological. Had he not been burdened with a feeding baby, Walter would have run to get his phone. As it was, he hurried as quick as he could. He tried Fox first, but as he almost expected, got no answer. Immediately, he dialed the number to his friend, AD Sandra Jackson, not caring that it was two in the morning. That was one of the responsibilities of being an AD, being there when the shit hit the fan, no matter the time. And the shit was truly about to hit the fan.

"Jackson," she said into her phone, sleepily and not pleased. "What is it, Walter?"

"It's Mulder. You have to get him a partner. Now. Not next week. Not three, four days from now. Find someone, someone good. Someone who can watch his back and reel him in. Because I think he's about to go over the edge in this case."

"Where is he? What's he doing?" Jackson asked. She knew that he and Fox lived together, that they were lovers.

"I don't know. And that worries me."

"I'll have someone by eight in the morning," she said. Maybe she had someone in mind already. She was always grumbling on and off about assigning Fox a partner. She liked Fox, thought he was a charming man in addition to being an outstanding agent. "Assuming you see him before then, tell him to meet with me then."

The phone call came less than an hour later, just in time to wake Lovey from the sleep she'd been about to fall into. Walter grabbed it and checked the caller id.

"Walter? I guess I didn't wake you. I'm sorry. It suddenly occurred to me that you might wake up and worry."

"Where the hell are you, Fox? Worry? Like hell. I've been frantic," Walter said, thinking of the last hour.

"I'm at the office now," he said. Now. That meant he'd been someplace else earlier. He sounded kind of unsteady and weak. Was he hurt? "I'm sorry, Walt. I'm just not fit for human company at the moment."

"Are you hurt?"

"No," Fox said. Then he reconsidered, given the angry glower that Walt was doing his best to transmit right over the phone line. "Not much. It's a scratch. The paramedics treated and released me. I had a run-in with our unsub. I'm sorry, Walter. I couldn't sleep. I keep seeing the bodies. The young men. I...to do this, to face these monsters, I need to stare into the abyss. And sometimes, that abyss stares right back."

"Come home, Fox. Your daughter needs you. I need your human company. You need to sleep."

"I can't. It won't be much longer. I can feel it. I'll catch this monster, then I'll be your Fox again."

There was such guarded yet passionate need in his voice that Walter felt a moment of perfect, balanced antinomy. He understood, for a moment, the true depths of evil and monstrousness that Mulder was facing, the numbing horror of it. Someone had to fight that evil, and Walter understood at this moment that he was one of the generals in this battle, that he sent his troops out to the line to face it, like in war, and that other men lived or did not live because of the decisions that he and his kind made, and that he could send them without ever leaving his office, removed, distanced from the unspeakable. It was grim necessity, tempered with the knowledge that the agents he commanded weren't just volunteers, but had vied competitively for their places.

At the same moment, Walter was just a man. A man whose lover was probably hurt more badly than he was saying. He was a man with a wakeful, cranky baby and an empty bed. He feared the thing that Mulder had to do to catch this monster. He wanted more than anything to demand that Mulder resign immediately, ask to be taken off this case, anything to get him away. He understood, in vivid detail, what the spouses of every one of his agents must feel all the time. Professionally, you might say he'd overstepped a little by calling Mulder's AD at two in the morning. Personally, he'd do it again in a New York second.

"Please, Walter. I need you to be strong for me," Fox pleaded.

What could he do but answer in the affirmative. He could do this. He could cope. For now. "Be careful, Fox. I can be strong for you, but I need you to come home to me."

"I will. Soon."

"Fox," Walter added when it seemed that Fox was on the verge of saying goodbye and hanging up. "I was talking with Sandra. You have a meeting with her at eight in the morning.'

"You've been tattling on me, dammit," Mulder said.

"Damn straight," Walter said. "And I'd do it again. You're in deep on this one, Mulder. You can't see how deep because you're in the middle of it."

Mulder hung up on him. Walter nearly threw the phone against the wall, but controlled himself. He did the only thing he could- got down to the business of putting their daughter to sleep. She was such an innocent, too small and new to have any idea about the scary monsters that lurked in their very midst. He wasn't sure he envied that about her.

Next morning at eight, Mulder ascended to the top floor of the Hoover, feeling a little worst for the wear of having spent the night in his cubicle. He'd changed into a fresh shirt from his travel kit, but the suit was the one he'd worn yesterday. And his shave was just a dry shave with the electric razor, not the closer shave he'd have gotten from a razor and foam. Yup, all the reasons in the world he looked and felt his best. Only an actual hangover could have improved things in that regard. It was the best, probably the only proper way to be when getting called on the carpet like this. He wondered, after last night, would he get pulled from the case?

AD Jackson's assistant told him to go right in. The AD was a solid, no-nonsense woman, both big and tall, with dark brown hair she always wore pulled back in a perfect French twist. Her rise from Agent to AD had been nothing less than astonishing, so rumor went, but there was no doubt whatsoever that she'd earned her place. She played an especially tough game of hardball, on a playing field renowned for not just not playing fair, but for backstabbing one's team members.

She was talking to a man sitting in one of the chairs in front of her desk. Her office looked incredibly like Walter's, with the prominent picture of the attorney general, the nice office furniture, the spacious appointments. The only difference was that where Walter had an oriental rug, she had a floral Aubusson rug, her only concession to femininity at all. Because the back of the man she was talking to was towards him, and mostly hidden in a chair at that, Mulder didn't immediately recognize him.

"Agent Mulder," Jackson said. She rose from the desk to gesture to him to sit down. "I see you're looking well, considering your little adventure last night."

Mulder nodded, waiting for the real reaming to begin. Mulder walked to the other chair. He still kept his eye on her, not catching yet who the other person in the office was.

"I'd like you to meet someone. I'm assigning a partner to you," she said. Then she gestured to the other occupant. Mulder followed her gesture to look at the other person.

It was then that the bottom dropped out of his world again. This was utterly incomprehensible, unless Doggett himself had asked for the assignment, which didn't seem likely, given his stated aversion to believing in "any of that crap."

"John!" Mulder said, unable to stop the blurt. Hell. This was a real kicker. Just how he was going to explain to Walter that his new partner was someone he'd slept with, he didn't know. Hell, someone that he'd still like to be sleeping with, if it weren't for his life with Walter. Because none of John's attractiveness had diminished, no. If anything, it had increased somehow. John seemed to wear a mantle of melancholy, as if he'd faced and was still facing some trajedy. It made him...beautiful. It emphasized the lines that had already appeared in his face the last time Fox had seen him and gave him a solemnity that only increased his handsomeness.

"Hey, Fox," Doggett said.

"You two know each other, I presume," Jackson said. She appeared relieved.

"It was the Augustus Coles case I worked with Agent Krycek," Mulder explained. "Back when John was still with the NYPD. He was in homicide. He helped Agent Krycek and myself out with the case."

"Good, it's settled. Later, agents," Jackson said, obviously dismissing them.

The wheels of Mulder's brain spun as fast as he could make them, trying to think of an excuse to get out of this. It was an eventuality that was always a danger, the threat of being assigned a partner. It had been a possibility he'd been heavily contemplating ever since Walter had informed him of this meeting. "This is no offense against Agent Doggett. He was good to work with on the Coles case, and I'm sure he's even better now but we have an understanding. I work alone."

"Not any more you don't, Agent Mulder. You're out on the edge on this case. Don't make me have to resort to more extreme measures. That will be all, Agents."

Then there was nothing else for it but to leave the AD's office with John. He stalked ahead wishing for a stray trashcan to destroy or something. John was right at his heels.

"Mulder," he said. "You're stuck with me. Nothing you can do about it. Sulking ain't going to do you any good."

The universe must be laughing at him. An ex-boyfriend as a partner? An ex-boyfriend he was very much attracted to and very much didn't want to be attracted to.

Doggett kept talking. "AD Jackson briefed me on the case. Mulder, like it or not, you need someone at your back for this one. The way I understand it, you're damn lucky you didn't end up bled to death and covered in clay at that warehouse."

Mulder stopped in his tracks at that. That statement cut a little too close to the bone for his comfort. It was very possibly true and that thought made his whole body cold. They were nearly to the elevator. He nearly turned and bolted for the stairs instead. As if reading his mind, Doggett said, "You ditch me like some kind of bad date, I'll kick your ass."

"No," Mulder said, looking at the pair of them in the reflection from the elevator door. The polished stainless steel reflected them back in such fuzzy lack of detail that they looked almost identical. Two tall, dark haired men, in dark suits. He'd known the other man intimately once, had been inside him even. Could he trust him the way he'd once trusted Scully? Like he trusted Walter? Would he allow John to look in at the windows in the wall around his secret heart that Walter had made, breaking them open with his overwhelming flood of love? Did he dare it?

"No, John. I wasn't lucky. He let me go. He couldn't do it."

The elevator door opened up finally. The instant it did, something in Mulder twitched, some sense leaping to awareness. Scent maybe, the least understood, deepest sense. Whatever it was, it was spooked. The hair on the back of his neck stood up.

Then Bill Patterson stepped out of the elevator.

"I was looking for you, Mulder," he said, in his irritating, nasal voice. "I want to know what the hell you were doing at the crime scene at one in the morning. And I want to know how you think these antics are going to catch this lunatic."

"I was working. Get off my back, Patterson. I'm trying to be working now," he said, trying to step around Patterson to get into the elevator. He acted to distract and disarm the man. "Bill, this is my new partner, just assigned to me. Special Agent John Doggett. Agent Doggett, this is Bill Patterson. The man who made BSU what it is today."

"An honor, sir," Doggett said. As Doggett turned to shake the hand that Patterson should have but didn't offer, Mulder found his opening. He slipped around the ugly gargoyle of a man and his new, apparently unavoidable partner.

"You're new, aren't you?" Mulder heard Patterson say. "Well, let me tell you this much, all those procedures, protocols and rules you learned in the Academy aren't worth a damn thing out there on the street, tracking monsters like this. You're his partner. You think you're going to protect him, but you don't know Mulder. You need to let him dance out there on his edge, doing what he does best."

Mulder heard Doggett say, "Excuse me," but once he slipped into the elevator just as the doors were starting to close, he also heard the agent mutter under his breath, "I've seen monsters like you wouldn't believe, bastard."

That almost cheered Mulder. "So, I take it that was not a good first impression," he said. "You don't like Patterson."

"I'd have thought you two were buddy buddy. Weren't you the wunderkind of the BSU at one point?"

"Patterson has hated me ever since the day I decided to stop bending over to take it like a man," Mulder said. He caught the look on John's face. "At a figurative level. We never..."

John grimaced again. Apparently, his aversion to Patterson was strong. Mulder had to admit that the thought of Patterson as a lover was not an appetizing one.

"Let's get going," John said. "I think our first stop is taking you home to change and shower."

"Am I that obvious?" Mulder asked. He knew he didn't look his fastidious best, but he thought he was at least passable.

Doggett shrugged. "You've looked a lot better, Mulder. And you've got a spot of blood on the back of your collar."

Mulder had thought he'd inspected the jacket fully before putting it back on, but he must have missed that. He touched the bandage on his cheek, where the killer had touched him once lightly with the razor, so lightly it had almost felt like a kiss, until he'd felt the sheet of blood flowing down his face. "Okay, I'll change. Then back to work."

John ended up driving. Mulder wasn't sure why he was so acquiescent about that. Usually, even when he was dead on his feet tired and hadn't slept in days, he insisted on driving. But John got behind the wheel and it just seemed natural to slide into the passenger seat.

"I heard about what happened to Agent Krycek," John said. "I hadn't heard from him in a while. I didn't realize he was missing. I'm sorry about that. Must have been quite a blow to lose two partners in a row like that. One of them vanishing without a trace."

"I still look for both of them when I can," Mulder said. And that was the truth. Every time he followed the lead on some story or another that was slipped to him, he expected to come across either Scully or Krycek at its source. It became even more important when Lovey had come into his life, for as much as he feared them trying to take her back, he also felt that someday, she should have a chance to know them. "There's something rotten at the heart of the Bureau, John. Something that doesn't want Agent Krycek to be found. They want to bury him as if he'd never existed."

As they pulled out of the garage of the JEH and into DC city traffic, Mulder said, because he realized that John was taking them to Alexandria. "I've moved," he said. "Georgetown."

"I thought you've always lived at Hegal Place," Doggett said. "I remember you once saying you'd never leave."

"I had to," Mulder said. "The apartment was too small for all of us."


"My lover Walter, and our daughter. And our nanny, Jenn," Mulder said. The confusion and...sadness? The expression on John's face was so blatant that he had to explain just a little. "She's adopted. It's a story too long to be told right now. I'm sorry, John. You left me. I moved on."

"I can't say I blame you," John said. "I made my decision. I'll probably regret it for the rest of my life. But I'm sticking with it. You don't need to worry about our...past coming between us. You have my word on that."

"I love him," Mulder said, not sure how to approach this. The words he was usually so facile with failed him for this important moment of time. He remembered that bar, that night where John had dumped him, then promised to be his friend. The standard line, almost never truly meant. John's honest straightforwardness wouldn't permit him to say such a thing without meaning it though. He was, if one could use such an old-fashioned word, an honorable man. Mulder knew that much about him. "I believe you, partner."

"Don't say that unless you mean it, Fox."

"I mean it, John," Mulder said, then decided this was getting a little too close, a little too meaningful. He tried to steer the topic to something that was bound to be lighter and easier. "How's your wife and little boy?"

Doggett's hands clenched on the steering wheel, a warning that this was a dangerous topic. Had she decided that it wasn't okay for him to be bonking men on the side and divorced him, taking his boy away?

Despite the warning, John said, "Luke passed. He was murdered. Not long after I was accepted for the Academy."

"Oh. God. I'm sorry, John," Mulder said. There wasn't much more that could be said beyond that, not without resorting to platitudes so trite that they ceased to be true. But Mulder thought he understood the true horror of what had happened. He thought sometimes, of the black chasm that he would face, should something happen to Olivia, whether she be taken from him by the aliens or just the simple accidents of life. "Oh, God. Did they get a conviction?"

That last was simple, yet not entirely unsympathetic curiosity. It escaped his lips before he even realized he'd said the words out loud. Not that a conviction would truly provide the sense of closure that one needed for peace. Mulder had expected that closure and hadn't found it when the serial killer who'd taken his sister Samantha finally died in the gas chamber.

"Not even a suspect," Doggett said.

"You and your wife must be devastated," Mulder said.

"I don't know about her these days. She hasn't talked to me except what the lawyer can't say for her. The divorce will be final next month probably."

Mulder felt like he should say something more, but before he could think of it, Doggett said, his face set it grim determination, "Let's get going. Everyone of those young men is somebody's son."

During the course of a frustrating afternoon, Mulder grabbed his phone and said, "You're coming to dinner tonight. I'll be lousy company and I doubt Olivia will be much better. I think she's cutting a tooth. But this isn't about pleasantries. I want you to meet Walter right away. I want this all out on the table. I think that I have a partner at all is his fault, but I don't think he could have a clue that we'd have slept together."

"Wait, his fault?"

"He's good buddies with AD Jackson."

"Ah, shit, Fox. Walter. Walter Skinner? AD Walter Skinner?"

"None other," Mulder found it in him a moment to smirk in satisfaction. Out of everything that had happened to him in the last year, setting up housekeeping with Walter had been the best. That his ex-boyfriend seemed a bit discomfited was all to the best. The best step to reduce the chances of temptation would be to make it clear to John right from the start that he wasn't available. If they continued as partners, there'd be other cases that would take them far a field, put them in situations together where there would be strong temptation. Long lonely nights in hotels together, or even in more intimate situations.

Finally, he reached Walter, "Hey, big guy, just thought you should know that you're going to be feeding my new partner tonight. Seeing as how you thought my having a partner was such a great idea in the first place. I'm thinking takeout."

Jenn, for all that she was a sweet girl and excellent with Lovey, was a disaster in the kitchen. So much so that Mulder was sure it was willful. No one could be that bad except by purpose. And she seemed to think that it just wasn't a meal unless there were turnips. Her first meal she'd cooked was turnips and a kind of dried pea soup. It'd been awful. She'd just smiled and said, "You know the bit in the mother goose rhyme, about pease porridge in the pot nine days old. That wasn't made up. That was reality for some people." Walter was competent at little more than heating up soup and making grilled cheese. Mulder didn't want to spare the time beyond the bare minimum of eating.

When Mulder and John finally arrived at the townhouse later that evening, Walter was waiting for them in the kitchen, an assortment of takeout menus in front of him. Lovey was in his arms, enjoying her evening meal. She sucked the bottle with great gusto, living her life lustily, with great relish, like she seemed to take to everything. She was the happiest baby Mulder had ever met, so long as everything was going her way. She cried the hardest and longest when things were not to her liking. She'd probably grow up to be a great actress or something.

Walter looked up when they walked in the room. "Hi Walter," Mulder said. He walked over and claimed a quick kiss, nothing that he thought would make John uncomfortable, but enough to state without a doubt the fervor of his feelings for Walter. Mulder stood up straight again, then turned to John. "John, the lovely little lady is our daughter, Olivia Margaret Mulder. Lovey, meet my friend and partner, John Doggett. Okay, Walter, time for some straight talk. There's something I want right out on the table from the beginning."

Walter sat up straighter and looked puzzled at Mulder, then at John. He caught John's eyes. John nodded and said, "Evening, sir."

"Good evening, Agent Doggett," Walter said, mildly.

"I'm going to make this introduction, and you will listen to me all the way through," Mulder said. "Promise me that much."


"Walter, promise me," Mulder said.

Walter nodded.

"Good. Walter, this is Special Agent John Doggett, the partner that was assigned to me this morning by AD Jackson. I would like you to keep in mind that I neither chose him as a partner, nor asked to have a partner assigned to me. I think you also need to know that this is John Doggett, formerly of the NYPD homicide unit, who also happens to be a man I met before you and I were lovers. We were lovers for nearly two months."

Walter clenched his jaw until the little muscles in his cheeks popped out in relief. He would have to have made the connection, that this was the man Mulder was dating just before they'd gotten together. Walter lowered his eyes, but looked like he was in control of whatever emotions were obviously surging through him at the moment. He seemed to sense that Mulder was not done talking and he kept his peace. He couldn't be happy though, not by a long shot. In some ways, a partner could become every bit as important emotionally as a spouse. There would be a certain type intimacy and togetherness that Walter and Mulder could never share, but that would develop between John and Mulder as they worked together. Walter had to know that, he'd worked his way up through the ranks, he'd had his share of partners. AD Jackson had been one of them, once.

"We parted amicably and remained friends. We will remain that way. If I ever feel that my working relationship with him has taken a turn that is anything more than friendly, I will ask to be assigned another partner and I feel I can trust that John would make the same request."

"Is that all?" Walter asked.

"I'm sorry, Walter, but I don't want there to be any secrets between us."

John chose that moment to speak up. He said, in that gently frank way he had, "I'm no homewrecker, sir."

Then Walter made up his mind. He shifted Lovey in his arms so that he could hold out a hand to John. "I think when you're having dinner at my table, my name would be Walter," he said.

After John was gone, Mulder retreated into his study, to go over the interrogation transcripts of the suspect that Patterson had arrested, the man who'd done the previous murders. He couldn't settle into them though. He felt...itchy. No, not that exactly. An itch could be gotten to. This was something more elusive, making him unsettled, feeling like the answer was just within grasp. If only. He stared at the pictures of the gargoyles again and again.

At last, he stopped pacing across the small room that he'd claimed for his own and walked out into the living room. He was going to head to the studio again. He needed to be there, needed to let this thing...be born. Jenn was in the living room, feeding Lovey a bottle. He couldn't help go over to her side and hold his hands out for the babe.

Prettiest baby there was, and no, that just wasn't because he was biased. Her auburn hair had started to grow in thick and curly. Her cheeks were round and pink, and her legs had a chubbiness, including several folds that he irrationally delighted in. She still smelled sweet to him. As he was cuddling his daughter, Jenn asked him, "Where you going, Mulder?"

"Work. I can't sleep," he said. But then, perhaps because of guilt, he dug out his cell phone. "Don't disturb Walter. He needs his sleep."

Then, on his way out the door, he called Doggett. The man had obviously been sleeping and the irritation in his voice indicated he was not best pleased at having been woken. Too bad, he'd have to get used to the patented late night Mulder phone call. It was part of the territory that came with being Mulder's partner. He'd finally gotten Scully trained up to not complain about them just before she'd left him.

"John, this is Mulder. I'm going back to the crime scene. Meet me there."

"Quick as I can," John said. He paused. "I've got company I'll have to get rid of."


"No one you know. Come to think of it, no one I know really either. Except in the biblical sense," Doggett said. Mulder wondered at that. John had gone and picked up a stranger. And was making sure to let him know that. A kind of jealousy? To prove that he was no longer interested in Mulder? But to Mulder or to himself?

"Just get there," Mulder said. If he had been inclined to Sherlockian metaphors like his old boyfriend Quentin had been, he would have said something like "The games afoot!" That's what it felt like. This was the night.

Despite this, he was unprepared when it actually happened. There was a new gargoyle waiting, one of the sculpted clay ones, the clay still wet, not even started to dry yet. He tore at it to reveal the dead, slashed body of Patterson's assistant. Then suddenly, Patterson himself was there, and Mulder knew. He pulled his gun on the man just as Doggett stormed into the building. He caught sight of what Mulder was doing.

"Mulder! What the hell are you doing?" he asked, as if he believed what everyone had said about Mulder possibly going into the deep end on this one. Patterson used the distraction to shove Mulder and scramble away.

"John, it's him!" Mulder shouted as he jumped to his feet and started running after Patterson, Doggett in close pursuit. They ran through the warren of the warehouse, up to the roof. They trapped him up there, and as Patterson drew his gun, there was a shot. Patterson jerked and fell onto his face. Dark stains immediately covered the pale roofing pebbles, welling into pools and pools of it. He felt ill, the pit of his stomach swirling. For all of his hatred of Patterson, this man had been his first and best teacher in the inexact science of profiling. Mulder reached down, felt for Patterson's pulse. "He's not dead," he pronounced. He was going to tell Doggett to call 911, but the man was already talking to them, telling them about the agent down, then kneeling to turn Patterson over. Doggett took off his own jacket to form an impromptu bandage to the chest wound he'd created.

It was over. It was over. Mulder sank to his knees, to offer whatever assistance he could until the EMTs would get here.

"You were able to shoot a man, just on your trust of me?" he found himself asking as Patterson was wheeled away to the waiting ambulance.

"He pulled a gun on you. I figure it's my job to watch your back, no matter what," he said. "I'm glad you called me. That you didn't face this one on your own."

Mulder finally arrived home early in the morning, just before dawn was about to stripe light across the sky in its normal cyclical pattern. He'd been debriefed, had given his statement, and now, as he pulled into the garage, it felt like he was waking from the nightmare, and back into his normal life.

Once inside the house, his calm little haven of peace again, he wanted to go to his study, to take down the pictures of gargoyles, to begin cleansing the evil from his soul, to start the purging process. Instead, he was met at the door by Walter. Walter wearing nothing but a bathrobe. Immediately, Walter took Mulder into his arms.

Walter hurried Mulder up to their suite, while running his hands up and down Mulder's back, grabbing and holding his ass. Once inside and the door shut, Walter pushed Mulder down on the bed and threw himself on top. After that, he took Mulder. Not forcefully, but with a quiet intensity that was meant to claim, to reinforce his ownership of Mulder's heart. He didn't mark Mulder, not except in the indelible, unseeable depths of Mulder's soul. With each thrust, each pounding into Mulder's willing softness, Walter might as well have been whispering, "mine, mine, mine," again and again. And with each thrust, with the mounting ecstasy, Mulder could feel Patterson's hold on his soul slip away. The monster was being purged, cleansed. Mulder was purified by the tsunami of Walter's love and he understood, he thought, for the first time, how anyone survives the horrific. It was just this. Just love. It was a truth that left him filled, satisfied to the deepest levels, whereas every time before he'd faced the monster, when he came back, he'd felt empty, scoured. He wanted to whisper to Walter, "I'm yours, all yours," but somehow the solemnity of the moment seemed too extreme for mere words. He would have to depend on his body to speak the truth to Walter's body.

Afterwards, they laid together in an exhausted puddle of bliss, soaked with sweat and come. The moment passed silent yet Mulder, for once, didn't feel the need for words. Indeed, when the words came back, they were an interruption.

Walter had dared a glance at the clock, and said, "Damn. I have to get up and start getting ready for work."

"Stay," Mulder said, sleepily. He tried to pull Walter back to bed, back to his arms.

"I can't."

Mulder didn't pout. Instead, he couldn't help drifting to quiet, deep oblivion, the exhaustion of the past several days catching up to him all at once. Besides the fantastic orgasm, Mulder decided that he had good cause to be grateful to Walter for cave-manning him up to bed. If he hadn't, Mulder would probably still be up, too exhausted to fall asleep, still strung high on nervous energy. He'd sleep most of the morning, he thought, then he'd go in to the office and help John prepare for the usual hearing anytime a shooting took place.

John dropped him off at the end of a long night of travel. Mulder stood in the driveway and watched John pull away. Georgetown wasn't exactly on the way home from the airport for John, who'd ended up buying a house out in Falls Church, but he'd insisted on driving Mulder home. No reason for Mulder to take a cab home, nor the metro. They'd had a long two weeks away from home, and had caught the red eye out of Sea-Tac that night.

Walter was gone to work already by the time he got back, but Jenn was in the kitchen with Lovey when he walked in. First thing, he dropped his suit bag where he stood and held his arms out for her. Jenn put Lovey in his arms and he pulled the sweet little thing into his arms and squeezed her. She suffered this for a few minutes, but started to squirm after a bit.

"Put her down," Jenn suggested. "You should see what she started doing while you were gone."

He did, put her down on the brown ceramic tiles of the outdated kitchen. She crawled over to the nearest cabinet and used the handle to pull herself upright. She took a few experimental steps using the cabinet to steady herself. Then she took off. Walking. His little lady was walking. He felt both proud and sad. Proud for the obvious reason, but melancholy that he'd missed another one of her landmarks because he'd been gone. Only Jenn had probably seen her first steps. "Whoa, hold on, Speedo," Jenn said, starting to run after Lovey, who was currently making a very plausible attempt on the basement door.

Jenn caught her up and tickled her belly, distracting her from the door. Then she swept the pair of them into the living room and set them up with some toys, blocks. Paper and crayons. Creative stuff. Lovely wasn't really drawing yet, but she managed to grasp crayons in her little hands and delighted in scrawling them across the paper, and that in itself was advanced for her tender age of not quite a year. She seemed to like color. Mulder took his luggage upstairs and unpacked. He came down to see Lovely scrawling and Jenn watching her.

"How was the trip?" Mulder shrugged in response. He couldn't tell her, not that she'd believe anyway. Mulder had failed to save the life he'd gone to protect. The killer had murdered three more before they'd tracked him down. Not willing to be stymied by Mulder's non response, Jenn asked, "How's Agent Doggett? You should have asked him in. I'd have made the pair of you coffee or something."

Mulder thought carefully. He tried to cope with his continuing feelings for Doggett by avoiding him socially as much as possible, interacting with him only as much as was necessary for the work. "It's just as well, Jenn. I really saw enough of him the last two weeks."

"You wish he were less of a temptation, don't you?" she asked. As always, Jenn was perceptive way beyond what he thought she should be. He thought he did a pretty good job of convincing all concerned that 'just work partners' was how he felt about Doggett.

It wasn't that he was unhappy with Walter in any way, quite the opposite. Perhaps it was the nagging sense that something with John was not finished. Or that in some way, some alternative dimension if one used Star Trek terminology, in some alternate dimension, that he and John had something that was so good, that if circumstances had allowed, they could have a life together that would be just as rich and fulfilling as this one he had with Walter.

Mulder shrugged at Jenn. He didn't really want to talk about it. He wanted to immerse himself in his life here. He wanted to play with his little spot of brightness, make her laugh by bouncing her on his knee and dive elbows deep into indulging his domestic side. He seriously thought about telling Jenn to take the rest of the day off and just staying home instead of going in later to work on his report.

"I should set him up. I can think of the perfect guy for him," Jenn said.

"Not a good idea, Jenn," Mulder said. John bristled at even the slightest hint of being set up for a blind date. Mulder had made that mistake and been at the receiving end of this bad temper once. He'd learned better than to do it again. She just grinned slightly, her usual, enigmatic grin.

Mulder did, in the end, indulge his domestic side. Sort of. Before he could take off for the JEH again, the doorbell rang. He looked out the peephole. Four familiar figures. Byers had his daughter Holly in tow. Holly adored Lovey, and the feeling was mutual, generally speaking. Mulder opened the door and the troops filed in. Presumably, because they'd brought along Byers' daughter, the visit was purely social, not business.

"We heard you were back from Washington, Mulder," Langly said. Then he bent down to see the true recipient of this visit. He held out his arms to Lovey and said, "Come to Uncle, sweetheart!"

Lovey cooed, Langly being her favorite of her multiple "uncles," then pulled herself upright using Langly's offered hands. He lifted her up and then tossed her lightly to the ceiling, just a few inches out his hands then back down again. She laughed and smiled. Then, when Langly brought her in close, for a little hug, she grabbed at his glasses. She laughed as she took the temple piece and pulled. Hard. Before Mulder could move in to intervene, the temple snapped. And the nose bridge too for some reason.

Langly, Mulder knew, was about as blind as a bat, helpless without his glasses. So was Frohike, and Lovey had pulled on his glasses before. But apparently Frohike knew of the wisdom of spring hinge glasses and had never had his broken before. Langly's glasses looked like he hadn't replaced them since about 1954, which was absurd considering the man hadn't even been a gleam in his father's eyes yet.

"I'm sorry, Langly," Mulder said, retrieving Lovey as Langly held the busted pieces of his late glasses. "I'll take you over to the one hour place in the mall and we'll get them fixed."

So, instead of going to work, Mulder went to the mall, not exactly what he had in mind for the day, but it was nice out and he was with friends and family. And anyway, it wasn't like he hadn't worked 'round the clock practically for the past two weeks. Times like this were necessary, he decided, to balance his workaholic tendencies. He feared, sometimes, that he'd wake up someday, about twenty years from now, to find his daughter had grown up feeling just as abandoned by him as he felt by his parents, because he'd spent his whole life chasing after little green men, and left her to be raised by paid help.

The nice lady at the one hour place tried really hard to find a new frame similar enough to the old pair that she could slip the lenses right into place, but she failed. "I'm sorry, sir. I guess it's just not possible," she said after her futile search.

Langly looked lost without the usual black frames. "I'm sorry, Langly. I'll pay for a whole new pair. Why don't you pick out some frames," Mulder said.

Langly sulked when he discovered that the frames now available weren't anything like his usual pair. He squinted at himself as he tried on pair after pair. Mostly the shop had variations on the round wire rim style, similar to what Walter wore. "I can't see myself for crap, but I look like John Lennon, don't I?"

"No, you don't, Langly," Frohike said. "Quit your bitching. You're getting a free pair. You had to know that temporary fix at the bridge wouldn't hold for long."

Byers had quietly watched the proceedings and strolled up and down the rows of frames, looking at them quietly. At this, he plucked a pair off the rack and handed them to Langly. "These," he said. Langly made a face, but put them on. Byers had picked the tiniest pair of frames in the place, little ovals in pewter colored metal. Langly's face was transformed by them. Instead of hiding the planes of his face like the groucho marx pair he was lamenting would have, this pair emphasized them, making Mulder realize for the first time that Langly was actually quite handsome in an unusual kind of way, with a strong jaw and high cheekbones. For the first time, Mulder could see that Langly had a lively pair of blue eyes.

"What?!" Langly asked as they all stared at him.

"Byers is right," Mulder said. "That's the pair."

"They're too small," Langly protested.

"They're perfect," the counter woman said.

Mulder was almost happy to be paying for the other man's pair of glasses. At least until he'd gotten total. Byers would have to pick the single most expensive pair in the entire place. They were unlikely to break at least, having spring hinges and being made out of titanium. Mulder paid and they got out of there, and decided to go out to lunch.

It was three weeks later when Mulder next saw Langly. He and John were headed over to the Gunmen with some mysterious computer chips that had been slipped under the door of their office.

After the whole assortment of locks were turned and the substantial metal door of the Gunmen's headquarters was opened, by Langly.

The man had gotten a haircut. Not just a haircut. A major shearing. He had some bangs left that fell agreeably over his forehead, then the rest was cut sleekly short. He looked like a completely different man. Actually, between the new glasses and the new cut, Langly had turned from the odd, ugly duckling to...not quite a swan, but an unusual, uniquely handsome man.

John spoke first, "Langly, what the hell happened to you? What's with the hair?"

"I had to get it cut. Our stove blew up in my face. I was lucky not to lose my eyebrows. My hair was a total loss. It was scorched all over. And then the stupid woman at the hair place cut way too much off."

"It looks good," John said. Actually, he'd given Langly a whole, long appraising look as they'd stepped into the headquarters, as if seeing him for the first time today, for all that they'd met a couple of years ago. He seemed to like what he saw. And Mulder could kind of see his point. Langly's jeans and t-shirt were tight fitting, revealing a lean body. The t-shirt today was solid black, not from some heavy metal band or the Ramones. "You should keep it like that."

A few years later found Mulder and Doggett on top of a roof in Dallas, in weather that was just starting to hint at blistering. The official FBI jacket Mulder was wearing was really too damn hot, considering it was navy in the bright sun. He longed to strip it off. He thought zealously about getting the hell off this roof, maybe into a nice air-conditioned plane that would take him home. Away from this hellhole they called Texas and this shithold assignment. One slight misstep on his part, and they'd had all the ammunition they'd needed to pull Mulder and Doggett off the X-files that they'd worked so hard at getting reopened. Instead, John and he had been dropkicked into domestic terrorism. They were still under AD Jackson, but she didn't have much room to maneuver. Most of the time they were on shit patrol, as John called it, checking up on people who bought large amounts of fertilizer, usually farmers. Today's little exercise was a bomb threat that no doubt would prove to be a false alarm.

John was walking towards him, talking on his phone. "Hey, you were right, Ree. Yeah. He's up here. Yeah. Soon as we get back to town. Yeah, I miss you too, lover."

Then John hung up and pocketed his phone. Who'd have thought it, a couple years back. John Doggett and Ringo Langly. A couple. As far as Mulder had known, Langly had been an asexual virgin. Apparently not. It was nothing as serious as what Mulder and Skinner had. Langly still lived at headquarters with Frohike, and John by himself in Falls Church. But however the hell it had happened, John seemed to love Ringo. And Ringo never had grown his hair long again, which as far as Mulder could tell, was nothing less than a major declaration of love. There were times when Mulder felt a pure streak of green running right through him, one that was only partially obliterated by little reminders to himself that he was happy with Walter, and that he shouldn't be jealous of something Langly could give John that he couldn't.

Mulder, for his part, had been talking on the phone as well. "Love you, Lovey-dovey. Let me talk to Jenn again, sweetie," he said to his darling as John approached him. She was getting bigger all the time. He hated to miss anything. It was bad enough to be gone from home for the real work, but he was missing her first hair cut, her auburn locks getting their first clip this afternoon, all for shit patrol. That was just about intolerable.

"Jenn, Jenn," Lovey called out, right into the phone. Then she must have set it down again and managed to disconnect it. Mulder sighed and shut his phone and pocketed it.

"Mind if I ask you what you're doing up on this roof?" Doggett asked, as he stopped a few feet away from Mulder. He didn't look any more comfortable in his FBI jacket than Mulder was.

"Looking for a bomb," Mulder said. He kicked a few of the roofing pebbles.

"You know, they phoned in the threat for that building," John said. He pointed with his thumb over his shoulder at the federal building's twin across the street. "They're going to miss us, soon, Fox. We oughta get back before the SAIC notices we're gone. Our ass is in a sling enough already."

"It's not there, John," Mulder said. "They're swarming all over the building. They'd have found it by if it were."

"And you think it's here? Mind if I ask why?"

Mulder shrugged. Doggett's standards of proof, in some ways, were even more demanding than Scully's had been. But in other ways, he was a bit more open minded. He always was able to accept something that was "cop instincts" or "A gut feeling." At least accepted it enough to investigate into it and get the physical proof he demanded before belief. He still didn't believe the aliens, but there were times Mulder had his doubts as well. Doggett had had more than his fair share of proof the American government was up to its armpits in a conspiracy against its own people and that was good enough for him to keep it up when various attempts had been made to reel him and Mulder in. That and sheer stubbornness.

"A hunch?" Doggett asked. "Okay. So. Let's take a looksee. God, it's hot enough out here to boil a monkey's ass."

"Coke's on me," Mulder said, heading for the door to the elevator.

"You big spender," Doggett said, heading towards a clump of equipment that looked like it might be air-conditioning stuff.

Mulder made his way downstairs, looking for a vending machine. He was informed that the only one was on the ground floor. They were all together in a separate room. A repair guy passed him on the way out of the room. Something seemed odd about that, but Mulder shrugged it off and went to look at the row of vending machines. Only one of them was a soda machine. Damn, not a coke to be had among them. He pulled out his phone and dialed. "Hey, John," he said when he got an answer. "I'm going to have to get you an RC. That's all they have."

"Living the big life, huh?" John said. "Whatever. Hurry up, it's an oven up here."

Meanwhile, Mulder took a closer look at the machine. He didn't put his quarter in it. It wasn't on, first of all. He looked around. Unplugged. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up, a dozen little clues clicking into place to make one very ugly picture in his mind. He backed away from the machine, headed straight for the door. Locked. No, on a closer look. Not locked. The lock filled and utterly jammed. He was stuck in the room with the goddamn bomb. Just to make sure he wasn't jumping to bad conclusions, he opened up the front of the vending machine. There it was. Wires. Explosive. Detonator. Timer. Oh, hell.

"Mulder! Mulder!" John had been calling him several times. "What's going on down there."

"John, I need you to get off that roof and get everyone out of the building. Evacuate it. Now."


"The bomb. I found it."

"Where are you?"

"First floor vending room. I'm locked in with it."

John didn't bother to say anything else. He just hung up and, if he were being true to his usual nature, got going. Mulder was almost relieved it was John on the outside of the door, having to be the one getting people moving. He was a natural leader. He got up in front of a crowd of people and said jump, they jumped. People took him seriously naturally. He didn't have to prove himself the way Mulder so often did. A few minutes later, the sound of people moving rapidly through the corridor outside the door assured Mulder that John had gotten the evacuation started. It was a long ten minutes later that the door was finally cut open. John was on the other side, directing the cutting crew. They got out of there. The SAIC remained in the room. They tried to talk him out of it and Mulder knew it was a mistake. They got out just in time. Even as they were fleeing the scene, the force of the explosion threw their car into another car.

John was shaking and white as they got out of the car, even more so when he turned around to look at the scene of mass destruction behind them. He was still visibly upset hours later. And on the plane trip back to DC. At the airport, John was met by Langly at the baggage carousel. Without a word, Langly took John into his arms. They didn't kiss, not in public. John wasn't demonstrative, even in relative privacy, but he didn't protest Langly's lanky body wrapped around him. He even rested his head on Langly's shoulder for a minute. Mulder was almost shocked to see either of the two men act so tenderly, especially Langly. "You gonna take me straight home, Ree?" he asked.

"Yeah, G-man, sounds like you had it rough."

"It was like..."

"You don't have to say," Langly said, letting John go to pick up his bag. "I know."

Mulder got his and left to go home, to find his own comfort in the arms of his lover and the peace of his family. And it was precious little peace that he got. A few days later and the witch hunt had begun. People had died in the explosion, only a tiny fraction of the people that would have, had Mulder not found the bomb. But the SAIC and four more people beside were dead and the FBI's upper echelon was headhunting. It was starting to look like Doggett and Mulder were on the menu. They were questioning Doggett now, wanting to know what he and Mulder were doing in the other building, if they had known something, why hadn't they said anything sooner, why hadn't they gotten the SAIC out, all of that. Mulder was waiting in the hall, crunching sunflower seeds nervously.

At last, they were done grilling Doggett and the man walked out looking defeated. He dropped himself on the bench beside Mulder and loosened his tie. "I'm thinking it's looking like Salt Lake City for me. The only I can't figure out is why nobody seems to care that it's five dead, not five hundred and five," he said. He looked at Mulder, scooped a couple of Mulder's sunflower seeds right out of his hands and said, "C'mon. I'm also thinking this is one of those kinds of days that can only get better by diving headfirst into a bottle of whiskey."

"Tequila," Mulder said.

"You got a death wish or something?"

A couple of hours later found them both sitting in the same bar where Mulder had first taken Skinner home from. It seemed like it was decades ago, that night. The barmaid, oddly, was still Miss Blond and Perky, only she was considerably less perky these days. She took at look at the pair of them and the little forest of glasses that had accumulated in front of them. "Well, boys, looks like that's about your recommended daily allowance."

"I ain't done yet," John said, a little nastily. Mulder found himself glad that drinking wasn't something John did very often.

Mulder left John to argue with the barmaid. He had more pressing business to discuss with his bladder. The men's room was out of order. The women's room seemed to be doing a bustling business, so there was no way he could sneak quickly in there. So, there was nothing for it but to head out to the alley. He found an abandoned spot on the brick wall of the dark alley. He worried about being caught, but not enough to stop from pulling his dick out of his pants and marking his territory on the brick. Besides, when it was done, it felt so much better. The problem with alcohol, Mulder thought, was that one didn't so much buy it as get a short-term lease on it. He didn't feel much better for very long though. He heard footsteps behind him. He'd been followed. He hurriedly tucked himself back into his pants and prepared to meet whoever had followed him.

It was Alex Krycek. Time stopped for Mulder. He felt conflicting urges. To grab the man and slam him against the brick wall and interrogate him about where Scully was and where the hell they'd been for the past several year. Or to hug him. Or something. He settled for a compromise. "Where the hell have you been, Krycek, and what the fuck did you do with Scully?"

"Scully's in Europe. Quite safe, I assure you. Talk is, Mulder, it's your ass that's in the fire this time. Neither your current or your ex-boyfriend's influence can protect you. That you're days from being out on the street, you and Dogboy. And that you're just going to let them ride you out of town on a rail. All when you're about on the verge of the biggest breakthrough in your career. Ever wonder what three firemen and a little boy were doing in the FEMA office in that building?"

And so Mulder listened while Krycek talked. Once he'd spewed forth the tantalizing, brief details, just enough to make Mulder wonder if he was going to be heading off on a wild goose chase, with John in tow, Krycek turned away to leave. But not before he asked, a look of soft, needy longing on his face, "You're taking good care of her, aren't you?"

"Walter and I are," Mulder told him. "The best of everything."

"Good," Krycek said, then skittered away, like a rat back into the woodpile.

Mulder went back into the bar to collect John. Another couple of glasses had been added to the gathering of them that they'd already put together on the bar. Impressive that he'd managed to talk the barmaid into serving him more. At the moment though, he was doing a good job convincing her that it had been a mistake.

"...So of course no one believes us. I work with the most beautiful pain in the ass I've ever met. They call him Spooky. They call me Mrs. Spooky. I'm an annoyance to my superiors about to get shipped out to the ass end of nowhere for it. We spend our days chasing little green men with a badge and gun, and the thing is, I don't even believe in them," he was saying.

The bartender looked up at Mulder and said, "Hey, Spooky, I think it's about time you take your wife here home."

"We're work partners," Mulder said, sharply. Still, he gathered John, supporting him out the door, even though it was a hard won effort to remain on his own feet. He had the impulse to flag down a taxi and get John home, or take him to Georgetown and put John to sleep on the sofa. But there were things to do. Once they were out on the street, he walked them until he found an all night coffee and donut place. He ordered for them. When John tried to push the coffee away, Mulder said, "Coffee, John. Time to sober up. There's work to do. First we have to go see a body, then I'm thinking we're off to Texas."

"We just got back from Texas," John complained, but he drank his coffee anyway. Black, no sugar.

"There's some little green men that need chasing down."

John made a face at that, but despite that, he just drank his coffee.

In the end, it was just more frustration. More things that they couldn't prove. They chased tanker trucks across great swaths of nothing in Texas, found another field of corn, just like the USDA research facility that had been destroyed. They were chased by helicopters. And they made it back to DC just in time for John's disciplinary hearing. They argued the whole way back.

"I'm not going to let you take the fall for me," Mulder said.

"They've already decided it's me, Fox. Today's just about deciding whether it's Butte, Montana or St. Louis. I'm out of DC," Doggett said.

In the end, he was right. None of the AD's listened, not even when they presented hard evidence. Both Jackson and Skinner looked pained, but in the end, two ADs could only go so far to balance the rest of them, the ones who were looking for someone to lynch and had found it in John Doggett. Mulder felt pained to be witnessing the final derailment in a career that had been a train wreck ever since the fateful day that Doggett had been assigned to work with him.

They'd gone right to the hearing the minute they'd gotten home from Texas. They hadn't had time to go home, much less change. Doggett had wiped dirt from the cornfield off his shoes with toilet paper from the plane's restroom and straightened his suit as much as he could. But by the time they were through with the ADs and the dark, impersonal conference room, they both looked, and felt like they'd been through the wringer.

"I'll drive you home, John," Mulder said.

John settled into the front seat of Mulder's car with little argument. Between being up for most of the last twenty-four hours, with a quickly grabbed nap on the plane, he didn't have it in him to do much more than shake his head and say, "Fucking Salt Lake City," a few times.

They stood in the driveway at John's house, just staring at each other. "Langly here to meet you?" Mulder asked.

"Nah," Doggett said. "That rag of theirs goes to press tomorrow. He'll be pulling an all-nighter probably. I can't expect him to pull up roots and stop doing what he does, just for me."

Doggett was talking more than Langly just taking a single day off to spend time caring for his exhausted, disheartened lover. He was wondering at the possibilities that Langly would come with him to Salt Lake, and no doubt he was finding that they weren't good. "We'll manage to get you back here somehow, soon," Mulder promised, a promise he didn't even have a clue if he could keep. "I need you to do the work. I need you by my side, Johnboy."

The next moment was electric. Unforgettable. All thoughts of stability, and Walter and his life as it was as the moment were forgotten. John leaned forward. They were going to kiss. Yes, there was the brush of lips against his, so soft and tentative. Yes, he was going to do this, do something he'd regret, probably for the rest of his life, but that he needed to do now. He needed to finish this chapter with John.

Except before their lips could do more than brush, John slapped a hand at the back of his own neck, with a startled, "Ow! Shit! What was that?"

He brought his hand down from his neck. He'd captured a small, squirming insect. A bee. "It must have caught in the back of your collar," Mulder said. He took one of the familiar little baggies that he carried practically everywhere with him and opened it up for John. John seemed okay for the moment, but then the change was sudden. He'd barely gotten the bee dropped into the evidence bag when his face turned white and alarmed.

"Hard to breathe," he choked out. "Feel strange."

"Are you allergic to bee stings? I think you're going into anaphylactic shock. Hold on."

John collapsed right onto the driveway with a heavy thud and bump, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Even as Mulder was getting down on his knees to check on John, he was dialing 911 on his phone, making a call that John had made for him before, that he'd made for John. "This is Agent Fox Mulder with the FBI. I have an agent down..."

The next minutes passed in a flurry and panic, waiting for the ambulance. He called the Gunmen's headquarters first and got only their machine. He left a frantic message to Langly. As he did, the ambulance pulled up and Mulder was so busy telling the story to them that he forgot to turn off his phone. The EMTs loaded John onto a stretcher as Mulder tried to explain about the virus that the bee carried. They lifted the stretcher up into the vehicle and Mulder tried to climb in as well. "I'm riding with. That's my partner," he said. The only response he got was the EMT pulling a handgun out from nowhere and firing it.

Mulder woke up to less pain than he thought he would, in a hospital bed. He focused woozily on the trio of blurry faces looking at him from the foot of the bed. "Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow and Toto."

It was Byers, Langly and Frohike standing there. They all seemed distraught, especially Langly, who was fidgeting as he stood. Of course, they would have found out by now that Mulder had failed, that by dragging John to Texas, he'd exposed the man to a dangerous virus, then failed to stop him from being abducted right in front of him. Oh, God, he thought. Langly must hate me. Mulder couldn't face them right now. He turned away, and instead, had to face Skinner, who was standing right there with a gigantic arrangement of flowers. It was pretty, but not the usual sort of loose bouquet of wildflowers that was Skinner's thing.

"For me?" he asked.

"Apparently so," Skinner said, putting them down on a convenient tray table. "Some long haired punk shoved them at me on my way into the hospital. But there's a card with your name on it, so I brought it up."

"Let me see," Mulder demanded. The envelope was put into his hands and he opened it. On the card inside were seemingly random numbers. He scrutinized them for a minute.

Langly ripped the card right out of his hand impatiently and said, "These are co-ordinates. This a place. And someone went to a bunch of trouble to get it to you."

Something clicked in Mulder, a hunch, John would have called it, "Give me the damn bouquet."

Despite the pain, as soon as it was handed to him, Mulder started digging through the arrangement, tossing handfuls of expensive irises, orchids and roses right onto the hospital room floor in a riot of fragile color. He found it, a small glass vial with a green fluid in it, taped with green florists tape, to a small stick. "This is it," he all but crowed. "This is the cure to the virus. I'm sure of it. All we have to do is get it to this place."

There was a momentary argument over who was going to go, how and when. In the end, Byers settled it by taking off his suit jacket, then his tie and tossing them at Mulder. When people stared at him while he started to unbutton his shirt, Byers said, "Mulder and Ringo are the obvious choices for the journey. It's the obvious way to sneak Mulder out of here."

The suit was too small, but it got him out of there, past the beefy looking man who just happened to pacing the hallways outside of his hospital room. Luckily, it'd been a very minor wound, more or less a grazing shot. It'd leave yet another scar, but otherwise he'd be unharmed at the end of this. But he didn't have very long to get to John if his partner was going to survive this. Once out of the linoleum corridors of the hospital, it was a long, desperate trip. And it cost a lot of money to get to Antarctica with no notice. At one point, Langly quipped, "Round trip to Antarctica, $5,000. State of the GPS, $500. Sno-Cat rental, $300, per day. Snatching your lover from the edge of death, priceless."

The frozen landscape was, despite them coming at a time when it was supposedly spring, utterly frigid. The daylight was brighter than anything Mulder had seen, coming from a flawlessly blue sky and reflected from a landscape that was nothing but white snow as far as the eye could see. Langly had, at Mulder's insistence, remained at base as backup. He'd gone out on the ice in a sno-cat, looking for the co-ordinates. Before he'd gone out, Langly had grabbed his shoulders and looking at him dead on in the eyes, had said, "Bring him back for me, Mulder."

It worked. By all that was sacred, the vaccine worked. Mulder had found John in the huge hold of a ship, frozen with thousands of other people. He only had the vaccine for one though. But once he'd injected it into John, it seemed to infect the whole system, triggering a klaxon that sounded like hell's own bells. He'd nearly lost John a couple of times as he dragged him from the ship that was buried under the ice, had to give him CPR once. Thankfully, he'd started breathing again. Only sheer panic gave him the strength to drag John's limp body through the tunnels to the surface. Once he came back to himself, he'd be incredibly sore and tired. They made it to the surface finally.

And overhead, as the ice shelf mere feet from them crumbled and avalanched itself into a chasm, the ship rose. Larger than any flying vessel that Mulder had ever seen, it rose into the air with a steady speed that vessels that size shouldn't have. There it was. Proof. All he'd ever looked for. That was no military experimental aircraft, no way. The surface of the ship was incredibly complex, with designs and patterns that appeared to be more functional than anything. John was lying on his back, staring in wide eyed shock at the vessel. "Do you see it, John?" Mulder asked.

"I see it," he said. Then he passed out again. In short order, the vehicle was gone from sight. And Mulder really had no choice but to drag John after him the impossibly long distance to where the sno-cat was waiting. He was out of gas, but he could contact base from there. Maybe it might be warmer out of the wind, plus he had extra clothes in there. Only when he crested the hill of ice and snow and caught sight of the sno-cat did he admit to himself that maybe, just maybe they might survive this. No, wait. That was two sno-cats. One started to move through the snow, its treads kicking up a fine spray of ice flakes. There was nowhere to hide on the open field of snow and ice. Fuck.

And then he realized it was Langly, coming out looking for them sooner than the agreed upon time. And he was more grateful than he could say. First thing Langly did was to take John from him, drag him into the warm cabin of the sno-cat. John revived a little from the warmth, as they both worked on settling him in the cabin. "Ree?" he muttered. "You came for me?"

"You bet, G-man," Langly said. "Wouldn't miss it for the world. I got some great pictures too. Just relax. We're getting you out of here."

Langly closed the door on John and turned to Mulder. "I've got extra fuel, do you need any?"

"Yes," Mulder said. There wasn't anything to do but take the gas can from Langly, then watch Langly crawl back into his sno-cat with John, pausing to kiss him gently on the cheek before starting the vehicle again. Mulder pushed aside the memory of the ill-considered kiss that had nearly happened between him and John. The pair of them were truly good for each other. If nothing else, Mulder had seen Langly become truly more confident, rather than full of the arrogance that hid internal insecurity. John, in turn, seemed gentler and less melancholy, like he was beginning to forget some of his sorrow.

Besides, he had his own reason for living to get back to, he thought with a grin. Two reasons to live. He could hardly wait to leave this frigid landscape. He filled his tank and headed back home. Walter was waiting. So was Lovey.

No matter what she changed, the end was inevitable, even more tragic in this iteration because of the changes she'd made. She was in the midst of the family still to see as Mulder's mind was changed, responded to that bit of alien ship. She saw how frantic little Lovey, now four, when she wasn't allowed to see her Daddy. Walter's agony was clear, plain as day. Doggett himself was not a man to be messed with, Jenn thought, as he raced to Africa in pursuit of an alien ship buried on the coast. He was so desperate for any cure for Mulder, that he'd do anything. In the end, Mulder was returned home, but the brain malady remained with him, momentarily quiescent, but not for long.

The agony repeated itself a year later. Mulder and Doggett joked their way around the Oregon woods, but in the end, Mulder still stepped into the aliens' field. And then he was gone, and it was John Doggett who watched open mouthed as the giant craft hovered for a moment, then sped away in a move that seemed to flaunt every law of physics and reality. It was John who cried as he reported to Walter, "I'm sorry, sir. I lost him. I lost him."

It was Lovey's agonized, confused tears, only five and without her beloved father, that strengthened Jenn's resolve to do it again, right this time, to work this out. She remembered how tightly Fox had hugged Lovey to him as he left for Oregon, like he could never bear to lose her. But now, with her father gone, the pain to the child was so great that Jenn wondered, for the first time, at the wisdom of having arranged circumstances such that she arrived in the world.

Perhaps, Jenn thought, having seen how much Mulder had suffered, the solution was to take him out of the FBI before it beat him down, before he grew jaded by it.

Mulder poked around the warehouse, looking for the perp. Carefully. He'd been warned by Luther Lee Boggs. Not that he believed for one instant that the warning had been a psychic one. No, this was a trap, but one that could be sprung on the would-be captor, should they trip it just right. Mulder turned the corner, and there. That was the white cross he'd been warned about, but before he could react, the shot rang out. He heard it, then felt it as a massive, all encompassing pain. There wasn't anything else at all, until the blackness took him.

Mulder woke in a cool room, feeling like hell warmed over. He almost panicked at the unfamiliar feel of the tube down his throat, but he was able to get himself together at the sudden feel of a warm hand on his. Scully. The small but strong hand was unmistakable. There was a small medical fluster, but he paid attention only to her support, her touch. And eventually, he drifted to sleep again.

Each time he woke after that, he was stronger. Eventually, he was no longer intubated. And then was when he spoke about the thing had worried him. Scully was sitting next to him, looking lovely, for all that she was drawn and pale. Her skin was near perfect alabaster, but more like a statue's than a living woman's.

"Luther Lee Boggs went to the gas chamber yesterday," she said, her voice even, but he could hear the repressed emotion behind it.

Damn Luther Lee Boggs. Who the hell cared about him?

"Scully," he said. His voice sounded unbelievably rough, like it was some miracle that he was talking at all. "Where was I hit, Scully? Where?"

She didn't want to tell him. When she did, it was in the measured clinical tones she would use for an autopsy. Her way of getting her emotions under control over herself was always to depersonalize, to retreat under the guise of logic and science.

"The bullet entered your body approximately one inch to the left and one inch below your navel. It ricocheted against your pelvic bone then finally lodged into your spine, between the second and third lumbar vertebrae, partially shattering both of them and spreading bone fragments throughout your lower back area. There was no involvement of the vena cava, but there was significant damage to your whole lower abdomen."

In other words, it was a miracle he was alive. But he was hardly thinking of that. His spine. Oh. God. No. "My spine!" he whispered. The mere thought was as agonizing as the pain was when the meds wore down. "I'm paraplegic. Aren't I? I can't feel anything from my navel down."

Scully didn't say anything, just lowered her anguished eyes.

"Scully, damn it. Tell me the truth."

She finally risked a look. She breathed hard. "Yes. In all likelihood, you will not regain feeling or function in your lower legs. The spinal cord was more or less completely severed. They didn't want me to tell you that. They don't want to take away your hope for recovery. But I...I can't tell you anything but the truth, Mulder."

He wanted to die. It didn't happen. When it didn't happen, he eventually got out of the hospital, bound to his chair, but more bound by the despair that infected every pore of his being.

That had definitely been a mistake, Jenn thought from a distance, as she watched Mulder push away all help. Any care from Scully. Any care from anyone that was not professionally paid and cooly impersonal. Jenn tried to help. She sent Walter. Mulder remained impervious to any overtures from big, bald and beautiful. Not just Mulder's body but his spirit had been broken by her decision to change his life. This had to be fixed.

In the end, she approached Mulder. He was sitting in the little park outside of the convalescent home he was living in at the moment. The impersonal care of their staff was the only help he would accept. Today, they'd wheeled him outside to enjoy the warm spring day, but he'd hunched in his chair, focused on his internal blackness.

She sat on the park bench nearest to him, sipping at a paper cup of coffee. After a while, she looked to him. "Do you ever think about wishes?" she asked.

"No, not really," he said, bitterly.

"If you could have anything, anything at all in the world, what would that be?" she asked. She was surprised at his answer, which she thought would be to fall asleep and wake up to find that it had all been a big nightmare.

"That my partner had found that boy before he was killed, not after. That all of this would have meant something. She was so distracted by my nearly dying that she wasn't fast enough to save his life."

It's okay, Jenn thought. I can hear the other wish, the unspoken one. Go to sleep, Mulder. You'll wake to good health and spirits. He did just that. Drifted to sleep in his chair as the cherry blossoms drifted down onto his beautiful, pain-twisted face, like snow falling on the innocent.


Mulder went out into the nippy fall air to check his mail. Down the driveway and across the country road to the mailbox on the post. His house wasn't quite rural, but it was far enough outside of the small Virginia town he lived in to make him happy. It was a good hundred yards from his front door to the mailbox, just far enough to have made him stop for his jacket first before walking out the door. The wind was enough of a bully to rip orange and yellow leaves from the trees and toss evergreen boughs mercilessly. Rain soon, he thought, from the ache in an ankle he'd broken when he was young and foolish, playing 'football' when he'd been studying in England. Heavy rain, maybe storms.

He checked inside the big aluminum mailbox. A few bills. Another issue of "The Magic Bullet", the magazine published by his strange friends, the ones that called themselves the Lone Gunmen because of something supposedly said to them by a Black Ops agent when they were uncovering a supposed conspiracy to test Baltimore's asthmatics with a paranoia inducing drug. Great guys, and he liked them tremendously, but you could hardly believe a word they said sometimes. He'd met them at a conference on unusual phenomena that he'd gone to once. Still, he was glad to get another issue. It would provide an evening's entertainment. This issue's cover story was on Teletubby mind control. He chuckled at that. Not that he had anything better to do with his Friday evening anyway. He was theoretically close enough that he could dive into Washington DC for a show or an evening out at the clubs, but in practice, he rarely went. Sometimes, when he did, he satisfied a few of his baser urges in the backrooms at one of the clubs, but the enjoyment was always fleeting, leaving him feeling cheap in the clear light of morning back at home. It was always easier, mentally, physically to remain at home.

He shut the door to the mail box and walked across the street. He thought about skipping his run and heading into town and hitting the cafe owned by his friend Jenn before his afternoon of appointments. That might not be such a bad thing. His ankle was certainly voting for no run.

His was a solitary, but mostly not a lonely life. Except for his patients, he might never see another human in a given day, unless he forced himself. He'd talk on the phone and by convoluted emails to his Gunmen friends, but only rarely saw them in person. Jenn had tried to draw him out, introduce him to others in the small town and most of the time he found himself glad for the contact, but just as glad to get back to his little country house when it was done.

Yes, it was mostly a satisfying life, in his small comfortable house and his small practice that gave him enough to live on while only taking part of his time. He ran a lot and indulged his other hobbies. Yet, the times he sat still, he could feel the loneliness- like a big portion was missing from the very center of his self. He couldn't tell what that might be, but he could sort of feel around the edges of it from the strange compulsions he would get sometimes. The conventions on paranormal events were one. The reason he'd taken up target shooting as a hobby was from some sense that his hand belonged on a gun. He was good at it too, had a real talent for it. And then there were the men. He couldn't explain a certain softening and longing he felt whenever his glance fell on a certain type of man- strong, muscular, bald and wearing glasses. It was a rare combination, but it was a feeling that made him feel utterly lost when he came across one of these types. He couldn't explain it. It was like he was mourning the loss of a man he'd never even met. The most inexplicable were the times when he'd wake up from a dream calling out the name Lovey. He'd even asked his mother about it, whether he'd had a childhood friend by that name or anything. She said he hadn't.

Today, he thought, seemed like one of those days, where the edges around the crater in the middle of his heart started to recede from the comfortable mist that kept them obscured much of the time. If he stood too still, or even if he indulged in the quiet meditation of a good run, he might start to see the true size of it.

He went back inside, put the mail on the little wooden table in the hall. He traded jackets, grabbing a heavier one from the squiggly coat rack by the door and putting the one he'd been wearing back on. He paused to look at the Picasso print that hung over his mail table. It'd been a gift from Richard, a boyfriend of long ago. An important man who'd wanted him to come home from England before his degree at Oxford had been finished. And live more or less as his kept boy, Mulder thought bitterly, even still. He'd told Richard no and hadn't regretted not coming home early. Not once. Even when various people, including the FBI had made him job offers, some of them lucrative, to lure him to DC. He pushed the thought behind him. Richard had been years and years ago. He'd been a young fool. At least he hadn't compounded that foolishness by taking the FBI job, or any of the others.

Mulder turned away from the print and from his small, well built little house. He was about to reach for the door when the phone rang. He picked it up and said, "Hello?"

"Fox!" The person on the other end of the line was his sister Samantha, crying obviously. Uncharitably, he wondered what town's jail she was calling from this time. "You have to help me, Fox. I'm in the Fairfax county jail. They picked me up. They say I was drinking and driving but I wasn't, I swear it. And you have to come help me. Get me out of here. Please!"

Something had happened to Samantha when she was young. She'd been missing for a while, just taken one evening when the whole family was sitting around watching television. No one remembered what really happened. The lights went out. When they went back on again, Samantha was gone and they'd lost several minutes of time. A few months later, she was returned, just found walking down a road not far from their house. It was a miracle to have her returned. But she was never the same after that. She'd grown from a troubled girl to a troubled woman. She drank. All the time, as an obvious kind of self-medication. Yes, Mulder felt for her, even now as he prepared himself to tell her to go to hell, he ached and wished there was something he could do. But he'd learned that hauling her ass out of jail wasn't helping, and that until she decided she was going to make the effort to truly heal her life, the best thing he could do was not to enable her. Still, his instinct was to get in his car, cancel his day's appointments and go rescue her.

"Samantha," he prepared himself to be firm. Not uncaring, but unmoving. "I told you before, when you're in police custody, not to waste your phone call, calling me. I can't come bail you out. Furthermore, I won't bail you out ever again. I will call Mom for you, and she can call a lawyer or something."

"But Fox. I didn't do it. You can't leave me in here. It's not my fault."

"Until you admit accountability for your actions, Samantha, we have nothing to talk about. I'm sorry. Goodbye, sweetie. I know it doesn't seem like it to you right now, but I really do love you."

Tough love was all fine and well to talk about, but to actually do it was hell. He hung up the phone, resting it in its cradle gently when his actual impulse was to throw it against the wall. Then he composed himself and picked up the phone again. His fingers quickly punched in the numbers to his mother's house. Not the house he'd grown up in. That had been sold. After his father died, his mother had sold it. Not that they'd always been on the verge of divorce, but not all their years together had been happy, and his death, though she'd never once said it, seemed to come as a relief to her.

"Mom?" he asked, when the phone was picked up.


"Mom, I got another call from Sam. She's in Fairfax."

This kind of call had happened often enough that she didn't have to ask "Fairfax what?" Instead, she just was silent for a moment. "Oh, Fox. Can't you just take care of her? She moved there to be with you. She loves you so much and she just needs so much help. Her life has been so hard."

The disappointment was like a knife, the attempted guilt trip twisting it as his mother tried to pinion him with it. He had to be strong, he told himself. If she wanted to enable Sam's behavior, he couldn't control that, but he could stop her from controlling his. The puppet strings were only hers if he gave them to her.

"No, Mom. I told the both of you. No more. I meant it. I told her I would call you. And I did. That's all I'll do. Goodbye, Mom."

Then he hung up before she could haul out any more of her excuses. She was a woman. She just didn't feel comfortable going to bail someone out of jail, that was a man's job. She was so far away. Sam loved him so much, couldn't he see how much he was hurting her?

His life was his own. He liked it that way. He wouldn't let his remaining family sink their hooks into him that way. That was all there was to it. And for Sam's own sake, he had to set clear limits and boundaries.

He decided he had to get out of here before anyone else disturbed him with their crisis. He shut the door behind him and locked it. Probably in a town this small, he didn't need to bother, but better safe than sorry. His pickup was waiting in the driveway.

He arrived at the town square and found himself a parking spot in the diagonal slots around the courthouse. Jenn's place, "Happy Endings," was the one with the dark purple awning, and the big plate glass window. Maybe half a dozen little round tables clustered in the dark, yet inviting cafe. She'd decided on a faux Arabic look, with painted gold arches on the deep purple walls, cluttered with big glass jewels. More sort of an Aladdin and the Magic Lamp kind of look than anything. Oriental carpets were spread all over the dark pine floor and there was even a couple of the oil lamps that stereotypically held a genie, just waiting to be released. Now, that was a dangerous thing, he thought. This came out of the deep blue nowhere, and skittered across his mind like a rat, but was gone in an instant.

He stepped up to the counter and waited for a moment. The shop was almost empty, only a pair of nurses from the local hospital at the table furthest in the corner. Mulder knew them both and suspected they were having an affair. The close way they huddled over their cups of joe didn't do anything to disprove this.

He waited a little longer and finally Jenn emerged from the back. "Mulder!" she said, still wiping her hands on a dishtowel whose other end was tucked under her apron string. "I didn't hear you. I was just trying to get the dishes from the morning rush done."

She didn't bother to ask him what he wanted. It was always the same. In the summer, a big iced tea, no matter the time of day. In the cool parts of the year, plain coffee, black. She drew his cup of Mocha Java which was the regular house brew. As she handed it to him, she said, "Anything else? We've got new kinds of muffins. Frosted lemon poppyseed."

He shook his head and reached out for his coffee.

"You look like somebody kicked your puppy? What's wrong?"

"Sam's in the drunk tank again."

"You have your reasons for not going, Mulder. Stick to them."

"I know, but that doesn't make them easier."

"You know what you need? A date. Let me set you up."

"No, thanks," he said. The only times he'd tried to involve himself in relationships lately had been disasters. The last thing he needed was a blind date.

"Seriously. I think you need to get laid," she said.

Mulder thought it was unnecessary to tell her that he didn't need a date to get laid, if that's what he wanted. He just gave her a look. She continued oblivious, "So, what's your pleasure? Tall, dark and pretty with a wicked disposition? Tall, dark, broody and ruggedly handsome, maybe with an air of tragedy to make him interesting?"

"Give it a rest, Jenn," he said. For some reason, he didn't feel like he could tell her his true type- bald, sexy and muscular. With glasses. Mulder was not quite sure why the glasses were necessary, but they were definitely part of the package.

"I know lots of cute guys," she said.

He just shook his head and collected his coffee and a few sections of the newspaper that someone had abandoned and chose one of the tables near the window. He hadn't sat down for a few moments when the door to the cafe opened again, with a jingle of the camel bells that were tied to it with an elaborate cord.

Oddly, two of his friends walked in. Byers, the normal looking one of the trio, yet the strangest internally speaking. Byers wore suits. Everywhere. Today he was all buttoned up in one of his usual suits, his only concession to the fall was that the suit was a brownish color. And there was Langly, the one who'd perfected a kind of geek cool. He had big thick geek glasses, but they were an odd kind of stylish, almost edgy. His long blond hair was bound back in in a ponytail. He usually affected plain black clothing, giving in occasionally to a Ramones t-shirt.

"Mulder!" Langly said, walking up to Mulder's table without an invitation. "Byers here got a wild hair up his butt about seeing the fall leaves, so we took a drive. Then we realized we were within ten minutes of your place. I hope you don't mind us dropping in. We came looking for you here when you weren't at your house."

"No, no problem," Mulder said. Actually, he'd thought he would mind such an intrusion, but it was welcome instead. "Sit down. I just got the new issue. Haven't had a chance to read it yet. Teletubby mind control. Sounds very deep, very cutting. Where's Frohike?"

Before Langly or Byers could answer, the door to the cafe opened again. An odd couple walked in. He was, strangely, almost exactly one of the men Jenn had just described. Tall, dark, broody and ruggedly handsome. With a definite air of tragedy about him. He wore a nice suit and conservative tie. Still, something about him just reeked of the title "Fed." Beside him was a beautiful, petite woman, dressed in an expensive looking pantsuit. They scanned the cafe briefly and then approached him.

"Are you Dr. Fox Mulder?" the man asked. Mulder nodded and the man continued, "I'm Special Agent John Doggett of the FBI. This is my partner Special Agent Dana Scully. Can we have a few minutes of your time?"

Something inside of Mulder snapped. This pair seemed to him to be dangerous far beyond the normal suspicion anyone would feel when being confronted with the FBI. Yet, there was a strange longing, as if some piece of himself were calling out to him over the distance. It meant something to him, the FBI did. What, Mulder wasn't sure. It seemed to come from some deep place inside.

Mulder nodded, though he wanted more than anything to send the pair away without speaking to them. This was dangerous. It was a threat to the tranquil life he'd established here.

"Alone, if possible," Scully, the woman said. Scully? Why did that name sound familiar. No, not just the baseball announcer.

"No, my friends stay if you want me to talk," he said.

"Okay, but if anything we say ends up in that greasy rag of yours, Langly, we're never talking to you again," Doggett said.

"You know Langly?" Mulder asked.

A strange look passed between Langly and Doggett, actually the second one that the pair had exchanged. Surprise at finding each other here, but something else as well that Mulder couldn't quite read. "Yeah, I know Langly. And Byers, and their buddy Frohike," Doggett said. He pulled up a chair from another table. The little table Mulder had chosen had been hardly big enough for his coffee and the paper. Now it had five people clustered around it. "You probably know that they run a paper called 'The Magic Bullet'. They've tracked us down, tried to get us to talk to them for a couple of stories."

Byers spoke up, "Agent Doggett here and Agent Scully run a little known unit of the FBI called the X-files. They investigate unexplained, unsolved cases. Naturally, it would be within the purview of our paper to try and speak with them."

"Okay, that explains how you know them. But what do you want with me?"

"Just to ask you a few questions, Dr. Mulder," Doggett said. He got an old snapshot out of a file folder. It wasn't the clearest, but Mulder recognized at least one of the men in it immediately. Certain other men in the pictures seemed familiar but he couldn't quite place them.

"Do you recognize that man, there?" Doggett indicated the man with his index finger.

"Yes, that's my father. He died about five years ago. He was shot during a house robbery."

"Do you recognize anyone else in the picture?"

Mulder tried to dredge up names to connect with faces, the near eidetic memory that had served him so well in medical school failed him now. "No. They might have been people he worked with. But none of them are people he ever brought home."

"You mention your father's work," Scully said. "Can you tell us anything about it?"

"No, not really. He worked for the state department. He was gone a lot of the time, out of the country. I imagine a lot of his work was classified, because he never once talked about it at home."

"Nothing? No mention of any Project? Anything called Purity Control?"

"No, I told you, he never talked about work at home. And he's dead now. Is that all?" Mulder was afraid. He was telling the truth, his father never did talk about work, but there was always a kind of hushed secrecy about that, enough so that Mulder had to wonder if it was something his father was not proud of, a grim necessity. His fear made him irritable. He wanted to push these agents away and get on with his life.

Doggett seemed about to start up again, but Scully put a hand on the man's hand and she said, politely, "Thank you for your time. That's all for now."

"My card. Call me if you think of anything else. See ya around, Langly, Byers," Doggett said as he dropped a small, white card on the table near Mulder's coffee. Mulder didn't pick it up.

As soon the door had jangled closed, Mulder turned to his friends. "You know those guys?"

"Sure," Langly said. "We've written about them. Helped 'em out a few times. Frohike's fault really. He thinks Agent Scully is hot."

"And you?"

"Nah, she's not really my type," Langly said, and then was oddly silent. Mulder reviewed his mental movie of how Langly had behaved and where he'd been looking when the pair of agents had been there, and made some interesting conjectures about Langly's sexuality that had never occurred to him to make before.

Byers joined in where Langly left off, delivering his information in his usual monotone. The guy could have made a good living narrating science documentaries or something. "As I said, they run a little known investigative unit of the FBI known as the X-files. They look into the unsolved and unexplained cases that no one else at the Bureau will take on. Agent Doggett is especially interested in UFO and EBE phenomena."

"He doesn't really strike me as the type," Mulder said, thinking back on the stern, almost humorless man. He'd have pegged him as ex-military for sure. Not exactly someone you'd figure would be chasing after little green men.

"He wasn't. He was a model agent. Commendations up the ying-yang," Langly added. "Until 1993. He was off in Wyoming on the trail of some fugitive. His wife and son were at home in Virginia, but on their way to visit family in New York. Lonely, nearly deserted road at night. The car stops. There was a bright light. And then the wife and son were just gone."

"Despite that the road was nearly deserted, there were five eyewitnesses that reported an aircraft hovering nearby that matched typical descriptions of UFOs," Byers added.

"Three months later, Mrs. Doggett returns," Langly picked up the narrative again, "With a memory that's pretty patchy, remembering that she'd been subjected to what she called tests. Routine medical tests found several pieces of metal in her body, that were later determined to look like computer chips. They took them out and six months later, Mrs. Doggett was dead of a rare form of cancer. And Agent Doggett there had started off in search of answers."

"And his boy?"

"Never returned," Byers added. "Agent Doggett is still looking for him."

Mulder grimaced, remembering the tension and anger that had taken siege to his family when Sam had been missing. And she'd come back, damaged, but returned to them. He sympathized. The man must be devastated by what had happened to him. But that didn't give them the right to go digging in Mulder's personal life.

"Any idea why he might be interested in my father?"

"Mulder, you might not have recognized the other men in that photograph, but I do," Byers said. "One of them was Victor Klemper. An infamous Nazi brought over to this country under the auspices of something known as Project Paperclip. Werner Von Braun was the most famous of them, but not the only one. I suspect that Doggett suspects that your father may have been involved in bringing over war criminals even more infamous, something that may be classified."

"Wait!" Mulder said. He wasn't quite surprised. He knew that his father very probably had been involved in things he wouldn't have wanted the family to know. But this was surprising. "My father brought Nazi war criminals to this country? Why would he have done that? My mom. Her family. They're Jewish. She had family that died in Nazi camps."

Mulder was sick to his soul, a twisting, ache at the thought that his father might have done that.

"I don't know for sure Mulder. We only have pieces of the information," Byers said.

"Well, I want to find out," Mulder said. He fingered the little white card that Doggett had dropped. He wasn't sure what he was going to do yet. He doubted that Doggett would volunteer more information if he had it. Mulder would have to think of his next steps carefully.

Jenn watched from behind the counter as the melancholy Agent Doggett and Scully walked out of the coffee shop. She covered a big sigh by pulling a shot of espresso for the drink she was making. Try as she might, she could never prevent Mulder from coming into contact with certain people. They seemed to drift towards each other like iron filings to a magnet. If she kept him out of the FBI, then he'd run into Skinner at the grocery store and start up a conversation and before Jenn knew it, they were lovers. Mulder would come across Langly, Frohike and Byers at the most unlikely of circumstances. Other connections seemed to arise no matter how she separated the players in her dance. Connections, once made, did not break easily, it seemed. Doggett found Langly, even the times that Mulder's lover was Doggett, not Skinner, Doggett had had an unrequited, passionate something with Langly. Scully often found Krycek, though more often than not, theirs was a vicious, hateful relationship, full of fire and venom that neither of them could adequately explain.

And there seemed to be some law of the conservation of pain and suffering. This iteration, she had given him Sam back, and for all the troubles he had with her, he was still happy to have her around. Not as tortured as he had been. But despite, or perhaps because of this, Agent Doggett's child had taken Sam's place, in a way. Luke had become the touchstone to an obsession, just like Sam had been to Mulder. It was as if by taking Mulder out of his rightful place in the universe, there had been a vacuum created, one that had pulled Agent Doggett into it. The quest, that seemed to remain the same, only it was Doggett's now.

Mulder paused at the front door of his office briefly before daring the rain. He was protected by the same awning that covered Jenn's cafe. The cafe was still open for the night and he considered stopping in for a sandwich before heading home, but he decided against it. Dinner would be whatever he could throw together at home. He turned to make sure his door was locked. He rattled the handle and pushed against it to make sure he'd remembered to throw the deadbolt. Dr. Fox Mulder, specializing in psychiatry and post trauma counseling, the glass read, in gold letters. His office was upstairs from the coffee shop. It was just a few small rooms, a converted apartment really. He couldn't resist having a couch, a thick, tufted leather thing. His patients were always given the option of just sitting in one of the chairs, if that's what made them comfortable. "I'm not much of a Freudian," he'd always said.

As he tested his door, he thought again of Agent Doggett, wondered why the mere thought of him set such a resonance ringing through his whole body, leaving him feel as if he were quivering with excitement. As if they'd met before. But they hadn't. Mulder would have remembered that, wouldn't he? He thought about the tragedy the man had suffered, wife dead, son missing and gone, without any good, clear reason why. Such brutalized, broken souls were the people Mulder helped up in his offices, letting them talk their way through their dark nights of the soul, more often than not those dark nights brought on by others in this hard, often cruel world. Sometimes, when the words weren't enough he had his prescriptions. He could offer drugs to make the days and nights more tolerable. He also could use hypnotherapy, when the stories weren't complete, when it was the memories that weren't clear that caused the problems.

Deciding that the rain wasn't going to slack off any time soon, he pulled his jacket up over his head and decided to make a break for it through the heavily pelting cold rain. He managed to slide behind the wheel of the old pickup with only a few drops of rain finding their way down his collar. The road between town and his house was familiar. Long familiar. He could probably find his way home from town in his sleep. He concentrated on driving carefully through the thick rain, which was beginning to freeze. He hoped Langly and Byers made it back to DC safely. They'd left before his appointments, with promises to find out just what exactly Doggett and Scully were on about, what rocks they were turning over to poke at the unsavory, multi-legged creatures that lived underneath.

Thinking about the Gunmen and the road, he didn't notice the red Ford pull out of its parking space and follow close behind him. Not until he got to his turn off and was about to turn up his driveway. The little road he lived off of was a private road and almost no one who didn't live on the road ever went on it. Technically, the road was his property, so was the field on the other side of it, but practically, the other six houses on the short stretch all got an easement and were allowed passage. Not that he cared much one way or the other. Still, he noticed when strangers were in the area. He drove his truck up the steep grade of his driveway and parked it in front of the garage. He looked down the hill, through trees that were mostly bare already. Yes, there was that red Ford, pulling off to the side of the road, where they could keep his property in easy sight. From up top, it was hard to tell, but it looked like there was a man and a woman in the car.

Okay, this was just past the limit. It was one thing to track him down to his favorite cafe and ask him prying questions about a past he knew nothing about, but this was too much. Following him and staking him out. If he were in a more casually angry mood, he would have been satisfied to let them sit there in the cold, and watch him do nothing of importance. This evening's big plans had been dinner and porn. He had a new Ramrod Stevens vid that looked very promising. But because he was more immediately angry at the intrusion, he decided he was going to roust the Fibbies from his property first.

He contemplated grabbing a shotgun from the downstairs gun safe, for dramatic effect, like he might use when threatening just any trespasser, but he decided that it wouldn't look good to threaten Federal agents with gunfire, no matter if they were trespassing or not. He didn't bring any weapon with him. He did trade his corduroy and fleece jacket for a rainproof slicker and his sneakers for old, sturdy, waterproof work boots. He grabbed his biggest, brightest flashlight. Then he hiked through the woods that surrounded his house, going around the side ways, so he could surprise the occupants of the car. He was able to get within feet of their car before they noticed that the intended object of their stakeout was right there, watching them. Mulder knocked on the driver's side window.

"Do you have a warrant?" he yelled through the glass and metal, shining his flashlight right through the window, so that it shone right into the eyes of whoever was sitting in the driver's seat.

The window rolled down. "What?"

"I said, do you have a warrant?"

"No," Doggett admitted.

"Then get the hell off my property," Mulder yelled. He didn't care that he wasn't being nice.

"I'm parked on the street," Doggett said. "On the shoulder. Public property. I don't need a warrant."

"Wrong. You missed the posted signs, asshole. This is a private drive. I own this patch of gravel you've got your fucking Bucar parked on, so I suggest you present me with a warrant or get your ass off of it. Now. No, wait. I want your badge numbers and the name of your supervisor."

"I don't have to..." Doggett began.

"You do. And you will."

Mulder heard a sigh from within the car. A half a moment later, a small sheet of paper was passed, by a delicate, feminine hand, across Doggett and into Mulder's hand. "Get going, Agent Doggett. The man's well within his rights."

Mulder stuffed the slip of paper into his pocket so it wouldn't get any wetter in the plastering rain, then watched as the Ford backed up and then was quickly gone. Mulder hiked back up the hill to his house. Once inside the cosy, warm hall, he retrieved the slip of paper. He looked at it closely. It was a lined paper with a rough edge, like it was torn out of a small notebook. On it were written two series of numbers and letters. Badge numbers. Then there was a phone number, and a name.

Assistant Director Walter Skinner. That was the name. Presumably the number belonged to him. Something devilish in Mulder decided to speak up and make itself known. It urged him to call that number, to give the man hell, even though it was nearly eight o'clock by now. He was suddenly sure this Walter Skinner was the kind of man who wouldn't fail to give his subordinates hell for not following all the proper procedures and forms. That might be worth it. Get these yahoos off his back for a while. He grabbed the hall phone, not stopping to take off his muddy boots or his dripping rain jacket. He dialed the number, hands nearly shaking angrily as he punched the digits in, one by one.

"Hello?" a warm, deep voice answered.

"Are you Assistant Director Walter Skinner?" Mulder demanded.

The response he got was more formal, tired sounding too, but like the man recognized immediately that business was going on and he'd better get to it. "I am. Who is this?"

Why did Mulder get the distinct impression that he'd reached the man at home. Mulder was flustered for a moment by his reaction to that strong, seductive voice. It penetrated through his whole body like stepping from an air-conditioned plane to a tropical climate, The sensation went right down to the soles of his feet, causing his stomach to liquefy, his hands to tremble. If he had felt some frisson of...familiarity with the pair of agents earlier, this was to that what a lighting bolt was to a lightning bug.

"Yes?" Skinner asked, impatiently.

Then Mulder shook himself, realizing he'd been silent for far too long. "I have a complaint about two of your agents," he said.

Skinner sighed. "This wouldn't happen to be Agents Doggett and Scully you're talking about here, would it?"

"How did..."

"I know? They're the only agents I supervise directly. And they informed me you might be calling. Or at least Agent Scully has the sense to know when she's pissed someone off, Dr. Mulder. But I can't imagine another agent besides Scully who would dare to give out my home phone number. What, exactly, did they do this time? From your point of view."

"Besides tailing me without provocation or probable cause, trespass onto my private property, without a warrant, not much. But that's quite enough. I'm a psychiatrist, Mr. Skinner. I can't afford to be tailed like this. Some of my patients, because of the nature of their traumas are highly suspicious people. If they think I'm being watched by the government they might go into hiding. I wouldn't be able to help some very sick people."

"Would you care to discuss this matter in person? I can have my assistant make time on my schedule for a meeting. Perhaps tomorrow at noon. I'll have had time to get a more accurate accounting of this trespass incident from my agents by then," Skinner said.

It suddenly occurred to Mulder that he would very much like to meet with this Walter Skinner, to see in person what the man who had that steel fist in a velvet glove voice looked liked. Yes, he had to meet this Skinner. Actually, now that he'd made the call, most of his ire had dissipated, like fog faced by the sun. But to meet the man in person, that would be worth the drive into the city. And if, as chances were, that the man was straight and that no spark happened between the pair of him, Mulder would take the opportunity to do a little shopping, maybe take in one of the Smithsonian museums, then get himself laid. He didn't have any appointments tomorrow. He'd been planning to use the day to work on the book he'd been working on perpetually for the last several years.

"Yes, I would appreciate that, Mr. Skinner," Mulder said. "Thank you for addressing this promptly."

"It's not much of a bother. And trust me, my agents will be the only ones feeling any bother from this incident."

They made arrangements for Skinner's personal assistant to contact Mulder on his cell phone once she had an exact appointment time.

He went to bed that night, not masturbating to the Ramrod Stevens video, but to his own personal fantasy of a strong, powerful, bald man. A fantasy who had suddenly a voice that was silk and steel, granite and honey.

In the morning, Mulder pulled up to Happy Endings in his second car, the sensible, new compact sedan he kept just for long drives into the city. He loved his truck, but he never quite trusted that it would get him to the city and back. People who had been born the year it was made were now graduating high school.

He walked in and actually had to wait in a small line before he got to the counter. Jenn had her part time help with her, making coffee drinks as fast as Jenn rang them up. The espresso machine was steaming constantly, almost roaring.

"You going somewhere exciting today, Mulder?" she asked when he got to the counter. She took in the suit, one of his best, something he rarely trotted out. She had to have seen him drive up in the Camry too.

"Into the city. I have an appointment. And I thought I'd hit a museum or two," he said. He wasn't going to say much more than that, even if she pressed him. On one hand, Jenn had always been a good friend to him, ever since he'd rented the offices just over her shop. Yet over time, he started feeling a certain suspicion towards her. A reluctance to share the things he held the dearest with her. A reluctance that had no bearing in facts. He had no reason to, but he mistrusted her these days.

"Okay, have a good time," she said as she handed him his drink, his usual coffee in a paper cup this time. She immediately got busy with the next stream of customers and didn't pay any more attention to him.

The drive into the city took longer than he expected, dumping him into the thick of traffic right in the middle of morning rush hour. More like rush hours. He remembered exactly why he didn't live in the city. He'd contemplated stopping by Sam's on the way, to see how she was doing, but by the time he would have been close enough, he just had barely enough to make his scheduled meeting with the Gunmen, who claimed they had more information.

Mulder parked his car, feeling damn lucky to have found a street parking spot so easily. He strolled into the park, looking for the usual park bench overlooking the reflecting pond where he had met the guys before, on the few times he'd met them in person. He knew that they had a place just outside of DC, but had never been there. The magazine's address, of course, was a post office box.

He had a few moments of slack to wait before the guys were scheduled to show up. Yesterday's storm had blown over, and though it was still cold enough to make him glad for both the wool suit and his dress trench coat, the sky was a brilliant blue, unmarred by any clouds. The air, even here in the middle of the city, was fresh, exhilarating. Full of false promises of new things, like fall winds so often were, promising new beginnings when the only thing they could really offer was change, and with winter coming, usually not change for the better. He knew that, first hand from his years at his practice. All change is not a good thing, and all endings are not necessarily new beginnings.

Still, the day was pleasant enough and he was glad for the sun on his face as he crunched sunflower seeds and looked up at the sky, waiting for the guys.

Soon, Frohike, all by himself, slipped onto the bench besides Mulder. He wore a much abused leather jacket and leather gloves, the kind without any fingers. Out of the three Gunmen, it was with Frohike that Mulder had the closest relationship. They exchanged the most and longest emails, the most phone calls. They'd even gone to a baseball game together once. Frohike had not just a lively and inventive mind, keeping Mulder's intellect engaged, but a warm and caring manner, one that always made Mulder feel like his company was welcome, that Frohike was the kind of old, best friend you could call in the middle of the night when the shit is really hitting the fan and he'd show up without complaint in a few minutes, shovel in hand.

"Where's Byers and..."

"Langly?" Frohike asked, shaking his head. Then he snorted and said, "Byers' wife had to work unexpectedly, which means that he had to stay home and baby-sit. And boy howdy did he catch it the one time he brought their girl to meet a contact. Langly spent the night at his boyfriend's and hasn't come back yet. Hence, yours truly, here in lone magnificence."

"Oh," Mulder said. The interesting conjectures about Langly were true, apparently.

"Shocked the hell out of me too," Frohike said. "I'm still reeling from it. Nevermind that I just found out that there is a mystery gentleman caller for the Lone Gunmen's favorite son, I just found out last night that Blondie plays for the other team, so to speak. To have been with us so long and never have even hinted at something so important. What happened yesterday, Mulder?"

"I'm not sure what you mean. Yes, the pair of them showed up, with no explanation for why you weren't there by the way, but we didn't talk about anything so... personal."

Mulder suddenly had the feeling that had the FBI agents not shown up, that they might have. That the excuse of going out to look at fall leaves and then being so close was just that, an excuse. That they'd actually gone looking for him. For advice, possibly in his professional capacity maybe, or just as a gay man. As someone Langly could talk to. Rather than pushing for the information he'd been hoping to get, Mulder let Frohike talk, sensing it was important to his friend. This must have been quite the shock.

"Well, they took off yesterday, with the only explanation that Langly wanted to tell Byers something important and personal. I didn't think much of that. Byers has always been the buffer between Langly and me. Hairboy and I argue a lot. They came back late in the afternoon and before Langly hardly gets in the room, the phone rings. He answers it and then he's gone. Leaving Byers to explain. I guess Langly came out to Byers during their drive, and also asked him to be the one to tell me."

Yes, Frohike was hurting over this one, and overall, it was leaving Mulder feeling like he'd stepped into the middle of some intense, almost familial situation. "He must have been afraid that you'd disapprove, Frohike. Do you?"

"Only that the punk didn't have the courage to tell me face to face and that he kept it secret so damn long. Mulder, I've worked with the two of them for years, lived with both of them until Byers got married. They're family. He should know better than that."

"He must value your good opinion tremendously, Frohike, and probably feels that your disapproval would be devastating to him," Mulder said. The little man looked dejected and he slumped on the bench beside Mulder, not even bothering to pull shut his leather jacket as the wind picked up.

"How do we even know if he can trust this guy he's taken up with? I don't know who it is. Even without the chance of sleeper agents and moles, it's dangerous out there. This guy could have aids, any other STD. I know. I lived through the 70s. I know what's out there."

"Then you'll just have to trust that Langly's a good judge of character and that he has the common sense to use condoms," Mulder said, thinking of some times where he hadn't taken his own advice. He wasn't about to mention that though. Frohike didn't appear much encouraged, not until Mulder punched him lightly on the arm and said, "You do trust him. I know you do, Fro."

"With my life."

"There you go then. So, I take it with all this hoo-hah, no one gathered any more information as to what Agents Doggett and Scully wanted from me."

"Nope, I poked around a little, and Byers promised me that Langly would be working on it, but I figure, he's a little distracted right about now."

Mulder had to agree with that, but wondered at this first sign he'd seen that any of the Gunmen had a life beyond the magazine. He hadn't known that Byers was married much less had a little daughter. "So, how about you, Fro?" he asked. "Langly's gay, Byers is married with child. Do you have any shocking domestic revelations?"

Frohike paused in leering at a passing jogger who was wearing far too little to cover her considerable... assets considering the weather. He shook his head. "No, like a knight of olden days, my heart remains true and pure."

"The lovely Agent Scully?" Mulder asked. Frohike sighed tragically. Mulder slipped an arm around Frohike's shoulder. "Okay, guy, I've got an hour before I have the meeting I came into the city for. Why don't we head that way and stop for a cup of joe or something? And you can tell me all about your admiration for Agent Scully. In the strictly chivalrous sense, of course."

Mulder just barely made it in time to the hunkering, massive pile of concrete that was the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover building. Instead of the guest pass he had been expecting, a pretty, pleasant woman with a familiar voice was there to greet him just on the other side of the metal detector.

"Hi, I'm Kim, AD Skinner's personal assistant," she said, holding out her hand for him. In her other hand, she had a guest pass. "AD Skinner wanted to make sure you arrived safely. He's in an unexpectedly long meeting with the Director, but he should be free soon. Let me take you upstairs."

And so Mulder was taken up to a huge office and asked to sit in the ante room. He sat on the leather sofa across from Kim. As she answered the phone and did the usual typing and office work, Mulder felt unaccountably nervous. It was as if part of him was expecting to be called on the carpet as soon as this Skinner character arrived. As if some part of him was expecting to be reamed out, and not in any good way. He played with the packet of sunflower seeds in his pocket nervously, but decided not to start cracking them. He wanted, no, needed, to make a good impression. The last thing he wanted was for Skinner to walk in as he was doing something like spitting out seed shells.

After an impossibly long time, Mulder was about to get up and tell Kim that he had to reschedule, that he couldn't wait any longer. Not because he had anything he had to get to today, but because he could no longer stand the churning anticipation. His stomach twisted at the thought of what the man he was waiting for would look like. Would be like.

Just as he was about to get up, to walk across the room to Kim, a pair of men walked in the room, talking in the way that was so soft Mulder couldn't quite hear, but so intense it skirted the boundaries between conversation and argument. One of the pair was strong, powerful looking, dark skinned with distinguished looking hair that was slowly turning white. This could be the AD. But he looked disagreeable, as if he'd just tasted something bad, and that didn't fit into Mulder's mental picture of the owner of that whiskey and honey voice from the phone last night.

No, it was the other man. It had to be. This man was muscular in a way his perfectly cut suit couldn't disguise. His steel gray hair, the fringe of it that was left, was trimmed close to his head. He wore glasses. And he was so beautiful. His face bore the lines and wrinkles and serious demeanor of someone who has seen much that he wished he hadn't, but was doing the best he could to stay afloat on that sea of sorrow. Not just afloat, but at his best, because his honor would permit him to do nothing less. Mulder felt like he knew this man, even though he had never met him. He could imagine the way he kissed, the softly powerful way his arms would enclose Mulder, the way his lips would be both demanding and receptive.

"Walter," Mulder whispered, not so much saying the word as breathing it out.

The man couldn't have heard him, not as softly as Mulder had spoken. Not as far away as he was. And yet, he turned and looked at Mulder. He narrowed his eyes just a moment, then his expression went blank, neutral, the habitual expression of a man used to hiding his feeling because of how dangerous they could be. Mulder could tell, though, that this was a man with hidden depths, with a wellspring of passion that once tapped, might very well flow forever.

The man turned to his companion and said, "You'll have to excuse me, Alvin, I've been keeping Dr. Mulder here waiting long enough. There's time enough to discuss this further on Monday. Dr. Mulder if you'll step this way..."

Mulder rose, unable to do anything but as he was bidden. Mulder found himself escorted into an impressive office, Skinner's hand a little overly familiar, resting on Mulder's back. Mulder couldn't help but wonder what would happen should that hand drift down to the small of his back, or even further down. As it was, it felt electric, a shockwave travelling down his spine and up it, completing some wild, reckless circuit. Only the veneer of civilized behavior, the prohibitions induced by manners, stopped Mulder from turning around and seeing just what would happen if he were to place his lips on those stern, beautiful lips.

Instead, Mulder focused on the office, the panelled walls, the flags, the portraits of the President and the Attorney General. Instead of leading Mulder to sit at one of the chairs in front of the desk, Skinner led Mulder to a set of chairs in front of a wall to ceiling window.

Mulder sat down at one and Skinner perched on the arm of another. "Dr. Mulder, I'm sorry that you had to make the trip all the way to the city, just to hear this apology."

"I'm not," Mulder said, not even realizing that he was speaking out loud until the words had escaped his lips. "I mean, I'm very pleased to meet you and if your agents leave me alone, that's all the apology I need."

"That's the problem, Dr. Mulder. My agents Doggett and Scully don't suspect you of any wrong doing, but they seem to believe your father's work has some bearing on a very serious investigation of theirs."

"I've told them everything I know about my father's work, which isn't much," Mulder said, very much afraid that this wasn't the end of it, but rather the beginning of something very complex indeed.

"I hate to be having this conversation here," Skinner said. He looked around the room, briefly, furtively. Perhaps he was even more paranoid than Mulder's Gunmen friends, believing himself to be surveilled. "Perhaps we could talk over lunch. There's a quiet place I know, not far from here."

"That'd be fine," Mulder said.

In the elevator on the way down, Skinner said to him, "I took a few minutes last night to look over your monograph on memory recovery with sensitivity to the issues of false memory syndrome. It was a fine piece of work with interesting implications as far as forensic psychology goes. Are you sure you've never studied forensics? I found no mention of it, but you seem to understand the issues implicitly."

"No, never formally," Mulder said. "When people come to me, usually they're at a point where they want to get beyond their trauma, not stir it up further by involving a police investigation. Sometimes it's a trauma that the police won't get involved in. Like abductee syndrome."

"So you're a believer?" Skinner asked.

"On the contrary," Mulder said. For all his informal investigations, his visits with those on the edge of the normal, his looks into the paranormal, he'd never seen one thing that sustained a belief in them. "I believe that those suffering from the syndrome have suffered some great trauma. That it's a dark night of the soul expressing itself as some kind of supernatural encounter, perhaps with the divine. But I find no evidence that these UFOs exist."

Skinner looked at him strangely, almost sadly. Then, just before the elevator door opened, he said, "I have seen things that I cannot explain. Frightening things, Dr. Mulder."

Skinner led the way through the lobby of the J. Edgar Hoover building. People parted around him like waves parted around a massive air craft carrier, partially in deference to his position, but it also seemed like it was part personal power. This man was a kind of force of nature. Mulder followed in his wake, closely. Then they were out on city streets that suddenly seemed gray and lonely, the pure blue of the sky suddenly clouded with a maritime storm that had rolled in from the east in the short time Mulder had been in the building. Mulder was thankful that he kept in shape running, and that his legs were long, because Skinner's fast, impatient strides would have been hard to keep up with otherwise. And Mulder got the impression that had he been in some way not up to Skinner's physical standard, either young or old, or shorter, that the man would have moderated his speed, but that being Skinner's physical equal nearly, there would be no sufferance from that quarter, that he expected Mulder to keep up.

Shortly, they were at a small coffee shop. It was a little too upscale to be merely a diner, not fancy enough to have hooked on to some fancy appellation like a bistro. Its dining room was sunny and pleasant and the furniture dark and inviting. The waitstaff seemed to know Skinner by name, and treated him with full deference.

"Two today, Mr. Skinner?" the waitress said. She seemed surprised to see him there with someone. Mulder got a sudden picture of a lonely man who ate most of his meals alone in restaurants, choosing one regular place because the familiarity was something like a home base. And he had brought Mulder here. This was decidedly more than a business lunch, more than the Assistant Director kissing butt to apologize for misbehaving subordinates. This was very personal.

"Two," Skinner affirmed. As they were led to a table by the window, a comfortable little booth, he asked, "How's the blue plate?"

"It's good today," the waitress promised.

"Then one of those, rare."

Mulder looked at the list of specials taped to the front of the menu, hand written and xeroxed. "Make that two. Medium rare for mine."

"And a carafe of your house red. Unless you don't drink red, Dr. Mulder."

"Please, it's Mulder to my friends. Or," Mulder suddenly felt very emboldened, something that almost never happened. "Or Fox. Please, call me Fox. And no, I don't drink at all very often," Mulder said. But he could down a glass now. It wouldn't do any harm. His heart was unruly, wild, making it's own demands, and one of those was that he not let this man down in any way no matter how slight. "But it's fine."

"I'm sorry," Skinner said after the waitress had gone. "I just felt the need to celebrate."

"Celebrate what?"

Skinner reached over and placed his big, heavy hand on top of Mulder's own. That hand was strong, Mulder could feel tendons like steel cables in it. Skinner's thumb stroked the soft, sensitive flesh on the top of Mulder's hand, between the thumb and forefinger. That touch was like fire.

"Meeting you," Skinner said, softly in that voice, with such restrained power that Mulder shivered.

The words echoed through Mulder's ears again and again. Skinner didn't let go of his hand for what seemed like long, terrifying minutes. It was like every dream of Mulder's was suddenly coming true. Like time had stopped for a petrifying moment. Like he had stepped off the edge of reality into some unknown and frighteningly wonderful place, where all dreams come true, where every wish is granted.

Put off by Mulder's hesitancy, Skinner turned away slightly and said, "I'm sorry. I make assumptions, I just..."

"Felt a connection that you could neither explain nor deny," Mulder said, putting his other hand on top of Skinner's to stop the big man from pulling it away. "Me too. I didn't come today because I wanted to complain about Agent Doggett. I came because of your voice."

"I wouldn't normally have asked someone to meet with me just to apologize for my agents. I would have sent them with their tails between their legs to make their own apologies," Skinner continued. Suddenly, all four of their hands were clasped together and Mulder was wishing he could get up, close the distance of the table between them and kiss the man. "Do you believe in destiny, Fox?"

"No," Mulder said. This was not like him. So very much not like him to let such a welling up of emotion show, but it seemed to overwhelm him unless he gave it some release. To not reach out and touch this man sitting opposite him seemed untenable. Because they were in a public place, their bodies could not express the truths they were feeling, mere words would have to suffice for the moment. "But I believe in fate. That the world hands us connections, curveballs of life that we can neither control nor refuse. And I feel that in some way, I have been looking for you my whole life."

Suddenly, the carafe of wine showed up along with two wine glasses. The waitress set them on the table swiftly then made her retreat just as quickly. She, like all good waitresses, seemed to understand when her presence was undesired.

"It's hardly a fine wine with a cork to smell and all," Skinner said, as he poured for them. "But it's decent and ordinary. And I'm not much of a wine man anyway."

"And it's too early for anything harder," Mulder said. His glass of wine was pushed at him.

Skinner lifted his own glass and said, "To good beginnings and happy endings. May we someday find our own."

Mulder lifted his glass and drank to that. "And may the universes great mysteries someday be revealed as a simple truth that we have only to look at from the right perspective to see."

If Mulder had been all but bouncing with energy before, he could hardly sit still after this exchange. It seemed uncouth to suggest that they skip lunch and get a room, but that's exactly what he wanted to suggest. He suppressed the want of his body to get to know this man in the Biblical sense. Instead, over a well grilled London broil, Mulder tried to get to know the actual man, to stuff his cranium with every bit of knowledge about the man was he could drag out of the questions he managed to wedge in between the questions that the other man asked him. It was awkward at first, more interrogation on both their parts than conversation, but they said one thing, then another and before they knew it, they were talking, easily, as if they had known each other for years. As if this was something that was meant to be.

Then suddenly realizing that lunch and the wine was long gone, Mulder chanced a look at his watch. Their lunch had started at two and it was nearing five already. Indeed, the silvery light of the cloudy day was already starting to dim to gray.

"Your work," Mulder started. "Shouldn't you have been due back long ago? I'm sorry. I know you must be a busy man."

"Not so damn busy that I can't take an afternoon off. But if you have to get going," Walter said. Funny, how in such a short time it had gone from Mr. Skinner to Walter.

"No, not at all. I'm completely free until Monday," Mulder said. What he didn't admit was that he never wanted to leave the side of this man again. He was bold enough to suggest the thing he'd been thinking about earlier. He wanted to see if the way Walter filled out his pristine white shirt was a promise that would be kept. Mulder was all but panting over the thought of getting his hands on those beautiful shoulders and that magnificent ass. "I was just wondering if you'd be interested in. I mean, I was thinking about staying overnight in the city. Getting a hotel room."

Damn it. That didn't come out nearly a tenth as well as he'd wanted it to. He wanted this man. Bad. So badly that he was sounding like a wallflower at the junior high dance.

Thankfully, Walter's hands found their way to Mulder's again. Their gentle strength was all the reassurance that Mulder needed. With eyes that were nearly completely black with arousal, Walter said, his voice even more throaty than usual, "Come home with me, Fox."

Somehow, the way he said it made it sound more like he was asking Mulder to come home again. And never leave.

"Yes," Mulder said. Could his answer be anything else?

They couldn't get out of the restaurant fast enough to suit Mulder. Then, it was torture to have to retrieve his car from where he'd left it and follow Walter home, out to suburbia to the expensive looking tower that he lived in.

At last he pulled into the guest parking space in the garage underneath Walter's building. Walter had gotten there just a few moments sooner than Mulder and he rushed up to Mulder's car as soon as it was parked. They hadn't yet kissed, but it seemed a foregone conclusion that they would make love, very likely the instant they had Walter's front door shut behind them.

The instant Mulder opened his door and stepped out of his car, Walter was right there, acting as if he just might reach out and kiss Mulder right there in the parking lot. Their lips were mere inches apart, but someone pulled into the garage, and they reluctantly pulled away from each other as the car drove close.

"Let me get my bag," Mulder said. He hadn't planned on spending the night in the city, but it was just a habit of his, packing a travel bag, even for these short trips to the big city. He pretty much kept one packed in the trunk of this car all the time, to save time.

He grabbed it out of his trunk now, then followed Walter to the elevator. There'd be time to call the Gunmen later, to find out if they'd discovered anything, and perhaps satisfy his curiosity about Langly's mystery boyfriend. This moment was more important than any of that.

Walter opened the door and let him into an expansive apartment with white walls and dark furniture. It was impersonal, but luxurious in a way. Walter shut the door behind them, then suddenly Mulder found himself with an armful of eager man. He was pushed up against the door and the plundering started, mouth hard and wonderful on his, fingers surprisingly nimble for their size working to free Mulder's tie and other clothes. Once Mulder was free of his tie, and so far gone that he didn't even notice where it had ended up, he sagged against the door, a puddle of acquiescence. Anything that Walter wanted out of him at this moment, he could have had for the asking.

Walter took this as a reason for hesitation though. He backed off and, touching Mulder's face tenderly, said, "I don't want to rush you."

"For God's sake, rush me already, Walter," Mulder said, then pulled Walter close for a kiss. Then added between desperate kisses, "You could have me right here, right now. On the floor. You could have had me over the hood of my car in the parking garage."

Walter was just as needy, but he found the willpower to push Mulder away and say, "My bedroom. Upstairs. I'm too old for the floor to be very attractive any more. Condoms and lube are up there."

"Right here," Mulder said, reaching into his bag and pulling the objects in question out. Somehow, that led to more kissing, perhaps because Walter was so pleased with him. Then before long, both of their clothes were in disarray, pants down around ankles. Mulder kept his shirt on, but it was unbuttoned all the way down and open from when Walter had been sucking on his nipples. It seemed a natural progression, after all was said and done, to lean Walter against the front door, elbows supporting him. Then to nudge up to him. Mulder slowly eased himself into the tight but lubricated space there. They'd prepared Walter carefully, but still the man groaned a little as Mulder pushed into the place that seemed home to him, as if he had been missing for years and come back to just now.

"Are you okay?" Mulder asked.

"Better than okay," Walter said, and started to squirm, trying to back up against Mulder, wanting more of him. Okay, so maybe that groan had started as pain, but it wasn't pain the man was feeling now. "Or I will be as soon as you start getting busy back there."

Mulder did as he was told.

Eventually, they'd made it to Walter's bed and after another frenzied round of lovemaking, had grabbed a few hours of sleep. Then woken and made love again. And again.

Finally, they separated, so fully sated that for the moment, they had to emerge for breath, and for food. Mulder peeled himself off Walter and said, with a grin, "I think we need a shower."

Between the sweat and the other bodily fluids, that much was true, but Mulder also wanted a good reason to get out of bed. Hunger wasn't quite compelling enough yet.

Walter rolled out of bed. God, what a prime specimen, Mulder thought at the sight of the man's backside. He got out of bed and followed the man into his bathroom.

Later, they were sitting in Walter's kitchen, coffee brewing. Good coffee. It smelled heavenly. Mulder was wearing nothing more than a silk robe borrowed from Walter. It was dark green and made from a thick, sueded silk. Not exactly the sort of thing Mulder would have expected Walter to have around, given the overall feeling of spartan luxury that the man had surrounded himself. The robe was just a little too excessive, too luxurious. Walter had pulled on a pair of plaid pajama bottoms and nothing more. He caught Mulder's approving eye and said, "I hope you can forgive an old man's vanity. But I have to make use of every good point I've got."

"Vanity, hell. You're magnificent, Walter," Mulder said.

As the coffeepot was about to make its last burble, there was a knock on the door. "I'll be just a minute," Walter said as he got up to answer it.

Mulder hung back. It occurred to him that this might be work related, and that Walter probably had worked out some arrangement with the Bureau- they didn't bother him about his personal life if he was discreet about it. Walter didn't seem alarmed, nor had he asked Mulder to stay hidden, but Mulder decided it would be the better part of valor to stay in the little kitchen, with its cherry wood cabinets and immaculate countertops.

Mulder poked around quietly until he found a mug. He poured himself a cup of the fragrant coffee and sat down at the breakfast bar. He didn't try and listen, but he couldn't help hearing. Noise travelled well in the open plan apartment.

"I told you not to bother me at home," Walter said. He sounded angry. "Whatever power you have over me at the Bureau doesn't extend to personal time."

"Oh, come now, Mr. Skinner. You're an awfully important man to believe you can just leave the office at five and be done with your job," the voice was oily, uncutuous. This was obviously the voice of a man used to getting what he wanted. And Mulder fancied, a man used to unsavory dealings. Mulder could hear the strike of a lighter, then smell noxious smoke. "Or should I say, two in the afternoon. When there's so much important work to be done?"

"What is this? What do you want from me? I am not going to serve a federal search warrant on my own agent's house."

Suddenly, Mulder recognized the voice. It was one he'd only heard a few times in his life. The last was at his father's funeral. That man had come to it. Mulder hadn't paid close attention. He'd been pretty much distracted, between his own grief and the simple act of keeping Sam upright through the funeral, he hadn't been able to do much else. But he remembered looking over at his mother at one point after the graveside service, and a man was talking to her. The man had seemed overly familiar with his mother, touching her cheek at one point. It had made Mulder angry, but then Sam had started shaking so badly that it had been all he could do to get her to the car to sit her down. She'd been such a daddy's girl and their father's death had made her downward spiral all that much more precipitous. Mulder was certain, though, this was that man.

He risked getting up from his stool and peeking around the corner, to see if he could get a glimpse of this unpleasant stranger.

"I need you to get the damn tape," the man was saying. Mulder must have made some slight noise, or perhaps the man just knew he was there, because he spoke up, "Ah, it's Dr. Mulder, isn't it?"

Mulder didn't have any choice in the matter then but to walk around the corner, looking, he thought, obviously well-fucked, the both of them were, and wearing only a silk robe. Not exactly the armor he wanted to dressed in to face this old dragon. His sense of the menace emanating from the man was only part instinctual.

"Nice to see you again, Dr. Mulder," the man said. "The last time, the circumstances were so tragic."

"Who are you?" Mulder spat out.

"An, old, old friend of your father. His death was so needlessly tragic," he said, so patently insincere that Mulder could have spit at him. When the only response he got was Mulder's angry stare, the man said, "The tape, Mr. Skinner. I expect to see it in twenty-four hours. Good day."

The man excused himself and showed himself out the door. When it shut, Walter and Mulder were left to stare at each other.

"You know him?" Walter asked, breaking the long silence.

"He came to my father's funeral, other than that, no, I don't even know his name. God, I hate the smell of smoke," Mulder said. Actually, it was a cultivated hate. He'd only managed to quit smoking two years ago, and it was surprising how often the craving for just one more was still there. The remnant smell from the man made Mulder both disgusted and craving. The man even smoked the same brand Mulder had- Morley's. "Who is he?" Mulder asked, sure that Walter had to have some idea, after all, the man had quite casually just shown up and ordered Walter to jump.

"I don't know his name. All I know is I've been ordered to cooperate with him in anything he asks of me. Dammit," Walter said as he threw the piece of paper he'd been handed down on a handy end table. Then he picked up his phone and dialed a number apparently on the speed dial. He waited a while, then spoke, "Agent Scully? Where are you?"

Walter paused and asked, "New Mexico? Where's Agent Doggett? What do you mean?"

Walter listened carefully for some time. "Get home, Agent Scully. If it was the men you think it was, then there's nothing to be done where you are. Yes. I'm sorry, Agent Scully."

When he finally hung up, he turned to Mulder. His face was that closed, stone like expression that existed only to hide emotion. Troubled emotions. "I'm sorry, Fox. I'd hoped to spend the whole weekend with you," Walter said. He started walking to the stairs. "I'm needed at work. One of my agents is probably dead."

"Agent Doggett?" Mulder asked. The conclusion was undeniable considering the half of the conversation that Mulder had heard earlier. He felt a chill right in the center of himself. This was all linked, somehow. The man at his father's funeral, who'd just showed up at Walter's apartment, who knew him even though Mulder didn't know him. The picture of Bill Mulder with Nazi war criminals. And whatever investigation that Doggett and Scully had been conducting. And a tape that the mysterious smoker wanted. It was all linked. Just how much about his father had he been blissfully ignorant about? Quite a lot apparently.

"Yes," Walter said. He bent down and picked up the suit jacket that he'd discarded so hastily the night before. He grabbed a small white card from his pocket and then scrawled two numbers on it quickly by hand. He handed it to Mulder, "I can't say much more, you can understand why. I'm sorry. Here. The first handwritten number is my direct office line. The second is my cell. Either should get me without too much problem."

Mulder took his cue gracefully. It was obvious that Walter hated to do it, but he was being kicked out. Just temporarily. Mulder knew he'd be seeing a lot of this man in the future, but for now, his job was getting in the way. Mulder understood. If there'd been a patient emergency, he wouldn't have hesitated to leave.

Besides, he'd have his chance to check up on the Gunmen. And Sam. He owed her a visit. Mulder took the card and kissed it lightly. Then he started gathering his clothes off the floor. "Do you think you'll be clear of this by next weekend? I figure I can get back to the city by then."

"God, I hope it will be over by then."

Mulder got dressed quickly, then was out the door before the memory of Walter's touch had faded from his body. He slumped against the wall in the elevator. His hair stuck up at all kinds of odd angles, his lips felt as if they were swollen and he decidedly had razor burn. And a good fresh coat of stubble himself as he hadn't taken the time to shave in his hurry to clear out and let Walter get to his work. He never had found his tie either. Well, at least, if nothing else, he had a good excuse to see Walter again. He was much happier to be out of his suit anyway. He preferred the t-shirt and jeans he'd packed in his overnight bag.

His first step, once he'd pulled his car out of the parking garage, was to call the Gunmen. He reached Frohike.

"Any idea yet about what Agent Doggett was looking into?" he asked the little man.

"Not yet," Frohike said.

"Well, I think it may very well just have gotten him killed," Mulder said. Then he relayed an extremely edited version of the events of last night and this morning.

"Damn, Mulder. You always go hunting for the big game, don't you?" Frohike said. "I think you'd better get over here."

And so, for the first time, Mulder was given directions to the Lone Gunmen's hideout. He got there and though he wasn't sure what he'd been expecting, it wasn't what he found. The only sign that he hadn't stumbled across a completely abandoned warehouse was the small print on the door promising that this was the headquarters of the Lone Gunmen, publishers of the Magic Bullet. The door itself was heavily dented and badly painted metal, with more locks than the average bank. He knocked and the door was so secured into place with deadlocks that it hardly made a rattle. That didn't seem to make a difference, because soon Mulder could hear the clicks of locks being turned. Eventually, the door was opened just enough for Mulder to slip himself inside.

Byers stood on the other side, holding a little girl, just over a year old. Little could have been more incongruous than the child, dressed entirely in pink. Pink and lace. She was obviously a girl, and obviously happy, in the grimy, industrial building. The little girl waved her hands at Mulder and smiled, not shy in the slightest around strangers. Mulder felt a strange, melancholy ache at the sight of the child for some reason, as if she reminded him of something, but he couldn't quite place it.

"This is your daughter, Byers?" Mulder asked. The child's hair was the same dark color as her father's.

"The one and only. She wants to say hi. Holly, this is Mulder," Byers said. He held out the girl to Mulder. "She's outgoing, unlike her old dad here."

Mulder apparently wasn't being offered the option of refusing the child, so he took her in his arms. She grabbed at him, wrapping her arms around his neck and holding tightly. At least she didn't pull his hair or ears like he'd been fearing. Carrying the precious burden, Mulder followed Byers down a set a stairs, to a basement. On the other side of another metal door, there was a big room, filled with a multitude of computers, communications equipment, spools of wire, workbenchs filled with circuit boards. In the middle of it all, far away from any hazards, was a pink playpen, filled with toys. Frohike was in front of one of the computers, typing fast, nervously engrossed in it. Langly was doing the same.

Mulder turned to put the child in her playpen, but Holly started to fuss, as if she'd break out screaming if he put her down in there.

"Oh, she never goes in there. We only keep toys in there," Byers explained. "I'll take her if you don't want her."

"The only way Byers could get his wife to agree to let Holly come here was to have the playpen. To keep her safe supposedly," Langly said, looking up from his computer. He held out his arms. "I'll take her, Mulder."

Mulder had the feeling that the little lady's feet never touched the ground, not around this place.

"Byer's wife doesn't like Holly to be here. I don't know why," Frohike said. "Not many men have the chance to bring their daughters to work. Anyway, Mulder, you said that you believe that Agent Doggett was in possession of some kind of tape that may relate to that picture of your father with the Nazis."

"I get the feeling that there are people willing to kill for that tape," Mulder said, thinking back on the smoking man, and the shiver that his presence had sent up and down his spine.

"Langly, you have any idea what was on that tape of Doggett's?" Frohike asked.

Langly got up from his computer. He walked over to Frohike and put Holly onto Frohike's lap. Then he said, "I told you. I was just fucking him. He didn't tell me anything."

Then he walked away. He stopped for a jacket, but stormed up the stairs, and probably out of the building. So, Doggett was the mysterious "gentleman caller." Mulder thought he'd noticed a strange dynamic between the two of them at the coffee shop. And for all that Langly was saying it was just sex, his actions belied that. It definitely had been something more. Or at least Langly had wanted it to be something more.

Holly had held her arms out to Langly as he'd stomped away and started crying as he headed up the stairs. Frohike bounced her on his knees to distract her, but it didn't work. Byers sighed and held out his arms for his daughter. Frohike handed her over and Byers took her. He hugged her close to his chest, gently, doing all the right daddy things to comfort her. Mulder felt a lonely, empty kind of jealousy as he watched.

Frohike said, bringing them back to the tragedy at hand, "Ringo is taking this hard. I feel sorry for the kid."

"I don't think he's dead," Mulder said, not sure why he was saying that, but something in him just knew. Intuition? Some kind of extrasensory knowledge? "I don't think this one ends that way. I think Doggett will be okay."

"I wish I shared your optimism, Mulder," Byers said. "I do know that these people will not hesitate to kill to further their ends. Look."

Byers pushed a newspaper clipping at Mulder. He scanned it quickly, a brief news item, sadly brief, about a murder, from a newspaper from a city big enough that execution style murders got buried in the middle of the metro section. It told the story of one Kenneth Soona, dead in a landfill, a bullet in the back of his head.

"A week or so ago, our friend here, known as the Thinker, I think that's his real name, asked for our help contacting Agents Doggett and Scully. We arranged for a meeting. We don't know much beyond that. Our pal, Kenneth there, would only say that it would be of great interest to Doggett. Whatever he had, it was hot."

Mulder wanted to do more, do something besides just sit there and confabulate about what could possibly be on the tape. But he didn't see how he could. This was, despite his interest, not his story, not his place. He felt, though, like he'd been pushed out of his own life. This should be his story, his place. Today, more than ever, he felt like some stranger was living his life for him, and that he was a stranger in his own life.

"Do you think Langly's going to be okay?" Mulder asked. "Maybe someone should go after him."

"He'll be okay," Frohike said. "He just needs to blow off a little steam. I shouldn't have put my foot in it like that."

"There's nothing more we can do here, really," Byers said. "It's getting late. Did you need a place to spend the night, Mulder? My wife normally doesn't like it when I bring my friends by, but you're considerably more well-heeled than my usual companions."

"No, I'm going home," Mulder decided. "Call me the instant you have any new information. Call my cell. I'm going to go to my mother's house and see if she can tell me anything about my father's work. And I should see my sister while I'm in the area."

Mulder said his farewells. As the heavy metal door shut behind him and the locks started clicking into place, he shivered, a ghost of a memory. He couldn't help looking over his shoulder as he got into his car. You're getting as paranoid as them, he scolded himself, still remembering though something they'd said. No matter how paranoid you are, it's not paranoid enough.

Sam's place first. She lived in a modest place in a big apartment complex. About all she could afford just living off her trust fund. She couldn't hold a job down, not with the drinking that she did. It was a shame, in a way, that trust fund. It kept her from truly hitting bottom. She had enough to keep her pickled pretty much most of the time and still pay her rent.

Mulder had long suspected that someone, maybe one of his father's friends in politics, was looking out for Sam. She'd been hauled in for DUI more times than he could count, yet she never served any time. The charges were always, mysteriously, dropped. Or if they weren't dropped, they were reduced to something insignificant such as "driving too fast for conditions," or even a simple speeding ticket. Well, whoever was doing that wasn't doing her any real favors, Mulder thought. They should really take away her license before she killed someone.

He parked in front of the shingle sided building that her apartment was in. The building management hadn't raked the leaves yet and they cluttered the walk and choked the dying remnants of flowerbeds. Two steps up and he was at the door, pressing the intercom button labelled, "Mulder, S."

There was no answer for a long time, but after a few minutes, the door buzzed, indicating that it was unlocked. He sighed. She should know better. At this time of night, just letting anyone into the building. Still, he pulled the glass and metal door open and stepped into the hallway. Up one flight of shag carpet covered steps, down the hallway and he was at the door of her apartment. She'd left it propped open, thoughtfully, with a vodka bottle. Empty vodka bottle.

"Sam?" he called in through the open door. The apartment was dark beyond. "It's Fox. Sam?"

When he didn't get an immediate reply, he pushed the door open all the way and stepped cautiously into the hall. He reached for the light switch. There was a recycling bin right by the door. He tried not to look at all the empties that were overflowing it. Otherwise, the place was unexpectedly clean for someone of her level of functioning. He heard a minor sign of life, the television, and followed it into the living room. She was lying on the couch, covered up to her chin in a pile of blankets, as if she couldn't get warm. She was lit only by the blue glow of the television. Her eyes were wide open, staring at the screen, but she didn't appear to be watching it.

Mulder took the couch arm closest to her head. It was a sturdy, square arm. The sofa was well-worn leather, the one that had been in his father's study before their mother had sold the house they grew up in. She'd been given it, without question, even though he'd wanted it as well. What Sam wanted from their mother, she got. It was always as if their mother was trying to make up for whatever hideous things had happened to her when she was missing those months. He'd wondered in the insomniac, doubtful hours before dawn, sometimes, if their parents had known where Sam had gone, what had happened to her. And if that's why they tried to hard to soothe their little, wounded bird.

"I hate you," she whispered as he reached down to stroke her hair, though she didn't stop him. "You didn't come for me."

"I said I wouldn't, Sam," he said softly. He kept stroking her hair. The curly, long locks of it were tangled, like she hadn't combed it in some time. Actually, from what he knew of her, with those curls, it might only have been a day or two for it to get that tangled. He wanted to comb it out gently, sooth away the snarls for her. If he couldn't untangle the mess that her life had become, it seemed like he might be able to at least do that for her. "Someone, sometime in their life has to follow through with what they say, and be completely honest. You know that you can always count on the truth from me. Even if it feels like it hurts you, I think you need to know that there is someone who is completely truthful. Someone who won't pretend that you don't have a problem."

He'd told her this before. Maybe someday, she would hear it.

Sam had left the remote on the coffee table. He leaned over to grab it. He turned off the set, then reached behind him to turn on a table lamp that cast the room into warm chiarscuro. Sam stirred, turned onto her side and sighed.

"Sam, I need to ask you something," Mulder said. "Something important."

"What? What can I possibly tell you that's important?" she asked, voice bitter. "After all, I'm just your alcoholic little sister who apparently so dysfunctional that I can't manage my own life. So you always tell me."

"Sam, no, I never said that. Please, I need you to remember something for me," Mulder said. He reached down to touch her hair again. He loved her, but love was such a tangled, dangerous thing. "Sam, you were always closer to Dad than I was. Did he ever tell you about his work, what he did with the State Department?"

"I don't remember," she said, but with such terse finality that he immediately suspected that there was something that she wanted to forget but couldn't.

"Do you remember a man, a friend of Dad's, who always smoked Morley's? He was at the funeral. Do you remember? Do you know his name? He was a really good friend of Dad's."

"No, I don't know!" she said, pulling the blankets up over her ears. "Why are you asking me these things, Fox? I don't know. I don't know anything. You should know. You're older than me."

"But you were close to Dad," Mulder said, more convinced than ever that Samantha knew something. Then, a little demon in his head spoke up, something that demanded that he talk about the big family secret, the thing that no one talked about, the elephant in the middle of their living room that everyone failed to notice by common agreement. Secrets and lies, those were the foundation of a dysfunctional family, and his family had them in spades. "When you were missing, Sam, what happened to you. You remember, don't you?"

She was immediately agitated. She sat up on the sofa, blankets bunching at her waist. She wore a stained, grubby t-shirt. "I told you. I told the doctors. I told everyone. I don't remember. There was a bright light. Then it was a cold and I was walking down a road. And at the hospital, they told me it was October, not July."

"Are you sure, Sam?" he prompted gently. "I think you do remember something. There are people who can help you recover your memories."

At that, Sam put her hands over her ears, crunched her eyes closed tight and said, whispering it in a thready, harsh voice, "I don't remember. Fox, I told you I don't remember anything. I don't remember anything."

He'd pushed too hard. He should have known better. The trauma was just too strong. It was so hard to be objective, to know when and where to push when it was a hurt so close to oneself. He cursed his parents silently, especially his dead father, for putting them into the situation. He was convinced, suddenly, that this was the sins of his father, being visited upon them. The lies, secrets and sorrows travelled from one generation to the next like any other inheritance. To know that his father had brought Nazi war criminals to this country, or perhaps had done things even worse, you only had to look at Samantha, sitting up on her old battered sofa, rocking back and forth like an autistic child. He knelt on the floor by her and pulled her into his arms tightly, holding her against his chest. She didn't fight him, but collapsed against his chest, crying. "I'm sorry, Sam. I'm sorry. It's okay. You don't remember. That's okay."

But it wasn't okay. Hell, he wanted to do some rocking and crying himself. It wasn't that his picture of his father had been pure white innocence, now sullied with filth in one day. He'd always had doubts to his parents' characters, but they were confirmed now like they never had been before.

He held her until she cried herself out and slumped limp against him. While she did, he insinuated himself onto her sofa, more comfortable than kneeling on her floor. When she was cried out, he said, "Have you eaten today, Sam?"

And so it ended with her sitting at her cluttered kitchen table, while he stirred a can of vegetable soup as it heated up. She reached for a partially full bottle of vodka from among the rubble on the table, to add a slug to the orange juice he'd poured for her.

"Sam, no, not while I'm here at least," he told her. She shot him a vicious look, but she took her hand off the bottle and sipped at her juice plain.

Sometime after he'd gotten some of the soup into her, she just put her spoon down, as if in defeat, and said, "Sometimes I think it would have been better if I'd never come back from where they took me."

"No, Sam, don't ever say that," he said. And then, suddenly, for the first time this evening, he was crying. Weeping big, heaving sobs and water running down his cheeks. He couldn't account for the feeling of vertigo, as if he could feel, as if he knew exactly what it would have felt like if she had never come back. And that feeling was a cold, sobering, miserable one. "No, don't say that," he said as Sam took her turn holding him like he had her earlier.

He never did get up to see his mother. By the time he left Sam on Sunday, it was too late. He headed back to his comfortable little life in small town Virginia. True, he thought constantly of Walter, but otherwise, he life was uneventful. On Monday, he tried calling Walter and left a message. Tuesday passed by without a return call. On Wednesday morning, he got a call, but it wasn't the one he was hoping for or expecting.

"Mulder," Frohike said. He sounded exhausted and shaken. "Langly's been shot. It's not looking good. If you want to say goodbye to him, I'd suggest you get up here now."

"What?" Mulder asked, in shock. Langly? Shot? He pictured the article again, hacker geek, dead in landfill, the story buried in the metro section. He thought about paranoia and secretive, nameless men who it seemed, could wreck havoc without consequence, order death the way another man would order a steak in a restaurant. He wondered, if Langly died, would it, too, fail to get more than a few paragraphs notice? "Langly? Shot? I'll be up there as soon as I can get there."

And so he left, not so much for Langly's sake, but for Frohike's. The man had called for a reason, because he'd wanted Mulder's support. Even though the three weren't related by blood, this had to be like any family member being hurt. He cancelled his appointments for not just this afternoon, but for the next couple of days, repacked the bag he habitually kept in his car, then took off, not even stopping to tell Jenn where he was going. He drove as fast as he could while balancing the concern of getting stopped by a cop. His hands gripped the wheel tighter and tighter as he drove, thinking of what could be happening to Langly, the long days and nights of his medical internship coming back to him. He wondered, if he asked Walter, would the FBI look into this crime? Would the big man even see the shooting of some paranoid geek as worthy of investigation? Would Walter throw his weight around like that?

He got to the hospital specified by Frohike just after one. He hurried past the front desk. A tough looking man, kind of scruffy and unshaven, wearing a leather jacket, brushed past Mulder on his way to the bank of elevators. The tough turned back to look at Mulder and as their paths crossed for a moment, their eyes met. The man's eyes were the most beautiful deep green Mulder had ever seen. Mulder shivered at the intense stare. Then the man turned away and walked out of the hospital, not in a hurry, and as if he owned the place. Upstairs, one jittery elevator ride later, he walked the halls until he found the right room.

It was empty.

Except for John Doggett, sitting in one of the vinyl chairs endemic to hospitals. The man cradled his head in his hands delicately, as if he were honestly afraid it might split open. His elbows rested on his knees. Mulder cleared his throat, wanting to attract his attention without startling the man. Mulder had a very good idea of what the empty room meant, though he wasn't going to leap to conclusions. Still, the man must be feeling like hell. Doggett looked up. His eyes were rimmed with red, though they were dry at this moment. The quiet clamor of the hospital surrounded them. One thing was for sure, death, in this place, was not peaceful nor easy.

"He's gone," Doggett said. "He coded an hour and a half ago. Worked on him for what seemed like hours. They couldn't do shit for him."

Whatever illusions Langly might have had about him and Doggett just fucking, they were just that- illusions. This was a devastated man. "I'm sorry," Mulder said. "So sorry. I tried to get up here sooner. What happened?"

Mulder put his hand on the man's shoulder, stifling an instinct to embrace him. Probably it would be badly received. Doggett didn't seem like the kind of man who would take kindly to being hugged by a stranger. Yet, Mulder felt for him, in a more intense, immediate way than he could explain. This was more than his usual empathic response to those suffering.

"I was coming home from New Mexico. We were going to meet to talk about this mess. I was supposed to go pick him up after I stopped at my place, but I guess he decided to surprise me. That bullet was meant for me."

Mulder must have failed to suppress his look of surprise, like he usually did, in his usual role of professional listener. Doggett lifted an eyebrow, a move he must have borrowed from his partner, and said, "You do what I do, you're not a real popular kind of guy. It ain't the first time someone's tried to kill me and it won't be the last."

Then he leaned his head down onto this hands again, rubbing his wrinkled forehead as if it hurt. The pain, Mulder knew, was emotional, not any headache.

"Is it worth it?" Mulder asked. "Your quest for the truth, is it worth it, when things like this happen?"

"I don't know," Doggett said. He looked up from the cradle of his hands again. "But I don't see as I can do anything different."

At that, there was a quiet sound from the doorway. They both looked. It had been Walter, clearing his throat slightly to get their attention. He seemed more than a little surprised to see Mulder there. Mulder surmised that Walter had come to find Agent Doggett. The moment over, Mulder walked out of the room, sidling past Walter.

"Later," Mulder said. "I'll wait in the lobby."

Walter nodded, then entered the room, saying, "Agent Doggett..."

Mulder didn't stay to hear any more. It wasn't his place, though he longed to hear Walter's voice again. Now his voice was stern compassion, Contained anger, but not anger at Doggett, anger for him. In a way, Mulder envied Doggett, working for Walter, though, he reflected as he walked down the hallway past the nurses station, he probably had the better part of the deal, having the man as lover.

Mulder settled himself in a vinyl seat in the lobby, turning his attention to an old, old friend- the television. It was some stupid gameshow, but it still captured his attention and before he knew it, Walter was settling down in the seat next to him. Mulder wanted to get up, throw his arms around his new lover and kiss him thoroughly, but he deferred to Walter's obvious sense of public decorum.

"He's not a suspect, is he?" Mulder asked.

Walter thought a moment, then spoke, "I probably shouldn't reveal anything about an on-going investigation, but no, he isn't. He might have been. He and his partner have been acting...erratically this past week. But at the time of the shooting, witnesses place him at the airport still, because of a flight delay. And the weapon was found at the scene with a set of prints that aren't his."

"He was a good friend," Mulder said. "Langly, that is. Will they find who did this?"

"I don't know, Fox," Walter said. He sounded exhausted in a way that had nothing to do with the lack of sleep he must have been facing. He'd been fighting these mysterious forces, the ones who shot Langly, the ones his father had been involved with, the ones who didn't seem to hesitate at anything to enforce their world order. Fighting them a long time, backing up Agents Doggett and Scully, even when it must have been extremely difficult for him, politically, to do so. And he was tired from the fight.

"Are you free for the evening, yet?" Mulder asked.

"I..." Walter began, and Mulder could tell that he was about to say, no, that he had any number of things he still had to get to, reports to read, any number of his normal tasks that must have gotten displaced by this thing, that he would have to make up. Mulder could almost see Walter mentally tick off the things waiting in his in box. Then he made a decision. "I probably should go back and do a few hours of catch-up, but most of those things, another twelve hours won't make a big difference."

"Then let me take you home, Walter," Mulder said.

Home, for Mulder, had become anywhere Walter was. But for right now, he needed to get the man someplace where he could strip that suit off of him and make fierce, tender love to him, give him strength for this fight and make up for the demands that Agent Doggett's quest had placed on the life of his lover.

"Home," Walter said. "I knew I'd get there some time this week."

Thursday morning found Jenn wrestling with a big delivery from the food service attempting to get all the perishables put away safely in the fridge or freezer, while trying to cope with the morning rush, and her usual morning help had called off. Still, one coped. As the years had gone by, she found she liked this place, this little coffee shop that, while a few well-placed wishes had brought into existence, was kept open day after day by the labor of her own hands. You couldn't just wink coffee into existence for people. No, you had to pull the shots from the espresso machine yourself. You had to smile at the people and make them happy so that they'd come back the next day and the next.

Mulder hadn't shown up yesterday, and if she'd been any less busy, she might have worried about that. But something about the combination of the weather and the time of year sent people into her shop in droves for hot drinks. She'd been kept busy all day. When Mulder came in, late Thursday morning, she wouldn't have paid him much mind, what with all the things she had to juggle already. But the grief in his eyes was all too obvious. She had to ask him what was wrong, so she did.

"Langly's dead," Mulder said, flatly. "Frohike and Byers are devastated, not to mention his new boyfriend, John Doggett."

Langly? Dead? She'd known the instant the FBI agents had come into her shop the other day that Doggett was sleeping with Langly again. She'd picked Langly for Doggett the first time because he'd been young, handsome enough once you ditched the glasses, and convenient. But the pair were surprisingly good for each other. They seemed to rub the raw edges off of each other. "No, that can't be," she found herself saying. "That's not how it's supposed to work out."

At that moment, Mulder's eyes flashed brightly. Some automatic computation at taken place at lightening speed in his mind. Connnections were made, conclusions drawn. He knew. He knew exactly what she was. He knew what she was doing. He might not have all of the memory pieces. He didn't remember who he had been before she had started with him, but he knew that it was her fault that he didn't know. "Exactly what do you mean," he said, coldly furious, "'That's not how it's supposed to work out?'"

Jenn swallowed, hard. This was not supposed to happen either. He was not supposed to know. How could he? Each time she had changed his life, she had gone back to the very beginning of a particular decision, a particular branching of his fate. His life had changed seamlessly from that point. Mulder truly never had joined the FBI. He had started a psychiatric practice in small town Virginia. That was his life. That was how it had happened. There was no way he could have remembered any of his previous existences, because they didn't happen, not in this life. Scully hated Krycek in this life, Jenn had seen. Just a few days ago, Jenn had seen how Doggett had been forced to shoot Scully in the shoulder to prevent her from shooting Krycek in a drug-addled haze. In this life, she'd never loved the man, never had a daughter with him that Mulder and his lover had adopted. That was reality. The reality that she had shaped.

And yet, he knew. Somehow, he knew.

"You are going to talk to me. And you are going to tell me exactly what you've done to me," he said, flatly. She was, for the first time, afraid of him. Not that he could hurt her, but that somehow he was not entirely subject to the shiftings and machinations that she worked her magic by. And she was suddenly afraid that she had made a very, very large mistake by even attempting to try. That she had failed to the very thing she had counselled people to do again and again- to not worry about what could be, but enjoy the thing that is.

"Yes, we will talk," she said. She looked at the line starting to back up behind him. People and all their little urges, compulsions and addictions were bothersome to her at this moment. Soon, they'd start grumbling, that they had to wait, that their fix of caffeine was even a minute late in coming. Jenn blinked her eyes and wished. The door to the shop opened, the camel bells chimming. "Sorry I'm late," Betsy, her part timer called. "I finally got my car started. Hell of a time for it to crap out on me. I'm sorry."

Then Betsy ducked behind the counter and started work as soon as she could grab an apron. Normally Jenn wouldn't have bothered shaping the will of the universe for such a petty thing, but she needed the help now.

"Bets," Jenn said. "Mulder and I have some important business to discuss. Can you hold down the fort?"

"Sure thing, boss," Betsy said, already hustling to take care of the line.

Mulder followed her through the curtain into the cramped kitchen. From there, she opened up another door, painted purple, glitzed up with glass gems. It would have been a simple matter of snapped fingers to have them be the real thing- emeralds as big as her thumbnail, rubies as big as hen's eggs, the door itself solid gold. But she wasn't stupid or greedy, even though the terms of her powers seemed to allow her endless wishes. She just wanted to see Mulder allowed a happy ending.

Normally, she would have just sat on a chair. She liked to pretend at least that she was just a normal person. But today, because it was time for the truth to be known, she sat herself on the air, floating in the stereotypical genie pose and waited for Mulder to reveal just how much he knew about what she had done to shape his life.

"You're a jenniyah," Mulder said. "In Arabic folklore, a powerful class of spirits, with the power to grant wishes. The terms of the arrangement is usually three wishes, isn't it? What the hell happened? Did I make some kind of fucked up wish, then wished to forget I made the wish? What happened to my life? What did you do to me? What happened to me? I want to remember? Who was I before you started in on me?"

"I really don't think you want to open that can of worms," she told him, wondering how his memory could possibly cope with the multiple branchings that his life time had taken on, the paths that she'd cut off. How could he handle knowing that he had simultaneously gone and not gone to medical school? That he had gone and not gone to the FBI academy? That his sister was and was not still missing? She added, "I really think that's a bad idea. If you want to walk out of here with your sanity intact."

"Then just answer this question. One question. Who is Lovey?" he demanded.

"She would have been your daughter, had I been able to allow the set of circumstances that led to her birth to continue. She was never born. She doesn't exist."

"You killed my daughter?" he asked, stunned. He blindly sought the nearest chair, the shabby leather upholstered one that was her office chair, and sat down heavily.

"No, I didn't kill her. I told you. She never existed. The circumstances such that she was conceived have failed to happen. Her would have been parents hate each other," Jenn explained, realizing that she sounded like she was justifying herself. That no matter how she explained it, he would believe that she had killed his daughter. That, in a way, she had.

He stared at her, eyes full of vicious hatred. He spoke, his tone low, dangerous and deceptively calm, like the eye at the center of the hurricane. "There may be no blood on your hands, but just the same, you killed her. Why? What have I done to you? God. Good God tell me I did not wish her away by mistake."

"No, it was all my doing," she said, shamed. Burning with shame. And sudden heartbreak too. She remembered holding the sweet little thing, how beautiful she'd been. She'd loved the child, been responsible for her creation every bit as much as Scully and Krycek had been.

"No," Jenn said, brushing away sudden tears. She was astounded at the scope of her own hubris. "You didn't wish for that. We had the standard arrangement. Three wishes. You wasted two of them. And the third, you did the thing I had never dared hoped for. You freed me. You gave me a happy ending. But you only freed me from the conditions of the rug. You didn't free me from my power. And you didn't free me from you. I only wanted to give you a happy ending too."

She couldn't quite explain how it had begun, nor how once she had started, it had been a compulsion. She had felt she'd had no choice but to keep changing things until that happy ending was within grasp. She was sure it would happen this time. He was so far removed from the quest that had been his that he would never see that UFO.

"A happy ending?" he asked. "So you take away my daughter? You presumably change my whole life. Was my life really that shitty? Was I so unhappy that you had no choice but to rearrange the universe around me?"

"You don't understand," she pleaded. "Those little green men Doggett chases, they're real. And they would have destroyed you. Every time, no matter what I did, you were abducted by them. And you died at their hands. Until now."

He stood up from his chair and he paced around the room like an animal in one of those small cages at the zoo, obviously thinking furiously, that brilliant mind of his linking up everything she had said with everything he'd already concluded. Finally he said, "Did it not occur to you that if it kept happening, that maybe it was meant to happen? Or that I would want my fate, regardless of what it was."

He was silent again for a long time. When he finally spoke again, he said, "I think maybe the true happy ending here isn't the one you think it is."

"What do you want me to do to make it up to you? What do you think the happy ending is?" she asked. She honestly had no clue.

"Three wishes," he said. "The usual arrangement. The third will be that you and I will be free of each other and that you will never again feel the compulsion to mess with my life. I want you to let my life take whatever messy, dangerous turns it has to take, because it's my life."

"And your first and second wishes?" she asked, her voice quavering.

"My first wish, I want my job back. I know, I can feel somehow that I was FBI. Maybe my job was the one John Doggett has now."

She nodded and said, "That's true. And your second?"

"I want my family back. My daughter Lovey. And Walter. He was my lover, wasn't he?"

"Yes," she said. "Granted. All three."

She reached for the matter of the Universe, that sense that she had, that she could never quite explain, but the one that allowed her to change things, influence casuality. Perhaps on a quantum level. But he interrupted her, with something so Mulder like, she almost had to laugh, "Just one more question, how do you do it?"

"No more questions, Mulder," she said. "Just go home. Go to bed. When you wake up, you won't remember a bit of this."

No time like the present, Mulder told himself. Still, he paused before knocking at the door which was down a dimly lit hallway in the basement of the J. Edgar Hoover building. He'd walked past metal shelves of document boxes to get here. The door read, "Agent John Doggett," his new partner, just assigned.

Anything might happen once he knocked on that door. John Doggett had quite the reputation. Relentless in his pursuit of the answers, and undoubtedly one of the most no bullshit kind of guys around, who nevertheless, ended up espousing what most people believed to be the most ridiculous of ideas. He also appeared not to give a damn what people thought of him and that he said exactly what he thought, never hesitating to call a spade a spade. Rumor had it that just before his wife and child had been abducted by person or persons unknown, he'd been given the big promotion to SAC of the Seattle office, and that he'd turned it down to stay in DC and search for them. And eventually ended up here in the basement, searching for his answers in the buried cases known as the X-files, the place where Mulder hoped to find his own answers.

He knocked on the door and was greeted with, "Nobody's here but the FBI's most unwanted."

The door appeared to be unlocked, so Mulder pushed it open. Across the room, looking at slides on a light table was a handsome man, though he seemed much too young for couple of wrinkles that marred his forehead, including the verticle one between his eyebrows. The frown that his mouth took seemed habitual more than particularly directed at Mulder.

The room seemed intensely functional, with little that might indicate a personal point of view. There was one bulletin board covered with a cluster of photographs, pinned up so closely that they resembled wallpaper, albeit wallpaper from the Martha Stewart Psychopath and Sociopath collection. The bulletin board next to it was covered in photos of UFOs, some clipped from magazines, some regular four-by-six snapshots. The one thing that pointed to the man's personal life, or any kind of hobby was a tire, the thick, smooth kind that were used on race cars, was propped against the desk. It was autographed, a big, sprawl of writing from a paint pen, but Mulder didn't recognize the name. Doggett was a car racing fan?

Before Mulder could hold out his hand and introduce himself, Doggett said, "Fox Mulder, right? So you finally pissed off Patterson so much he had your ass kicked out of the BSU and down here?"

"No, believe it or not, I asked for reassignment. I'm actually looking forward to working with you."

"Really?" Doggett said. Amazing how much sarcasm such a dour voice could convey. "I was under the impression they were sending you to spy on me."

"Section Chief Blevins asked me to make regular reports on the cases we work on together, evaluating them for scientific and forensic validity, but believe me, I'm my own man," Mulder said, bristling suddenly at the implication that he'd be anyone's errand boy.

"So the rumors say, Spooky," Doggett said. He dug through a pile of papers on the desk and pulled out a sheaf. "Undergraduate degree in psychology from Oxford, senior thesis, 'The Case for Hypnosis in Memory Recovery Therapy.'"

"Did you read it?" Mulder asked.

"Oh, sure. It wasn't as bad as I would have expected for undergraduate work," Doggett said. He'd been working, loading a carousel full of slides. He popped it onto the slide projector that was waiting, then asked, "Hit the lights?"

Mulder did and Doggett turned on the projector. The picture of a young woman's body appeared on the screen, stretched out on what appeared to be a forest floor. The next slide was a close up. "Well, Dr. Mulder, they make you headshrinkers take the full medical school course, right?"

"Yeah," Mulder said, defensively. People often assumed it was a PhD, not the M.D. he'd worked so hard for after his name. After he got his undergrad in England, he'd been approached by the FBI. They'd tried to recruit him, but he hadn't felt ready. He'd gone home to the states for medical school, hoping to find there the answers that he hadn't found in psychology. When he was through, when he felt ready, he'd approached the Bureau this time. They'd been even more eager to have him than they had been before.

"Well, Dr. Mulder, tell me if you can identify those marks," Doggett said, indicating two close marks on the back of the young woman.

Mulder walked closer to the screen for a better look, "I'm no pathologist, but it could be needle punctures. An animal bite, maybe? I've got a good friend who teaches pathology at Quantico. She could probably give you a better idea than me. "

"Not about this," Doggett said. He advanced the carousel another slide, then another, and other rapidly, "Same thing again, in Sturgis, North Dakota. And New Mexico. And Wyoming. Do you believe in extraterrestrials, Agent Mulder?"

Mulder startled a little, to be asked so directly, even though this was exactly the reason why he'd asked to be posted to the X-files in the first place, because he'd come to believe that the cause for his sister Samantha's disappearance so many years back could only be explained that way. Part of his education in psychology had included being analyzed extensively, and he'd worked intensively for a while with a hypnotherapist. He'd come to remember things. Things that couldn't be explained except by the notion that his sister had been abducted by aliens. He wasn't quite ready to admit that to this man.

"Do you?" Mulder asked.

"I think that's what you headshrinkers call deflection," Doggett said. He moved over to the wall switch and turned on the room lights again. He looked incredibly handsome, slouched slight as he leaned against the wall. "Answer the question, Agent Mulder."

The way he said the name was almost, but not quite grating- Mul-dah. Mulder decided he liked it, and that though he didn't quite trust the man yet, he liked him.

"I have my doubts," Mulder admitted, especially about the validity of hypnotherapy work and memory recovery, despite his college thesis. The things he had remembered under hypnotherapy were so fleeting, insubstantial. They teased him, taunted him as much as they reassured him. He was here, not because he had answers, but because he had questions. "But I don't believe we are alone in this Universe."

"Actually, far as I can tell, the neighborhood is kind of crowded, and our neighbors are real sons of bitches. You got an overnight bag in your car?" Doggett asked.

"Yeah, we going somewhere?" Mulder asked.

"Oregon," Doggett said. He picked up a small paper folder off the desk and handed it to Mulder. Mulder looked inside, reading his airline ticket. A flight for about three hours from the present. Even without stopping at home, they'd have to hustle to get to the airport in time to make their flight.

"You don't waste time, do you, Agent Doggett?" Mulder said.

Already Doggett had been gathering a small stack of files. He handed them to Mulder. "You'll want to read these on the way over. Familiarize yourself with the cases."

"Cases? More than one person died this way?" Mulder asked.

"Four so far," Doggett said. He finished putting some more files into a briefcase, then shut it. "Ready?"

They left the basement office behind and headed for the parking facility. Mulder headed right for his car, to get his bag. This time, he'd let Doggett do the driving without complaint, but he wondered, in the future, would they argue about which one of them drove? He was both apprehensive and excited about actually heading out into the field for a case. So much of his time in the BSU had kept him tied to a desk, analyzing cases, writing profiles. And, as a kindness and attempt to salvage him as an agent, once his relations with Patterson had gotten so strained that they were intolerable, not just for Mulder, but for anyone else they came into contact with, he'd been transferred, teaching at Quantico, where he'd met Scully, the beautiful, intelligent pathology instructor. If only he'd had the slightest stripe of heterosexuality in him, something special might have happened between the pair of them. Lost in his own thoughts, Mulder almost didn't notice when Doggett stopped and why.

"Sir," Doggett said, nodding. Mulder thought there was something about the way he'd said it that almost wanted to be able to salute, too. Mulder looked up to see the cause for the interruption of his thoughts.

And what a cause it was. They'd stopped in front of a big, juicy hunk of manhood. The man in question was about the same height as Mulder's lanky length, but bulked a good thirty, maybe forty pounds more. His shoulders were broad, and Mulder suspected that it was all man, not just a cleverly cut suit, thought admittedly, the suit was perfectly tailored to him. The suit was topped by a face that was stern and serious, but beautiful. Eyeglasses and hair limited to a fringe around the back and ears completed a picture that was as close to his ideal man that Mulder could imagine. Mulder had no idea who this man was, but he wanted to start weeping right at this instant, because Doggett's sir had indicated that whoever it was, he was over them in the chain of command, thus high in the FBI hierarchy, and therefore, totally off limits. Well, off limits if he was playing by the rules.

"Off to Oregon already, Agent Doggett? The ink on the 302 can't even be dry yet," the man asked. His voice was granite and honey, whiskey and velvet. The blues sung on a dark, moonless midnight in Memphis. Even the poor, echoing acoustics of the concrete parking structure couldn't diminish its full rumble. Mulder was in love.

"Soon as we can collect Agent Mulder's bag, sir," Doggett said. "Sir, this is my new partner, Fox Mulder. Agent Mulder, have you met AD Skinner before?"

Skinner? Mulder wondered. It sounded like Skinner had been the one to sign the paperwork for them to be going to Oregon. That meant that somehow, whether through favors called in or sheer exasperation on the part of the hierarchy, Doggett had it arranged so he reported directly to the AD. Mulder's vanity had been massaged recently to find out he'd be reporting directly to a section chief, but compared to an AD, a section chief was just a piker. Oh, hell, this beautiful, wonderful apparition of a man was not only off limits, he was way out of Mulder's league.

"Agent Mulder," the apparition said, and held out his hand.

It took a while, an embarrassing second while Mulder put it together that the man who had him so dumbstruck wanted to shake hands. It took another agonizing eternity to marshall enough control over himself to extend his hand and act like a normal man who hasn't just been thunderstruck. He took the AD's hand into his. It was like nothing he'd ever done before. The skin was a marvelous combination of textures, smooth in places, with calluses that indicated those hands saw plenty of work of some kind, other than pen pushing. Under the skin, muscles moved like cables pulling over hard bones, cushioned with plenty of muscle. The man's grip was plenty firm, yet delicate. One got the definite impression that it would be a simple matter for him to crush one's hand, should he chose not to control his strength.

It was then that Mulder looked directly into the AD's eyes. They were deep brown, hard to see that in the dim overhead lights of the parking structure. The lens of his glasses reflected the harsh florescent light. But the man was staring directly at Mulder so intensely that Mulder couldn't do anything but look away for a moment, over the man's shoulder at bare, gray concrete, until he could gather himself. He couldn't, not at this time, wonder what that stare meant. He could only tuck it away for further examination later.

"Agent Mulder," the AD said. "Good to meet you at last in person. Having heard so much about you."

"Sir?" Mulder asked. At another time, with another person, he might have joked, might have made a crack of some kind.

"We talked about you, even when you were just starting out at the academy," the AD said. "Well, good hunting in Oregon. I'll have to leave you. I'm running late."

And then he was gone, slipped away down the row of prime, executive parking spaces, and into a light blue Lexus.

"You coming, Mulder?" Doggett asked after Mulder stood there, staring after Skinner's tail lights.

Mulder shook himself. "Sure," he said, able to gather himself together, now that the source of distraction was gone. He hurried after Doggett, clutching his files to himself.

Two and a half hours later, they were sitting on a plane, a nearly empty flight to Portland. It looked like Mulder would have the whole row to himself. Doggett was not quite so lucky, but at least he had an empty seat between him and the next person. The plane was still boarding, so Doggett got out his phone from his suit coat pocket and placed a call.

Mulder listened surreptitiously as he pretended to scan a file. "Hi, Ree," Doggett said, in the clear, direct way people use when they're talking to an answering machine. "It's John. Look, I know I'd said I'd be free tonight and you could come over, but it looks like things are moving faster than I thought. I'm on a plane to Oregon. Not sure when I'll be coming back. I'll give you a call soon as I hit the airport on the way back. You think you could take care of my cat again? You've got the number to the pet sitter I use if you can't. Love ya. Gotta go."

Mulder surmised several things from this call. Doggett had a lover, even though talk around the Bureau said that the man had had a wife who'd died of cancer not so many years ago. Doggett's lover, whoever she was, didn't live with him. Their affair seemed to be on the casual side. They must have gotten together only when Doggett's schedule would allow. Doggett's tone hadn't been placating, leading Mulder to believe that she wasn't going to give the man a hard time about breaking their plans, or at least that Doggett didn't anticipate getting raked over the coals for this. They were close enough that Doggett didn't hesitate to ask her to take care of his cat, but not so close that he just expected she would. Must be an interesting woman. Mulder tried to figure out what Ree was short for. Rena? Riane? Marie? Mulder decided it would have to be Marie. He'd even built up a picture of the woman in his mind- sporty, independent, not quite an intellectual, but smart enough to hold her own against Doggett. The kind of woman who gets along best with men, not other woman.

Maybe he'd been caught staring over his papers at Doggett, maybe he wasn't hiding his curiosity as well as he thought he was, but Doggett looked at Mulder across the narrow aisle and said, "Mulder."

Then he got out of his seat and took one of the empty two in Mulder's row. "There's something I want to tell you, straight off the bat. Before this bird gets off the ground. Before you hear it from rumors and hearsay."

"Go ahead," Mulder said, giving up pretense that he was reading the files.

"I was calling my lover, Ree," he said. "Ree is short for Ringo."

Mulder controlled his startle really well. Doggett continued, "Yes, my lover is a man. And if that's a problem, I'd suggest you get right off this plane before it takes off. I could give a crap what you or anyone else thinks of me being a queer, but if you're going to conveniently not be there when you're supposed to be watching my back, that's a problem."

"No, not a problem," Mulder said. Despite this confidence shared, he wasn't quite ready to reveal why it wasn't a problem. Anyway, it was already too late for him to get off the plane if it was a problem. The stewardess announced that the forward was closed and that they were heading for the runway. He and Doggett shared an awkward, uneasy silence as the plane taxied down the runway and finally leaped into the air with the usual lurch of sudden, great force. Mulder was pressed back into his seat slightly as their plane reached for the skies.

When they'd achieved some altitude and the plane wasn't climbing so steeply, Doggett started up again. "It ain't exactly a secret," Doggett said. "But I don't exactly go around telling everyone either."

"'Don't ask, don't tell?'" Mulder said. that was more or less the unofficial Bureau policy, as far as he could tell.

"Something like that," Doggett said.

"Just out of curiousity, you had a wife..."

"Barbara," Doggett affirmed. "Beautiful woman. I'll always miss her. It surprised the hell out of me to find myself in the arms of one of my buddies after she passed, but I like to think she wouldn't want me to be lonely."

On the way to Bellefleur from the airport, Mulder noticed Doggett looking at his watch as he drove. Mulder looked at his own watch. Then the rental car started acting funny. The radio suddenly ran through all the stations rapidly, on its own. They lost power for a short while but before the car fully stopped, power was back on. Doggett stopped the car, then checked his watch again, muttering to himself. He didn't seem pleased. Mulder checked his own watch.

Somewhere in the Oregon woods, among the moss covered trees, in a space of time that couldn't have been more than thirty seconds, they'd lost nine minutes. Mulder started to laugh, feeling giddy at the sensation. It was exactly the thing he'd not expected to find, but it was classic. Many of the people who'd experienced a close encounter with a UFO experienced just this- lost time.

"Did what I think just happen just happen?" Mulder asked.

"Well, what's your watch read?" Doggett asked.

"Six-nineteen, local time," Mulder said. "But just before was lost power on the car, it was six-ten. You know I was under the impression that time was a constant."

"Not in this zip code, apparently," Doggett muttered to himself. He got out of the car and took a can of spray paint out of the trunk of the car and painted a big X in the road where their "encounter" had happened.

The corpse they'd dug up wasn't human, and yet, Mulder couldn't have said what it was, not by any stretch. He found himself wishing his pathology skills were a little more up to snuff. They'd gotten little to no cooperation from the local medical examiner.

Mulder snapped tons of pictures, but he told Doggett, "This is beyond my abilities. I think we should see if we could get it wrapped to go and have my pal Scully look at it. I'll want to fax some of these pictures to her and see what she says."

"Do what you can, and I'll try and go sweet talk the locals," Doggett said. "They're not exactly falling for my prince charming act."

Later that night, Mulder sat in his hotel room, looking at the X-rays that Scully had talked him through taking. Then looking at the small metal cylinder he'd removed from the corpse's nasal cavity.

"You know," he'd quipped to Scully on the phone as he'd been starting the autopsy, "Normally I prefer it if my patients are a little more lively. I'm not quite sure what to make of a patient that doesn't talk back to me in some kind of way, whether verbal or not."

"You've done dissection before, Mulder," Scully had said. "This is just like that."

"Nah," he said, cutting through dessicated and decomposing gray tissue to make the y-inscision. "In med school, I slept with my anatomy professor to get my A."

"You'll do fine, Mulder," she said, not taking his bait, not giving him much sympathy.

"Gosh, Scully, you sure know the way to a man's heart," he quipped.

"Of course. Right through the rib cage with a stryker saw. Mulder, I gotta go. Call me later," she said.

It was not so much the queasy factor that put him off, but the strangeness of this and the physicality. He preferred always to take a mental approach to problems, thinking them through. Having to be the one who confronted the physical evidence, who tried to piece together a story from that which had been left behind was an unfamiliar way of thinking to Mulder, who'd been used to his profiles and analysises for so long.

At last, he couldn't stand just sitting and looking at the X-rays any longer, trying to figure out what the implications of this whole thing were. He put them down, popped the cylinder into his pocket and grabbed his shoes. A run would clear his head.

He had to pass Doggett's hotel room on the way to the road, and out of curiosity and perhaps a bit of friendliness too, he stopped and knocked on the door. A moment later, Doggett answered, wearing only a pair of gray jersey boxer shorts that looked hastily pulled on, hair agreeably mussed, still holding a phone to his ear. He wasn't as heavily muscled as Skinner seemed to be, but what he had was well defined. His chest had a patch of hair, but he didn't have much other body hair. He smelled of the musky smell of sex and come. He'd been masturbating, Mulder was sure of it. Or, given the presence of the phone, maybe indulging in phone sex with his lover. Mulder might have envious of this Ri, only Mulder knew better than to allow oneself more than a mild attraction to one's partner.

"I was just too wired to sleep," Mulder said. "I was going to go for a run. Want to come?"

"Yeah," Doggett, said, surprisingly. "Give me a few minutes to pull on some clothes."

Mulder waited outside, doing a few stretches and eventually Doggett emerged in an old USMC t-shirt and sweats. It had started to rain, again, and Mulder suspected that the shorts he'd chosen might be a bad idea.

They took off at a comfortable pace, just to warm up. Mulder wondered if he should keep to a slower pace, in case Doggett couldn't keep up with him, but after a mile or so, Doggett picked up speed to around Mulder's usual pace.

"You know," Mulder said after a while. This seemed like the perfect moment to take the conversation personal, and find out a little bit more about the man behind the agent. "You took a big risk, dropping that little information bomb of yours like you did, with me not really having enough time to get off the plane."

"Nah," Doggett said. "I take my chances, but I don't take stupid ones. I got your number when we ran into Skinner. The big guy really melts your butter, doesn't he?"

You don't know the half of it, Mulder thought. Ever since their brief encounter in the parking garage, he'd found it hard to concentrate fully on anything else but big, bald and beautiful. His mind kept drifting back to the man. Even in the midst of some of the most exciting work he'd ever done, whether confronting suspicious, fearful local authorities or doing a real life alien autopsy, he thought about Skinner, even things about him as simple as wanting to hold that hand in his again and feel that play of muscle and bone glide over his own hand.

"Hah," Doggett said when Mulder didn't respond soon enough. "Now I know I've got your number."

"Guilty as charged, officer," Mulder admitted. "Though I don't think you get any points for observation. I was pretty obvious. I nearly had to ask for a drool bucket."

"Hate to break it to you, but I think he might be married," Doggett said. "He's got a ring. Wears it sometimes. Not others."

"All the good ones are always taken," Mulder said ruefully. Actually, his mind was still busy spinning plans to get his hands on the man. A wedding ring was convincing but not conclusive evidence of a wife, and Doggett here right next to him was evidence that a man might have a wife, then move on to a male lover. Besides, Mulder hated to admit it, but he was not too proud to sleep with a married man.

Still, wanting to move on to another topic of discussion, Mulder opened one up that might prove to be a little to close to tender spots. "What do you really think happened to your wife and son?"

Mulder almost expected Doggett to break stride, but he didn't. His voice was slightly strained as he said, "The facts sustained by physical evidence are that she was driving north to visit family in New York while I was gone across country on a case. She left Virginia in the evening. Five minutes after midnight in Pennsylvania, a flash of light was reported over the turnpike. Several people reported mechanical problems with their cars that resolved themselves just as fast as they'd happened. Barbara and Luke never made it to New York. At approximately three in the morning, a Pennsylvania state trooper pulled over to investigate an apparently abandoned vehicle on the side of the road. The occupants were gone. There was no sign of mechanical trouble or forced entry into the vehicle. Not finding any signs of foul play or signs of trouble, he ordered the car towed to the state impound because of the no parking regulation on that part of the turnpike. Barbara's mother hadn't been able to stay up until her daughter arrived. She didn't realize Barb was missing and hadn't arrived until she woke at six in the morning. By then the car had been towed and it wasn't until later in the day that the connection was made between the missing woman and child and the abandoned car. Car was dusted for fingerprints and combed over for other forensic evidence. Nothing was found but prints belonging to the car's owners. The state boys tried to make me into a suspect, but as I was across country at the time and had pretty much every Agent in Salt Lake City willing to swear to that, that didn't wash. Then they tried to brush it off, saying she must have met up with someone on the turnpike and run off. Seeing as things had been kind of rocky between us at the time, I might have been inclined to believe it. Except Barb showed up again about a month later, without Luke, with no memory past some truck stop just inside Pennsylvania. She was pretty roughed up and at the emergency room, they found a bit of metal in the back of her neck. They took it out, thinking it was a bit of buckshot or something. She never recovered and she never accepted that Luke was gone. She just faded away, and six months later, she was dead of a cancer so rare that our first oncologist hadn't even heard of it. Luke is still gone."

Mulder wanted to ask how the man had made the connections between his loss and the cases in the X-files, but before he could ask, Doggett continued, "Thankfully, the hospital gave me the bit of metal that they'd dug out of Barb's neck. It didn't look like buckshot to me. I was going to run it by ballistics, see what they said, but I took a look at it under a microscope. Thing was a computer chip of some kind. Someone or some agency put a computer chip in my wife's neck. I wanted to know why. I might have gone to Seattle, taken the big promotion, except for two things. First, it seemed like someone was goddamn eager for me to take it and get the hell out of town. They kept pushing me to accept it. To the point where it seemed suspicious to me."

"Be a good boy, shut up and you'll get a bone. Sounds like standard operating procedure around the Bureau these days," Mulder said. "What's the second thing?"

"Some one left three missing persons reports on my desk one day. The details were almost exactly like my wife's case," Doggett said. "And they were all pronounced unsolved and unsolvable. They were the first X-files I ever saw. What about you, Mulder? You said you want to be on the X-files. Why the hell would a normal, intelligent person want that? What's your story?"

Time for the truth. It was time for Mulder to share. Doggett's careful measured words had concealed a whole world of hurt. And Mulder felt like he had to honor that by offering the man a small glimpse into his soul. "My sister Samantha was taken from us when I was twelve. No sign of forced entry, she was just gone one night. I've worked extensively with hypnotherapists and I've remembered things. I've come to believe she might have been taken by..."

Mulder couldn't say the last word. For all his work, perhaps because of it, he still doubted his memories. Doggett finished the sentence for him, "Aliens. You know, I think we'll get along just fine, Mulder. Just fine."

By the next night though, they were standing in front of their hotel, watching it go up in flames. "So much for my laptop," Doggett said.

"The X-rays. The pictures," Mulder said, then started cursing under his breath.

Doggett kept quiet, but he looked like he'd be happy to have something to punch. Then half his mouth quirked up in a smile, "Hey, you think your Agent Scully would have put those pictures we sent her in a safe place?"

"I warned her to keep them close to her chest," Mulder said. Luckily, he'd kept his phone with him. He dialed her number. He'd expected to have to let it ring for a while. She should be asleep. It was three in the morning back home. She answered immediately, but sounded kind of spooked.

"Hey, Scully, it's Mulder. Did I wake you?"

"No," she said. "For once. I was actually debating whether to call you."


"I'm up waiting for the cops to get here. Sorry, I'm a little spooked. Someone broke into my house tonight. Only it's strange..."

This was starting to sound a little too convenient. Hell. "Let me guess," Mulder said. "They didn't take anything valuable. Except for a certain set of pictures I faxed you yesterday."

"Yeah, how did..."

"I know? I'm standing here in front of our hotel which would be a great place to roast some marshmallows, if I were in more of a festive mood. Oddly enough, that corpse I was dissecting yesterday is gone, along with all the tissue samples and everything. Look, be careful. I'm sure they got everything they came for already, but maybe you should go stay with your parents tonight."

"I'll be fine, Mulder," Scully said. "Sounds like you're the one who should watch out for yourself. I've got to go, the police are here."

Mulder hung up and turned to Doggett who just shrugged and said, "Welcome to the X-files, Agent Mulder. This sort of thing comes with the territory."

Mulder stopped by his former partner's assignment to bring him some dinner. They'd been split up ostensibly because of some supposed screw up in protocol they'd made. Mulder was sure it was because they'd gotten a little too close to the truth for the comfort of certain people, among them, that mostly silent, menacing man he thought of only as the Smoker.

Mulder had been sent back to Quantico, to teach his courses in forensic psychology. Doggett was tied to a desk by a headphones, doing wiretap. He looked profoundly bored, slouched in his chair, tapping a pencil as he listened. He still wore the regulation suit and tie, but both the jacket and tie were hanging from the back of the chair and the guy had rolled up his sleeves.

Technically, they weren't even supposed to have contact like this, about any kind of work issue. Mulder wasn't much for playing by the rules, especially not when they were such bullshit rules. Besides his working relationship with John Doggett, they'd also formed the beginnings of a great friendship, something that was lacking enough in Mulder's life that he wasn't going to give it up without a fight. And he trusted John. They'd gone to hell and back in the year they'd been together, faced down things Mulder didn't believe could exist- liver eating mutants, gnats that could eat a man alive, malevolent artificial intelligence. And come back to write the report, which of course no one believed anyway. Still, it meant a lot to Mulder. He wasn't about to never see Doggett again.

Mulder had corrupted the man. Doggett had picked up Mulder's sunflower seed habit, and he was busily cracking them as he listened to the wire tap. Only instead of littering the desk, Doggett had deposited all his husks into a used styrofoam coffee cup.

Mulder dropped a white paper bag on Doggett's desk. He set the fresh white, styrofoam cup on desk next to it. Black coffee, no cream, no sugar. Doggett wouldn't put up with fancy espresso drinks either. Mulder had indulged once and dragged Doggett into the corporate coffee place with him. Doggett had taken a glance at the prices on the menu board and had said, "Swear to God, my first truck cost less than some of those drinks."

"How's it going?" Mulder asked.

Doggett gave him a look that said, 'kill me now,' but he said, "I don't know how much longer I can take it. They've been talking about some stripper named Candy for an hour now. Still, could be worse."


"You know that screen at the start of video tapes."

"The FBI warning?" Mulder asked, seeing where Doggett was going with this.

Doggett gave him a wry grin, "Think about it. They've got some chumps out there enforcing that. You know, Mulder, I was just thinking about something."

"Yeah?" Mulder said, pulling up and chair and grabbing some of Doggett's sunflower seeds.

"You know, Skinner's not your direct supervisor any longer, is he?"


"So, what the hell are you doing, bugging me while I'm supposed to be busy at work, when you could be out going for the gusto?"

"What?" Mulder asked.

"Ask him out for a drink or something," Doggett said, cracking open the bag that Mulder had brought him, and poking around inside it. He pulled out a couple of french fries. "And if you just hang out with Frohike tonight, Ree's gonna tattle on you."

The Gunmen might have been Doggett's buddies first, met during his first frantic months that he'd been searching for answers, but they'd become Mulder's friends as well, Frohike especially. He and Mulder even borrowed tapes from each other, porn and otherwise. Frohike wasn't gay, just an "avid pervert," to use his own words.

"A drink?" Mulder said. "You mean, ask the man out for a date?"

"Just a drink, Mulder. I admit, it's pretty ballsy to ask that particular guy on a date, but dollars to doughnuts, he'll say yes. Guy's been making cow eyes at you for ages."

"Look, Johnboy, I can believe three impossible things before breakfast, but I think it's asking a bit much to think that AD Skinner is going to do anything but growl if I ask him out."

"Never thought you were a coward, Mulder," Doggett said. He had a half grin. He was definitely baiting Mulder and he knew it.

"Cowardice has nothing to do with it," Mulder said defensively.


"Bullshit," Mulder said. "I just don't want to get my ass kicked out of the Bureau. At least not for this."

"You know Skinner's not like that. Worse thing that could happen is he'd say no."

Actually, that was the worst thing that could happen. Mulder could have cared less about Skinner's official response. What would hurt was the mere chance that the man would say no, not any repercussions for overstepping.

"So, it's a bet then," Doggett said.

Which explained how Mulder found himself hesitating in the hallway just outside of Skinner's office at just past eight on a Thursday night. Skinner might well be gone, but Mulder didn't think so. The man's reputation for workaholism exceeded Mulder's own. He'd heard rumors that Skinner's door to door time was usually under eight hours, in at seven in the morning, not gone until past eleven.

While Mulder stood in the middle of the hallway, trying to talk himself out of just heading for the elevators and from there to home, there was the sound of a light switching off and a door closing.

Mulder turned and was faced with the sight of his former boss. The man was still perfectly turned out in suit, immaculate dress shirt and tie. Apparently he hadn't heard that long, hard days at work were supposed to leave you a little less than crisp, or that if you were at the office past seven, you were entitled to loosen the noose a little.

"Agent Mulder! How is the Academy treating you?" he said, sounding surprised. And he smiled. The man actually smiled. Mulder never would have thought he'd live to see that. The man always greeted their reports with such a poker face. Stoneface, he was sometimes called around the Bureau and for good reason. Now though, that stone face had softened and melted. It was like a whole new man was looking at him. Then the smile disappeared, turned into a worried frown, "You're not in any trouble are you? You know I can't help you..."

"No, not at all," Mulder said, forcing himself to sound natural and calm, even though he felt anything but. His stomach was churning like it never did when he was facing down armed criminals. If somebody would come by and hammer some nails to his feet, to keep them connected to the ground, that would be a definite improvement, because Mulder felt like he was about to rocket off into space. "I was just wondering. I mean, I've got the evening free. Have you had dinner yet?"

For a brief minute, Mulder felt like he would have ripped out of those nails anyway, as the man smiled even bigger, and perhaps stood a little straighter, definitely looking pleased. Mulder was certain he was going to say yes. Score one for me, he thought.

Then the world dropped out from under Mulder as the man frowned, "I'm sorry, not tonight, I have some place I have to be, in about fifteen minutes.

The other man took in what must have been a stricken look on Mulder's face, then frowned deeper. He nodded, probably realizing that Mulder had hopes beyond mere social ladder climbing socialization. He, of all people must have known that Mulder was probably the last person to curry favor in that way. As Skinner figured the situation out, Mulder's dashed hopes sank even further underneath the unforgiving waves.

And were washed up on the shore, coming to the surface again as Skinner said, "How about tomorrow night? I wish I could put this meeting with my attorney off but I've waited long enough to get this done."

"Tomorrow," Mulder said dumbly, unable to take this whiplash of expectations.

"Unless you have something planned," Skinner said.

Mulder shook himself, realizing suddenly just what had happened. He'd said yes. Walter Skinner had just agreed to a date. Not just any casual dinner out on a weeknight. An actual Friday night out. Mulder hadn't had one of those in years. "No, not at all. Tomorrow then."

"Did you have something planned?" Skinner asked.

Even though he didn't, Mulder nodded. He'd think of something perfect. Splendid enough to impress, simple enough to be passed off as merely social if he was misinterpreting Skinner's interest. Quiet enough to be either romantic or the sort of place businessmen went to discuss important work matters. He'd grill Scully about the perfect way to go about this date. She was bound to have more experience than he had at dating. "Can I pick you up at eight?" Mulder asked.

"How about we meet at seven, at the Capitol Lounge down the street? Have a drink and set out from there?"

Mulder agreed readily. He knew the place. It was a bar not far from the JEH, and because of that, it almost never had anyone from work there. It also had tall, deep booths. It'd be easy to meet someone discreetly. In fact, if he'd been given a few more minutes to think, he'd have suggested it himself.

He wanted to call John and crow about his date, but the man would be in the midst of wiretap still, and had sent him away earlier with a warning not to bug him again. Besides, Mulder knew that Doggett's plans, once he was free for the night, were to get his hands on Langly's bod and not let go of it until forced to do so by the need for sleep. Calling him could wait until at least, oh, two, three in the morning. Another reason Mulder wasn't going to give up his friendship with Doggett was that he'd just finally got the man trained up to take post midnight phone calls without complaint.

Mulder had been planning to call Scully from home, but exultant and too full of energy to sit at home, he pointed his car in the direction of Georgetown instead of Alexandria. He parked and walked the short distance to her pleasant little brick building. It was a warm spring night, but he doubted that she was doing anything more riveting than cleaning her gun, or maybe just doing her nails.

He knocked on her door. She really ought to get a place in a building with at least an intercom system, he often thought. Her association with him and his involvement with X-files had made her vulnerable at times. She'd learned not to keep sensitive materials in her apartment and that helped cut down the break ins. Still, she could be just as stubborn as he was, and though he'd tried to talk her into it, she'd refused to move.

She let him in. She was still dressed in her teaching clothes, the immaculate pant suit he'd seen her in earlier in the day, but she'd washed the make-up off her face already, leaving herself looking pale. With red rimmed eyes. She'd been trying to remedy that, Mulder saw, looking over at her coffee table. Twin tea bags sat on a washcloth.

"You okay, sweets?" he asked solicitously. He'd always felt protective of her, like she was a kind of little sister. Their friendship lacked the deep trust he felt with his partner, but it was no less important to him. "No lying. No telling me you're fine when you mean you feel like hell."

She sighed and sat down on her sofa, indicating he should take a seat. She wrapped her arms around her stomach, making Mulder wonder suddenly if she was sick. "I've just done something very stupid," she said. "I really should have known better."

"How stupid are we talking here? Lock your keys in the car stupid?"

"Lose my job and any hopes for future credibility if this gets out stupid," she said. She bit her lower lip until it turned from pale rosebud to bright strawberry.

"That sounds pretty bad. Are you really sure it's that bad?" he asked. He found it hard to imagine the innocent and sweet looking Miss Dana Scully capable of anything like that. "What did you do?"

"I slept with one of my students," she said. She flushed brightly and hid her face in her hands.

From the look in her eyes though, what she was hiding was a smile. Whoever this student was, he must have been good. Really good. That was definitely a memory of a heart stopping orgasm she was remembering there. He found it hard to imagine her doing something like that though. He wasn't a natural at the teaching thing, was only doing it as placeholder until he could get back to his real work, but even he knew that sleeping with your students was way high up on the list of things not to do. "No, you didn't. Tell me you didn't."

"I did," she said. She sighed. "You're giving me that look."

"What look?"

"The one that people give me all the time. The one that lets me know that they don't see me as anything but sweet, Catholic school girl grown up. You don't really see that I have just as much capacity to get into trouble as you and your buddy Agent Dogboy."


"But nothing Mulder. I've always had this side of me that thrills to doing things just because I'm not supposed to. I used to sneak my mother's cigarettes late at night. You know how you joke sometimes about sleeping with your med school professors? Well, I did. Not for the grades. Just because I wasn't supposed to."

Mulder mulled this over for a minute and decided that this side of her did exist, just he'd never noticed it before. She hadn't given him much cause to. "Okay," he said. "So you slept with a student. What kind of repercussions are we talking here? Is he threatening to go to OPR with sexual harassment charges?"

"No, worse than that."


"Much worse," Scully said. "No matter what OPR does to me, I can start my life over. Get another job somewhere else. But this will stay with me for the rest of my life."


"I'm pregnant," she said. The near smirk she'd had earlier, remembering how good the sex had been had gradually been fading. Now it was gone completely. And tears were sliding down her face.

"Hey, hey," he said, gathering her into his arms, suppressing any urges he might have had to make cracks about how he was sure they'd taught her about birth control in medical school. She didn't need that right now, and well, failure rates did happen. "We'll figure out something. It'll be okay. Have you told him yet?"

"Yesterday. And he just vanished. Didn't show up to his classes this morning. His room at the Academy was empty. His stuff was gone. He just vanished. Alex is gone."

"Somehow, I have a feeling we're avoiding a whole world of trouble that way," Mulder said, not sure why he felt that. "We will figure out a plan."

"I can't do this, Mulder," she said. "I can't have an abortion. It goes against my every belief."

"So you have the baby."

"I don't want a baby. I want Alex back," she said, setting off another freshet of tears.

"We'll figure something out," he promised, all thoughts of his upcoming date with Skinner vanished.

Later that night, he called Frohike for a favor. "Hey, Frohike," he said. "Turn off the recorder. It's me, Mulder."

"Oh, hi, Mulder," the voice on the other end of the line sounded like Frohike's again, not like it'd been sent through some distorter. "Hold on a minute."

Mulder waited patiently until Frohike picked up the line again and said, "JD just wanted to know if you asked big, bald and beautiful the big question or if you're still dicking around."

"Oh, sure," Mulder said. "We're going out Friday night. That's not why I'm calling. I've got a favor I'm hoping you can do for me."

"Well, I do owe you still for lending me Derrick Drills Dallas. What do you need Mulder?"

"Anything you can get me on a man named Alex Krycek. Any info at all. For various reasons, I don't want to go through standard channels to get it, but I need to find the man. You think you can do that?" Mulder asked.

"Walk in the park," Frohike boasted. "We'll start with the DMV. Probably have it for you by morning."

That taken care of, Mulder lulled himself to sleep on his familiar, comfortable leather sofa with a combination of his old friend television and bringing himself to orgasm assisted by his usual fantasies of Walter. Maybe, just maybe, come tomorrow night at this time, it wouldn't be a mere fantasy anymore.

In the morning just before he was about to take off for Quantico, there was a knock on his door. He looked cautiously through the peephole. It was Doggett uneasily juggling a bag of Krispy Kreme and two coffees.

"Hey, Mulder," he said, presenting Mulder with one of the coffees.

Mulder took it and said, "Hey, I thought we agreed on cash."

But Doggett had already set the bag and his own coffee down on the table by the door, the one that held Mulder's mail usually and he was digging in his pocket for his wallet. "Oh, Ree and the guys say they're still digging but they can't find jack about this Alex Krycek you're looking for. No DMV, no utility bills. Nothing."

Wheels started spinning in Mulder's head, the little sign that said 'tilt' lit up and started getting that itchy feeling, like he always did when they were on the edge of something big. "That's very interesting, don't you think?" Mulder asked. "Especially considering that as of Wednesday at least he was enrolled in the FBI Academy, just about ready to graduate and become Special Agent Alex Krycek."

Doggett got a comprehending look. He wasn't as fast to make the connections as Mulder was, but he got there quick enough.

"So, just out of curiosity, what made you decide to look into this Krycek?" Doggett asked.

Mulder pondered how to answer this question, decided that if he was going to lay bare Scully's private life to anyone, that Doggett was the logical choice. Admittedly, they'd never been the best of friends, but he respected her, Mulder thought she respected Doggett too. And Mulder wouldn't hesitate to strip his own soul bare before Doggett. He thought about how to put it tactfully and in the end, ditched tact like a bad date and chose the most direct words, though he didn't tell the full story. "Scully was fucking him."


"He split. Took off. Can you think of any way we can Bureau records on him without our looking raising questions? He was never in any of my classes, so I don't have even a flimsy excuse."

"Maybe your new boyfriend Skinner might help out?" Doggett asked.

"One, he's hardly my new boyfriend," Mulder said. "Two, you know he's been warned off helping us professionally in any way."

"Just a thought. I gotta go," Doggett said, ruefully. "There's a long, hard day, slaving over a hot wiretap waiting for me."

"So, your guys move on from that stripper yet?" Mulder asked as they walked out into his hallway. As always, he contemplated just not locking the door. It might as well not have been any use, for all of the bugs that he'd pulled from his place. He locked it anyway.

"Yeah," Doggett said. He sipped from his coffee, then said, "Last I heard they were talking about this phone sex kitten named Chantelle."

"Breeders! Nothing but sex on the brain. Sometimes, you know," Mulder said. "Stuff like that makes me glad I'm a big cocksucking fairy."

"I think Skinner'll be glad for that too," Doggett said as they reached the elevator. Doggett's mood got, not quite serious, but he definitely wasn't joking either. "Good hunting tonight. I'll be rooting for you."

"Nah, you just hope that if I start getting laid regularly, I'll stop calling you at three in the morning."

Mulder poked around the high boothes of the Capital Lounge, taking in the sports memorabilia and antique junk that decorated the wood paneled walls. Finally he spotted a familiar face, and slipped into the booth Walter had chosen.

Walter must have come straight from work, but then so did Mulder. They both wore their suits though Mulder had allowed himself to unbutton slightly, both the jacket and the top button of the shirt. It'd been a nerve straining day, the tension of anticipation jamming any of his attempts at serenity. In his time, he'd faced down serial killers, unbelievable monsters and he'd never been this nervous.

"Relax, Mulder. I'm here for a drink and dinner. I don't bite," Skinner said, obviously catching Mulder's nervousness. Probably the fact that Mulder had immediately started fidgeting with the cutlery was a big giveaway. Skinner smiled again, with perhaps a bit of a smirk, then added, "Not unless you ask pretty please."

Oh, dear God, the man was actually flirting with him. Had he been made of lesser stuff, he might have fainted. Instead, he decided he was going to stop acting like a chickenshit. Time to cowboy up. The man was obviously putting himself in range, but if Mulder didn't start acting like himself instead of this pansy coward he was being right now, his target would slip away.

Mulder found a grin somewhere. He forced himself to push the cutlery away. He looked Skinner directly in the eye and asked, "Pretty please?"

It was Skinner's turn to be bashful and flustered, but luckily for him, the waitress came along, wanting their drink orders. Skinner was a whiskey on the rocks. Mulder sipped at his beer slowly, wanting to remain sober. They talked about the Redskin's prospects in the upcoming season and other similarly neutral topics for a while, until Skinner stopped clinking his remaining ice cubes around in his glass and asked, "So, what's dinner looking like, Mulder?"

Before he could think better of it, Mulder said, "I'm thinking you look like a pretty good main course to me. Dessert too."

Did I just say that? Mulder wondered. I just said that, he concluded when he saw that Skinner looked vaguely like a deer caught in headlights for a few minutes, as he was processing what Mulder had just said. Mulder was sure he'd moved too fast, that Skinner had been expecting a slower, more gradual build up than this. Then Skinner recovered.

"Well, I suggest we move on then, to your place or mine first," he said. "As I'd like to come back here again."

By mutual consent, they moved on to Mulder's place, because it was closer. Skinner had left his car in the JEH building's garage and he rode with Mulder out to Alexandria. As Mulder drove, Skinner's hand kept snaking over, grazing Mulder's thigh, brushing Mulder's groin, making Mulder's dick twitch with each touch, no matter how slight. "I'm trying to concentrate here," he said once, but that only spurred Skinner on further.

By the time they reached the elevator, Mulder was ready to throw himself at Skinner, to tackle him against the wall of the elevator and cover him with devouring kisses. Mulder restrained himself. The elevator here at Hegal Place was busy enough that it was bound to stop before they reached the fourth floor, and someone would walk in on them. Because once Mulder started kissing Skinner, he knew he wouldn't stop.

The instant they were inside of Mulder's apartment, Skinner's phone rang. He sighed, but took it out of his pocket. He must have had caller id, because he checked it, silenced the phone and stuck it back into his pocket. "My very soon to be ex-wife," he explained. "It's hard for her to adjust to the fact that we're not going to be married any more."

This cast a serious note on what had been a flirty, teasing good time. Not that it ruined the mood completely, but it caused Mulder to take a closer look at what they were about to do and think twice about it. "You still love her," Mulder said, flatly. You could hear that much in the man's voice.

"I have always loved Sharon. She's like a sister. My best friend. And it's because I love her that I had to set her free."

"How long have you been using her for cover?" Mulder said, understanding Skinner's story without even hearing it.

"Over fifteen years now," Skinner said. "She's always known about me, but she had her own reasons to stay with me.

"Recently, she had an affair with someone at work. And that made me realize for the first time just how unfair this was to her. She thinks I'm divorcing her because of the affair. I suppose I am, but not for the reasons she thinks. I realized that she needs to be free to find someone who can give her the whole package. I'm sorry, I hope I haven't ruined the mood."

"No, not at all," Mulder said. If anything, Skinner's confession had made Mulder feel more tenderness for the big man.

"And it made me realize that I need the whole package too. I've never been unfaithful to Sharon, but fifty is looming close on the horizon and I need more than my own right hand."

"You found it," Mulder said, choosing now finally to launch himself at Skinner, so happy for some ineluctable reason that he couldn't help laughing. It was more than the fact that he was finally making a move on the man he'd admired from afar for so long. It was more than the feeling that love had not just waltzed into his life but had slouched down on his sofa and propped its feet up on the coffee table. It was a certain sense of rightness, as if everything were falling into place where it belonged. The cards had been shuffled and dealt and Mulder discovering that life had handed him a royal flush.

Mulder had once asked Doggett on a long road trip away from DC, after Doggett had gotten off the phone with Langly, what he saw in the man. Doggett had gotten a bashful grin and asked, "You mean besides the fact that the man gives incredible head?"

"Besides," Mulder had said. "Great sex is a good reason to get with someone, but not good enough to stay with someone, not after all you've been through."

"I can't really say," Doggett had said. "I'm just supposed to be with him. You'd think we'd be too different for it to work, but it's like two poles of a magnet. We were meant to be."

And he and Skinner were meant to be. It was more like he and the other man were jigsaw puzzle pieces. He'd turned himself a little and all of a sudden it had been obvious that his curves and grooves matched exactly the curves and grooves of the other man. Right now at this moment, they were sliding into place, snapping one into the other.

The other man was so solid in his arms, his body feeling just like his hands had, a wonderful play of muscles against bone, all sliding around each other. He smelled wonderful too, like whiskey and a little like the smoke from the bar where they'd met, but not much. And crisp, like linen, and sweet like honey. Their lips touched and it was all over. Mulder knew he would never be the same again. He held his eyes open during their kiss and watched as Skinner's stone face mask was dropped entirely for the first time. The person beneath was all sweet, fierce passion and it left Mulder breathless.

"Mine," Mulder couldn't stop himself from whispering against Skinner's lips.

"Yours," Skinner agreed, readily, eagerly, then opened his mouth to accept Mulder's kiss more deeply.

Mulder woke automatically to the sound of his phone, even though it was muffled, being a room away and still swathed in the pocket of his suit jacket which hadn't even made it onto the back of a chair. Mulder carefully slipped out from the heavy arm draped across his chest and scurried into the living room to collect his phone. Considering that it was still full dark out, it was probably Doggett calling. Though the man was less given to insomnia than Mulder ever was, he certainly considered that turnabout was fair play and never hesitated to call at any time, day or night.

Mulder answered, not prepared for who it was. "Mulder, it's me," a soft, feminine voice said. She was whispering almost.

"Scully?" he asked, suddenly worried. He'd left her the other night with bland reassurances that he would do anything within his power to help her, even once in a fit of madness, offering to pose as the father of her child anything up to but not including marrying her. She'd sent him home after that, saying that she needed to think.

"Are you okay, Scully?"

"No," she said, starting to laugh and choke as if she were sobbing, all at once. Then she quieted herself. "I have to be quiet. I don't want to wake Alex. He's had a rough couple of days."

Alex? "Scully? What are you doing? Alex Krycek is one of them, I'm sure of it. Scully? Where are you? I'm coming for you now. Stay put."

"I can't. I'm driving. I can't tell you where I'm going. I know about Alex. He told me everything," she said.

"Scully, listen to me," he said, but without much hope. This, too, seemed inevitable. As his hold on Walter tightened, so his hold on Scully was slipping away. Her voice was full of hard swallows and goodbyes. She was leaving as sure as a ship that disappeared over the horizon, further and further out of reach with each minute.

"No, Mulder. I'm going to disappear for a while, maybe forever. I need you not to worry about me. I need you not to come looking for me. Because I'm afraid you and your partner would actually find me."

"Damn straight we would," he said, even though he knew it was no use.

"Please, don't. Alex and I are going to be doing our best to make the world safe for our baby. I don't want a baby. Not now. But we created it and we owe a responsibility to it. Please, don't try and stop us."

Then she was gone. She'd hit the disconnect button and the line was dead. He sat for a long time in the dark on the floor, wearing nothing more than he'd gone to bed in last night, which was to say nothing at all. He cradled the phone in his hand tenderly, as if it were a substitute for her.

When the sky visible through the windows started turning from black velvet to luminous dark blue, then, slowly to dawn, Walter came out of the bedroom. Seeing Mulder sitting on the floor, he asked, grabbing one of the blankets off the sofa, "What are you doing there in the dark?"

As Skinner settled the blanket around his shoulders, Mulder said, "Thinking about the inevitable twists and curveballs of life. As our day here slowly dawns, somewhere else in the world, the sun is setting. One thing ends, another starts. That the world may seem like it's falling apart, but that it's the chaotic nature of existence, ever destroying to make anew."

Skinner sat down on the floor next to Mulder and asked cautiously, as if afraid he might not like the answer he would get, "Any particular reason for this bout of philosophy?"

"No," Mulder said, turning towards Walter, opening his blanket to admit him under the wooly warmth. "No reason at all. C'mere, you."

Then Mulder flowed with what the tides of time had brought him, taking full advantage of emotion's liquid pull.

Mulder sighed. It'd been a long day. He'd kept up his full teaching load in addition to cleaning up the last dredges of the Duane Barry mess. He'd been planning to go over to Walter's tonight, but by the time he'd been through at Quantico and gotten home, it was late. He'd called, given his excuses to Walter, who understood even if he wasn't happy. Then he'd gone home.

He played through the messages waiting for him on the machine. The first one was from Doggett. "Oh, hey, I took those chips they took out of Duane Barry over to the guys to take a look at. You know I really miss having Agent Scully at our beck and call. Anyway, looks like one of them has a scanner code on it of some kind. Dunno why, but the guys had a scanner gun, so we ran it through their set up and something really strange happened..."

There was an unidentifiable noise, then Doggett said, "Hold on, somethings..."

Then there was even more noise- a struggle, muffled cursing. Mulder didn't even stay to listen to the rest of the message. His tiredness completely forgotten, he rushed out the door, heading for John's place in such haste he nearly forgot to lock the door behind him.

He drove out to Falls Church in near panic that only intensified when he was greeted by the sight of ambulances and police cars. The first ambulance he passed on the way to the house was empty, waiting for EMTs and the patient to return. At the second, Mulder could breathe a sigh of relief. Doggett was sitting on the tailgate, getting treated by the EMT. But he was there. And breathing. And mostly unhurt it seemed. The EMT was disinfecting and examining a wound on John's scalp.

"You really should reconsider letting us take you in," the EMT was saying to Doggett. "He got a good one in."

"I'm not going in," John said, stubborn as usual. He caught sight of Mulder and said, "Hey, Fox! Sorry to worry you with that phone call."

"What happened?"

Doggett grimaced as the EMT prodded at his scalp a little more. "You know, that Duane Barry character was still one tough SOB, even with a chest wound."

"Are you his partner?" the EMT's partner asked, pulling Mulder slightly aside. Mulder nodded and the other EMT continued, "Do you think you could talk your partner there into at least going to the emergency room? He's refusing to go. I think we'd all be happier if he got that gash stitched up."

On one hand, the trained doctor in Mulder wanted Doggett to get looked at, on the other hand, Mulder understood exactly the other man's dislike of hospitals and being under the medical establishments thumb. He had the same dislike of it himself.

"It's okay," Mulder said. "I'm a medical doctor. I'll look after him."

An hour and a half later, when the cops were finally through with them and gone, blood was still seeping through the bandages.

"I hate to say the EMTs were probably right, but they were," Mulder said to John as they started to clear away the ruins from John's living room. "You probably should have gone in and gotten stitches."

"I'll be okay. I don't have a concussion. It wasn't a hard blow to the head, just a cut from the window glass. Scalp wounds always bleed like a sonuvabitch," John said, putting a sofa cushion back in place. The man should at least be sitting down instead of cleaning house, but if anything he was even more stubborn than Mulder. Mulder knew for himself how badly he'd take it if someone told him to sit down.

"All the more reason to get it stitched," Mulder said.

"You do it then. You're a doctor," Doggett said. "I just don't want to spend the rest of my night in some waiting room next to some woman's kids that are sick with the flu, while watching guys with gunshot wounds roll in. Not my idea of a restful way to spend the rest of the night."

"I'm a head shrinker, not a head sewer," Mulder protested. It'd been many long years since he'd had a very brief stint in the emergency room. It was never one of his more developed skill sets. "I wish Scully were here. This is really more up her alley."

"Well, she ain't here and, anyway, I'm not sure I'd want her to do it. She's used to patients who can't exactly complain about her techniques or bedside manner," Doggett complained. He hadn't gotten along with Scully anymore than she had with him. There'd been definite jealousy between the pair of them. And yet it was Doggett who'd been appalled when Mulder had refused to go looking for Scully. It'd taken Mulder a lot of convincing until Doggett was willing to let it rest, convinced that maybe it might not be such a good thing to be chasing after Scully and Krycek, for Scully if not for them.

Still, they'd ended up at the Gunmen's place for the reason that the paranoid men had a more fully stocked medical kit than Mulder. Mulder didn't ask why they had sutures, or where they'd gotten the local anesthetic. With Frohike to lend an occasional hand, Mulder was giving John stitches. Mulder had expected Langly to hover nervously over his boyfriend, but instead, the blond played it cool, saying a few soft, whispered words to Doggett, ended with a brief kiss on the cheek, when they'd first arrived, but then retreating to the isolation of his computer while they were fixing up Doggett's scalp. Neither Langly nor Doggett were given to displays of public affection, even in the relative privacy of the Gunmen's headquarters.

"I can't believe I let you talk me into this," Mulder said. At least John's hair should do an okay job covering the scar that would no doubt result from the terrible suture job Mulder was sure he was doing. He pulled the suture through John's scalp again. John winced. Probably from the sensation of the pulling more than any pain. Mulder had used plently of the prescription pain numbing medication.

"I wouldn't have it any other way, Mulder," Doggett said.

Mulder knotted the suture thread one last time and said, "All done. But next time the alien abductee of the month gives your head a good crack, I don't care what you say, Johnboy, I'm going to take you in to the emergency room."

As Mulder bandaged the wound, Doggett said, "You know, I can't help but feel that we really lucked out here. Duane Barry's intentions, whatever the hell they were, weren't good. Lucky for me I hadn't taken my holster off for the day. But how the hell do you suppose he tracked me down?"

With that, Langly spoke up, looking away from his computer screen for the first time since Mulder had started stitching. "You work for the government, Johnboy. Your personnel record is an open book to them," he said. Langly got up from his computer and walked over to Doggett. He stood behind the other man and put his hands delicately on Doggett's shoulders. "What say I get you to bed, JD?"

"I think I could get behind that," Doggett said, tiredly. He rested a hand on Langly's right. "Thanks, Mulder."

Driving home afterwards, Mulder knew that sleep would be far off, if attainable at all tonight. He couldn't shake the feeling that a very large, unnecessary tragedy had just been avoided tonight by John's simple choice not to immediately disarm himself the instant he hit the door like he usually did. Duane Barry's words kept echoing in his mind, that they weren't going to get him this time, that they weren't going to take Duane Barry. Mulder replayed the hostage scene in his head again. No doubt, the man believed he was going to be abducted again, and he'd come to get John tonight to be his substitute. It didn't happen, but Mulder couldn't help but feel a certain fear and heartache, as if he knew what it must be like to lose one's partner like that.

Once he decided that sleep was unlikely at best, he turned off his path home and drove aimlessly for a while, wishing he could call John to talk about the incident. Knowing John though, he'd have already put it behind him, not wanting to rehash it. Besides, even he had better sense than to disturb the man after the night he'd had.

Around the time that the black sky started to lighten to gray, his phone rang.

Mulder took it out of his pocket and answered it, even as he contemplated not answering. "Yeah?"

"Mulder," a soft, feminine voice said. It didn't sound either familiar or not familiar. It was as if someone he knew well had started speaking, even thinking in a different way. Scully, but not a Scully he had ever known. She said, "Meet me at the FDR memorial, as soon as you can."

Then the call ended, with a sudden, decisive click. He was certain, morally certain that it had been Scully on the phone. Without bothering to call anyone to tell them he was meeting with a possible total stranger on the basis of a ten second call, he turned his vehicle back towards the city.

In the dawn's pink light, he wandered through the carved statues and rough rock lined waterfalls, wondering where this mysterious contact would be. In the early morning, the place was deserted, himself the only one there. The place reminded him of a maze, each different turn, each statue a different aspect of the great man who'd been the President longest and had guided the country from its darkest hours to its greatest.

Mulder turned a corner around some shrubbery and wondered where Scully would be, if indeed, she were the contact. There, he thought, coming across the statue of Eleanor Roosevelt. Yes, that was where Scully would wait for him.

Mulder found a relatively flat and smooth rock and settled down, hands in his leather jacket pocket to ward off the morning chill. He thought about what he'd say to her, how, if at all possible, he could persuade her to come back, to pick up her life again where she had left it. She'd been missing six months now, but it wasn't too late. He was sure she could be reinstated in good standing. A few minutes a large dark figure slipped out from a corner and approached him. It was a man, about Mulder's size, perhaps a little more heavily built. In the poor lighting, it was hard to tell what he looked like, but his hair was dark.

It obviously wasn't Scully.

"Agent Mulder," the man said. "I have a message for you."

"From who?" Mulder demanded, suddenly sick of these informants, these people who claimed to know the whole story, who bobbed to the surface just long enough to disperse their crumb of wisdom then sank down into the obscure depths again, until it suited their purposes to reemerge again. Like Deep Throat and the mysterious Mr. X, this one would give him just enough to think that he knew the whole picture, when in fact he had only fragments himself. Mulder added, "And who are you? Why should I listen to you?"

As the man approached closer, Mulder could see that he was fine featured, almost too pretty for a man. And Mulder could recognize him from the file that Walter had routed to him by circuitous mean. Alexander Krycek, a few, short weeks from being Special Agent Krycek. Instead of the gelled back style his personnel photo had shown him wearing, Krycek's hair was a good bit longer, bangs trailing onto his forehead. Mulder could definitely see what Scully had seen in him, especially if one believed what she said, about doing things she wasn't supposed to. This one looked dangerous, like if he moved the wrong way, he'd clank from the arsenal he carried under that black leather jacket.

"Krycek!" Mulder hissed. "Where is Scully? Where is she?"

"She's safe, for now. She's in hiding. Until her child is born. But she can't stay hidden forever. She wanted me to deliver a message to you."


"She says that if you were serious in your earlier promises to her, that you have two months to prepare."

Mulder swallowed hard. He remembered the promises he'd made to Scully that night. What kind of fear did they live in that they thought having Mulder as her father would be better for this child than anything they could provide?

Krycek seemed to know what Mulder was thinking and said, "Any child of yours would be safe, Mulder. Protected. Did you ever think to wonder why you're still alive?"

Mulder had found out a number of things since he'd started with the X-files, not the least of which was that somehow his father had been involved in this conspiracy up to his eyeballs before he'd been killed in what, at the time, had been described as a house robbery. Mulder now had his doubts about that. He thought that his father, Bill Mulder, had been about to talk. But for the meantime, his father's connection had also seemed to offer Mulder some kind of protection. Perhaps he was a better choice than Scully and Krycek, if one was merely considering that factor.

And promises made, even if in the heat of desperation, had to be kept. He'd told Scully he'd be a father to her child, so he was every bit as bound to this child as the two of them, only by choice, rather than accident. He wondered briefly how Walter would take this sudden development, but decided that the big man would have to cope, and probably could. He wondered how John would cope. The loss of his son was still a big, unhealed wound. Not knowing for sure if the child was dead had never allowed Doggett any sense of closure. There might be some issues, to say the least, should Mulder suddenly have a child. Still, a promise was a promise and there was something about this man's manner. He was afraid. As dangerous as a man as he obviously was, he was afraid. And he seemed to truly believe that this would be child would be going to Mulder for protection. A tiny life hung in the balance here, waiting for him to make the decision to completely rearrange his life.

"Tell Scully that I stand by my word," Mulder said. "I'll be waiting. Things will be ready."

"Mulder," Krycek said, his voice low and threatening, "I want you to know what you're taking on here. No one, and I mean no one, can know the baby is my child, not yours. I'd kill my child with my bare hands before I let it get into these people's hands. The only protection it will have is if people think it has your genes."

As they'd spoke, the dawn had arrived in its refulgent glory. Krycek stepped close to Mulder as he said these final words. He looked Mulder deep in the eye. Mulder could see that the man's eyes were deep, true green. Krycek seemed satisfied with what he found in Mulder's eyes, so he slipped away, melting into the scenery. Mulder was alone again, wondering if what had just happened had really happened. What he was going to tell people, to explain this baby that he'd just been offered, he didn't know. John, John would definitely have to know the whole truth, Walter as well. As for the rest, his mother, the Gunmen, other select people knew that Mulder had never so much as looked at a female with interest. How were they supposed to believe that he'd now knocked one up? Single parenthood, if nothing else, looked like it was going to be very interesting.

Mulder got out his phone and placed a call. No doubt Walter would be up and probably on his way to work by now.

"Fox?" Walter answered. He sounded tired, like he hadn't rested well. If Walter constantly worried about Mulder and the trouble he got himself into, then Mulder worried just as much about Walter and the pressures he took on himself. And the way those pressures affected Walter. Mulder was an occasional insomnia, but Walter was the one with the diagnosed sleep disorder- nightmares that haunted him, relentlessly sometimes. Mulder feared that it might have been another bad night for Walter and he said so.

"No, not particularly," Walter said grumpily. "Except for the fact that a certain someone wasn't there."

"I'm sorry about that. It was an eventful night. I'm not disturbing you, am I?" Mulder asked. "Are you on your way in to the city yet?"

"I just left," Walter said. "What is it, Fox? You sound worried."

"Can we meet for breakfast? I need to talk with you as soon as possible."

Mulder almost heard Walter calculating, shifting his schedule around in his head, making the adjustments. Though Walter no longer spent anywhere near the amount of time at the office as he used to, his days were still long and packed. No doubt he'd been counting on the early morning hours to get a handle on the day, before the stream of meetings started. "Okay, I can be at our usual place in about twenty minutes."

"Good enough," Mulder said. Walter and he had kept their relationship circumspect, discreet. They didn't meet or even talk during work hours. After hours, mostly they stayed in, admittedly they spent a lot of their time boffing like bunnies. Mulder smiled when he thought about that. The few times they'd gone out as a couple, they'd chosen a small, quiet place that Walter knew. Not quite fancy enough to call it anything like a bistro, more upscale than a diner, too quiet to call it a family place. The menu was simple, the food good and the staff differential. Mulder always thought of it as "Walter's place," rather than their usual place.

"I'll see you soon," Walter said.

They didn't usually exchange endearments on the phone, but this time, Mulder whispered, "Love you, Walter," but Walter had hung up too soon to have heard it.

Mulder retraced his steps to the parking lot of the monument. He took an inventory of himself. Still wearing the clothes he'd worn yesterday, not having slept since the day before. He was so tired he wasn't sure he trusted himself to stay awake on the long drive out to Quantico, much less be able to teach his classes. Not that he would have time to get out to Alexandria to shower and change then get to Quantico on time, not and still meet with Walter. Besides, if this really was going to happen, there were things to do, arrangements to be made, people to call. Mulder didn't put away his phone yet. Instead, he started dialing, to make the call he almost never made. Usually, by the time he had to call off sick from work, he was in such a state that someone else had to make the call for him.

That taken care of, he headed to the restaurant, to wait for Walter.

Mulder was always surprised when the waitress recognized him. But she said a soft hello and guided him to a corner booth, with not one, but two menus, without asking Mulder first.

Walter arrived shortly. As he settled himself across from Mulder in the generously sized circle booth, he said, "You look like hell, Fox."

"It was a long night," Mulder explained. "I don't know if you heard yet, but Duane Barry made an encore appearance at Doggett's house."

Walter sort of winced, clenching his jaw slightly. Yeah, he'd heard. Of course he would have. One of his agents had shot a man dead last night, admittedly in self defense. "Was John hurt too badly? All the preliminary report says is that he was treated by paramedics at the scene and released."

"Stubborn bastard relied on my rusty embroidery skills rather than going in to the emergency room, and I'm sure he's nursing a pretty bad headache this morning, but other than that, I think he's okay. But that's not why I wanted to talk with you."

"Okay, so what's the burning topic of the day?" Walter asked, with an almost fatal resignation. He was expecting some trouble or another, because despite any thing he'd ever said about not being able to help Mulder or Doggett, he'd consistantly gone out of his way to do so, as covertly as he could.

For all that this was putatively good news, it could be received very badly, making Mulder feel something like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis about making this announcement. He'd been so happy with Walter, like he couldn't have imagined he'd ever be. And yet, a promise was a promise, and besides, in the brief hour since Krycek had slinked away to whatever hidey-hole he'd emerged from, Mulder had discovered that he very much wanted to be a father. He'd give up Walter for that if he had to.

Feeling so nervous, he just blurted out, "How do you feel about children, Walter. As in, I'm about to become a father and would you like to be a part of that?"

Had Walter been taking a drink at that moment, he would have taken a bite out of his water glass. As it was, his jaw snapped shut tight and he scowled.

Oh, hell, Mulder thought, certain that this was the beginning of the end.

Then Walter spoke, not quite putting Mulder's fears to rest, but letting him know that there seemed to be room for discussion, "When and how did this happen? And so help me God, Fox, this had better not be your idea of a stupid joke."

I'd better talk, and make this sound good, Mulder told himself. Make him understand. "About six months ago my friend Dana Scully took up with a very unsuitable young man. She disappeared primarily from a condition she contracted from him."

"The nine month flu I presume," Walter supplied. He'd put his water glass down as he'd listened and now took a sip of his coffee instead.

"Precisely. The day before she disappeared, I made some rash promises to her, and in any case, I gather she is in no position to be raising a child at the moment. For reasons I'm not even sure I understand, much less could explain, my name will be on the birth certificate and it is imperative that everyone believe that I am that young man who infected her with the nine-month flu. Once I left Doggett, I was contacted by Scully and her young man. I agreed to hold myself to my promises. So, it looks like my life is about to take a big tumble down a new and strange rabbit hole. The only question is, are you willing to be along for the ride?"

Walter put his coffee down on the table and reached across. He enclosed both of Mulder's hands in his own. It wasn't that Walter's hands were that much bigger than Mulder's, but it always felt like they were. They were blunt, powerful where Mulder's hands were long and graceful. "What makes you think that I'd want to be anywhere else?" he asked.

That was when Mulder knew it would be okay, that Walter hadn't been angry, or even anything but confused.

"I was thinking about getting a house. My apartment is going to be way too small. I thought maybe we might look together."

Mulder knew Walter had been thinking about buying property for a while. Since his divorce, he'd rented. Something had held Walter back from doing any serious looking at this point and suddenly it became clear to Mulder that Walter had been waiting for him. That he wanted Mulder to live with him and had put off purchasing property until that became a given.

"I think that would be advisable," Walter said. "Did you have any thoughts about where?"

"I was thinking Falls Church is nice, relatively reasonably priced..."

"Close to your partner," Walter added.

Mulder shrugged. "Why not? If he wants, I'd like John to be able to be close to the baby too. I thought maybe it might help..."

Mulder watched Walter struggle nearly visibly with jealousy for a while. He'd spent some time coming to terms with the fact that Doggett and Mulder would forever share a kind of intimacy that he was excluded from, and been consoled only by the fact that he shared a kind of intimacy with Mulder that Doggett never would. Now, like he had before, Walter pushed the jealousy aside and said, "Of course. The more caring..."

Walter seemed to be thinking, but didn't say, "armed.

"...Adults around, the better, right?"

"Right," Mulder said. Then the waitress politely intruded, wanting to take their order. It would be okay, Mulder thought to himself, exultant. It would be okay.

A month and a half had found them settled into a comfortable house, not in Falls Church, as Mulder had first thought, but in Scully's old neighborhood of Georgetown. They'd gotten a deal on a huge townhouse so good that seemed almost like a wish come true. The decor was outdated, but everything was in good shape. The living room was papered with aqua grass cloth, which went really badly with his old leather sofa, but there was an upstairs suite with attached bathroom that definitely made up for that.

Two months crept by with no further sign of Scully or the baby, nor word from Krycek. Mulder consoled himself with the fact that due dates were never as accurate as all that. The baby might well still be in utero.

When Mulder had explained the situation to Doggett, weeks ago, about the impending child in his life, Doggett had gotten very silent and clenched his jaw hard. Then he'd left without a goodbye and not spoken with Mulder for a week. He'd spent part of that week cloistered with Langly, Mulder had heard from reports from Frohike. As to what exactly they'd done behind Langly's closed doors, not even Frohike could say and neither Doggett nor Langly were telling. After a week though, Doggett had dropped by, quiet and kind of haggard as if he'd been doing a lot of crying and not much sleeping, though seeming to have achieved some kind of peace. He'd come with a paper bag that he'd thrust into Mulder's arms and he'd said, "These are some of Luke's baby things. I figure J. Edgar junior might have a use for them."

"Thanks, John," Mulder had said, meaning for far more than the old clothes.

"Life goes on," John had said, looking like he wished he knew something more profound he could say, something that might encapsulate whatever realizations he'd had during his days apart from Mulder. In the end he settled for, "Not like he'd need these any more even if he showed up tomorrow."

Life had gone on with perturbing normality for a week, then another. Mulder taught. Doggett was still hung up on wire tap, despite that messy but interesting side diversion of the case that sent them into the New Jersey sewers.

Mulder had been dropping by Doggett's desk, bringing him lunch. On his way out, a female voice called out, "Agent Mulder, a word with you?"

Mulder stopped and turned towards the source of the voice. The woman was handsome rather than pretty, dressed in an immaculate gray suit, her medium brown hair swept back in a severe twist. Jewelry gold, including a plain wedding band, no matching diamond to go with it though. She wasn't close enough for Mulder to see her badge, but every bit of her said "Agent" rather than PA or other support personnel. A woman used to sending people scurrying, rather than scurrying. She carried a small stack of file folders in one hand.

She extended her hand to him and said, "Jackson. Sandra Jackson."

Sandra Jackson. The most recently promoted AD. Near legendary in how well she negotiated the boys' club that was the FBI, even putting AD Jana Cassidy to shame it was said. AD Alvin Kersh had died in a tragic car accident a couple of months back and in his place, she'd made the jump from section chief to AD.

"AD Jackson," Mulder said, taking her hand. Her grip was pleasantly firm, neither the delicate touch of some women, nor the crush of some women who seemed intent of proving they could play ball just as hard as any man. "What can I do for you?"

"I understand you and your partner John Doggett are experts at solving cases not normally considered to be solvable," she said.

"So they say," Mulder said, not sure what, if anything, he wanted to say to this new factor in the FBI hierarchy. With John working wiretap in organized crime, she was in John's direct line of command. She could choose to make life difficult for the both of them if she wanted.

"I've just requested that the Academy release you from your teaching duties," she said. She held out the stack of files at him. "I was going to run these up to Agent Doggett, but since I saw you, I thought you might like to do that. Nothing very exciting like some of your previous cases. But it's a start."

Mulder couldn't stop himself from thumbing through the files right there. They were all related to a veritable epidemic of suicides and homicides of police officers, all of who were from the same precinct in New York. He guessed that the local PD had asked for Bureau help when they couldn't solve the cases, or perhaps even because they weren't entirely sure it wasn't one of their own.

"The X-files aren't reopened yet," Jackson said. "But watch yourselves and you'll be pleasantly surprised at just what might happen."

John had come to dinner one night, and the three of them lingered over the table, slowly pulling down beers, slow enough to never get really drunk. Their dining room looked oddly out of scale, with Mulder's small table and four chairs in it, when it had been clearly built to contain a huge dining room table with seating for at least eight or ten, if not twelve. It too was covered in aqua grasscloth, little more than an archway separating it from the living room.

As the midnight oil burned on, Walter finally gave up and went up to bed, leaving Doggett and Mulder awake and talking about a recent case, technically solved, report long ago submitted but without a good clear answer as far as either of them were concerned.

Mulder was contemplating kicking John out and calling it a night when he caught the unmistakable sounds of someone in the back yard. John caught it too, head snapping around to look out the window at the rustle of some branches. Both of their hands automatically went to their hips, but neither of them was still armed. Without a word, John stood up and went to the hallway, where he'd left his jacket and firearm. Mulder had already put his away for the night in a locked drawer in his desk.

Armed, John with his Smith and Wesson, Mulder with the phone, they went into the outdated, brown kitchen, in the dark of night near funereal in its gloom. There was a scratching noise from the back door, then the deadbolt turned, seemingly on its own. Then the door handle. Mulder and John waited, John to the left of the door where he could get a good shot in at whoever it was, as soon as they were in, Mulder out of sight in the corner.

Where he was, Mulder's view was obscured when the door finally pushed open. There was the sounds of a minor scuffle, then John roaring, "Lord God, Scully! You nearly got yourself killed. Ever hear of knocking?"

The phone dropped out of Mulder's hand in shock. He rushed from his corner. Yes, there she was, dressed in all black, definitely cat prowler style clothes, hair tied back and dyed a much darker color than normal. He wanted to pull her into a tight embrace, and yet, because of her time gone, God knows where, doing God knows what, and because of what she'd done by running with Krycek, he didn't quite trust her anymore either. Confused, he held back, standing behind Doggett.

"Can we come in?" she asked plaintively. She looked tired, and still looked like she might be pregnant under those tight black clothes.

"We?" Doggett asked. And suddenly the last several months didn't matter at all to him, not entirely forgotten, but not of importance. Doggett stepped out of the way, to let her in and to let Mulder at her. Not that Mulder could have been stopped, even by 190 pounds of ex-Marine.

"Yeah," said another voice, familiar even though Mulder had only heard it the one time. As Mulder dragged Scully more fully into the kitchen, hugging her madly all the while, Alex Krycek stepped into the kitchen, bearing one of those baby bucket contraptions. "We. We would have just knocked, but we figured even with your insomniac tendencies, you'd be asleep Mulder. We were going to be in and out in a minute, drop off the bundle and be gone. We can't stay."

Alex Krycek, five feet, eleven inches of menace in black leather, looking so different from his bright faced FBI file photo that he might have been another man entirely, set the baby bucket down on the kitchen counter. He pulled aside the white blanket that covered it, revealing a tiny child strapped in. He unsnapped the straps and tenderly, gently lifted the baby inside out. He held the child carefully, supporting his or her head with one hand. Krycek rested the child on his chest for a moment, holding him or her to black leather. He nuzzled baby scalp, sniffing, then placing a light kiss on the child's head. The child wore nothing more than diapers and a little white t-shirt.

Mulder pulled away from Scully, riveted by the sight. So, it was true. They were going to give the child to him. Not quite daring to believe in what they'd asked of him, he'd hardly made any preparations besides buying the house. The only baby clothes in the house were the ones John had given him a while back.

"Dana?" Krycek asked. Scully pulled herself out of Mulder's hug. The kind of silent, almost mental communication that is possible sometimes between lovers passed between them. What they were saying to each other, Mulder couldn't even begin to guess. She walked over to Krycek and took the baby. As they transfer happened, she looked him deeply in the eyes. Mulder could read that one. It was a thought that said, "We can do this. We have to." Krycek sighed. Once the baby was handed over, he pulled a small packet of papers from his jacket and handed them to the closest person- John. Then Krycek slipped out the door, shutting it behind him. It seemed harder on him to abandon their baby than it was on Scully. John seemed to want to go after him, but Mulder shook his head. John opened his mouth then shut it again, willing to let Mulder determine how this one was played.

Scully turned to Mulder. "She's only a week old," she said, holding the baby out to him. He didn't take the child just yet. "You have to take her, Mulder. I have to be able to fight them."

With that, Mulder let Scully place the tiny burden in his arms. She was so small and fragile he was afraid she might break in his large hands. He had to know what she knew though, had to understand. "This is colonization we're talking about here, isn't it?"

"That and more," Scully said. "We have to resist or serve, Mulder. Take care of her."

With that, Scully reached up on tippy-toes and kissed his cheek, sweetly and like a sister. "Where are you going?" Mulder asked, hopelessly as she slipped away. "When will I hear from you?"

"Dos Vadanya, Mulder," she whispered at the door.

While Scully had been making her goodbye, John had been going through the papers that Krycek had put in his hands. "Birth certificate," he pronounced, holding up a piece of paper. "Olivia Margaret Mulder. Born June 9 in Cook County, Illinois, Cicero to be exact, if we believe this. Father, Fox William Mulder, mother, Danielle Maria Chernowicki."

Mulder hardly heard him, between the burning memory of Scully's lips on his cheek and the all too present feeling of baby in his arms. Olivia started fussing and he held her closer, against his chest, and he started walking her around the room, not even sure where to start, what to do next.

Ever practical, John was digging through a diaper bag that seemed to have appeared from nowhere. Probably either Scully or Krycek had brought it in then immediately dropped it. "Okay, you've got about five diapers, a few shirts, clean receiving blanket, not much else. No bottles, no formula," John said, inventorying. He dug something else out, a long, silvery something. "And this, whatever the hell it is."

At that, he must have touched something on the cylinder, because a vicious looking tip snapped out of the top with a sound not quite like anything else Mulder had ever heard before. John examined it, found a way to make the blade retract, then said, "Heck of a place to leave a weapon. What do you think it's for?"

"No clue," Mulder said, numbly. "What am I going to do, Johnboy?"

"You're going to go upstairs and wake up that little girl's other daddy. I'm going to find an all night Wal-Mart. You're going to need diapers and formula before too long," John said.

"And then?" Mulder asked, never feeling more unsure of himself. Not that he usually deferred to John, or asked him for orders, but Mulder was so far out of his depth that he was glad he had the other man for a friend. All the mental preparation in the world hadn't made a damn bit of difference at this moment.

Not that John was cruel or anything, but there was a bit of smug satisfaction in his voice when he said, "It's a good thing you're a natural insomniac, Mulder. Because you ain't going to be getting much sleep for a while. Can't say as this age is the part of parenting that I miss. And I had a wife that did most of it."

"Bastard," Mulder said, but without any kind of venom. John put the diaper bag and papers up on the counter carefully and went off in search of his jacket.

"That's sonuvabitch to you," John teased as he headed out to the night.

Mulder waited until the door was locked behind Doggett, then went upstairs. The stairs themselves had thick carved spindles, painted thick, chipped black, and a smooth banister on top. Mulder pictured a little girl, a little tomboy like Scully was supposed to have been, someday sliding down that banister. He climbed the stairs, already worrying about things like that and other things, much more malevolent than that and things more banal, like how they were going to manage when the master suite was on a different floor than the rest of the house's bedrooms.

Despite the earlier scuffle, Walter was fast asleep. Once asleep, the man's ability to stay asleep was near legendary, even through bad nightmares. Awkwardly because he was unused to the small burden in his arms, Mulder reached out and turned on the bedside lamp. He sat down beside Walter's still body. Mulder changed little Oliva's position, putting her so she was head at his shoulder, supported on the back by one hand. With his now free hand, Mulder shook Walter's shoulder.

The big guy stirred, but did not wake. Walter draped an arm over his eyes, making unpleased noises. It was always a difficult proposition, waking the man up. Because of his sleep disorder, there were times where he appeared to be awake, lucid, rational and would remember nothing of what happened the following morning. Mulder had slowly learned to tell when Walter wasn't really woken. A real waking was gradual, uncomfortable for the man. A faux wakefulness came easily. One minute he was asleep, the next he would seem to be awake.

"Walter. Wake up," Mulder said. Walter stirred more, but did not open his eyes yet. Then Olivia started to fuss suddenly, letting loose with a good cry. Walter's eyes snapped open. They were unfocused at first, and Mulder was worried that Walter had slipped into his wakeful sleeping state. But no, in a moment, they focused and took in the source of his disturbance. That look was a question in itself.

To answer, Mulder shifted the child around in his arms and held her out to Skinner. "Meet Olivia Margaret Mulder. Our daughter."

With that Skinner sat up in bed. He took the crying baby from Mulder. She'd been getting angry, mad, unbelievably loud for one so young and small, her back arched in fury. But once she was in Walter's arms, she calmed immediately. He held her close to him, resting her against his bare chest. She seemed impossibly tiny next to all his muscles, yet she seemed as if she belonged nowhere else.

"Our daughter, Walter," Mulder said. He might as well have been talking to the moon. The man was gone, lost in the unfocused blue eyes of the child in his arms. And that was when Mulder was sure it would be all right, that everything would work out fine. Because Walter loved her, and he loved Walter and he loved her. And she would grow up to love them both. And anything else beyond that didn't matter.

Despite her promise to Mulder, Jenn couldn't quite resist checking up on him every now and then, especially at times when she knew important, dangerous things would be happening to him. Like now.

For one night, she'd left behind her coffee shop in small town Virginia and wished herself out to the Oregon woods. She watched Mulder and his partner search.

They were setting up a network of red laser beams. "This thing better be out here like Scully said," Mulder was complaining. "We are so going to get our asses kicked otherwise."

"We're going to get our asses kicked anyway," Doggett said, adjusting one of the beams. "You heard Jackson. They don't like us. We could bring home ET asking to shake Clinton's hand and they still wouldn't believe us. So, how's it look?"

"Bugetarily, I'd say we're looking pretty good," Mulder said, but he sounded doubtful.

It was easy enough for Jenn to just look and see, this morning, Mulder had left his child, five year old Olivia in the care of her other father, Walter, now retired from the FBI. Olivia had cried, then thrown a tantrum trying to get Mulder to stay. She'd been screaming more like a year and a half year old than the nearly five years that she was. Eventually, Walter had put her to bed and Mulder had guiltily slipped out the door.

Doggett had gone back to adjusting the ruby light beams, turning his back on his partner for just a minute, which was all that was needed. By the time he looked up, Mulder was nowhere to be seen. Jenn looked away. She didn't need to see the rest of it. She knew how the story went.

Months later, they'd retrieved Mulder's body, cast off by his captors, like so much trash. Now they were burying him today, Jenn watching from a distance.

The little group around the grave on this windy, wintery day clustered together as if for warmth. The day was every bit as bitter as the one's gathered felt. Frohike stood in the middle between Langly and Byers, the three of them together, as always. Nothing, not even two of them pairing off, could split the three. On one side of Langly, Doggett stood, hunched, grieving, his hard face even harder, eyes the kind of empty that can come only from such loss. They didn't embrace, but every now and then, Langly's hand would drift to John's back, touching tentatively, as if he wasn't sure he'd be welcome, and yet John drifted only closer to him. On one side of Byers was his wife, a lively and intelligent, but not sweet natured woman that Jenn had picked for him when she'd seen how desolate he was over a completely untrustworthy snake called Suzanne Modeski. Further off, out of sight in the trees, another pair watched the proceedings, one dark and tall, the other red headed and short. They grieved, both the man and their own foolishness. The dark one's grief was silent and hard edged, the other's grief wet, stuttering and full of self blame. A handful of others attended the graveside ceremony- the woman who had been Mulder's AD, a neighbor or three, surprisingly, a waitress from Mulder and Walter's favorite restaurant.

Only the big, bald man stood alone. Earlier, at the service at the funeral home, he'd had Lovey, his and Mulder's daughter with him, carrying her in his arms, sitting her on his lap, even though she normally would have protested that she was too big for that. It was determined that the burial itself was too much for one so young and she'd been left with another neighbor. Walter stood in black, not quite broken by the death of his lover, not weeping, but stunned. It was like he'd been struck by lightening, about to keel over, but that he hadn't fully understood what had happened to him yet.

Everything Jenn had struggled to stop from happening was unfolding, again, before her eyes. This time, for the last time. There would be no more interventions, no more changing the flow of time. Mulder's wish had constrained her. She could meddle no longer.

"It's not over, you know," said a voice beside her. Startled, she looked. Mulder, looking nothing like the shell they'd discovered. This was Mulder looking cheerful, whole. Peaceful, one might even say serene. And yet unsubstantial.

"I'm not really here," he supplied.

"You're not really dead?" she asked, wondering then what they were burying.

"Oh, I'm dead all right. It's a really interesting perspective from here. I should have tried this years ago," he said.

"A ghost?"

"Sort of. It's just temporary. You'll see. I can see how the story ends, and really, it's not as bad as you think it is."

"And you're going to have a happy ending somehow? Despite that?" she indicated the coffin. They were lowering Mulder's body into the ground.

"Because of that," Mulder said, enigmatically. "I can see a lot of things from where I am now. Including who I was, all the different whos I was at your behest, who I could have been if I'd never opened that rug."

"And?" she said, waiting for his judgement.

"You meant well," he said. "And you gave me things I'd never dreamed of having. Or even knew I needed. And I think having the things I need will let me do the things I'll need to do when I come back. Thank you."

Then he was gone, just gone. This didn't seem like any kind of happy ending she could conceive of and yet the ghost of Mulder seemed satisfied with the progression of events. She sighed and turned away from the small crowd of mourners. There was nothing more she could do.

Late at night, John Doggett stirred, sleeping uncomfortably, dreaming of a son that had been taken from him, that he'd met again and again, in various ways- always nearly, yet never truly his son. He dreamed of little boys with huge pustules on their necks that burst spreading deadly alien viruses to hospital workers, and silent, soul-less boys with the face of Luke, but manufactured for work among fields of shrubs and beehives. He twitched in his sleep, trying in his dreams to save the children he couldn't save in reality. All this activity didn't disturb the other occupant of the bed, the lanky blond who'd been his usual, but casual companion for almost as many years now as he'd been married to his late wife.

The phone did disturb his companion, at least enough to make him reach over to the bedside table for it, only to immediately hand it over to Doggett. It would have to be for Doggett. The Gunmen wouldn't have called Doggett's home number in the middle of the night and no one else knew, or cared, that Langly was sleeping there tonight.

Pushed abruptly out of his dreams like that made the images of his son/not son stand out in Doggett's mind all the stronger as he marshalled awareness, reaching for the right words. "Hello?" he was able to ask, eventually finding the right end of the phone to talk into.

"You need to exhume him," a female voice demanded.

"What?" he asked, knowing without a doubt that the him in question was Mulder, now buried three months. The female voice was clearly Scully. He sat up in bed, heart pounding in his chest to beat the band, now more fully awake than he'd felt in months.

"Mulder. You need to exhume him now," she said. "Don't ask any questions. Just do it. Lives hang in the balance."

He didn't call her by her name. He figured she might well be calling from someplace where that might be a grave risk. "What you're talking about is madness. Walt's just getting to the point where he can function again."

"Get it done, Doggett," Scully said, voice high, intense and menacing. "Now. Talk to the coroner in Wilmington, North Carolina. You'll understand why."

She hung up the phone with a decisive click. Doggett stared at it for a moment, then pulled himself up to a standing position. Langly sleepily reached out for him, to pull him back into the spoon that they'd woken from.

"Time to get up, Ree," Doggett said, pulling the covers off Langly's naked body. The sight was inspiring him to get back into bed, and if anything it was more inspiring now than when they'd first met up. Not that Doggett made Langly work out, per se, but neutrally worded invitations to join him, combined with both verbal compliments and non-verbal positive reinforcement of the best kind had worked wonders. Langly never would be built, but what he had had firmed up nicely over the years, giving him a body you'd never expect to find on such dyed in the wool computer geek.

"Stay," Langly murmured sleepily again, one hand and legs scrabbling for the covers.

"I gotta talk to a coroner's office," Doggett said. Taking mercy on his companion, he threw the plaid blanket back over Langly. "Okay, you sleep some more, but when I get done talking to the coroner's, you're getting up and you're gonna help me figure out how I'm going to explain to Skinner that we're digging Mulder up."

At that Langly sat bolt upright in bed. "What?"

"Never mind. Go back to bed," Doggett said, knowing that he wouldn't. Doggett grabbed some clothes for himself, sweats and a t-shirt. He pulled them on as he headed downstairs, Langly at his heels. First, he started coffee, certain that this was the start of a long day. It was still pitch dark outside, no hint of light. That darkest hour before the dawn. When he turned on the light in his kitchen, the outside looked even darker.

"You want coffee too?" Doggett asked as started scooping grounds.

"What's going on?" Langly asked, settling himself on a chair, straddling it backwards.

"I'll know more once I talk to the coroner's," Doggett said. He pushed the full basket into its place in the coffee machine then grabbed the phone. A few preliminary calls, and he was talking to the coroner in question. He explained who he was, then added, "I heard something interesting might have happened down in your neck of the woods recently."

The coroner seemed reluctant to talk, but eventually he said, "Yesterday, about forty miles off shore, a fishing boat pulled a body out of the ocean, which has since been identified as a Billy Miles, who has been missing for several months from his home in Oregon."

Billy Miles? That was interesting in and of itself, but Doggett could hear from the other man's voice that wasn't the end of the story. More was coming, the actual interesting part. He wasn't disappointed.

"It appeared that the young man was dead at first. In fact, in an advanced stage of decomposition. But as we prepared him for the autopsy, we noticed that he was, in fact, alive."

Doggett hardly heard the rest of the detail. Only the one word kept echoing in his ears again and again. Alive.


Doggett remained on the phone only long enough to get the details, then he started another call, one to get the ball rolling. There was a hell of a lot to get done and quickly. He poured himself coffee between calls, then suddenly, Langly was in his face.

"What you doing, JD?" Langly asked. "This is crazy. You're not really going to dig up Mulder."

"What if he's alive, Ree?" Doggett asked, putting his coffee down on the counter and running his fingers through his hair, making it even more disheleved than it already was, bedhead making one side stand up and the other side crushed flat to his head. He paced and reached for the phone again. "Can I live with the doubt, knowing that he might be down there, buried alive? We need to take this chance."

"Don't tell Skinner," Ree said. He put his arms around Doggett, a sign of his acceptance of this. "Not until it pans out."

"No, this is more than a grave we're going to be opening here," Doggett said. "I'll play it close to my chest for a while yet."

Walter Skinner paused before attempting to beard the dragon in her lair. It hardly seemed worth the effort to wake her most mornings, but life, by necessity, had to go on. He knew he'd be doing his, no, their daughter a disservice if he allowed anything different.

He pushed the door open. Even though morning light pour in through the windows, illuminating pink carpet and the canopy bed, Lovey didn't stir. This might appear to be the chamber of the fair princess, but Walter was not fooled.

Alerted to her impending doom by the sound of his footsteps, Lovely scrunched up her fine-boned face, then pulled the blanket over her head.

"Princess," he said, starting softly at first, as he always did. "Time to get up for school."

She responded by burying her head deeper in the pillow until her auburn hair was completely covered by bedclothes. He reached out for the clump of blanket that most resembled her small shoulder and shook it gently.

Meanwhile, he was running his mind through the mental schedule he had for the day. Dropping her off at school in less than an hour. After that, a meeting with a client for the security consulting contract he'd taken on to make ends meet, now that Mulder was gone and he'd been retired from the Bureau since not long after Lovey appeared in their lives. A visit to the client site. Then time to pick Lovey up. Violin lesson. A weekly shopping trip. Dinner. Bed for the child, then more work. Life went on, even without Mulder.

He shook her shoulder again with no more promising results. The third time provoked the response of "Stop it!"

The fourth shoulder shake produced thrashing under the covers and a snarled "Stop it!"

He wasn't quick enough and one little foot caught him on the thigh with a solid, meaty whack. It didn't hurt much. He grabbed a foot from the flailing limbs that were attempting to make good an escape to the other side of the bed.

Then his phone rang. Not the house phone. His personal phone which only the select few had the number to. He pulled the phone out of his suit jacket pocket and checked it. John.

"John, what is it?" he asked, talking even as he started reclaiming blankets and folding them at the foot of the bed, out of reach of the little dragon. She started to screech as she was exposed. So much for any dreams he'd ever had of gently awaking a child who'd smile at him sweetly, eager to face the day. She wasn't like this all the time. Once she was fully awake, she'd be almost pleasant. And it'd gotten a lot worse since Mulder was gone, this acting out a kind of grieving response.

"Walter," he said. "I need you to get to Bethesda as soon as you can."

"You what?" Skinner asked, grabbing the last blanket, putting it out of reach of Lovey, then walking out into the hallway. He leaned against the grasscloth covered wall and waited for John's explanation.

"I need you to come to the Naval Hospital in Bethesda. Mulder's here. Don't bring Lovey. Mulder's alive, but he's in pretty bad shape."

All Skinner heard was, "He's alive!" The words resonated in his head like the sound of a gong.

He must have been struck dumb for some time, because he realized that John had been asking him, not twice, but three times, "Did you hear what I said? Walter? Are you with me here?"

Skinner shook his head as if that might clear it. "I'm not going to ask if you just said what I think you said, because I know you just said it. But what the hell is going on, John?"

"Billy Miles was fished out of the Atlantic. Dead for months, they'd said. But he had a heartbeat, Walt. And so does Mulder. Just get here. He's got a chance. Somehow, we buried him alive."

There was such a wild, reckless hope in John's voice that Skinner couldn't help but believe him. He could picture the man, pacing the hallways of Bethesda, restless and relentless in the protection of his partner.

"I have to get Lovey to school," Walter said. "After that, I'll be right there."

He disconnected, but even as he walked back into the bedroom, John's voice was saying to him, "He's alive."

Lovey was curled up into a tight mass of pink pajamas and auburn curls, face hidden, on the bed, no covers on her. He grabbed her and lifted her out of bed. She squirmed. She lashed out with feet. He sat her down on the floor, feet first, so that she had no choice but to stand.

"I hate you!" she said.

"Too bad, you're stuck with me," he said, blandly as he started pulling clothes out of her closet for her, thankful that her school required a uniform and the clothes were the same little blue plaid skirt and blue sweater she wore every morning. She didn't mean the snarl personally. She said it every morning.

"I hate school! I don't want to go," she said as he herded her down the hallway to the bathroom, to brush her teeth and hair.

"You say that every morning, sweetheart," he told her as he gestured at the bathroom sink. "And by the end of the day, I can hardly get you to agree to come home. Teeth, hair, face and get dressed. You've got five minutes."

In the car, on busy morning streets, when he didn't need the distraction, he'd hear the words again. He's alive. As he watched Lovey drag herself up the brick walk to the big, carved wooden doors of her school, the words were spinning in his head.

And even as he turned the car onto the beltway, heading in the unfamiliar direction towards Bethesda, he heard the words again and again in his head. Alive. Mulder was alive. His phone rang again and he startled, almost sure that it would be John, telling him not to bother, that it'd been some kind of freak occurrence, and that Mulder was already dead again.

He answered the phone anyway.

"John Byers here," the crisp voice on the other end of the line said. "I thought I would offer to pick up Olivia at school this afternoon. Holly would love to play."

Walter breathed out a sigh, not even having realized he was tense from this worry. "Of course, John. Thank you. I'll call the school and let them know you'll be coming."

Byers had done more than his fair share of watching Olivia, under the guise of her playing with Holly. The school knew him. But they were also not supposed to release Olivia into the care of anyone else but Skinner, unless previously notified. The school had been chosen because of this. Besides the normal security guards roaming the halls, you'd even occasionally see Secret Service men, or private bodyguards. The Chinese ambassador's daughter was in Olivia's class.

He drove. He took care of the calls he needed to make, rescheduling his meeting, letting the school know the change of plans. But over and over, in his head, the words, "He's alive," careened from one corner of his mind to another, like a looney tunes character on speed, threatening to pull his carousel of thought off its moorings and send it whirling out of control. On the outside though, he appeared as calm as a mortician at a funeral. He drove steadily at just four miles over the limit. His face was passive and still. He pulled into the first parking space he found in the visitors lot at Bethesda. He walked up to the front door.

He expected to have to ask at the front desk for Mulder's room. He expected maybe even to be turned away because of military politics, that Mulder's recovery from death would have been made into some kind of classified secret, which he would no longer be privy too. Sometimes he missed the privilege that came with being an AD of the FBI.

Instead, he was met by a short, familiar figure. Frohike. "C'mon, let's go up and see Lazarus," Frohike said, indicating the way with a slight tilt of the head.

They travelled the long hallways of the hospital in silence, Frohike honoring Skinner's worry by ignoring it, by not talking at all. At last, they came to the ICU. John Doggett was standing just outside the door that Frohike indicated. Doggett might have been in full Bureau drag, suit and tie immaculate, but the deeper than usual wrinkles in his brow and around his eyes gave away the fact of his tiredness to anyone who knew him. It was only eight now, but this man had been up for hours already, maybe even a full work day behind him. Doggett was spinning a small glass vial around in his fingers.

"What happened?" Skinner asked.

"I got a call at about two in the morning, from Dana Scully, telling me to dig him up. Then, I heard about Billy Miles and I knew I had to," John said. "I'm sorry I didn't take the time to consult with you. But I had to act."

Easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission, Skinner thought, but he silently listened to John continue.

"Just after I talked to you, I was talking to the doctors. None of them knew what to make of this, or what they could do for him. And while I was doing that, Scully and Alex Krycek went right into Mulder's room. They administered something to him. Whatever was in this vial. They got out before I could question them. I tried though."

Tried as hard as a man could by the look of it. On Doggett's face, now that he'd stepped closer, Skinner could see the faint beginnings of bruises. A struggle of some kind had happened and John had not necessarily been on the long end of it.

"You'd better go on in," Doggett said. "He's been asking for you."

John stepped out of the doorway quickly, as if afraid that Walter Skinner was like a force of nature, unable to be stopped by mere mortals. Perhaps he was right.

Skinner pushed through the door. There on the bed was his fondest hope, his wildest wish. The dream that hadn't even made itself known. Mulder was still stuck with nearly every kind of medical tubing known to man, but he was breathing. His eyes were open.

Walter reached out for Mulder's hand, careful of the IV line. Mulder breathed out a line of speech that should have been garbled and unintelligible, but Walter heard it and was able to interpret it.

"My wish came true," Mulder said.

"Damn straight it did," Skinner said, trying to reach behind him for a chair while not letting go of Mulder's hand. Finding one, he sat down and squeezed his lover's hand gently, thinking that Mulder wasn't the only one whose wish had come true.

"Look! There it is." Mulder pointed a long, low brick building on the quiet, tree-lined street. "Your new school."

"I hate school," the girl at his side said. She frowned then pushed reddish brown curls off her forehead. She was about the right age for hormones to be sloshing around inside her, making her like a cactus- all prickly on the inside, sloppy and wet on the inside. Expecting her to be nice would be like expecting a cat to be friendly to the mice.

"You always say that," said Skinner, walking on the other side of her. "And by the end of the first day, you love it and you never want to leave school again."

"I don't see why I couldn't just stay home and read," Lovey said. She kicked a pebble from the sidewalk to the street. "It's stupidly hot out."

"Cowboy up, princess. We're nearly there," Mulder said.

The day was hot, almost unbearably so, but the walk from their new house to the downtown had been so short that they couldn't possibly use the car. Only one more block and they'd be at the town square. It was August and a kind of day where the blue sky turned almost gray with the heat. Another handful of days and Lovey would be starting at the school.

For all that she'd be starting sixth grade, she was still no taller than waist high on either of them, truly taking after her natural mother. Her face had that same delicate set of features that made her mother into an astonishing beauty. Only green eyes and darker hair set Olivia Mulder apart from early pictures of Dana Scully. You might say that those were things inherited from her putative father, Mulder, but if you ever saw her next to her father's friend, Alex Krycek, you'd see that there was a certain snub quality about her nose that was like Alex's but certainly wasn't like her father's more generous nose.

Because of the heat of the day, they were checking out a coffee shop that Mulder had seen earlier, but hadn't ventured into yet. Happy Endings, it was called. They were hoping for iced drinks and an air conditioned retreat for a while. They'd moved in yesterday night and still hadn't gotten the air conditioning up and running yet. The window fans they'd scrounged did little more than push the heavy, hot air around, making the house into a convection oven.

"We should call John," Walter said. "Invite him down tomorrow."

"It's the anniversary tomorrow, isn't it?" Mulder asked. Langly and the rest of the Gunmen had died, along with a lot of other good people, in the struggle against the conspiracies of greedy, power hungry men. John faced this tragedy just like he had any other in his life- bravely, and refusing to take no for an answer. Once the struggle was over, Mulder had gotten out. John was still working, still in the Bureau, still looking for the answers.

Mulder reached the door first and pushed in. The coffee shop looked like it was trying to outdo Ali Baba and the forty thieves, with gold paint and glass gems. At midday, it was quiet and nearly empty. Mulder stepped up to the glass refrigerator counter. A young woman stood behind it, espresso machine nearby at ready. Her straight black hair looked like it might have been in a bob once, but now was brushing her shoulders, even tied back. She smiled at their approach, and said, with an accent that wasn't anything familiar and certainly not the local soft Southern drawl, "Hi! What can I get for you? Are you new to town or just visiting?"

"New to town," Walter said. "Three iced teas."

"Nice to meet you," the woman said, filling three plastic glasses with ice. "Are you the people that bought the old Abrams place on Main?"

"Yeah, that's us," Mulder said. "I'm Fox. That's Walter. And over there is our daughter Lovey."

He indicated the table where Lovey had taken up residence, settled back into the thick paperback she'd brought along.

"So, what brings you to this sleepy, little town? Work?" she asked as she poured tea.

"We're both retired," Mulder said quickly, not wanting to think any more, or talk any more about the difficulties of the last couple of years. That was behind them now. They'd survived it and now he had more than he could have ever dreamed of wanting, something better than any fairytale happy ending, even if his daughter was currently scowling and pretending she didn't know them and the dream house was seeming like it might be a money pit nightmare. "And we wanted a small, quiet place to raise our daughter."

"You've come to the right place then," she said, handing them the three iced teas. She waived away the money that Mulder pushed at her. "New comers drink on the house."

Then she turned away from them, ready to serve the next customer. Mulder handed Walter his tea and then carried his own and Lovey's over to a table by the window. They sat down, both of them looking doubtfully at their daughter as she stalked away to the table furthest away from them. Adolescence so far had been rough and was looking to get rougher. Mulder said, "I guess happy endings with heroes riding away in the sunset are something that happen only in books."

"You wouldn't like that anyway, Fox," Walter said. "The trail's dusty, and besides, wouldn't you much rather be settled in a nice camp somewhere once dark hits, rather than still on the road?"

"You've got a point there, Walter," Mulder said. He looked around the place which was obviously someone's idea of a Happy Ending. He wondered about the woman behind the counter, if this was some place she'd planned to come to, if this small town was her happy ending. And he figured small town life after having survived the shitstorm of the century was good enough for his own.

If you enjoyed this story, please send feedback to Rose Campion

Read More Like This Write One Like This
slash & families Other Family Holidays Challenge

Return to The Nursery Files home